Featured Washington Post

Scrutiny over terrorism funding hampers charitable work in ravaged countries

As the Syrian military began laying waste to the city of Aleppo in an offensive to vanquish rebel forces last year, a doctor was at his wit’s end.

Anas Moughrabieh was trying to save civilian lives, treating patients remotely via teleconference from his office in Detroit. As people were rushed into the Syrian hospital with grave head injuries, doctors there had run out of hypertonic saline, which relieves pressure in the brain. That and other simple supply shortages led many to die, including children. He looked on helplessly from 6,000 miles away.

Although the hospital was run by the Syrian American Medical Society — a District-based charity that relies on donations — lack of funding wasn’t the issue. And in this case, the brutality of the Syrian regime wasn’t responsible for the supply shortage.

The problem was a U.S. bank.

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‘I heard him load a gun’: San Bernardino students recall school shooting

‘I heard him load a gun’: San Bernardino students recall school shooting

April 11, 2017

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Third-grader Jeremy Muschell was returning to his classroom after using the restroom when he heard the first of four loud booms.

“They were really, really loud, and he heard people yelling, ‘No, don’t!’ ” said his mother, Jane Muschell. “He told me he heard [the shooter] reload the gun — cocking the gun.”

And so the nightmare began on Monday morning at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino, where Cedric Anderson, 53, gunned down his wife, teacher Karen Smith, and killed 8-year-old Jonathan Martinez. Anderson also wounded a 9-year-old child before turning the gun on himself.

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Washington Post

Demonstrators square off against opponents and police as Anti-Trump protests spread

Demonstrators square off against opponents and police as Anti-Trump protests spread

By Leah Sottile, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Rob Kuznia and Ylan Q. Mui

PORTLAND, Ore. — The increasingly tense protests around the country in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory escalated early Saturday with a shooting here that scattered panicked protesters and left one man hospitalized, as demonstrations spread to other American cities.

Portland police said a pair of 18-year-olds who had no connection to the protesters — and are possibly gang members — were arrested in the shooting. But after the fourth straight night of demonstrations in response to Trump’s unexpected presidential win, city and police officials here appeared harried and frustrated. At a news conference Saturday afternoon, they told protesters to “stay home.”

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Featured Washington Post

‘A community on edge’: Town torn apart by sexual assault accusations against football players

‘A community on edge’: Town torn apart by sexual assault accusations against football players

DIETRICH, Idaho — The first child they adopted was a 2-year-old from the Marshall Islands who had rotten teeth and a large abscess covering the side of his face.

At the time, the family of Tim and Shelly McDaniel was still passably conventional in this ­no-stoplight town of 330, surrounded by high desert dotted with sagebrush and cattle.

But since that first adoption in 2000, the couple have brought into their fold 19 more castaway kids from all over the country — most from troubled families, and half of them black. The McDaniels now provide their town, in Idaho’s conservative Mormon country, with the entirety of its black population, save one mixed-race child from another family.

It is a town in turmoil, thrust into national headlines by a tale of racially charged violence and negligence graphically detailed in a $10 million lawsuit the McDaniels filed last week against the 230-student school district. The suit claims that three players on the high school football team sexually assaulted a mentally disabled teammate — a son of the McDaniels — with a coat hanger, which they kicked deep into his rectum. The three alleged assailants are white; the McDaniels’ son is black.

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Featured Shifting Paradigms Washington Post

An unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness

An unprecedented experiment in mass forgiveness

LOS ANGELES — Jose Gonzalez remembers feeling disoriented as he stepped out of Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and into the vastness of the Colorado Desert. A corrections van was waiting to shuttle him to freedom. The driver rolled down the passenger window and told Gonzalez to get in. The door handle felt foreign in his fingers, and he struggled to open it.

“I’d never been able to open my own door in 20 years,” he said.

Gonzalez had just served a long stint on a life sentence for his role in a grisly 1996 murder. Until his release last April, Gonzalez had no doubt he would die in prison: “If you had a life sentence . . . you were going to do life. No one was getting out.”

But Gonzalez, 36, returned to society and is now answering phones in downtown Los Angeles as a paid intern for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Human Rights Watch, two nonprofit groups that sponsored the law that cleared the way for his release.

Gonzalez is among thousands of felons benefiting from a grand experiment, an act of mass forgiveness unprecedented in U.S. history. In California, once a national innovator in draconian policies to get tough on crime, voters and lawmakers are now innovating in the opposite direction, adopting laws that have released tens of thousands of inmates and are preventing even more from going to prison in the first place.

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Washington Post

How Snapchat tech titans are harshing the mellow in Venice Beach

(Published in the Washington Post — August 10, 2015)

How Snapchat tech titans are harshing the mellow in Venice Beach

LOS ANGELES — Venice Beach is where Arnold Schwarzenegger toned his muscles, the Dogtown skateboarders launched a lasting movement and Jim Morrison conceived the Doors. The Dude lived here in “The Big Lebowski.”

For decades, Venice has been the epicenter of weird, a beachy paradise with a gothic twist, where carnival freaks, homeless hippies, yoga instructors and ­fanny-packed tourists blend into a milieu as colorful as its famous three-story murals.

Now, thanks to real estate speculators and a tech boom featuring the likes of Google and Snapchat, Venice’s mellow charm is under siege.

“There are a lot of shenanigans going on to hyper-gentrify this area, almost make it a beachfront resort,” said Laddie Williams, a third-generation Venice resident and community activist. “They are killing our community.”

Is Venice losing its charming weirdness?

As skyrocketing real estate prices push longtime residents out of this oceanside district of Los Angeles, corporate chains are replacing funky shops, and tech geeks are emerging as a dominant part of the scene. Meanwhile, the area’s already robust homeless population is rising, leading to controversial police crackdowns.
Similar trends are transforming much of coastal California. Across Los Angeles, middle-class home buyers are losing out to speculators who plunk down cash offers. And in San Francisco, median home prices have soared from $700,000 to nearly $1.1 million in three years, making it one of the least affordable cities in the world.
But in bohemian Venice, the shake-up has been particularly upsetting, especially since the arrival of Snapchat, the tech giant whose app enabling users to send each other disappearing photos and messages has proved irresistible to teens.

Snapchat’s presence here has swollen from 14 employees to 200 in two years, expanding this spring into office buildings throughout the densely populated, three-square-mile hamlet. One building near the beach spans an entire block.

Among the dozens of tenants displaced by Snapchat was the Teen Project, a nonprofit organization that provides housing to homeless young adults.

“They shoved us right out and treated us like redheaded stepchildren,” said founder Lauri Burns. A few months before the move, a Snapchat executive told her he had noticed one of her homeless clients sweeping the street with an old broom, so he offered to buy the organization a new one.

“You could have just slapped me in the face at that point,” Burns said.

Slapped in the face is exactly how many Venetians are feeling by the tidal wave of new money. And the local tech boom, prompting “Silicon Beach” references around town, is just one source of it.

The main thoroughfare in Venice, Abbot Kinney Boulevard, has been transformed from a funky lineup of artisan shops and antique stores to a ritzy outdoor mall of upscale corporate brands, such as Scotch & Soda, Hyden Yoo and Sofia Kaman Fine Jewels — the shop where Lindsay Lohan was caught stealing in 2011.
In a stunner last month, a piece of commercial property on the boulevard sold for $44 million to a New York partnership, forcing the ejection of Hal’s, a landmark bar and grill. Jaws had also dropped when the same property sold for $20 million two years ago.

“Pretty good flip,” said Carol Tantau, owner of a handcrafted-jewelry store that was priced out of its home of 30 years by the earlier sale.

Residential bungalows are also being emptied and flipped to highflying investors, many from overseas. In five years, the median home price has surged from $832,000 to $1.4 million.
Rents have also skyrocketed. Intensifying the housing squeeze is Airbnb, the sharing-economy app that enables people to rent out houses and apartments to short-term visitors (i.e., tourists).

Venice is often called the biggest tourist attraction in Southern California next to Disneyland; it is also the No. 1 Airbnb spot in Los Angeles. About 12.5 percent of all housing units there have become ­Airbnb units, taking a sizable chunk off the market, according to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor-supported advocacy group.
Tony Bill, a producer who shared an Academy Award in 1973 for “The Sting,” wonders why anyone is surprised that beachfront property in one of the nation’s largest cities would experience such growth. “It’s like, what did you expect? How long did you expect that Venice would be a depressed, inexpensive, inactive haven for people who can’t find a cheaper place to live?” said Bill, who owns one of the buildings that houses Snapchat.

“Venice is not known, and shouldn’t be known, for its starving artists,” Bill said. “It should be known for its accomplished artists. . . . If you’re accomplished, you can afford to pay the rent.”

George Francisco, vice president of the Venice Chamber of Commerce, said growing pains are to be expected. “I think of it as a continuum,” he said. “There were people who provided services for horses. Then the automobile came along. . . . Progress is a train. You can be on it, or you can be under it.”
As a district of Los Angeles, Venice has no mayor, city council or police force. It has just one elected local official, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin. (Bonin, a Democrat, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Long a destination for dreamers and doers, Venice is no stranger to volatile cycles of boom and bust. In 1977, the Los Angeles Times published a piece with a headline that reads like it was written last week: “Venice, Calif. — is Bohemia Still Affordable?”

But the influx of wealth over the past two years has been a bigger steamroller, longtimers insist. “Gentrification right now is on steroids,” said Todd Darling, a member of the Venice Land Use and Planning Committee who argues that the district is essentially becoming a bank for investors from all over the world.

“People like to say the investors are Asian, but they could be from New York or Berlin,” he said. “In any case, it’s people who are not interested in living here. They are interested in an asset that holds value. That happens to be in Venice Beach, California, and it may just happen to cause the eviction of people who have lived there a long time.”

Ballet instructor Angelina Meany and her husband were booted three years ago from the bungalow duplex they had rented for 18 years. It was sold to a partnership from South Africa. The eviction completely disrupted their lives.

They moved 30 miles south to Long Beach and tried commuting back to Venice. But the new arrangement did not take with Meany’s husband. He departed for his native New York last year while Meany, 48, remained in the Los Angeles area. “It was devastating for both of us to have to make that choice,” she said.

Rene Kraus, 60, had lived in his cottage for 27 years when he received an eviction notice a few months ago from the new owners, an investment group going by the oblique name “664 Sunset LLC.”

“It’s a bunch of doctors,” said Kraus, a silversmith who makes belt buckles, rings and other “biker stuff.” He is fighting the eviction in court.
And if he loses? “I got friends, got some money saved — I’ll survive,” he said. “But a lot of other people, they just disappear, dude.”
Often, those people are artists. Sandy Bleifer, who helps organize a biannual tour of art studios called Venice ArtBlock, said her roster of artists had dwindled from 70 to 40 in a year. “We are an endangered species here,” Bleifer said. “Tech companies [are] very nice for the economy, but artists are part of the Venice brand. If we lose our artists, what are we?”

Sometimes, the wealthy do stop to notice the people getting pushed out of their way. After its ouster by Snapchat, the Teen Project found itself homeless for four months, Burns said.
But then two often-demonized real estate moguls came to its assistance: Carl Lambert made arrangements not only to relocate the Teen Project to another beachside property but also to get its rent waived. And Tami Pardee gave the group $17,000 after police shot and killed a 29-year-old homeless man on the Venice boardwalk in May, enabling the organization to find housing for 16 homeless youths.

Burns speaks highly of Lambert and Pardee. But she has no kind words for Snapchat, which she said has donated to her center precisely one computer and one vacuum cleaner (but no broom).
Snapchat executives declined a request for an interview. Via e-mail, they offered a bullet-point list of civic donations. “We love being in Venice and we strive to be great neighbors within the community where we live and work,” the e-mail said.

Google has taken greater pains to fit in since its 2011 arrival. The company houses 600 employees in an iconic Venice building fronted by a massive sculpture in the shape of a pair of binoculars. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the place is known, aptly enough, as the Binoculars Building.

Google hosts the annual Art Walk & Auctions, which showcase the work of local artists and benefit a free medical clinic, and has commissioned work from local artists for its offices. It has also donated 25 computers to the Teen Project.

Many longtime Venetians make no distinction between the two tech titans. “The locals hate Snapchat and Google,” said Don Calhoun, 45, a guitar instructor in a Spinal Tap shirt who was hanging out at a boardwalk oxygen bar. Calhoun tries not to use Google, he said, adding: “I’ve been on Bing! I’ve been Binging away!”

Still, Thomas Williams, site lead for Google’s Los Angeles office, said he feels embraced by Venice. He recounted an interaction with a street performer on the boardwalk, a drummer named Ibrahim. “He just reached out and held both my hands, looked into my eyes and said, ‘I want you to feel welcome,’ ” Williams said via e-mail. “We spoke for a little while and he invited me to a performance, but his goal was really just about wanting me to feel welcome in being here.
“Really cool. Really Venice.”

Featured Washington Post

Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’

(Published in the Washington Post — June 13, 2015)

Rich Californians balk at limits: ‘We’re not all equal when it comes to water’

RANCHO SANTA FE, CALIF. — Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water.

People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful,” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent.

But a moment of truth is at hand for Yuhas and his neighbors, and all of California will be watching…

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Washington Post

Fake grass gains ground in California amid concerns about ongoing drought

Fake grass gains ground in California amid concerns about ongoing drought

(Published in the Washington Post — May 23, 2015)

Christopher Knight makes no apologies: He likes a green lawn. But the actor best known for playing middle son Peter on “The Brady Bunch” also wants to do his part to conserve water.

The solution? Fake grass.

“It feels totally different,” Knight, 57, marveled one day last week, stepping barefoot onto a deceptively lifelike expanse of newly installed plastic turf. “Frankly, I’m not really sure why more people haven’t started doing it.”

After four blistering years of drought in California, more people are doing it. The fake grass business is booming, much to the chagrin of some environmentalists and live-grass purists.

Comprehensive numbers are hard to come by, but makers and installers of synthetic turf say they are experiencing an unprecedented spike in residential business in California. From middle-class families who don’t want to forfeit the patch-of-green part of the American dream to megawatt celebrities who are mortified by TV coverage of their sprawling water-hog lawns, homeowners across the Golden State are ripping up sod and replacing it with plastic.

“Everything is in California right now,” said David Barbera, president of Georgia-based Artificial Turf Supply, which opened both a warehouse and a sales office in Southern California last year. “We have doubled the size of our business in the past 12 months.”

The benefits of fake grass are hard to deny. Live grass guzzles some 55 gallons of water per square foot annually, making the all-American lawn increasingly untenable in an era of skyrocketing water rates and excessive-use penalties. Over the past two months, since Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency and decreed that water use be cut by 25 percent this year, synthetic turf companies report an avalanche of interest.

In many parts of the state, the trend is being fueled by cash rebates of up to $3.75 a square foot for installing low-water (or no-water) landscaping. The vast majority of rebate-takers go the more natural — and cheaper — route of shrubs and succulents, officials said. But a growing number of homeowners are rejecting spiky deer grass and scratchy sagebrush and paying up to $10 per square foot to luxuriate in plastic’s convincing lushness.

“For people who want to play with their children — soccer, baseball, Frisbee — they can’t do that in a front yard with cactus. You’re going to get a needle in the rump,” said Ara Najarian, mayor of the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, who has emerged as something of a synthetic turf champion.

To be sure, fake grass — known as “frass,” in some quarters — has its critics. Santa Monica, for instance, will not approve rebates for homeowners who install plastic. Sacramento and Glendale have long banned the installation of artificial turf in front lawns, as have some homeowner associations, which view the product as tacky.

Najarian has been waging a spirited campaign to get his city’s ban overturned. “I’ve always been a firm believer that we need to give families the option,” he said. But Peter Fuad, president of the Northwest Glendale Homeowners Association, adamantly defends the ban.

“You can’t be assured people won’t buy the cheapest Home Depot special,” Fuad fretted during a recent City Council meeting. “Are you going to allow red, white and blue turf?”

Synthetic turf advocates dismiss such fears. Today’s fake grass, they say, is nothing like the preternaturally green stuff that used to carpet the local miniature golf course.

The venerable Hollywood Bowl, one of the nation’s most iconic amphitheaters, recently made the switch. Mark Ladd, the venue’s assistant director of operations, notes that the fake greenery looks authentic: The height and color of the blades are varied, with a few brown ones thrown in to emulate dead thatch.

“Nobody has a truly perfect lawn,” Ladd said. “The old stuff would look really kitschy.”

Danna Freedman, owner of SYNLawn — a local wholesaler and affiliate of AstroTurf — says some of her most loyal clients are rich and famous. They include former California first lady Maria Shriver, comedian Steve Martin and actresses Julia Roberts and Laura Dern.

Freedman noted that SYNLawn artificial grass is made from soybean oil and recycled plastic bottles collected from national parks — an environmental bonus. Since the drought began, she said, her 12-year-old business has swelled by at least 50 percent a year, prompting her to hire nearly 20 additional employees.

Today’s artificial turf is the descendant of AstroTurf, which was developed in the mid-1960s by chemical giant Monsanto. Originally called ChemGrass, it was rechristened after gaining fame in the newly erected Houston Astrodome, where the trials of maintaining indoor natural grass had compelled crews to paint the dead outfield green.

Since then, the product has traveled a bumpy road to ­sporting-field prominence, waxing and waning in accordance with technological improvements and controversies over toxicity or injuries. The $1 billion-a-year industry began expanding into the residential market in the 1990s.

Nevada, the Sagebrush State, was an early adopter. The percentage of Nevada residents taking a water-savings rebate for replacing natural grass with artificial turf has skyrocketed over the past decade. A quarter of lawn conversions now include an artificial turf component, according to the Southern Nevada Water Authority.

Doug Bennett, the agency’s conservation manager, said he was initially skeptical that the product would hold up in the relentless sun. But to his surprise, many projects installed a decade ago remain intact.

A former horticulturist, Bennett has mixed feelings about faux turf. He wonders how the spent stuff affects the waste stream.

“It’s made of plastic; it will degrade,” said Lisa Cahill, director for sustainable solutions at TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit group based in Los Angeles. “And those pieces — even if very, very tiny — can end up in the ocean.”

And synthetic turf can be hot to the touch on a sunny day, Bennett notes. Once, while standing at an outdoor party on a fake-grass lawn, he kicked off a flip-flop and stood on the grass.

“I leaped off onto the concrete,” he said. “I literally would rather walk on concrete.”

The Nevada water agency tries to take a middle-ground approach to lawn conversions, requiring a minimum number of live plants for the sake of the ecosystem. With a chuckle, Bennett recalled a woman who applied for a rebate with a landscaping blueprint that was 100 percent artificial, right down to the palm trees. Her rebate was denied.

“Google ‘artificial palm trees.’ They exist,” he said.

For many artificial-turf enthusiasts, it isn’t just about saving water. It’s also about reconnecting with idyllic childhood memories.

Danna Ziv, who lives in Montecito near Santa Barbara, said her 2,000 square feet of fake lawn reminds her of playing on the grass as a child in the San Fernando Valley. Her father, the late Dan Blocker, played the character Hoss Cartwright on the 1960s TV western “Bonanza.”

“My husband is from Israel,” Ziv said. “He really wanted to have grass because they don’t have a lot of it there.”

For others, it’s all about the environment. Olivier Roumy ditched his 25-year career as a high-end hairstylist for Washington politicians and moved to Los Angeles to work sales for DuraTurf, whose expanding list of clients include both Knight and the Hollywood Bowl.

“Everybody is concerned about the water. It’s a problem.” Roumy said, over the buzz of a power-broom grooming Knight’s new lawn. “So it makes me really feel like I’m helping the planet.”

Knight readily admits he had other motives for spending around $4,000 for his new lawn and a matching patch of green on his rooftop balcony. While the rebate and the water conservation were important, he said, his primary consideration were the dog owners who pretended not to see his posted signs. (“No dog pee on wet lawn!”)

An endless stream of canine leg-lifters had left his grass blemished with yellow spots. “Now I don’t even have to worry about the damage,” he said, admiring the handiwork of the DuraTurf crew.

Still, Knight said, he plans to leave the dog-pee signs up.