No longer fringe, small-town voters fear democracy’s demise

HUDSON, Wis. (AP) — A word — “Hope” — is stitched onto a throw pillow in the little hilltop farmhouse. Photographs of children and grandchildren speckle the walls. In the kitchen, an envelope is decorated with a hand-drawn heart. “Happy Birthday, My Love,” it reads.

Out front, past a pair of century-old cottonwoods, the neighbors’ cornfields reach into the distance.

John Kraft loves this place. He loves the quiet and the space. He loves that you can drive for miles without passing another car.

But out there? Out beyond the cornfields, to the little western Wisconsin towns turning into commuter suburbs, and to the cities growing ever larger?

Out there, he says, is a country that many Americans wouldn’t recognize.

It’s a dark place, dangerous, where freedom is under attack by a tyrannical government, few officials can be trusted and clans of neighbors might someday have to band together to protect one another. It’s a country where the most basic beliefs — in faith, family, liberty — are threatened.

And it’s not just about politics anymore.

“It’s no longer left versus right, Democrat versus Republican,” says Kraft, a software architect and data analyst. “It’s straight up good versus evil.”

He knows how he sounds. He’s felt the contempt of people who see him as a fanatic, a conspiracy theorist.

But he’s a hero in a growing right-wing conservative movement that has rocketed to prominence here in St. Croix County.

Just a couple years ago, their talk of Marxism, government crackdowns and secret plans to destroy family values would have put them at the far fringes of the Republican party.

But not anymore. Today, despite midterm elections that failed see the sweeping Republican victories that many had predicted, they remain a cornerstone of the conservative electoral base. Across the country, victories went to candidates who believe in QAnon and candidates who believe the separation of church and state is a fallacy. In Wisconsin, a U.S. senator who dabbles in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience was re-elected – crushing his opponent in St. Croix County.

They are farmers and business analysts. They are stay-at-home mothers, graphic designers and insurance salesmen.

They live in communities where crime is almost nonexistent and Cub Scouts hold $5 spaghetti-lunch fundraisers at American Legion halls.

And they live with something else.

Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes sadness. Every once in a while it’s fear.

All of this can be hard to see, hidden behind the throw pillows and the gently rolling hills. But spend some time in this corner of Wisconsin. Have a drink or two in the small-town bars. Sit with parents cheering kids at the county rodeo. Attend Sunday services.

Try to see America through their eyes.

___

There’s a joke people sometimes tell around here: Democrats take Exit 1 off I-94; Republicans go at least three exits farther.

The first exit off the freeway leads to Hudson, a onetime ragged-at-the-edges riverside town that has become a place of carefully tended 19th-century homes and tourists wandering main street boutiques. With 14,000 people, it’s the largest town in St. Croix County. It’s also replete with Democrats.

The Republicans start at Exit 4, the joke says, beyond a neutral zone of generic sprawl: a Target, a Home Depot, a thicket of chain restaurants.

“For some people out here, Hudson might be (as far away as) South Dakota or California,” says Mark Carlson, who lives off exit 16 in an old log cabin now covered in light blue siding. He doesn’t go into Hudson often. “I don’t meet many liberals.”

Carlson is a friendly man who exudes gentleness, loves to cook, rarely leaves home without a pistol and believes despotism looms over America.

“There’s a plan to lead us from within toward socialism, Marxism, communism-type of government,” says Carlson, a St. Croix County supervisor who recently retired after 20 years working at a juvenile detention facility and is now a part-time Uber driver.

He was swept into office earlier this year when insurgent right-wing conservatives created a powerful local voting bloc, energized by fury over COVID lockdowns, vaccination mandates and the unrest that shook the country after George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, just 45 minutes away.

In early 2020 they took control of the county Republican party, driving away leaders they deride as pawns of a weak-kneed establishment, and helped put well over a dozen people in elected positions across the county.

In their America, the U.S. government orchestrated COVID fears to cement its power, the IRS is buying up huge stocks of ammunition and former President Barack Obama may be the country’s most powerful person.

But they are not caricatures. Not even Carlson, a bearded, gun-owning white guy who voted for former President Donald Trump.

“I’m just a normal person,” he says, sitting on a sofa, next to a picture window overlooking the large garden that he and his wife tend. “They don’t realize that we mean well.”

He’s a complicated man. While even he admits he might accurately be called a right-wing extremist, he calls peaceful Black protesters “righteous” for taking to the streets after Floyd’s murder. He doubts there was fraud in the midterm elections. He drives a Tesla. He loves AC/DC and makes his own organic yogurt. In an area where Islam is sometimes viewed with open hostility, he’s a conservative Christian who says he’d back the area’s small Muslim community if they wanted to open a mosque here.

“Build your mosque, of course! That’s the American way!”

He believes, deeply, that America doesn’t need to be bitterly divided.

“Liberalism and conservatism aren’t that far apart. You can be pro-American, pro-constitutional. You just want bigger government programs. I want less.”

“We can work together,” he says. “We don’t have to, like, hate each other.”

Repeatedly, he and the county’s other right-wing conservatives insist they don’t want violence.

But violence often seems to be looming as they talk, hazy images of government thugs or Antifa rioters or health officers seizing children from parents.

And weapons are a big part of their self-proclaimed “patriot” movement. The Second Amendment and the belief that Americans have a right to overthrow tyrannical governments are foundational principles.

“I’m not a big gun guy,” says Carlson, whose weapons include pistols, a shotgun, an AR-15 rifle, 10 loaded magazines and about 1,000 additional rounds. “For a lot of people that’s just a start.”

That cocktail of weaponry and politics concerns plenty of people outside of their circles.

Liberal voters, along with many establishment Republicans, worry that men in tactical clothing can now occasionally be seen at public gatherings. They worry that some people are now too afraid to be campaign volunteers. They worry that many locals think twice about wearing Democratic T-shirts in public, even in Hudson.

Paul Hambleton, who lives in Hudson and works with the county Democratic party, found comfort in the midterm election results, which even some Republicans say could signal a repudiation of Trump and his most extreme supporters.

“I don’t feel the menace like I was feeling it before” the vote, Hambleton says. “I think this election showed that people can be brave, that they can stick their necks out.”

He spent years teaching in small-town St. Croix County, where the population has grown from 43,000 in 1980 to about 95,000 today. He watched over the years as the student body shifted. Farmers’ children gave way to the children of people who commute to work in the Twin Cities. Racial minorities became a small but growing presence.

He understands why the changes might make some people nervous.

“There is a rural way of life that people feel is being threatened here, a small town way of life,” he says.

But he’s also a hunter who saw how hard it was to buy ammunition after the 2020 protests, when firearm sales soared across America. For nearly two years, the shelves were almost bare.

“I found that menacing,” says Hambleton. “Because no way is that deer hunters buying up so much ammunition.”

____

When the newly empowered conservatives get together it’s often at an Irish bar in a freeway strip mall. Next door is the little county GOP office where you can pick up Republican yard signs and $15 travel mugs that proclaim “Normal Is Not Coming Back — Jesus Is.”

Paddy Ryan’s is the closest thing they have to a clubhouse. One afternoon in late summer, Matt Rust was there talking about the media.

“I think they’re an arm of a much larger global effort by very rich powerful people to control as much of the world as possible,” says Rust, a designer and product developer who can quote large parts of the U.S. Constitution from memory. “And I don’t think that’s anything new. It’s always been that way,” from ancient Persian rulers to Adolf Hitler.

“Is that a conspiracy or is that just human nature?” he asks. “I think it’s just human nature.”

Today, polls indicate that well over 60% of Republicans don’t believe President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. Around a third refuse to get the COVID vaccine.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican known for her conspiratorial accusations and violent rhetoric, is a political star. Trump has embraced QAnon and its universe of conspiracies. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson, a fierce denier of the 2020 election who has suggested the dangers of COVID are overblown, won his third term on Nov. 8.

This seems impossible to many Americans. How can you dismiss the avalanche of evidence that voter fraud was nearly non-existent in 2020? How do you ignore thousands of scientists insisting vaccines are safe? How do you believe QAnon, a movement born from anonymous internet posts?

But news in this world doesn’t come from the Associated Press or CNN. It only rarely comes from major conservative media, like Fox News.

Where does it come from?

“The internet,” Scott Miller, a 40-year-old sales analyst and a prominent local gun-rights activist. “That’s where everybody gets their news these days.”

Very often that means right-wing podcasts and videos that bounce around in social media feeds or on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

It’s a media microcosm with its own vocabulary — Event 201, the Regime, democide, the Parallel Economy — that invites blank stares from outsiders.

While many reports are little more than angry recitations of right-wing talking points, some are sophisticated and believable.

Take “Selection Code,” a highly produced hour-long attack on the 2020 election underwritten by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO. It has the look of a “60 Minutes” piece, tells a complex story and uses unexpected sources to make some of its main points.

Like Hillary Clinton.

“As we look at our election system, I think it’s fair to say there are many legitimate questions about its accuracy, about its integrity,” the then-senator is shown saying in a 2005 Senate speech, questioning the re-election of former President George W. Bush.

Miller laughs.

“I’ll give the Democrats credit. At least they had the courage to stand up and point it out.”

___

Cornfields come right up to the country church, deep in rural St. Croix County and just down the road from a truck stop Denny’s. The closest town, Wilson, is little more than a half-dozen streets, a post office and the Wingin’ It Bar and Grill.

From the pulpit of Calvary Assembly of God, Pastor Rick Mannon preaches a Christianity that resonates deeply among the insurgent conservatives, with strict lines of good and evil and little hesitation to wade into cultural and political issues. He pushed back hard against COVID restrictions.

It’s an outpost in the culture wars tearing at America, and a haven for people who feel shoved aside by a changing nation.

“If Christians don’t get involved in politics, then we shouldn’t have a say,” Mannon says in an interview. “We can’t just let evil win.”

Religion, once one of America’s tightest social bonds, has changed dramatically over the past few decades, with the overall number of people who identify as Christian plunging from the early 1970s, even as membership in conservative Christian denominations surged.

From churches like Calvary Assembly, they’ve watched as gay marriage was legalized, as trans rights became a national issue, as Christianity, at least in their eyes, came under attack by pronoun-proclaiming liberals.

It’s hard to overstate how much cultural changes have shaped the right wing of American conservatism.

Beliefs about family and sexuality that were commonplace when Kraft was growing up in a Milwaukee suburb in the late 1970s and early 1908s, tinkering with electronics with his father, now can mark people like him as outcasts in the wider world.

“If you say anything negative about trans people, or if you say ’I feel sorry for you. This is a clinical diagnosis’ … Well, you are a bigot,” says Kraft, 58, a member of Mannon’s congregation. “People with normal, mainstream family values- – churchgoing, believing in God — suddenly it’s something they should be ostracized for.”

But in today’s world, words like “normal” don’t mean what they once did.

That infuriates Kraft, who energized the Republican Party of St. Croix County as its leader but stepped down last year after a quote on the party’s website – “If you want peace, prepare for war” – set off a public firestorm. He moved to a neighboring county earlier this year.

He ticks off the accusations leveled at people like him: sexist, homophobic, racist.

But such talk, he says, has lost its power.

“Now it’s just noise. It’s lost all its meaning.”

___

The plans, if they are mentioned at all, are spoken of quietly.

But sit in enough small-town bars, drive enough small-town roads, and you’ll occasionally hear people talk about what they intend to do if things go really bad for America.

There are the solar panels if the electricity grid fails. There’s extra gasoline for cars and diesel for generators. There are shelves of non-perishable food, sometimes enough to last for months.

There are the guns, though that is almost never discussed with outsiders.

“I’ve got enough,” says one man, sitting in a Hudson coffee shop.

“I would rather not get into that with a reporter,” says Kraft.

The fears here are mostly about crime and civil unrest. People still talk about the 2020 protests, when they say you could stand in Hudson and see the distant glow of fires in Minneapolis. That frightened many people, and not just conservative Republicans.

But there are other fears, too. About government crackdowns. About firearm seizures. About the possibility that people might have to take up arms against their own government.

Those prospects seem distant, murky, including to the self-declared patriots. The most dire possibilities are spoken about only theoretically.

Still, they are spoken about.

“I pray it will always be that the overthrow is at the ballot box,” says Carlson, who seems genuinely pained at the idea of violence.

“We don’t want to use guns,” he continues. “That would be just horrible.”

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Haley signals 2024 openness despite pledge to back Trump

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Nikki Haley, U.N. ambassador under President Donald Trump, said Tuesday that she would take the Christmas holiday to mull a possible 2024 presidential bid, contradicting her statement last year that she wouldn’t enter the race if Trump opted to run again.

“We are taking the holidays to kind of look at what the situation is,” the former South Carolina governor said during an event at her alma mater, Clemson University, sponsored by Turning Point USA. “If we decide to get into it, we’ll put 1,000% in, and we’ll finish it.”

The comments resembled Haley’s remarks at last week’s Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas, where she was among 10 potential Republican White House hopefuls to make their pitches in the GOP’s first major confab of the 2024 election cycle.

“I’ve never lost an election, and I’m not going to start now,” Haley said, in a line she repeated Tuesday at Clemson.

But Haley’s new tone stands in stark contrast with April 2021, when she replied “yes” when asked during a visit to a historically Black university in her home state if she would support a future Trump presidential campaign. Haley also then noted that she would not seek her party’s nomination if Trump were also running.

“I would not run if President Trump ran, and I would talk to him about it,” Haley said then, asked by The Associated Press if a possible Trump bid could preclude her own effort, were he to announce first. “That’s something that we’ll have a conversation about at some point, if that decision is something that has to be made.”

Haley’s staffers on Tuesday declined to say if such a conversation had taken place, or what had caused Haley to change her tone on what 2024 may hold for her, now that Trump is officially in the race.

Haley, who served six years as South Carolina’s governor before Trump asked her to join his Cabinet, was U.N. ambassador for two years before leaving on her own accord. The coming years included moves that have nodded toward a possible bid for higher office, including moving back to South Carolina, launching a political action committee and publishing a memoir.

Like other Trump administration officials considering presidential bids, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Haley has walked a tightrope between criticism and praise of the former president. Following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, Haley said Trump had been “badly wrong” in stoking the crowd before the riot and that his “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”

Since then, Haley has promoted the administration’s accomplishments and even defended her former boss as “opinionated,” as she did in early 2021.

A Trump campaign spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday on Haley’s remarks. Taylor Budowich, a former Trump spokesman now working for his super PAC, MAGA Inc., dismissed Haley by calling it “unfortunate to see politicians who President Trump made relevant use 2024 as life support for their political career.”

___

Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP



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NATO ministers meet to drum up more aid, arms for Ukraine

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his NATO counterparts are gathering in Romania on Tuesday to drum up urgently needed support for Ukraine, including deliveries of electrical components for the war-torn country’s devastated power transmission network.

Ukraine’s grid has been battered countrywide since early October by targeted Russian strikes, in what U.S. officials call a Russian campaign to weaponize the coming winter cold.

Ahead of the meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is trying to use winter as a weapon of war against Ukraine” and that NATO’s allies and Ukraine “need to be prepared for more attacks.”

The meeting in the capital Bucharest is likely to see NATO make fresh pledges of nonlethal support to Ukraine: fuel, generators, medical supplies, winter equipment and drone-jamming devices. Blinken will announce substantial U.S. aid for Ukraine’s energy grid, U.S. officials said

Individual allies are also likely to announce fresh supplies of military equipment for Ukraine — chiefly the air defense systems that Kyiv so desperately seeks to protect its skies — but NATO, as an organization, will not, to avoid being dragged into a wider war with nuclear-armed Russia.

The ministers, along with their Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, will also look further afield.

“Over the longer term we will help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era equipment to modern NATO standards, doctrine and training,” Stoltenberg said on Friday.

___

Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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Protests against Covid lockdowns sweep China, challenging Xi

HONG KONG — Protesters increasingly fed up with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “zero-Covid” restrictions rallied in cities across the country over the weekend in a widespread show of resistance to Communist Party rule not seen in decades.

Crowds in some of China’s biggest cities, angered by a deadly fire in the western Xinjiang region that they said was made worse by Covid restrictions, blocked roads, chanted slogans and clashed with security personnel, who made multiple arrests.

Many protesters carried candles, flowers and signs to mourn the victims of the fire, which killed at least 10 people. In the financial hub of Shanghai, which endured a grueling two-month lockdown this year, video showed people being dragged, beaten and pinned to the ground by police as they protested on Urumqi Road, named for the Xinjiang capital where the fire took place.

Lesley, 28, a digital editor who attended the Shanghai protest Sunday, said she was deeply moved by the courage of her fellow protesters, who she said were mostly young and tried to stay peaceful. But they were also inexperienced, and the protest was unlikely to be successful, said Lesley, who asked to be referred to only by her first name for fear of arrest or retaliation.

“I think what was so valuable about this protest was that it gave me a sense of courage and strength that I hadn’t felt in a long time, and it also made young people who speak up feel that they were not alone,” she said via Xiaohongshu, China’s version of Instagram. “We were connected from an online isolated island to a real community.”

Image: Protest in Beijing Against China Covid Measures (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Some protests that began with demands to be freed from Covid restrictions intensified into calls for more rights and freedoms in general and even for Xi to step down. In the capital, Beijing, students at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities and Xi’s alma mater, shouted: “We want democratic rule of law. We want freedom of speech.”

Experts say the current size and scale of the protests are unlikely to pose a real threat to Xi, who gained a historic third term in office last month at the Communist Party congress. Stronger than ever after a decade in power and now surrounded exclusively by loyalists, Xi is China’s most dominant leader since Mao Zedong.

After a tumultuous weekend, the protests appeared to have died down by Monday. In Shanghai, blue barriers were erected on Urumqi Road, where there was a heavy police presence. The unrest in China contributed to a fall in stocks around the world, including in the U.S., but most Asian markets began to recover early Tuesday.

Public frustration with China’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy has been mounting in recent months, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Although officials have eased quarantine and testing requirements, China is also reporting record virus case numbers, making further lockdowns likely.

The chasm between life in China compared to the rest of the world has only become more noticeable as Chinese soccer fans tuning into the World Cup comment on the maskless crowds in the stands.

“At the beginning, people [were] quite happy with the way Xi Jinping took leadership in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic,” Cabestan said, “and the government’s propaganda has been pretty efficient in demonstrating that China was doing better than the rest of the world in limiting the number of fatalities. But now it has backfired.”

Image: Protest in Beijing Against China Covid Measures (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Image: Protest in Beijing Against China Covid Measures (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Asked about the protests Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the government was adjusting its Covid measures based on the realities on the ground.

“We believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the support of the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful,” he said at a regular news briefing.

Zhao also addressed the detention of BBC journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested Sunday as he was covering the protests in Shanghai. In a statement, the BBC said police beat and kick Lawrence during his arrest, then held him for several hours before they released him. A video showed him instructing someone nearby to call the British Consulate as he was taken away.

Zhao disputed the BBC’s version of events, saying Lawrence did not identify himself as a journalist before he was arrested.

“Local law enforcement officials were persuading people at the scene to leave, and those who refused to cooperate were then ushered away,” he said.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement Monday that journalists from multiple outlets were physically harassed by police as they were covering the protests and that at least one other journalist was detained.

Victor Gao, a prominent political affairs analyst with strong links to the Communist Party, said authorities need to take the protests “seriously and really take effective measures to address the underlying legitimate concerns by those protesters.”

But he downplayed the anti-government slogans chanted by some of the protesters, saying they were not representative of the majority view in China.

“After the 20th Party Congress, China is as united as you can expect of any country,” said Gao, who was a translator for the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Officials have shown some response to the protesters’ demands, relaxing restrictions in cities like Beijing. That may be enough to satisfy most people, said Zhan Jing, a professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The Communist Party “has a lot of experience accumulated over the years in dissipating social unrest,” she said. Local governments are drawing up plans and visiting communities to hear their concerns, she said, adding, “Although we may not directly observe them, they are doing things.”

The unrest began Friday with a protest in Urumqi over the fire at a high-rise apartment building Thursday night. A Covid lockdown has confined many of the city’s 4 million residents to their homes for more than three months, and there was widespread belief that locked doors and other measures hindered residents’ escape, as well as firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the blaze. NBC News could not confirm whether Covid restrictions influenced the response to the fire.

Although officials denied that, they further fanned public anger when they suggested that residents should have tried harder to save themselves.

The protest was all the more notable because it took place in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government denies accusations of human rights abuses against the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group. Most of the people who protested appeared to be from the Han ethnic group that dominates China.

Image: TOPSHOT-CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS-PROTEST-POLICE (Hector Retamal / AFP - Getty Images)

Image: TOPSHOT-CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS-PROTEST-POLICE (Hector Retamal / AFP – Getty Images)

Officials said Saturday that restrictions in parts of Xinjiang, including Urumqi, would be eased. But the tragedy struck a nerve with others who have been in lockdowns across China, who saw it as something that could just as easily have happened to them.

Francis, a graduate student in the southwestern city of Chengdu, said he was eating at a hot pot restaurant on Wangping Street on Sunday when he heard chants outside of “we don’t want nucleic acid testing, we want freedom!” A video posted online and verified by NBC News showed other protesters in Chengdu chanting “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press.”

Seeing no move by police to disperse the relatively mild crowd, he and his friend followed it, said Francis, 23, who also asked to be identified only by his first name. He said some protesters held up blank sheets of paper, a silent form of protest used to evade censorship, while others lit candles.

“My feeling in this protest is that everyone is dissatisfied with the Covid prevention policy, less about expressing their anger” toward the Communist Party, he said.

For hundreds of millions of Chinese, zero-Covid measures have meant restrictions on travel, sometimes daily testing and the constant threat that they will be sent to government quarantine facilities or suddenly thrown into lockdown. Those in lockdown have complained about lack of access to food and medicine, and the public has been outraged by the non-Covid-related deaths of people, including children, whose treatment was allegedly delayed by restrictions.

Although many people in China continue to support zero-Covid measures, the policies have also fueled growing resentment, especially when combined with other grievances. Violent protests broke out last week near a factory in Zhengzhou that is the primary assembly site for Apple’s iPhone 14, where production has been slowed by the handling of a Covid outbreak, a labor shortage and disputes over pay.

Mindful of the growing public frustration and economic cost, Chinese officials announced an easing of quarantine and other measures this month. But they emphasized that China was not abandoning zero-Covid, and restrictions quickly snapped back into place as the number of virus cases surged.

Image: China Battles Outbreaks As Country Records Record Cases (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

Image: China Battles Outbreaks As Country Records Record Cases (Kevin Frayer / Getty Images)

China’s National Health Commission reported 40,052 new cases nationwide Monday, setting a record for the fifth day in a row. That is about the same number of cases being reported daily in the U.S., which has a quarter of China’s population.

The government says it is saving lives with its zero-Covid strategy, arguing that it shows the superiority of communist rule. While the U.S. has recorded more than a million virus deaths, the official toll in China is 5,233, a number that could rise exponentially if virus cases overwhelm the fragile health care system.

The government’s success in minimizing the loss of life “is something to be acknowledged and to be credited,” Gao said. “No country in the world can do what China is doing.”

But China faces a “very painful” transition, Gao said, as it tries to minimize Covid deaths and infections while keeping life as normal as possible. In addition to making anti-Covid measures more scientific and precise, Gao said, the government also needs to focus on increasing the vaccination rate, especially among older people.

“This is the time for all of us in China to really help out to overcome the difficulties and move in the right direction,” he said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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WRAPUP 1-China police out in numbers to prevent more COVID protests

By Eduardo Baptista

BEIJING, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Chinese police were out in force in Beijing and Shanghai on Tuesday to prevent more protests against COVID curbs which have disrupted the lives of millions, damaged the economy and briefly sparked rare calls for President Xi Jinping to step down.

At least one person in the city of Hangzhou was arrested late on Monday, according to social media videos, after reports a busload of demontrators were taken away by police during Sunday night protests in Shanghai.

Simmering discontent with COVID prevention policies three years into the pandemic ignited into broader protests in cities thousands of miles apart throughout the weekend.

Mainland China’s biggest wave of civil disobedience since Xi took power a decade ago comes as the number of COVID cases hit record highs daily and large parts of several cities face a new round of lockdowns.

COVID in China keeps spreading despite significant sacrifices made by most of the country’s 1.4 billion people to prevent its transmission, adhering to a zero-COVID policy of eradicating all outbreaks that has isolated China from the rest of the world.

The lockdowns have exacerbated one of the steepest growth slowdowns China has faced in decades, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.

In Hangzhou, the capital of the eastern Zhejiang province, videos on social media which Reuters could not independently verify showed hundreds of police occupying a large public square on Monday night, preventing people from congregating.

One video showed police, surrounded by a small crowd of people holding smartphones, making an arrest while others tried to pull back the person being detained.

Hangzhou police did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In Shanghai and Beijing, police could be seen on Tuesday morning still patrolling areas of the cities where some groups on the Telegram social media app had suggested people should gather again. Their presence on Monday evening and throughout the night ensured no more gatherings took place.

Residents said police have been asking people passing through those areas for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by weekend protesters, residents and social media users said. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China’s internet.

‘A THOUSAND HARDSHIPS’

A fire last week in the western city of Urumqi that authorities said killed 10 people appears to have been the catalyst for protests in other cities.

Some internet users said COVID lockdown measures hampered rescue efforts. Officials have denied that.

Although largely focused on COVID curbs, protesters sporadically took a swipe at the ruling Communist Party and at Xi, who has concentrated power into his own hands over the past decade and just recently secured another leadership term.

On Sunday, a large crowd gathered in the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu, chanted: “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors.” Anti-Xi slogans were briefly heard in Shanghai on Sunday as well.

Xi had claimed personal responsibility for leading the “war” against COVID. Chinese officials say the policy has kept the death toll in the most populous country on earth at thousands, avoiding the millions of deaths seen elsewhere.

Many analysts say easing the policies could lead to widespread illness and deaths, overwhelming the country’s hospitals. A strong push on vaccinating the elderly is required before China could even contemplate re-opening, they say.

In an editorial which did not mention the protests, People’s Daily, the Party’s official newspaper, urged citizens on Tuesday to “unswervingly implement” zero-COVID policies, which put people’s “lives first,” saying victory will come through “perseverance through thousands of hardships.”

“The harder it is, the more you have to grit your teeth,” it said.

(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista, Martin Quin Pollard, Yew Lun Tian in Beijing and Casey Hall in Shanghai; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Ebola in Uganda: The people spreading misinformation online

Uganda has been battling an Ebola outbreak for several months

“I think there is no Ebola in Uganda.” Those are words of Battle Kay, as he is known online – a 28-year-old who lives in the capital, Kampala, and makes social media videos criticising the actions of the government.

But he’s also part of a new wave of people making unsubstantiated claims that the current Ebola outbreak is either exaggerated or entirely made up by the authorities.

Uganda has been battling Ebola for two months now. So far, there have been 141 cases with 55 deaths – confirmed by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) – out of its 44.7 million population.

Wider criticism of the government’s record has become mixed up with speculation and unfounded claims about the disease.

What are the claims about Ebola?

The key misleading messages which are spreading have been:

  • the government is using it to justify locking down and controlling citizens

  • the outbreak is a cover to harvest body organs to sell illegally

  • the government is falsifying case numbers to attract funding or just to scare people

For example, a social media post claiming organs were being harvested with Ebola as a cover highlighted a visit in October by the UK’s Princess Anne, sister to King Charles.

It said there was no way she would have toured a country which had “real” cases of Ebola.

Screengrab of Princess Anne visited labelled "false"

Screengrab of Princess Anne visited labelled “false”

However, Princess Anne visited knowing there was an outbreak under way, partly because of her involvement with London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is helping combat the outbreak.

Although it is more deadly, Ebola is much less infectious than coronavirus since it does not spread via airborne transmission. It spreads between humans by direct contact with contaminated bodily fluids – blood, saliva, vomit, semen, vaginal discharge, urine, faeces and sweat.

Uganda’s Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng has dismissed the claims about organ harvesting as entirely false.

Screengrab of vaccine claim labelled "no evidence"

Screengrab of vaccine claim labelled “no evidence”

And with the impending rollout of a trial vaccine against the virus, some claims allege that Ugandans will be used as guinea pigs.

There are two vaccines in use against a different, more common Ebola strain, but this outbreak is being caused by the Sudan strain – for which there is currently no approved vaccine in use.

Three vaccine candidates have been approved for testing in a clinical trial. But the vaccines are yet to be tested, let alone offered to the general population.

Who are behind the claims?

The first group of people are, like Mr Kay, generally critical of Yoweri Museveni’s government.

He supports opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi – popularly known as Bobi Wine – who lost Uganda’s 2021 presidential election to Mr Museveni.

Ugandans at a protest in London with a banner with a message claiming the outbreak is not real

A protest in London had a poster with a message claiming the outbreak is not real

The vote was dogged by accusations of unlawful detentions, torture and killings of protesters by members of the security forces.

These incidents have led some, like Mr Kay, to mistrust anything the authorities say.

Patricia Ssewungu is a nurse based in the UK, who continues to be very involved in political activism against the government.

She told the BBC that although she did believe there were Ebola cases, she thought they had been exaggerated.

She added this was because of what she saw as the “unaccountable” way money is used by the government elsewhere on health, education and Covid.

Others questioning the Ebola outbreak have previously spread misinformation about Covid.

Joseph Kabuleta, another contender for the presidency in 2021, has claimed the government is using the outbreak to get money. But he has gone further to allege Ebola vaccines are not safe, without giving any evidence.

“The ultimate purpose of all this is to use Ugandans as lab rats for an experimental vaccine, whose side effects might be very deadly,” he recently posted on Twitter.

He had also made claims about the safety of Covid vaccines, which are not supported by the evidence.

What has been the government’s response?

Health Minister Margaret Muhanga recently told the country’s parliament that politicisation of the epidemic was one of the challenges the government is facing.

Contact tracers attempt to find recent contacts of Ebola patients in Mubende, Uganda

The government says misinformation is making members of the public apprehensive

“Some politicians… are confusing the public by saying there is no Ebola and this epidemic is the government’s propaganda of mobilising resources,” she said.

“They even confidently say the Ministry of Health should leave the disease to spread and people develop immunity, forgetting what happened in West Africa.”

She says the negative talk could lead to an explosion of cases – even in areas where the government has made progress against the spread of the disease.

Marion Apio, who works for an independent fact-checking initiative in Uganda, said the most common thing her team has found is not targeted misinformation, but gaps in people’s knowledge around the disease, how it spreads and how to prevent it, especially in areas not affected by the outbreak.

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Benin Bronzes: Nigeria hails ‘great day’ as London museum signs over looted objects

A square bronze pendant or ornament, one of the objects the museum says was looted from Benin City by British soldiers in 1897

A UK museum’s signing over of its collection of objects looted from the Kingdom of Benin is “a really great day”, the head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has told the BBC.

The Horniman Museum in south-east London is returning 72 items, including so-called Benin Bronzes, to Nigerian ownership – making it the first in the UK to officially take such action on this scale.

Prof Abba Tijani said: “Hanging on to looted objects is no longer tenable.”

The move adds to pressure on other museums and galleries as they grapple with the question of restitution.

Professor Abba Tijani, head of Nigeria's National Commission for museums and monuments, with Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State

[L-R] Professor Abba Tijani, head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, with Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo state

The Benin artworks were forcibly removed in 1897, in a large-scale British military expedition.

British forces attacked and occupied the city of Benin, in what is now modern-day Nigeria.

The formal signing ceremony transferring ownership of the 72 objects back to Nigeria unconditionally took place on Monday evening in front of Nigerian royalty and other dignitaries.

In a speech, Prof Tijani praised the Horniman for doing all it could “to correct the past”.

Edo state governor Godwin Obaseki with Prof Abba Tijani and Michael Salter-Church, chair of the Horniman Board of Trustees, at the signing ceremony

Edo state governor Godwin Obaseki with Prof Abba Tijani and Michael Salter-Church, chair of the Horniman Board of Trustees, at the signing ceremony

Nick Merriman, director of the Horniman Museum, told the BBC that after a lot of research and consultation “there was no doubt they’d been looted – so there was a moral argument for their return”.

“I think we’re seeing a tipping point around not just restitution and repatriation, but museums acknowledging their colonial history – and that’s better history, I think,” he said.

He added it would lead to a “fuller account of how collections have arrived in British museums”.

However, he also said it was important to note that some museums are subject to legislation which prevents them from removing items from their collections, whereas others, which are charities such as the Horniman, are allowed to do so.

London’s British Museum has 900 items from Benin, and Prof Tijani added: “I think the British Museum is watching, I believe they are now taking it deeply to see that they do something, because every museum across the world is saying it is not right for them to hang on to these objects.”

He said seeing some of the objects in the British Museum would “give me high blood pressure”, adding he would keep appealing to the museum to “really look at” returning artefacts, with the option to have objects on loan for display.

A brass plaque depicting Oba Orhogbua.

This plaque depicting Oba Orhogbua (circa 1550-1578) holding a staff representing authority and power is being returned

Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has issued formal repatriation requests to museums across the world.

In 2026 its government will open the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, which is being designed by the British-Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, to house the largest collection of Benin Bronzes ever assembled.

The NCMM approached the Horniman in January 2022. After a consultation, and with the endorsement of the Charity Commission, the Horniman’s trustees decided it was “moral and appropriate” to hand the artworks back.

Six will return to Nigeria. For now, the rest of the collection remains in London on loan.

Soldiers burned and partially destroyed the Benin Royal Palace in 1897, looting and pillaging as they went. The Oba, or King, was forced into exile.

At the time, the violent assault was claimed to be in retaliation for an attack on a British trade mission a month earlier.

Now it is viewed by many in the wider context of Britain’s desire to break up a wealthy trading competitor and seize its assets. Benin was swallowed into Nigeria under the British Empire before Nigerian independence in 1960.

The kingdom is renowned for its complex and elaborately decorated collection of sculptures. These highly prized items were created over 600 years by specialist craftsmen working for the royal court in the kingdom’s capital.

They include beautiful human and animal figures, ceremonial objects made from ivory and brass, and royal regalia.

A series of plaques, known as the Benin Bronzes, which used to decorate the palace walls, are a key historic record of the court and kingdom.

A brass face or mask

A convex brass hip ornament depicting a face or mask, with an arm extending from each nostril

Speaking at the signing ceremony in London on Monday, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, a representative of the Oba of Benin, said the 1897 attack was “still a point of pain to us in Benin. Our children grow up and are taught the history of what happened”.

But he said it was heartening to see that “the narrative is now changing, on ethical grounds, on moral grounds, on legal grounds” with a sense “that objects that were stolen should be returned”.

He said the individual plaques that make up the Benin bronzes were “like a page in a book” – telling the story of Benin – and the fact they have been scattered across the world was painful.

Curators in some of the museums that hold the bronzes have mis-described what they depict, he added, forcing western interpretations on the artefacts, causing further anguish to his country.

During the British attack, many thousands of items of huge ceremonial and ritual value were stolen. Deemed official “spoils of war”, they were brought to the UK for sale or to be distributed to soldiers who had taken part in the raid.

Museums in the UK, Europe and the US hold many of them. Some bid for the objects at auctions at the start of the 20th Century which were held to finance the expedition.

Two of the items being returned by the Horniman were acquired by its founder Frederick Horniman a month after the attack, directly from someone personally involved in the looting. Others were purchased two years later from a local resident.

With 900 in its own collection, the British Museum has a sizeable proportion of the UK’s Benin Bronzes.

The Nigerian Government has been asking museums to return these important artworks since the 1930s.

Germany signed a historic agreement with Nigeria this summer to transfer ownership from its museum collections of more than 1,000 items taken from Benin. France has also returned items.

In the UK, Glasgow Life is in the process of finalising the planned return of 17 objects from Benin held in its museums.

Similar actions are under way in Oxford and Cambridge.

Museums are facing increasing calls to address the legacy of British colonialism and plunder.

Whether it is demands for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures (or Elgin Marbles as they were often better known) to Greece, or the fate of objects looted from Africa, conversations about repatriation and restitution are high on the agenda.

A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has said “decisions relating to the care and management of their collections are a matter for the trustees of each museum”.

The Horniman though, which won 2022 Art Fund Museum of the Year, is not bound by the same laws as some of Britain’s national institutions.

The British Museum, for example, is banned by Parliament from “deaccessioning” items in its collections, except in very specific circumstances.

The museum says that would prevent it returning its Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government, although it is part of a working group called the Benin Dialogue Group.

For the Nigerians, the Horniman agreement officially signed on 28 November creates a template for the future.

Crucially for them, this is about ownership, and 125 years after the objects were taken from Benin, the Nigerians have taken back control. Now they can decide what happens next.

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5 officers charged after Black man paralyzed in police van

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Five Connecticut police officers were charged with misdemeanors Monday over their treatment of a Black man after he was paralyzed from the chest down in the back of a police van.

Randy Cox, 36, was being driven to a New Haven police station June 19 for processing on a weapons charge when the driver braked hard, apparently to avoid a collision, causing Cox to fly headfirst into the wall of the van, police said.

As Cox pleaded for help, saying he couldn’t move, some of the officers mocked him and accused him of being drunk and faking his injuries. Then, the officers dragged him by his feet from the van and placed him in a holding cell prior to his eventual transfer to a hospital.

The five New Haven police officers were charged with second-degree reckless endangerment and cruelty to persons.

The officers turned themselves in at a state police barracks Monday. Each was processed, posted a $25,000 bond and are due back in court Dec. 8, according to a news release from state police. Messages seeking comment were sent to attorneys for the officers.

The case has drawn outrage from civil rights advocates like the NAACP, along with comparisons to the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore. Gray, who was also Black, died in 2015 after he suffered a spinal injury while handcuffed and shackled in a city police van.

Five officers were placed on administrative leave in Cox’s case. The state later dropped all charges against Cox that led to him being put in the van. They included illegal possession of a firearm and threatening.

New Haven officials announced a series of police reforms this summer stemming from the case, including eliminating the use of police vans for most prisoner transports and using marked police vehicles instead. They also require officers to immediately call for an ambulance to respond to their location if the prisoner requests or appears to need medical aid.

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Iranian students at UW-Milwaukee stage demonstration in solidarity with Mahsa Amini protests in Iran

Iranian students on Nov. 15 at UW-Milwaukee staged a demonstration in solidarity with the protests occurring across Iran for human rights and for the end to the current regime.

Iranian students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are more than 6,000 miles from their friends and family, but they’re speaking up on their behalf.

Every day, electrical engineering PhD student Nilou said people in Iran tell her, “You are in the United States, you have freedom of speech — please be our voice.”

Nilou is among more than two dozen Iranian students at UWM who are trying to do just that: inform the community about the situation in Iran following the police custody death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, from the government’s violent crackdown on protests to the chants for freedom that ring out nightly from every apartment window.

“We want to use this power, this stage, and say something, rather than keep being silent,” a graduate student studying psychology said.

The student asked to be referred to by a nickname, Iris, instead of her real name, as she is concerned she could be arrested for her comments upon returning to Iran. Nilou asked that her last name not be published, fearing retribution for her family in Iran.

More:They fought for education in Afghanistan. Now in Milwaukee, these 9 young women hope to achieve the dreams they nearly lost

On Tuesday Nilou, Iris and other Iranian students held a demonstration at the UWM Student Union in support of the protests back home, performing a skit to represent how the government’s morality police harass women. And as they sang a popular song written for the current protest movement, some were moved to tears.

The students know the power social media can have — and the important role it has played in spreading the word about protests after Amini’s death. So they set up a selfie station at the demonstration, distributed posters and flyers with QR codes that led to online petitions, and encouraged people to post about the cause online.

“We want the world to hear our voice, to hear the people of Iran’s voice,” Iris said.

Although the Iranian students have been glued to social media for the last two months, watching for any updates that break through Iran’s highly restricted internet, they don’t hear much about it elsewhere in Milwaukee.

Compared to her fellow UWM students, “I feel like I’m living in another world,” Nilou said. “We would like to be seen.”

The group also handed out baggies of candy, rubber bracelets and buttons to the crowd of roughly 75 people, taking a cue from the streets of Iran, where protesters have been giving each other pieces of candy along with encouraging notes.

“You should stay hopeful. We will overturn this government,” Nilou said some of the notes read. And: “Thank you for making the city beautiful (by) showing your hair.”

More:This medical student was once an English learner herself. Now she’s collecting books to ease the transition for Afghan evacuee children.

‘It’s a revolution’

Nilou and Iris don’t consider themselves political activists, and they weren’t especially involved before Amini’s death.

But in September, Amini died in custody after being detained by the morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, or headscarf, improperly. Witnesses say Amini was beaten to death, although the government has denied it.

“Enough is enough,” Nilou said she thought at the time. “We should do something about it. (We can’t) put up with this.”

Many in Iran felt the same. Amini’s death touched off huge protests against compulsory hjiab laws and other women’s rights issues, and people have continued to take to the streets daily to demand an end to the Islamic Republic. More than 300 protesters have been killed, according to rights groups, including more than 40 children. Roughly 15,000 people have been detained.

Images of women burning their headscarves and removing them in front of police have circled the globe. Nilou’s family reports that more and more women are going without hijabs in public.

“It’s a revolution. It’s no longer a protest,” Nilou said.

The UWM students know well the tactics of the morality police.

Nilou’s mother, who contracted polio and uses a walker, has trouble keeping her hair completely covered in public because of her uneven gait. She was arrested twice, Nilou said, and felt deep shame.

“She said it was the worst experience that I had as a woman,” Nilou said.

And Iris, sitting in a park in Iran with her fiancé — now husband — was admonished by the morality officers because his hand was resting on her leg.

The UWM students on Tuesday were a world away from those restrictions, but they were front of mind. Each wore a T-shirt that read, “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a slogan that has become ubiquitous with the protest movement. Iris’s nails on Tuesday were painted shades of red and blue, something that wouldn’t have been allowed at school in Iran.

In a powerful moment, she and several other women joined together to sing the popular protest song “Baraye.” It is illegal for women to sing publicly in Iran.

“This is a pain that we all share,” Iris said of the sense of solidarity among Iranian students.

The students ask that Americans to contact their representatives in Congress to tell them not to negotiate with the Iranian government on any nuclear deals. They also want the Group of Seven (G7) leaders to expel Iranian diplomats and to demand Iran’s political prisoners be released.

“We actually want to isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran from the (rest of) the world,” Nilou said.

The question Iris poses is straightforward: Why not stand for democracy?

The students have compiled links to petitions and other ways to help on their website: wlfreedom.net/how-to-help.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

More:World-renowned Afghan women’s rights activist Maryam Durani and her family begin a new life in Milwaukee

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: UW-Milwaukee students stand with Mahsa Amini protesters



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UN: Great Barrier Reef should be on heritage ‘danger’ list

PARIS (AP) — A United Nations-backed mission is recommending that the Great Barrier Reef be added to the list of endangered World Heritage sites, sounding the alarm that without “ambitious, rapid and sustained” climate action the world’s largest coral reef is in peril.

The warning came in a report published Monday following a 10-day mission to the reef last March by officials from UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The reef, a living place of immense variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia, has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1981.

Australia’s federal government and Queensland’s regional authorities should adopt more ambitious emission reduction targets, in line with international efforts to limit future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, according to the report.

Feedback from officials at the Australian federal level and regional authorities will also be reviewed before UNESCO, the U.N.’s Paris-based cultural agency, makes any official proposal to the World Heritage committee.

The report is damning about recent efforts to stop mass bleaching and prevent pollution from contaminating the reef’s natural waters, saying they have not been fast nor effective enough. Uncurbed emissions lead to increased water acidity, which can be toxic.

The report recommends more money be found to increase the water quality and stop the site’s decline.

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China’s strict anti-COVID policies prompt rare calls for President Xi Jinping’s ouster

Protests against China’s strict anti-COVID measures have turned into calls for the ouster of President Xi Jinping.

“Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP, step down!” protesters in Shanghai yelled Sunday, rebuking the country’s powerful leader, who’s insisted on a “zero-COVID” policy, and the Chinese Communist Party.

Authorities in at least eight cities sought to squelch the demos, with police pepper-spraying protesters who called for an end to one-party rule.

China has focused on ending COVID transmission by requiring frequent tests and keeping entire segments of its population under lockdown. Neighborhoods have been cordoned off for weeks at a time, with some cities mandating daily testing for millions.

In Shanghai, most of whose 25 million residents were under lockdown for two straight months starting in late March, about 300 demonstrators gathered on Saturday, according to reports.

Cops used pepper spray on people who gathered to mourn the at least 10 people killed in a Friday apartment fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi, an eyewitness said.

The three hours it took for firefighters to respond to and quell the blaze have been partly blamed on the tight anti-virus measures.

While Chinese authorities scaled back restrictions in some neighborhoods categorized as “low-risk” after the fire, it was not enough to contain the rage. Protests quickly spread to other cities including Beijing, along with dozens of university campuses.

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