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Friday, March 27, 2015

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Co-pilot appeared healthy, but may have hidden illness

Co-pilot appeared healthy, but may have hidden illness

AP Photo
In this Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009 photo Andreas Lubitz competes at the Airportrun in Hamburg, northern Germany. Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz appears to have hidden evidence of an illness from his employers, including having been excused by a doctor from work the day he crashed a passenger plane into a mountain, prosecutors said Friday, March 27, 2015. The evidence came from the search of Lubitz's homes in two German cities for an explanation of why he crashed the Airbus A320 into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.
  
MONTABAUR, Germany (AP) -- Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz appeared happy and healthy to acquaintances, but a picture emerged Friday of a man who hid evidence of an illness from his employers - including a torn-up doctor's note that would have kept him off work the day authorities say he crashed Flight 9525 into an Alpine mountainside.

As German prosecutors sought to piece together the puzzle of why Lubitz locked his captain out of the cockpit and crashed the Airbus A320, police in the French Alps toiled to retrieve the shattered remains of the 150 people killed in Tuesday's crash.

Searches conducted at Lubitz's homes in Duesseldorf and in the town of Montabaur turned up documents pointing to "an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment," but no suicide note was found, said Ralf 
Herrenbrueck, a spokesman for the Duesseldorf prosecutors' office.

They included ripped-up sick notes covering the day of the crash, which "support the current preliminary assessment that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and colleagues," Herrenbrueck said in a statement.

Doctors commonly issue employees in Germany with such notes excusing them from work, even for minor illnesses, and workers hand them to their employers. Doctors are obliged to abide by medical secrecy unless their patient explicitly tells them he or she plans to commit an act of violence.

Prosecutors didn't specify what illness Lubitz may have been suffering from, or say whether it was mental or physical. German media reported Friday that the 27-year-old had suffered from depression.

The Duesseldorf University Hospital said Friday that Lubitz had been a patient there over the past two months and last went in for a "diagnostic evaluation" on March 10. It declined to provide details, citing medical confidentiality, but denied reports it had treated Lubitz for depression.

Neighbors described a man whose physical health was superb and road race records show Lubitz took part in several long-distance runs.

"He definitely did not smoke. He really took care of himself. He always went jogging. ... He was very healthy," said Johannes Rossmann, who lives a few doors from Lubitz's home in Montabaur.

People in Montabaur who knew Lubitz told The Associated Press that he had been thrilled with his job at Germanwings and seemed very happy.

On Friday, no one was seen coming or going from his family's large slate-roofed two-story house in Montabaur as more than 100 journalists remained outside. Mayor Edmund Schaaf appealed to the media to show "consideration."

"Independent of whether the accusations against the co-pilot are true or not, we have sympathy for his family," he said.

Germanwings said that both pilots on the plane had medical clearance, and it had received no sick note for the day of the crash. Medical checkups are done by certified doctors and take place once a year.

A German aviation official told the AP that Lubitz's file at the country's Federal Aviation Office contained a notation that meant he needed "specific regular medical examination." Such a notation could refer to either a physical or mental condition but the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said Lubitz's file did not specify which.

German media have painted a picture of a man with a history of depression who had received psychological treatment, and who may have been set off by a falling-out with his girlfriend. Duesseldorf prosecutors, who are leading the German side of the probe, refused to comment on the anonymously sourced reports.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had issued Lubitz a third-class medical certificate. In order to obtain such a certificate, a pilot must be cleared of psychological problems including psychosis, bipolar disorder and personality disorders.

The certificate also means that he wasn't found to be suffering from another mental health condition that 
"makes the person unable to safely perform the duties or exercise the privileges" of a pilot's license.

Carsten Spohr, the CEO of Germanwings' parent company, Lufthansa, has said there was a "several-month" gap in Lubitz's training six years ago, but didn't elaborate. Following the disruption, he said, Lubitz "not only passed all medical tests but also his flight training, all flying tests and checks."

Prosecutors said there was no indication of any political or religious motivation for Lubitz's actions on the Barcelona-Duesseldorf flight.

In the French Alps, police working to recover remains from the crash site said they so far have recovered between 400 and 600 pieces of remains from the victims.

Col. Patrick Touron of the gendarme service said DNA samples have been taken from objects provided by victims' families, such as combs or toothbrushes, that could help identify them. Jewelry and other objects could also help in the identification process, he said.

"We haven't found a single body intact," he said.

The rough terrain means that recovery workers have to be backed up by mountain rescuers. "We have particularly difficult conditions, and each person needs to be roped up," Touron said.

Also Friday, the European Aviation Safety Agency recommended that airlines in the future always have two people in the cockpit. The move came after several airlines, including Germanwings parent Lufthansa, pledged to impose the measure.

Amanda Knox murder conviction overturned by Italy high court

Amanda Knox murder conviction overturned by Italy high court 

AP Photo
Amanda Knox talks on a phone in the backyard of her mother's house Friday, March 27, 2015, in Seattle. Italy's highest court overturned the murder conviction against Knox and her ex-boyfriend Friday over the 2007 slaying of Knox's roommate, bringing to a definitive end the high-profile case that captivated trial-watchers on both sides of the Atlantic.
  
ROME (AP) -- Italy's highest court on Friday overturned the murder conviction against Amanda Knox and her ex-boyfriend in the 2007 slaying of Knox's roommate, bringing to a definitive end the high-profile case that captivated trial-watchers on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Finished!" Knox's lawyer Carlo Dalla Vedova exulted after the decision was read out late Friday. "It couldn't be better than this."

In a rare decision, the supreme Court of Cassation overturned last year's convictions by a Florence appeals court and declined to order another trial. The judges declared that the two did not commit the crime, a stronger exoneration than merely finding that there wasn't enough evidence to convict.

In a statement issued from her home in Seattle, Knox said she was "relieved and grateful" for the decision.

"The knowledge of my innocence has given me strength in the darkest times of this ordeal," she said, thanking her supporters for believing in her.

Experts have said such a complete exoneration is unusual for the high court, which could have upheld the conviction or ordered a new trial as it did in 2013 when the case first came up to its review on appeal.

The justices' reasoning will be released within 90 days.

The decision ends the long legal battle waged by Knox and Italian co-defendant Raffaele Sollecito to clear their names in the death of British student Meredith Kercher, after they spent nearly four years in prison immediately after the murder only to be freed when they were first acquitted in 2011.

The case aroused strong interest in three countries for its explosive mix of young love, murder and flip-flop decisions by Italian courts.

Across the Atlantic, a spontaneous shout of joy erupted from inside the Seattle home of Knox's mother as the verdict was announced. Several relatives and supporters filtered into the back yard, where they hugged and cheered.

Dalla Vedova said he called Knox to tell her the news, but said she couldn't speak through her tears.

"She was crying because she was so happy," he said.

Kercher, 21, was found dead Nov. 2, 2007, in the apartment that she shared with Knox and two other students. Her throat was slashed and she had been sexually assaulted.

The Kercher family attorney, Francesco Maresca, was clearly disappointed by the decision.

"I think that it's a defeat for the Italian justice system," he said.

Kercher's mother, Arline Kercher, told Britain's Press Association news agency that she was "a bit surprised and very shocked."

"They have been convicted twice so it is a bit odd that it should change now," she said.

Knox and Sollecito were arrested a few days later after Kercher's death. Eventually another man, Rudy Guede from Ivory Coast, was arrested, tried and convicted of the murder in a separate trial and is serving a 16-year sentence.

The couple maintained their innocence, insisting that they had spent the evening together at Sollecito's place watching a movie, smoking marijuana and making love.

Knox and Sollecito were initially convicted by a Perugia court in 2009, then acquitted and freed in 2011, and then convicted again in 2014 in Florence after the Cassation court overturned the acquittals and ordered a new appeals trial.

That Florence appeals conviction was overturned Friday.

Knox had been convicted of slander for having falsely accused a Congolese man of the murder. That conviction was upheld by the high court Friday, but Knox has already served the three-year sentence in prison.

Sollecito's lawyer, Luca Maori, called the young man with the good news from the steps of the courthouse.

"You have your whole life ahead of you now, Raf" he told Sollecito.

Speaking to reporters, he added: "He almost couldn't speak. Eight years of nightmare over."

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Greece fights German bailout demands with Nazi-era claims

Greece fights German bailout demands with Nazi-era claims 

AP Photo
FILE - In this Sunday, March 15, 2015 file photo, Mina Beneroubi, a survivor of the Holocaust, right, places flowers on rails at the old train station in the northern Greek town of Thessaloniki on the 72nd anniversary of the roundup and deportation of its Jews to Nazi extermination camps during World War II. It was 1943 and the Nazis were deporting Greece’s Jews to Poland’s death camps. Hitler’s genocidal accountants reserved a chilling twist: The Jews had to pay their train fare. The total bill for 58,585 Jews sent to Auschwitz and other camps came to over 2 million Reichsmark - more than 25 million ($27 million) euros in today’s money. The Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Greece’s biggest, says it is examining the possibility of reclaiming the rail fares from Germany - and with seven decades of interest the amount would be enormous.
  
BERLIN (AP) -- It was 1943 and the Nazis were deporting Greece's Jews to death camps in Poland. Hitler's genocidal accountants reserved a chilling twist: The Jews had to pay their train fare.

The bill for 58,585 Jews sent to Auschwitz and other camps exceeded 2 million Reichsmark - more than 25 million euros ($27 million) in today's money.

For decades, this was a forgotten footnote among all of the greater horrors of the Holocaust. Today it is returning to the fore amid the increasingly bitter row between Athens and Berlin over the Greek financial bailout.

Jewish leaders in Thessaloniki, home to Greece's largest Jewish community, say they are considering how to reclaim the rail fares from Germany - with seven decades of interest.

"We will study the law and do our best to claim," the community's president, David Saltiel, told The Associated Press.

Such a move would suit the new government in Athens, which is trying to shift the public focus from Greece's current debt crisis to Germany's World War II debts ahead of Monday's first visit to Berlin by Greece's new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

While war reparations have been a staple demand of previous Greek governments, Tsipras' radical left government has made the issue a central part of the bailout negotiations with Germany. The Germans have dismissed such demands, saying compensation issues were settled decades ago in post-war accords.

Billions of euros in rescue loans from other European countries and the International Monetary Fund have saved Greece from bankruptcy since 2010. Germany, the largest contributor to the bailout, has been vocal in pressing Greece to cut back on government spending to bring its finances under control.

But the Greeks point out that, following its wartime defeat, Germany received one of the biggest bailouts in modern history within a decade of laying waste to much of Europe. Greece was among 22 countries that agreed to halve Germany's foreign debt at a 1953 conference in London.

Even some German politicians have called for a change of heart on the reparations issue. They argue that if Germany doesn't confront its World War II guilt, it cannot expect other countries to repay their more recent debts. The point has particular resonance in Germany because, in German, guilt and debt are the same word: Schuld.

Among the claims that Greece, or individual Greeks, might bring against Germany:
- Tens, possibly hundreds, of billions of euros (dollars) in present-day money as compensation for destroyed infrastructure and goods, including archaeological treasures, looted by the Nazis from 1941 to 1944.
- Compensation for the estimated 300,000 people who died from famine during the winter of 1941-1942.
- Compensation for the slaughter of civilians as reprisals for partisan attacks. One of the most infamous massacres took place in the Greek village of Distomo on June 10, 1944, when Waffen-SS soldiers killed more than 200 women, children and elderly residents. Another in Kalavryta in December 1943 involved German troops killing more than 500 civilians, including virtually all of the town's males aged 14 or over.
- Repayment of some 1.9 billion drachmas, around 50 million euros ($55 million) today, that the Jewish community paid as ransom to occupying authorities in 1942 in return for 10,000 Jewish men being held as slave laborers. The men were released only to be sent to concentration camps the following year.
- Repayment of an interest-free loan of 568 million Reichsmark (7.1 billion euros or $7.7 billion) that the Nazis forced Greece to make to Germany in 1942.
- Returning the train fares that the Reichsbahn received for transporting Jews to their deaths. Historians disagree on whether the tickets were bought directly by Jews or paid by a special Nazi fund established with money stolen from Jews. They broadly agree that the money came from Holocaust victims.

Previous efforts to bring claims against Germany have ended in legal quagmires.

In 2011 the European Court of Human Rights dismissed a lawsuit brought by four survivors of the Distomo massacre. The judges in Strasbourg, France, concluded that a German court hadn't discriminated against the plaintiffs when it rejected their claim on the basis that states can't be sued by individuals.

Germany insists that the 1942 loan should be considered part of the overall reparations issue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, says that liability has been "comprehensively and conclusively resolved."

But a confidential legal assessment provided to the German parliament concluded that Berlin's liability wasn't so clear-cut. A Munich historian, Hans Guenter Hockerts, says the Greeks shouldn't be confident of winning any of their claims, but are on firmest ground in demanding repayment of the 1942 loan.

Even the Nazis felt bound by terms of that loan and paid back two installments before their occupation of Greece ended. The unpaid 476 million Reichsmark would be equivalent to at least 6 billion euros ($6.5 billion) today.

That figure dwarfs the war reparations actually paid by Germany since 1945, which include:
- $25 million in goods shortly after the war; Greece says the proper sum should have been nearer $14 billion.
- 115 million Deutschmarks - equivalent to about $330 million today - as part of a 1960 treaty with Greece meant to compensate victims of Nazi atrocities, including Greek Jews.
- 13.5 million euros (about $15 million) paid to former slave laborers from a fund established in 2000 by German companies and the government.
- 1 million euros ($1.1 million) paid annually for a "German-Greek future foundation" meant to fund remembrance and historical research projects.
Gesine Schwan, who twice ran for president as the candidate of Germany's center-left Social Democrats, says the government's stance on new reparations payments is damaging Germany's image in Europe.

"It's embarrassing if rich Germany demands that poor Greece ... pay back debt," Schwan wrote in a newspaper column, "but isn't prepared even to discuss repayment of a forced loan that Nazi Germany took from Greece during the war."


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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Museum attack in Tunisian capital kills 19; 2 gunmen slain

Museum attack in Tunisian capital kills 19; 2 gunmen slain 
 

AP Photo
A victim arrives at the Charles Nicoles hospital after gunmen attacked the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015. Gunmen opened fire Wednesday at a major museum in Tunisia's capital, killing scores of people, mostly foreigners, in one of the worst terrorist attacks in this struggling North African democracy that depends heavily on tourism.

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Foreign tourists scrambled in panic Wednesday after militants stormed a museum in Tunisia's capital and killed 19 people, "shooting at anything that moved," a witness said.

Two gunmen were slain by security forces following the deadliest attack on civilians in the North African country in 13 years, and the president said the young democracy was embroiled in a war with terror.

The militants, who wore military-style uniforms and wielded assault rifles, burst from a vehicle and began gunning down tourists climbing out of buses at the National Bardo Museum. The attackers then charged inside to take hostages before being killed in a firefight with security forces.

Authorities launched a manhunt for two or three accomplices in the attack. Prime Minister Habib Essid said the two Tunisian gunmen killed 17 tourists - five from Japan, four from Italy, two from Colombia, two from Spain, and one each from Australia, Poland and France. The nationality of one dead foreigner was not released. Essid said two Tunisian nationals also were killed by the militants.

At least 44 people were wounded, including tourists from Italy, France, Japan, South Africa, Poland, Belgium and Russia, according to Essid and doctors from Tunis' Charles Nicolle.

"I want the people of Tunisia to understand firstly and lastly that we are in a war with terror, and these savage minority groups will not frighten us," said newly elected President Beji Caid Essebsi in an evening address to the nation. "The fight against them will continue until they are exterminated."

Tunisians overthrew their dictator in 2011 and kicked off the Arab Spring that spread across the region. While the uprising built a new democracy, the country has also struggled with economic problems and attacks by extremists.

Essid identified the slain gunmen as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui.

Twitter accounts associated with the extremist Islamic State group based in Syria and Iraq were described as overjoyed at the attack, urging Tunisians to "follow their brothers," according to Rita Katz of SITE, a U.S.-based organization that monitors militant groups.

The assault at the Bardo, Tunisia's largest museum that is housed in a 15th century palace, began sometime after noon local time as scores of European tourists were visiting.

Josep Lluis Cusido, the mayor of the Spanish town of Vallmoll, said he saw people being gunned down on the plaza outside the museum before the gunmen moved inside.

"After they entered the museum. I saw their faces: They were about 10 meters away from me, shooting at anything that moved," Cusido told Spain's Cadena Ser radio station.

"I managed to hide behind a pillar, there were unlucky people who they killed right there," he said, adding that he and his wife spent nearly three hours in the museum until they got out uninjured.

Dozens of tourists scrambled from the museum linking arms or clutching children as Tunisian police and security forces pointed their weapons at the building. The museum, 4 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the city center, is located near the national parliament building, which was evacuated.

Some of the Italians at the museum were believed to have been passengers from the Costa Fascinosa, a cruise liner that had docked in Tunis while on a seven-day tour of the western Mediterranean. Ship owner Costa Crociere confirmed that some of its 3,161 passengers were visiting Tunis and that a Bardo tour was on the itinerary, but said it couldn't confirm how many were in the museum at the time.

The Bardo, a popular tourist attraction, houses one of the world's largest collections of Roman mosaics among its 8,000 works.

On Wednesday night, parliament held an extraordinary session where Speaker Mohammed Ennaceur called for the creation of a special fund to combat terrorism. He also called for the rapid passage of the anti-terror law that parliament had been debating when the attack took place.

Hours after the police ended the siege, thousands of Tunisians flocked to downtown's landmark Bourguiba Avenue, where the revolution took place, for a nighttime rally. They chanted for a "Free Tunisia" in defiance of terrorism.

Essid said the attack was an unprecedented assault on the economy. It came as Tunisia's all-important tourism business was starting to rebuild after drastic losses following the post-revolutionary turmoil. Numbers of arrivals for 2014 had begun to approach the levels of 2010 - before the revolution.

It was the worst attack in the country since an al-Qaida militant detonated a truck bomb in front of a historic synagogue on the Tunisia's island of Djerba in 2002, killing 21, mostly German tourists.

Tunisia has been more stable than other countries in the region, but has struggled with violence by Islamic extremists who have sworn allegiance to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

A disproportionately large number of Tunisian recruits - some 3,000, according to government estimates - have joined Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq and many have received training in neighboring Libya.

The U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked in September 2012, seriously damaging the embassy grounds and an adjoining American school. Four of the assailants were killed.

Overall, though, violence in Tunisia in recent years has been largely focused on security forces, not foreigners or tourist sites.

In October 2013, a young man blew himself up on a beach in the coastal town of Sousse after being chased from a hotel, causing many to expect a new wave of attacks on tourism. None materialized until now.

The United States, France, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations denounced the bloodshed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington "condemns in the strongest possible terms today's deadly terrorist attack" and praised Tunisia's "rapid response" to resolve the hostage situation and restore calm.

Speaking at the Louvre museum to call for international efforts to preserve the heritage of Iraq and Syria against extremist destruction, French President Francois Hollande said he had called Tunisia's president to offer support and solidarity.

"Each time a terrorist crime is committed, we are all concerned," Hollande said.

North Africa analyst Geoff Porter said an attack on a tourism site has long been expected as the militants come under pressure from increasingly effective Tunisian security forces.

"Today's attack did not come out of nowhere. In fact, it comes amid ongoing counterterrorism efforts elsewhere in the country," he said about the attack. "Increasing pressure on terrorist activities ... may have squeezed the balloon, with terrorists seeking softer targets with more symbolic impact in the capital."

The attack came the day after Tunisian security officials confirmed the death in neighboring Libya of Ahmed Rouissi, leading suspect in Tunisian terror attacks and in the killings of two opposition figures in Tunisia.
Rouissi had become a field commander for the Islamic State in Libya and died fighting near the town of Sirte, highlighting how Libya has increasingly become a sanctuary for Tunisian radicals.

Tunisia has repeatedly expressed concern over the security threat from Libya, where central government has broken down since the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi and is now run by competing militias.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Oregon is first state to adopt automatic voter registration

Oregon is first state to adopt automatic voter registration 
 

AP Photo
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown holds up an automatic voter registration bill after signing it, Monday, March 16, 2015, in Salem, Ore. Seventeen years after Oregon decided to become the first state in the nation to hold all elections by mail ballot, it is taking another pioneering step to encourage more people to cast ballots, by automatically registering them to vote.
  
SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Seventeen years after Oregon decided to become the first state to hold all elections with mail-in ballots, it took another pioneering step on Monday to broaden participation by automatically registering people to vote.

Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill that puts the burden of registration on the state instead of voters.
Under the legislation, every adult citizen in Oregon who has interacted with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division since 2013 but hasn't registered to vote will receive a ballot in the mail at least 20 days before the next statewide election. The measure is expected to add about 300,000 new voters to the rolls.

"It just changes expectations for who's responsible for making elections work," said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and director of the Elections Research Center. "In every other state it's the responsibility for the voters to make sure it happens."

Some other states have considered such legislation but none has gone as far as Oregon.

Minnesota nearly implemented automatic voter registration in 2009 before the plan was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said "registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act."

Similar concerns were raised by Oregon's minority Republicans.

"Simply because it makes us unique or makes us first does not necessarily mean that it actually improves on what we're doing," said state Sen. Jackie Winters, a Republican from Salem.

Oregon Republicans also voiced worry about potential voter fraud, the cost of implementing the measure, and whether the DMV can ensure personal information remains secure.

Information the DMV has on file, such as age, residential information, signature and citizenship status, will be transferred to the secretary of state, who will then automatically update registration information.

When it came up for a vote in the state Senate last week, all Republicans and one Democrat voted against it. The Democrats hold a 18-12 advantage in the Senate so the bill easily passed.

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Portland Democrat who carried the bill in the Senate, said there were rumblings the measure was a "secret plot" to enroll more Democrats. But she denied that was true.

Oregon already has one of the highest voter registration rates in the nation - 73 percent of Oregonians were registered to vote and 70 percent of them cast ballots during the 2014 general election.

Tony Green, spokesman for the secretary of state, said the legislation is expected to eventually capture all unregistered voters who are in the DMV database after taking actions such as obtaining or renewing a driver's license.

Two years ago, when the measure was first proposed, Green said there were questions about whether the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division records were confidential under federal law. The legislative counsel determined the secretary of state and the division could share information as long as it was for legitimate government purposes, he said.

People eligible to vote will get a postcard saying they've been registered and have three weeks to opt out. They'll be automatically registered as unaffiliated but can select a political party from the postcard and return it to election officials through the mail.

Automatic registration is not uncommon in other countries. A 2009 report by the Brennan Center for Justice says nations where the government takes the lead in enrolling voters have much higher registration rates. Argentina has a 100 percent registration rate, while Sweden, Australia and Canada all have registration rates over 90 percent.

Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said a state needs to already have reliable agency records of eligible Americans who have demonstrated citizenship in order to successfully follow in Oregon's footsteps.

Oregon only grants driver's licenses to people who can prove they're in the U.S. legally by presenting passports, birth certificates or other documents.

David House, a spokesman for the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division, has said the agency can separate citizens from noncitizens based on those documents.

Oregonians were the first to see all-mail elections, and the state has since been followed by Washington state and Colorado.

"Oregon is a true leader in accessibility to voting and I challenge every other state in this nation to examine their policies and find ways to ensure there are as few barriers as possible in the way of the citizen's right to vote," Brown said.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Part-time Ferguson mayor in full-time spotlight

Part-time Ferguson mayor in full-time spotlight 
 

AP Photo
FILE - In this March 11, 2015 file photo, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III announces the resignation of police chief Thomas Jackson during a news conference in Ferguson, Mo. Despite calls for him to go, Knowles is the last man standing in Ferguson city government after a Justice Department report highly critical of the city’s police force and court system prompted six officials to resign.
  
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) -- In the days since the release of a Justice Department report that found widespread racial bias in the Ferguson Police Department, the mayor of the St. Louis suburb has become a part-time public servant in a full-time spotlight.

The attention has only intensified as six city employees - most notably the police chief and city manager - have been fired or stepped down.

But Mayor James Knowles III remains, making just $4,200 a year in a job he called basically ceremonial before a white police officer shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in August, prompting weeks of sometimes-violent protests and the Justice Department inquiry. He's now so involved that he's opened a City Hall office and insists he will stay to see the city through the changes it must make.

On Friday, five residents filed an affidavit seeking to recall Knowles. They have 60 days to collect enough signatures - 15 percent of registered voters in the last mayoral election - to qualify for a special election.

Knowles said he has no plans to step aside.

"Obviously there are people on the street calling for my resignation, but my voicemail, my text messages and my Facebook are full with literally hundreds of people who want me to stay," Knowles said in an Associated Press interview Friday. "Somebody has to show leadership, and I'm focused on how we can move this community forward."

He argues that Ferguson's city manager form of government made him more figurehead than administrator, leading the city council but lacking the power to do much else. But critics say he must have known about the lax police oversight, racial profiling and profit-driven court practices cited in the Justice Department report released March 4.

"I want the mayor out," said Kayla Reed, 25, of the Organization for Black Struggle. "True accountability means clean house, top to bottom."

Knowles, who grew up in Ferguson, was just a few years out of Truman State University when he defeated an incumbent for election to the city council in 2005. He was elected state chairman of the Missouri Federation of Young Republicans in 2008 and was on the fast-track, earning mention in 2009 in the St. Louis Business Journal's "30 Under 30" list. He was elected to his current post in 2011, becoming one of Missouri's youngest mayors, and re-elected without opposition in 2014.

But he was little known outside the area until Aug. 9, when Officer Darren Wilson shot 18-year-old Michael Brown and Ferguson found itself suddenly in the national spotlight. After the shooting, Knowles and Police Chief Tom Jackson became the public face of Ferguson, holding news conferences, hosting public forums and reaching out to civil rights leaders and protesters. Meanwhile, City Manager John Shaw, who made $120,000 a year until he resigned Tuesday, remained out of sight. Assistant city manager, Pam Hylton, has been named the interim city manager.

Knowles has a full-time job: general manager of the state-contracted motor vehicle license office in Ferguson. He said he typically works about 60 hours a week, evenly splitting the time between the two duties.

"I'm a phenomenal multitasker," he joked, adding that he bounces between the offices, which are within walking distance of each other, throughout the day.

Knowles has sought to be a reassuring presence for supporters and critics alike. At a council meeting Tuesday, he sat patiently as some residents loudly called for his ouster. He was equally passive as others praised him and the council. When a brief shouting match began between a city critic and supporter, he urged both sides to calm down.

Knowles, who is white, has deep roots in the city of 21,000, where two-thirds of residents are black. He was a top wrestler at McCluer High School and has been an assistant wrestling coach at another mostly black high school for several years. He and his wife are expecting their first child in May.

He was drawn to politics in fourth grade, when his father ran for city council (he lost but won on a subsequent try.) Former Mayor Brian Fletcher, who worked alongside him when he was a young councilman, said Knowles has a bit of ego, like most politicians. He isn't up for re-election for another two years, and Fletcher believes he'll ride out the storm.

"He's in a tough situation," Fletcher said. "He's taken a lead. From the people I've talked to they're very pleased with the way he's handled himself under a very difficult circumstance, a very difficult time for our community."

But Rasheen Aldridge, director of Young Activists United St. Louis and a member of the Ferguson Commission appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon, believes Knowles needs to follow the police chief and city manager out the door. The Justice Department report - a companion to one that cleared Wilson of any wrongdoing - laid bare instances of racial profiling and bias in the police department and a municipal court system that profited largely on the backs of blacks.

"When all of this stuff was going on, there's no way you can be the mayor of the town and not look at how much money is coming in, and even if you see it you don't raise a concern," Aldridge said. "This is his city. He's the mayor, and he needs to be held accountable."

Friday, March 13, 2015

Iraq militia leader hails Iran's 'unconditional' support

Iraq militia leader hails Iran's 'unconditional' support 
 

AP Photo
Members of an Iraqi Shiite militant group called Soldiers of Imam Ali Brigades prepare to launch rockets against Islamic State extremists' positions in Qadisiyya neighborhood in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 13, 2015. Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday from the north and south. On Friday, they fought fierce battles to secure the northern Tikrit neighborhood of Qadisiyya and lobbed mortars and rockets into the city center, still in the hands of IS. Iraqi military officials have said they expect to reach the center of Tikrit within two to three days.
  
TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) -- The U.S. has failed to live up to its promises to help Iraq fight Islamic State extremists, unlike the "unconditional" assistance being given by Iran, the commander of Iraq's powerful Shiite militias alleged Friday.

In a battlefield interview near Tikrit, where Iraqi forces are fighting to retake Saddam Hussein's hometown from the militants of the so-called Islamic State, commander Hadi al-Amiri criticized those who "kiss the hands of the Americans and get nothing in return."

Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time Wednesday from the north and south. On Friday, they waged fierce battles to secure the northern neighborhood of Qadisiyya and lobbed mortar shells and rockets into the city center, still in the hands of IS militants. Iraqi military officials have said they expect to reach central Tikrit in two to three days.

The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have played a crucial role in regaining territory from the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, supporting Iraq's embattled military and police forces.

An Iraqi government official told The Associated Press that Iran has sold Baghdad nearly $10 billion in arms and hardware, mostly weapons for urban warfare like assault rifles, heavy machine-guns and rocket launchers. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
In November, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more U.S. troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total of American forces in Iraq to 3,100. The Pentagon has made a spending request to Congress of $1.6 billion, focusing on training and arming Kurdish and Iraqi forces. According to a Pentagon document prepared in November, the U.S. is looking to provide an estimated $89.3 million in weapons and equipment to each of the nine Iraqi brigades.

The U.S.-led coalition of eight countries has launched more than 2,000 airstrikes in Iraq alone since August 2014, and the U.S. is also hitting the militant group from the air in Syria. Iraqi and U.S. officials have acknowledged the role airstrikes have played in rolling back the militants, saying the air campaign was an essential component in victories at the Mosul Dam, in Amirli, and more recently, in the crucial oil refining town of Beiji.

But the U.S. is not taking part in the operation in Tikrit, with U.S. officials saying they were not asked by Iraq to participate.

Al-Amiri, the Shiite militia commander who also is head of the Badr Organization political party, said that "help from Iran is unconditional."

He warned that Iraq should not sacrifice its sovereignty for the sake of receiving weapons and assistance from the U.S., suggesting the Iraqi government is taking instructions from Washington.

"Our sovereignty is more important than U.S. weapons," he said. "We can bring weapons from any country in the world."

Separately, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, urged the government to step up its support for the Shiite militias and to take care of the families of militiamen killed in battle. His remarks were relayed by his spokesman Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

As many as 30,000 men are fighting the extremists in Tikrit - most of them volunteers with various Shiite militias, Iraqi officials say. U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday that up to 20,000 militiamen may be involved.

Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, the official name of the Shiite militias, said as many as 40 Iranian advisers are also taking part.

In its march across Syria and northern and western Iraq, the Islamic State group - also known as ISIS or ISIL - has seized cities, towns and vast tracts of land. Its predominantly Sunni fighters view Shiites as apostates and have carried out a number of massacres.

On Friday, a prominent Iraqi Sunni preacher urged authorities to prevent Shiite militias from carrying out revenge attacks on Sunnis in Tikrit. In his appeal, Sheik Abdel Sattar Abdul Jabbar cited reports of Shiite militiamen burning Sunni homes in the battle.

"We ask that actions follow words to punish those who are attacking houses in Tikrit," Abdul Jabbar said during his Friday sermon in Baghdad. "We are sorry about those acting in revenge that might ignite tribal anger and add to our sectarian problems."

Abdul Jabbar said that if the government failed to stop revenge attacks by Shiite militias, Iraq would face reignited sectarian tensions, similar to those it witnessed at the height of Iraq's sectarian wars in 2006 and 2007.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last week called on his forces to protect civilians and their property in recaptured areas, vowing zero tolerance for any violations. He also urged Sunnis who may have welcomed the initial onslaught or fought beside the militants to give up their support for IS.

"I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities," al-Abadi said.

Human Rights Watch said Friday the Shiite militias have engaged in "deliberate destruction of civilian property" after security forces recaptured the town of Amirli and other areas where Sunni militants were driven out. In a report titled, "After Liberation Came Destruction: Iraqi Militias and the Aftermath of Amerli," the rights group cited evidence that militias looted the property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two villages.

"Iraq clearly faces serious threats in its conflict with ISIS, but the abuses committed by forces fighting ISIS are so rampant and egregious that they are threatening Iraq long-term," said Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Iraqis are caught between the horrors ISIS commits and abusive behavior by militias, and ordinary Iraqis are paying the price."






Thursday, March 12, 2015

On two fronts, Iraqi forces battle Islamic State for Tikrit

On two fronts, Iraqi forces battle Islamic State for Tikrit 
 
AP Photo
Iraqi security forces patrol in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad.

TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi troops clashed along two fronts with Islamic State militants in Tikrit on Thursday as rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein's hometown a day after soldiers and allied Shiite militiamen swept into this Sunni city north of Baghdad.

Recapturing Tikrit is seen as a key step toward rolling back the gains of the extremist Islamic State group, which seized much of northern and western Iraq in a blitz last summer and now controls about a third of both Iraq and Syria.

The offensive also will serve as a major crucible for Iraqi forces, which collapsed under the extremists' initial offensive last year and now face one of the Sunni militant group's biggest strongholds.

Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday from the north and south. On Thursday, they were fighting their way through the city and expected to reach the center within three to four days, according to Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Tikrit operation.

The IS militants were trying to repel the Iraqi forces with snipers, suicide car bombs, heavy machine guns and mortars, said al-Saadi, speaking to The Associated Press at the front-lines.

Tikrit, the capital of Salahuddin province, sits on the Tigris River about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad. Several of Saddam's palaces remain there, and supporters of the deceased dictator are believed to have played a key role in the Islamic State group's seizure of the city last year.

Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi, who was also at the front-line on Thursday, told the AP that the operation to retake Tikrit is "essential to opening a corridor for security forces to move from the south to Mosul," he said, referring to Iraq's second-largest city and the militants' biggest stronghold.

He described the operation as "100% Iraqi, from the air and ground."

When the Islamic State last year swept into Mosul, the U.S.-trained Iraqi military crumbled and the militants seized tanks, missile launchers and ammunition, steamrolling across northern Iraq. The CIA estimates the Sunni militant group has access to between 20,000 and 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. Military officials believe there may about 150 foreign fighters with the IS inside Tikrit, including fighters from Chechnya and the Arab Gulf countries.

Iraqi officials now say that at least 30,000 men - including the military, militias, Sunni tribes and police - are fighting to capture Tikrit.

U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said Wednesday that at least 20,000 militiamen are taking part in the Tikrit fighting.

On Thursday, militiamen were heard intercepting IS walkie-talkie signals, listening to the militants' call for reinforcements and ordering mortar fire on the soldiers as they closed in. Along the route between Salahuddin's command center and the battlefield, charred remains of tankers and cars used by suicide bombers litter the roads, and homes bear signs of months of war, damaged by bombs and bullets.

Military officials told the AP they are advancing with caution in an effort to limit damage to the city's infrastructure, so that residents can return quickly once Tikrit is retaken. A satellite image of Tikrit, released last month by the United Nations, showed that at least 536 buildings in Tikrit have been affected by fighting, with at least 137 completely destroyed and 241 severely damaged.

Earlier Thursday, al-Obeidi visited troops and met with senior military commanders of the Tikrit operation as well as Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani and other Iranian advisers have played a key role in Iraq in pushing the Islamic State back in recent months.

The overt Iranian role and the prominence of Shiite militias in the campaign have raised fears of possible sectarian cleansing should Tikrit, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, fall to the government troops.

The United States, which spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's army during its eight-year intervention, has said its allied coalition carrying out airstrikes targeting the extremists has not been involved in the ongoing Tikrit offensive.

In November, President Barack Obama authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more American troops to bolster Iraqi forces, which could more than double the total number of U.S. forces to 3,100. None has a combat role.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has appealed for more aid for his country's beleaguered ground forces, although the U.S. spent billions of dollars training and equipping Iraq's army during its eight-year occupation.

The growing Iraqi impatience in many ways stems from concerns about the speed and success of the Islamic State's advance, and the Baghdad government's inexperience in handling a security crisis of this magnitude. Until recently, Iraqi security forces were focused on protecting themselves and the population against insurgent bombings and other attacks, not on repelling an advancing force or retaking areas seized by the militants.

By contrast, Islamic State militants appear to operate in a fluid, decentralized command structure that has enabled them to adapt quickly and more nimbly to the changing environment amid airstrikes and Iraqi and Kurdish ground offensives.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Democrats deplore Republican letter to Tehran on nuke talks

Democrats deplore Republican letter to Tehran on nuke talks 
 

AP Photo
FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2014 file photo, then-Rep., now Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, speaks in Jonesboro, Ark. The man leading the effort to torpedo an agreement with Iran is a rookie Republican senator, an Army veteran with a Harvard law degree and a long record of tough rhetoric against President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Cotton’s previous forays into foreign policy raised as many hackles as the letter he authored this week lecturing Iran’s leaders on American democracy. This time, 46 fellow Republicans signed onto the document.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Democrats said Tuesday that the GOP letter about nuclear talks with Iran undercuts the U.S. at the negotiating table and threatens to torpedo bipartisanship on Capitol Hill when it comes to the delicate issue of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also weighed in, saying Republicans were either trying to help the Iranians or hurt President Barack Obama.

As negotiators rush to reach an accord with Iran by the end of the month, partisan bickering continued on Capitol Hill, prompting Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia to ask, rhetorically: "Is the Senate capable of tackling challenging national security questions in a mature and responsible way?"

Kaine said the letter freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote to the leaders of Iran amounted to a partisan "sideshow."

The letter, signed by 47 of the Senate's 54 Republicans, including members of the leadership and potential presidential candidates, warned that unless Congress approved it, any nuclear deal they cut with Obama could expire the minute he leaves office.

The U.S. and five other nations are working to craft an agreement that would prevent Iran from being able to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear work is peaceful. Republicans worry that Iran is not negotiating in good faith and that a deal would be insufficient and unenforceable, allowing Iran to eventually become a nuclear-armed state.

Cotton denied undermining Obama's negotiating position. Appearing on MSNBC, he said, "We're making sure that Iran's leaders understand that if Congress doesn't approve a deal, Congress won't accept a deal." 

He accused Iran of seeking "a nuclear umbrella so they can continue to export terrorism around the world."

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted by the website of Iranian state TV on Tuesday as saying the letter's warning that any nuclear deal could be scrapped once Obama leaves office suggests the United States is "not trustworthy." He called the letter "unprecedented and undiplomatic." Earlier, he had dismissed it as a "propaganda ploy."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the letter.

"If there is not a deal, we've had some of our Democratic friends say the choice is between this deal and war," he told reporters. "No, the choice is between this deal and greater sanctions because we've finally discovered one thing that works."

In a news conference on another issue, Clinton wondered aloud about the purpose of the letter.

"There appear to be two logical answers: Either these senators were trying to be helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the commander in chief in the midst of high-stakes international diplomacy," Clinton said. "Either answer does discredit to the letter's signatories."

The signatories include a handful of Republican White House prospects, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, among them. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker issued statements suggesting their Senate colleagues were justified in sending the letter.

"The senators are reacting to reports of a bad deal that will likely enable Iran to become a nuclear state over time," Bush said.

Said Walker, "Unless the White House is prepared to submit the Iran deal it negotiates for congressional approval, the next president should not be bound" by it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the GOP letter weakens the American position because it "shows division."

"Everything is done to attack," Feinstein said about Congress. "And that's not what our government should be."

In remarks on the Senate floor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pronounced the letter reckless, much as it would have been for U.S. lawmakers to "reach out to the Vietnamese" a generation ago. He said he hoped it would not cause the negotiations to fail.

Democrats didn't always agree with President George W. Bush's foreign policy decisions, but Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he would have never contemplated writing such a letter when Bush was in office. "You can disagree and you can disagree without being disagreeable about issues," Nelson said.

Kaine spoke about what he called a "rigorously bipartisan" bill - authored by Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - to allow Congress to review any final agreement with Iran.

Corker, one of seven Republicans who did not sign the letter, also lamented the discord.

"There are a lot of frustrations no doubt around the Iran issue and I hope we can move beyond some of the drama to focus, if there's a deal, on its content," Corker said. "But also to make sure that Congress has an appropriate role."

Monday, March 9, 2015

Major survey shows gun ownership declining

Major survey shows gun ownership declining 
 
AP Photo
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, a dealer arranges handguns in a display case in advance of a show at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock, Ark. A major U.S. trend survey finds that the number of Americans who live in a household with at least one gun is lower than it's ever been. That the number of households with at least one gun is declining doesn’t necessarily mean that the number being purchased is on the decline. Data from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check system shows that in recent years there’s actually been an increase in the number of background checks being run, suggesting the total number of firearms being purchased is going up.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans who live in a household with at least one gun is lower than it's ever been, according to a major American trend survey that finds the decline in gun ownership is paralleled by a reduction in the number of Americans who hunt.

According to the latest General Social Survey, 32 percent of Americans either own a firearm themselves or live with someone who does, which ties a record low set in 2010. That's a significant decline since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when about half of Americans told researchers there was a gun in their household.

The General Social Survey is conducted by NORC, an independent research organization based at the University of Chicago, with money from the National Science Foundation. Because of its long-running and comprehensive set of questions about the demographics, behaviors and attitudes of the American public, it is a highly regarded source of data about social trends.

Data from the 2014 survey was released last week, and an analysis of its findings on gun ownership and attitudes toward gun permits was conducted by General Social Survey staff.

The drop in the number of Americans who own a gun or live in a household with one is probably linked to a decline in the popularity of hunting, from 32 percent who said they lived in a household with at least one hunter in 1977 to less than half that number saying so now.

That the number of households with at least one gun is declining doesn't necessarily mean that the number being purchased is on the decline. Data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check system shows that in recent years there's actually been an increase in the number of background checks being run, suggesting the total number of firearms being purchased is going up.

But those are concentrated in fewer hands than they were in the 1980s, the General Social Survey finds. The 2014 poll finds that 22 percent of Americans own a firearm, down from a high of 31 percent who said so in 1985.

The survey also finds a shrinking gender gap in personal firearm ownership as a result of a decline in the percentage of men who own one, from 50 percent in 1980 to 35 percent in 2014.

Fewer women than men own guns, but the percentage among women has held fairly steady since 1980, with 12 percent now saying they personally own a gun.

Only 14 percent of adults under age 35, but 31 percent of those over age 65, say they personally own a gun. That gap has increased over time - in 1980, younger adults were only slightly less likely than older ones to report that they owned a gun.

The poll finds half of Republicans live in households with at least one gun, which is twice as high as ownership among Democrats or independents.

People in higher-income households are significantly more likely than those in lower-income households to own a gun, the survey finds. Gun ownership rates also vary by race, with 4 in 10 white Americans living in households with a gun compared with less than 2 in 10 blacks and Hispanics.

Blacks and Hispanics are also more likely than whites to support requiring a permit to own a gun, although large majorities among all three groups support requiring a permit.

Support for requiring a gun permit climbed to a peak of 82 percent in the late 1990's, but has fallen since then. The 72 percent who support requiring a permit now is at its lowest level since 1987.
---
The General Social Survey is administered by NORC at the University of Chicago, primarily using in-person interviewing. The GSS started in 1972 and completed its 30th round in 2014. The typical sample size was 1,500 prior to 1994, but increased to 2,700-3,000 until 2008, and decreased to 2,000 for the most recent surveys. Resulting margins of error are between plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the smaller sample sizes and plus or minus 2.2 percentage points for the larger sample sizes at the 95 percent confidence level. 

The 2014 survey was conducted March 31-Oct. 11, 2014, among 2,538 American adults. The GSS 1972-2014 Cumulative File was used to produce the statistics presented.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Bloody Sunday 50th anniversary: Thousands crowd Selma bridge

Bloody Sunday 50th anniversary: Thousands crowd Selma bridge 
 

AP Photo
President Barack Obama, fourth from left, walks holding hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during "Bloody Sunday," as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala,. for the 50th anniversary of the landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. At far left is Sasha Obama and at far right is former first lady Laura Bush. Adelaide Sanford also sits in a wheelchair.
 

SELMA, Ala. (AP) -- Thousands of people crowded an Alabama bridge on Sunday, many jammed shoulder to shoulder, many unable to move, to commemorate a bloody confrontation 50 years ago between police and peaceful protesters that helped bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A day after President Barack Obama had walked atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge, police said at least 15,000 to 20,000 people had joined the crush on and around the small bridge. Many came from around the country for several events commemorating the landmark moment.

William Baldwin, 69, of Montgomery, brought his two grandsons, ages 11 and 15, to the bridge Sunday so they could grasp the importance of the historic march he took part in a half century earlier.

"They're going to take this struggle on and we have to understand the price that was paid for them to have what they have now," Baldwin said. "It wasn't granted to them, it was earned by blood, sweat and tears."
Some sang hymns and others held signs, such as "Black lives matter, all lives matter."

On March 7, 1965, police beat and tear-gassed marchers at the foot of the bridge in Selma in a spasm of violence that shocked the nation. The attack help build momentum for passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at Brown Chapel AME Church Sunday, drew parallels, without being explicit, between the events of 1965 and today. He noted that the "Bloody Sunday" march was sparked by the murder of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, "an unarmed, young black man."

"An unarmed, young black man," he repeated.

Annie Pearl Avery, 71, recalled being arrested on Bloody Sunday as she tried to get a nurse to the bridge. She said it was one of many times she was arrested during the freedom rides of the 1960's.

The nurse was needed, she said, because the young activists were uncertain if local white doctors were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

"I heard the explosions. I thought it was gunshots. It was the tear gas," Avery said.

Earlier Sunday, Selma officials paid tribute to the late President Lyndon Johnson for the Voting Rights Act. The attack on demonstrators preceded a Selma-to-Montgomery march, which occurred two weeks later in 1965. Both helped build momentum for congressional approval of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Luci Baines Johnson accepted the award on behalf of her father, saying it meant so much to see him honored.

"It means the world to me to know that a half-century later you remember how deeply Daddy cared about social justice and how hard he worked to make it happen," his daughter Luci Baines Johnson said.

An anniversary march from Selma to Montgomery is set to begin Monday morning and culminate with a rally at the Alabama Capitol Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, Obama joined civil rights leaders and others at the bridge and talked about progress in race relations since the 1960s. He mentioned recent high-profile clashes between citizens and law enforcement on the circumstances leading to fatal police shootings and law enforcement tactics toward minorities.

"We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us," Obama said. "We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much."

Obama was joined by others including Georgia Rep. John Lewis - an Alabama native who was among the demonstrators attacked by law officers on a march for equal voting rights.

Bishop Dennis Proctor of the Alabama-Florida Episcopal District said his group brought five buses to the anniversary commemoration. But he told members not to come to Selma if they couldn't commit to fighting to restore protections in the Voting Rights Act that were recently eliminated.

The U.S Supreme Court in 2013 struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which required states with a history of minority voter suppression to get permission from the Justice Department before changing voting laws.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at Sunday's unity breakfast, said the changes in voting laws threatened to push minority voters backward down the bridge.

"While we are celebrating, there are those that are trying to dismantle what we are celebrating," Sharpton said.

Groups traveled to Selma from across the nation, including five busloads from Nashville.

Gloria Haugabook McKissack, a retired college history teacher who participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, was the main organizer of the trip from Nashville.

"It just grew as people began to hear that we were going to make this journey," McKissack said.

Among those on the buses were some Freedom Riders.

"It's up to us ... to explain to them what actually happened and why this march is happening," said Ernest Patton, a Nashville Freedom Rider who made the trip. "They should walk up to somebody and say, `were you a part of this 50 years ago?' And get the history."


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