A Tattoo and an Etsy Shirt Led Cops to Arrest Woman Accused of Burning Cop Cars

Protests over the police killing of George Floyd have swept the country for weeks. Thousands of people have filled the streets of cities all over the U.S. to protest systematic police brutality and racism, ignited by the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling over Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.

A small minority of the people in the streets have vandalized property, and the police is finding novel ways to use social media and other internet breadcrumbs to find and arrest them, highlighting how some people can be identified and arrested via scant, obscure information on the internet.

On Wednesday, prosecutors announced that they charged a woman for allegedly burning down two Philadelphia police cars on May 30, accusing her of arson. FBI agents were able to identify her thanks to an investigation that largely relied on data freely available online, based on an aerial video taken the day of the protests, an Instagram picture, photos taken by an amateur photographer, and—crucially—a forearm tattoo and an Etsy t-shirt.

This case highlights how law enforcement is getting better at using open source intelligence—or OSINT—on the internet, how hard it is to blend in and protect your identity when protesting in public, and how videos and photos posted of protests can help amplify them, but also come with risks for people who are there.

“FBI investigations are adapting with the changing times as people increasingly put themselves out there online in ways they don’t fully appreciate at the moment or even remember later on. You pull one thread in the morning and you got it figured out by lunchtime,” Seamus Hughes, the Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, who was among the first to spot the case before it was announced, told Motherboard. “Cameras are everywhere, whether it’s protestors’ iPhones, news organizations covering the crowds, or the surrounding buildings’ CCTVs. If you set two cop cars on fire, they’ll eventually find you, it’s just a question of how quickly.”

In this case, it only took a few days.

The FBI agents analyzed an aerial video recorded by local news and posted to Vimeo that showed the scene: people breaking windows in Philadelphia on May 30, and a woman burning down two cop cars, according to an affidavit signed by one of the FBI agents investigating the case.

The FBI, as well as the Department of Justice, declined to comment on the case.

Paul Hetznecker, Blumenthal’s lawyer, said in a phone call that he’s concerned about prosecutors charging her in a federal court, instead of leaving local authorities to handle the case as they have done in other similar cases after the incidents in Philadelphia.

“The techniques utilized by the FBI are gonna be scrutinized during the course of my pre-trial investigation of this case,” he said, declining to comment further on the case.

The agents were able to find a few Instagram pictures of the incident (seen above), and then obtained more than 500 photos from an amateur photographer who was at the protests that day. One of the pictures showed the writing on the woman’s t-shirt: “KEEP THE IMMIGRANTS, DEPORT THE RACISTS,” the FBI agent explained in his affidavit.

As it turned out, that was a custom made t-shirt sold on Etsy.

The FBI agents saw that an Etsy user named Xx Mv, whose personal Etsy URL was “alleycatlore,” which described herself as living in Philadelphia, had posted a review after apparently purchasing the shirt.


The FBI then Googled “alleycatlore” and found a user named “Lore-Elisabeth” on the mobile fashion store Poshmark. Another search for “Lore Elisabeth Philadelphia” led the agents to a LinkedIn page for a woman who works as a massage therapist for a company in Philadelphia.

On that company’s website, there are videos of massages hosted on Vimeo. One of the videos shows the tattoo that is visible on the woman’s forearm in one of the Instagram pictures that the feds found.

The agents also found a phone number for the woman, which they used to find a home address through the DHS Electronic System for Travel Authorization, a government system to screen foreign individuals traveling to the U.S. This then led them to find her DMV photo, according to the court document.

At the same time, Etsy provided purchasing records following a subpoena, which confirmed the Xx Mv user had purchased two KEEP THE IMMIGRANTS, DEPORT THE RACISTS t-shirts, one of the in the same color as the shirt that appeared in the photos. The subpoena also revealed the shirts had been sent to a Lore Elisabeth in Philadelphia, according to the FBI agent. The Etsy seller did not respond to a request for comment.


At that point, the feds had enough evidence to arrest the woman, who is now in jail and appeared in federal court on Tuesday.

This investigation is a great—and scary—example of just how much one can find out with just an internet connection. In the past, news organizations such as Bellingcat or The New York Times Visual investigations team have used similar techniques to break major news stories such as the identity of several Russian spies, or to reconstruct the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

This is also a great reminder that any image of protests users share on social media could help inform law enforcement investigations, even if that wasn’t the user’s intention.

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Joe Biden’s Evolving Views On Drug Policy—Then Versus Now • High Times

Holding a publicly elected office for the better part of five decades might make you well-qualified for president. But as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is finding out firsthand, it also makes it difficult to drastically change positions on an issue as critical to public life as drug policy.

We searched the extensive database of Biden’s statements on marijuana and drug policy beginning in the 1980s and compared it to more modern quotes. The differences are stunningly contrarian:

“We Must Take Back The Streets” vs “Mandatory treatment”


“We must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents…it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background…to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society…the end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife.”

November 18, 1993 – (source)


“We should make sure that we have no one going to jail for a drug offense, they go directly, mandatory prison. I mean, excuse me, mandatory treatment, not prison. And we fund it.”

February 7, 2020 – (source)


Biden’s “tough on crime” trope shows remarkably little care for the personal circumstances of offenders, using scare tactics you might see at a rally hosted by his 2020 opponent. In February’s New Hampshire debate, Biden’s former life as a drug enforcer seemed to bubble up in one of his well-known verbal gaffes, though he corrected himself by explaining he now believes drug offenders should be rehabilitated on the government’s dime.

“Every crime bill has had Joe Biden on it” vs “I am part of the problem”


“Every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the democratic senator from the state of Delaware, Joe Biden, on that bill.”

November 18, 1993 – (source)


“And so I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then…”

February 12, 2008 (source)


In the first quote, Biden touts himself as a living counter to the common post-Reagan belief that Democrats were weak on crime. 15 years later, he admits that his personal role in pushing those same harsh drug crime laws he once bragged about – here the 100:1 crack cocaine disparity – is a big reason the criminal justice system is so flawed today.

“Not enough prison cells” vs “Reduce the number of people incarcerated”


“In a nutshell the president’s plan doesn’t include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.”

September 5, 1989 – (source)


“Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States – and too many of them are African American…We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime.”

From The Biden “Lift Every Voice” Plan – (source)


In a televised response to a speech from President George H. W. Bush about drug laws, Biden continues pushing the concept of “thugs” terrorizing the streets. He complains that Bush doesn’t go far enough or provide the government with the resources to lock up more Americans. His newly-released plan for Black America directly opposes that statement, calling for a reduction in incarceration. It also suggests federal savings from fewer prisoners be reinvested into “communities impacted by mass incarceration.” 

“No probation for crack” vs “End the crack and powder cocaine disparity”


“If you have a piece of crack cocaine no bigger than this quarter that I am holding in my hand…we passed a law through the leadership of Senator Thurmond and myself and others – we passed a law that said you go to jail for five years. You get no probation. You get nothing other than five years in jail. Judge doesn’t have a choice.” 

June 20, 1991 – (source)


“He will end, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity.”

From The Biden “Lift Every Voice” Plan – (source)


While debating the Violent Crime Control Act of 1991 on the Senate floor, Biden used a physical prop to again boast about the strong drug sentencing laws he passed with Senator Strom Thurmond. You may recall Thurmond as the anti-integration Senator who was so committed to stopping the Civil Rights Act of 1957 with a filibuster that he dehydrated his body with steam baths so he could absorb fluids on the floor instead of using the bathroom. Biden doesn’t seem as proud of his work on the crack disparity laws these days, reiterating that it should be ended in his plan for Black America released in May 2020. 

“There has to be a better answer than marijuana” vs “I know a lot of weed smokers”


“There has got to be a better answer than marijuana. There’s got to be a better answer than that. There’s got to be a better way for a humane society to figure out how to deal with that problem.”

May 12, 2007 – (source)


“Yeah, I do. I know a lot of weed smokers.”

May 22, 2020 – (source)


Thirteen years apart, Biden is asked about medical marijuana. His first answer, given at a private house party in New Hampshire, begins with him agreeing that federal raids against medical marijuana patients should end but stopping short of a full endorsement. Speaking to Charlamagne Tha God on The Breakfast Club last month, the former Vice President was asked about the decades of data and research studies on cannabis. His answer is something of a non sequitur that seems intended to show he still relates to marijuana users despite decades of opposing it on a policy level.

“Not enough evidence as to whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug” vs “I don’t think it’s a gateway drug”


“The truth of the matter is, there’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug…it’s a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally.”

November 17, 2019 – (source)


“I don’t think it is a gateway drug. There’s no evidence I’ve seen to suggest that,”

November 25, 2019 – (source)


We admit, eight days isn’t much of a time difference. But this final comparison, which sees Biden do a complete 180, is illustrative of the broader point: Career politicians like Joe Biden have no issue changing their stances quickly and dramatically. It’s true that he’d be a better option for cannabis (and humanity) than the incumbent. But with over two-thirds of U.S. adults in support of legalization and the cannabis industry now providing more jobs than coal mining, we can only hope for one more Biden pivot – this time, fully away from his draconian drug stances of the ‘80s and ‘90s.     

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CEO of Open Technology Fund Resigns After Closed-Source Lobbying Effort

The head of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) Corporation, which funds internet freedom projects and technologies, resigned Wednesday because she said she became aware of a lobbying effort that would push the group’s funds toward closed-source tools rather than the open-source ones it has traditionally championed.

In a resignation email sent to an OTF mailing list, Libby Liu, the inaugural OTF CEO, mentioned that the Trump administration had recently sworn in Michael Peck as the new head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which is the OTF’s grantor. She said that she learned of lobbying efforts to push money to closed-source tools.

“As you all know, OTF’s flexible, transparent, and competitive funding model has been essential to our success in supporting the most secure and effective internet freedom technologies and innovative projects available,” she wrote. “I have become aware of lobbying efforts to convince the new USAGM [U.S. Agency for Global Media] CEO to interfere with the current FY2020 OTF funding stream and redirect some of our resources to a few closed-source circumvention tools.”

Do you have any other internal documents about this OTF issue? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on [email protected], or email [email protected]

Open source projects are generally ones that are open for anyone to scrutinize in case of security issues or contribute code to. Closed source projects are the opposite, with a smaller number of people typically able to inspect the source code.

Liu attached to the email a copy of a letter from Katrina Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation, a human rights group. In it, she proposed immediately dedicating $20 million to funding censorship circumvention projects Freegate, Lantern, Psiphon, and Ultrasurf. These are apps or tools that let people browse the open internet from censored areas.

One source in the internet freedom community told Motherboard that OTF funding goes into many different projects. “Coded, deployed, research, paying for training from everything from journalists in Syria to activists in Russia. If it goes towards four projects in China it’s kinda game over for a lot of this type of stuff.” Motherboard granted the source anonymity to speak more candidly about the news.

OTF has funded a wide range of privacy and internet freedom projects, including chat program Ricochet, and a bug bounty for the Tor Browser.

Liu’s resignation letter and the Lantos letter are embedded below.

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How Is Twitter Going to Moderate These Voice Recordings?

Wednesday afternoon, Twitter rolled out an update that allows people to record and tweet sounds. Twitter says it sounds like this, peaceful and relaxing:

In reality, voice tweets give a platform that has a well-documented, decade-long harassment problem an entirely new, more difficult type of media to moderate, and now gives people the chance to send, for example, voice death threats directly to a person’s replies.

There are a few things worth mentioning here: In order to upload audio to Twitter before this update, it had to be linked from a third-party platform like SoundCloud, or uploaded as a video file. Twitter is now letting people upload sounds directly, which in theory isn’t the worst idea in the world—if implemented correctly, it could allow musicians to upload music, podcasts to easily upload snippets, and parts of the world that are used to sending voice memos to upload those, as well.

But Twitter is also a platform where women, LGBTQ+ people, and Black and brown people are targeted by coordinated harassment campaigns. Twitter already doesn’t do a great job of kicking white supremacists and Nazis off the platform, and it has now given them a new mechanism to harass people.

Audio is more labor intensive to moderate than text or photos, because it requires moderators to actually listen to the audio to act on it; typically, moderators are asked to make a decision on whether content violates a platform’s rules in a matter of seconds. With longer audio clips, a moderator will have to locate the violating portion of the audio, which takes much longer (AI can help speed up this process, but AI moderation has its own problems). As we’ve previously reported, Twitter has far fewer human moderators than other social media giants, so adding such a labor-intensive type of content to moderate seems like it could go poorly. Twitter did not say in its public posts how it will moderate this content, but in a recent Twitter video livestream I watched, random stream watchers were asked to help moderate comments, which is not a terribly sophisticated way of doing content moderation.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the moderation of voice tweets.

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Louisiana Governor Signs Smart Cannabis Reforms into Law

John Bel Edwards (D), governor of Louisiana, has signed a number of bills that will broaden the rights of cannabis users in that state. According to Benzinga, the new measures will go into place on August 1 of this year and will open the medical use of marijuana to more people in need.

Louisiana New Marijuana Laws

With the signing of the new legislation, Louisiana joins just a few other states, like California, Virginia, and Maine, in allowing doctors to determine conditions appropriate for cannabis treatment. NORML Deputy Director, Paul Armentano is quoted in the article as saying, “This is common sense legislation that provides physicians, not lawmakers, the ability and discretion to decide what treatment options are best for their patients.”

Other legislation was signed by the governor that will remove risks for banks and other businesses doing business with cannabis companies. The new bill encourages banks and credit unions to provide services to clients in the marijuana industry.

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These Cities Are Stopping Police From Responding to Homelessness, Drug Use, and Mental Health Issues

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Several cities around the country are considering pulling police back from responding to calls that have little to do with violent criminal activity — including instances of homelessness, mental health issues, and drug use — so unarmed, trained professionals can step in, instead.

Los Angeles City Council members introduced a motion Tuesday asking that the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and other city departments work together to come up with a model that would have “appropriate non-law enforcement agencies” addressing nonviolent calls, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The proposal comes during budget cuts to the Los Angeles Police Department, a response to the widespread calls to defund police agencies so cities can spend that cash on social and economic programs in historically over-policed, Black communities. The risk of being killed during a law enforcement interaction is 16 times greater for people with severe, untreated mental illnesses, compared to those without, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center.

If Los Angeles were to pare back the responsibilities of its police force, the city would join San Francisco and Albuquerque in creating alternative ways to respond to nonviolent police calls after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which triggered weeks of protests to demand racial justice and police reform.

Floyd, who died after ex-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for several minutes, was initially stopped by police on March 25 for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. He was unarmed.

Minneapolis’ city council has since said it’d like to disband the city’s police force all together and start again with a different public safety approach.

Similar initiatives also got a boost from President Donald Trump’s executive order on police reform this week. The Trump administration plans to direct resources toward so-called “co-responder” programs that “increase the capacity of social workers working directly with law enforcement agencies.” But the executive order was vague on what that would look like.

Here’s what other cities are doing to change the way their officers respond to calls:

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque announced this week that it’ll form a new force of unarmed specialists that will respond to 911 calls about homelessness, drug use, mental health, and more.

Mayor Tim Keller has said that the agency will serve alongside the city’s police and fire departments and that calls to 911 regarding mental health issues or homelessness will be rerouted accordingly. The city’s police chief is in favor of the shift, since officers are already overburdened with responding to these types of calls, according to the Washington Post.

Keller said the model won’t take away funding from core policing efforts, however.

“There is a huge portion of our community that doesn’t necessarily want two officers showing up when they call about a situation with respect to behavioral and mental health,” Keller told the Post. “So this is a new path forward for us that has been illuminated because of what we’ve learned during these times.”

San Francisco

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said last week that her city’s police department would no longer respond to non-criminal complaints, like school disciplinary actions, neighborly disputes, or homelessness.

Trained, unarmed professionals will now be dispatched to handle those calls..

How that new team will be paid for isn’t clear yet, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But it’s part of a broader plan to change the San Francisco Police Department’s role in the community. Breed’s reforms also ban the use of military-grade weapons, like tanks and tear gas, against unarmed people.

“We know that a lack of equity in our society overall leads to a lot of the problems that police are being asked to solve,” Breed said in a statement announcing the plans. “We are going to keep going with these additional reforms and continuing to find ways to reinvest in communities that have historically been underserved and harmed by systemic racism.”

Eugene, Oregon

Programs addressing nonviolent 911 calls primarily with social workers and other trained specialists aren’t unprecedented and have worked in the past. In Eugene, Oregon, for example, workers with Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or “Cahoots,” have been responding to 911 calls about behavioral issues and welfare checks since 1989.

The program is now hearing from cities across the country that want to replicate its work, according to KVAL, the local CBS affiliate. The program’s team responds to about 20% of 911 calls, while taking up a small portion of the city’s police budget. Some in the city are currently petitioning that Cahoots receive even more funding, via budget cuts to other parts of the police force.

“Across the nation, communities are demanding that elected leaders defund police, reallocate resources, and re-evaluate current approaches to public safety,” Cahoots wrote in a statement published to their website Sunday, regarding racism being a public health issue and their solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “As the first program of our kind, we are in a unique position to share our experience and knowledge with other cities that are now considering alternatives to policing. We are humbled by this and have become acutely aware of our privileged position within a system designed to oppress.”

Cover: Los Angeles Police officers in riot gear stand guard during a protest over the death of George Floyd, Monday, June 1, 2020, at Los Angeles City Hall. (Kirby Lee via AP)

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Ahmaud Arbery’s Killing May Finally Get a Hate Crime Law Passed in Georgia

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Georgia is one of four states that doesn’t have a hate crime law. But that might change after a group of white men with guns chased down, shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man whose family said he was out doing what he loved: jogging.

On Wednesday, Georgia’s Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan, a Republican, introduced the second piece of a legislation this year that would create a statewide hate crime charge.

“We must deliver a strong, meaningful bill that leaves no doubt that Georgians will not tolerate hate,” Duncan said at a news conference. “The tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick has brought the need for this change to the forefront of Georgians’ minds. When the shooter stood over the body of an unarmed man and called him a racial slur, that’s clear evidence, to me and to all Georgians, of a hate crime.”

Duncan’s bill would create a separate “bias-motivated” charge for crimes motivated by age, race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, disability, and homelessness. He also proposes additional protected groups: military status, “being involved or having been involved in civil rights activities” and “culture” which refers to the “customary beliefs, social norms and material traits of a racial, ethnic, religious, or social group.” (Notably missing is “gender identity”; 24 states plus Washington D.C. have hate crime laws that explicitly contain protections for transgender people).

The other hate crime bill in process in the state is leftover from last year, after it stalled in the Senate. Georgia’s legislative session opened Monday with bipartisan calls to finally pass the legislation in the wake of Arbery’s death in February.

While Arbery’s friends and family contend that he was out jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, the men who are now facing murder charges for his death claimed that they thought he had committed burglaries in the area and intended to stop him. Travis McMichael, 34, says he shot Arbery out of self-defense.

“All Georgians were shocked by the senseless murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who was hunted like an animal and shot with a shotgun at point blank range,” said House Speaker David Ralton, a Republican.

Unlike Duncan’s proposal, the House bill doesn’t create a separate charge for bias-related crimes. It adds enhancement penalties, which means someone might receive a stiffer sentence if they committed a crime that was motivated by bias.

Duncan’s bill also goes beyond the creation of a hate crime law, unlike the House legislation. It would mandate data collection on hate crimes, allow victims of hate crimes to file civil lawsuits, and allocate funding to train law enforcement how to appropriately investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

If either bill passes, it’d be the first time that Georgia had a hate crime law on the books in 16 years. Georgia’s Supreme Court struck down the hate crime law in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague.”

The other three states without hate crime laws are Arkansas, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

Cover: People sit during a moment of silence as they attend a Black Lives Matter protest in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles Friday, June 12, 2020. The sign shows from left: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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Brands Pretend They Just Learned Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s Are Racist

The companies behind Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s have had a reckoning.

Quaker Foods announced Wednesday that it will change the name and logo of its Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix after using the racist stereotype for more than 130 years.

The character is based on a 19th-century minstrel song called “Old Aunt Jemima,” as Cornell professor Riché Richardson wrote for the New York Times in 2015 in a call for Quaker to ditch Aunt Jemima. Richardson called Aunt Jemima “an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance” about Black women “who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own.”

Amid a global uprising against racism and police brutality, and after years of calls to drop Aunt Jemima as a mascot, Quaker finally decided to relegate Aunt Jemima to the dustbin of history. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Quaker Foods North America chief marketing officer Kristin Kroepfl said in a statement provided to NBC News. (Quaker Foods’ parent company is PepsiCo.)

On the company’s website, it says that the character of Aunt Jemima was “first brought to life” in 1890 by Nancy Green, a “storyteller, cook, and missionary worker.” Green was born enslaved in Kentucky in 1834, according to the University of Kentucky.

“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations,” Kroepfl said. Quaker also reportedly will donate at least $5 million over five years “to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community,” according to NBC News.

Later on Wednesday morning, Mars International, the U.K.-based parent company behind Uncle Ben’s, said that the “visual brand” of Uncle Ben’s would be “evolving.”

In the plantation-era South, “Uncle” was a common moniker given to elderly Black slaves. The Uncle Ben’s website claims that the rice brand was named by its founders in 1940 after a “legendary Texas farmer who was known for his exceptionally high-quality rice.”

The man who has appeared on the package since the 1940s, according to the company, was Frank Brown, the head waiter at an “exclusive Chicago restaurant who agreed to pose for the Uncle Ben’s portrait.”

“As a global brand, we know we have a responsibility to take a stand in helping to put an end to racial bias and injustices,” Mars told HuffPost in a statement. “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that one way we can do this is by evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.”

The company reportedly said that “all possibilities” were on the table to change the character of Uncle Ben.

While Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were two of the most lasting symbols of racism in American advertising, many others still exist. Eskimo Pies and Chiquita bananas are still kicking around, as are several professional and college sports teams and mascots based on Native American caricatures, such as the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and Atlanta Braves.

Cover: A bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup sits on a counter, Wednesday, June 17, 2020 in White Plains, N.Y. (AP Photo/Donald King)

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Sex Workers Can Access Financial Coronavirus Aid in This Canadian City

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would be extending emergency government aid that helps people who have lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic for another two months.

But the extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) makes no difference for sex workers who are ineligible for the aid—except for sex workers like Lisa.

Without her monthly CERB cheque of $2,000 a month, Lisa said she could have ended up homeless.

“I was going back and forth with my landlord, getting eviction notices,” said Lisa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “As soon as I told them I’m getting CERB, they got off my back.”

The 31-year-old is one of several sex workers in Edmonton who have been able to get CERB, said Monica, a sex worker in charge of the Edmonton-based sex worker advocacy group, Piece. (Monica only goes by her first name to protect her identity.)

The city offers licences for escorts and body rub parlours, which make it possible for sex workers to operate more openly—and pay taxes. (Tax records are required to apply for CERB.)

It’s a sharp contrast from other sex workers who can’t access the subsidy.

To be eligible for CERB, people need to prove they made at least $5,000 in declared income in the 12 months prior to applying, among other eligibility criteria, using their tax records. But because many sex workers and related businesses are forced to operate underground, they often don’t pay taxes, even if they want to.

Many sex workers are not eligible “because they either have not made at least $5,000 in the prior year or they did not file their taxes due to criminalization, immigration status, or other precarity,” Jenn Clamen, a Montreal-based National Coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, told Amnesty International.

The problem is exacerbated for sex workers who are new migrants or undocumented workers and are scared they’ll be forced to leave the country if the government finds out they’re doing sex work, said Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterly, a Toronto-based Asian and migrant sex workers network.

Even people who have been sponsored to come to Canada and refugee claimants are scared to disclose that they’re doing sex work out of fear of retribution, Lam said.

Because CERB is out of reach for most sex workers, many have had to continue working during the pandemic, even when it isn’t safe to do so, Lam added.

VICE reported in March how the pandemic was inevitably going to hit sex workers harder than others, partly because of the intimate nature of the work.

Butterfly has received hundreds of calls and text messages from sex workers saying they’ve suffered from income loss.

The group ended up conducting an impromptu survey, obtained by VICE News, that found most local sex workers, especially racialized migrants, have reported serious loss of income because of COVID-19 and are struggling to pay rent as a result. About 80 of 100 sex workers included in the report said they still need income supports and very few applied for CERB.

“The numbers are alarming,” Lam told VICE News. “How are the people not able to apply for CERB going to cover their income loss?”

Sex work is criminalized in Canada even though sex work legislation, Bill C-36, technically says selling sex is allowed. Every other activity associated with a sex worker—paying for sex, advertising sex work, aiding a sex worker, and more—is prohibited. Because of the rules, sex workers rarely call police for support when they face abuses—they’re worried officers will shut down their workplaces, which would threaten their income.

Criminalization also prevents sex workers from filing taxes because they worry doing so would lead authorities to their work sites, several sex workers told VICE.

A spokesperson with the federal minister of employment, Marielle Hossack, said CERB applications do not require people to list their occupation, but she did not comment when informed that many sex workers opt not to pay taxes out of fear of being outed to authorities.

A small fraction of Edmonton-based sex workers like Lisa was actually able to access government support during the pandemic: the city offers body rub parlour and escort licences that make it easier to work openly—and they’re free, Monica said.

According to Monica, the best part of the licensing process in Edmonton is the associated mandatory course. “It’s an information course” that provides sex workers with a “list of non-judgemental accountants,” she said.

“Some forms of sex work are recognized as legitimate and that’s not something I’m used to.”

“People go to work at a body rub, and when it’s tax time, we all do them because it’s accepted; it’s a social practice,” Monica said.

Toronto offers a body rub licence as well, but only 25 centres can be licenced at once and the city is currently at capacity. Plus, a licence to operate a body rub parlour in Toronto costs almost $14,000 and the regulations are stricter than in Edmonton.

While licensing has its benefits, Lam warned that it also allows local authorities to surveill and overpolice sex workers. The only way to ensure sex worker safety, both physical and financial, is to decriminalize the industry, she said.

Sophie Arès-Pilon, an exotic dancer, said thanks to Edmonton’s licencing system, “some forms of sex work are recognized as legitimate and that’s not something I’m used to.”

But the licences may not be around for much longer. Body rub centres were temporarily shut down in Alberta when the city entered COVID-19-related lockdown, and last month, one Edmonton city councillor, Jon Dziadyk, suggested they remain closed permanently, even after the pandemic ends.

Edmonton has already introduced a five-year plan to phase out body rubs, with council scheduled to revisit the motion late June. Dziadyk told VICE he suggested keeping the parlours closed because they might close in a few years anyway.

His motion has since been repealed due to time constraints, he said, but council is still deciding whether to remove the licences.

Even though licenced body rub parlours and escorts likely won’t be forced underground this year, Arès-Pilon’s still worried about what will happen five years from now.

The removal of the small gains Edmonton has made through its licencing system would spell bad news, Monica added.

“Dziadyk bought into the perpetuated media understanding of what sex work is and it’s mostly portrayed in, like, CSI Miami and shows where we’re all drug-riddled and pushed into the wrong path,” Monica said. “That’s often the public understanding of sex work is and that’s not accurate at all. (Sex work) is anything but that.”

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

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‘Little Bubbles’: the Pandemic Coping Strategy That Refuses to Go Away

There’s a clear sense of desperation in the air—desperation to return to public life. Unfortunately, actual progress when it comes to treating COVID-19 has not quite caught up to that thirst: there’s still no COVID-19 vaccine, no “cure” or universal treatment regimen, no accurate antibody test, no sense of what the presence of COVID-19 antibodies actually means, and in the U.S., no robust contact tracing system to keep the virus contained.

Politicians across the U.S. have acted accordingly. Just kidding! All 50 states are slowly lifting business closures and social distancing requirements nationwide in the same patchwork fashion they were originally put in place, and new cases are on the rise.

Enter: the Bubble. The Bubble is less a literal globule than it is an idea that, if we simply install tons of thin, transparent barriers between ourselves and the germy world around us we can move through life again, just like we did pre-COVID. Whether bubbles are actually a sufficient solution remains unclear, but that hasn’t stopped designers and “futurists” everywhere from trying it in a 3D rendering, or sometimes even real life.

We first spotted the Bubble out to dinner. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, plastic or glass dividers for shared seating have also cropped up in response to the virus. At a restaurant in Paris, a designer debuted his “poetic” solution to eating in public: hanging plastic cones that partially encase customers to minimize the spread of COVID-carrying droplets. In Amsterdam, another eatery constructed little glass houses for customers to dine inside, according to a report from Insider.

The transparent containment concept has since crossed over to the U.S., first in the form of “hug curtains,” or the use of shower curtains as a barrier to prevent COVID transmission between two people who want physical contact. (For the record, health officials and one fire department in Ohio have called this practice into question, the former on the grounds of effectiveness and the latter on the potential fire hazard creation.)

The most practical format of the Bubble can be found in grocery stores and pharmacies in the form of makeshift sneeze guards that separate cashier from customer; a necessary attempt at protecting essential workers with something. These Bubbles emphasize function over form—they’re not sleek, but they’re also not pretending to be an art object. They simply do as much as possible to keep essential workers away from the particulate-shedding masses.

Most recently, the Bubble has hit the gym. According to a report last week, in Redondo Beach, California, one workout facility has opted to offer its clients an enclosed pod to get ripped in. Each unit in Inspire South Bay Fitness comes with its own set of dumbbells and other equipment for those who want to pump without pumping themselves full of COVID-19. But, due to the fact that these pods have been constructed out of shower curtains and PVC piping, some of the same concerns “hug curtains” raised could very well apply.

Where next, O Bubble? The sky is literally the limit—an Italian designer released a pair of airplane seat prototypes that both invoke the Bubble, one as a shield that completely surrounds each individual passenger, with rearranged seats to further minimize contact, and one as a snap-on, transparent divider to add a protective layer to the existing setup.

The Bubble is more of a goofy visual than a viable option for a reopened world. The fact that individual business owners have to resort to this kind of measure to stay afloat in a shaky economy is transparently sad. The bubbles are bad, but the worst bubble of all is the one where people don’t realize these jerry-rigged solutions are the result of a catastrophic containment failure on the part of the U.S. government.

Until that gets resolved, it’s probably best to keep up the at-home workouts and steer clear of public dining until we’ve got some more… realistic fixes.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.

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