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The charging compartment of an electric Bluecar (Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images)

Green dreams and delusions

California’s crazy environmental initiatives often provoke snickers from outsiders and exasperation from residents like me

Conservatives love to lampoon California, the state I’ve been calling home for almost 10 years. This blue state has wasted time and money on silly laws restricting plastic straws, regulating cow farts, providing “mouth-to-snout” resuscitation for endangered pets, and replacing Columbus Day with “Indigenous People’s Day.” We’re the home of Big Taxes and Big Government and Big Compassion and Big Ideas, and conservatives have rightly criticized Californians for dreaming up idealistic programs and policies without considering things such as budgets and the average civilian’s needs.

The latest silly project that fell flat: a pie-in-the-sky statewide bullet train project that California leaders pushed for and that was projected to cost at least $77 billion. Most recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to scale back the rail project to operate only between Merced and Bakersfield, two agricultural cities with a combined population of less than 500,000. That’s right: We’re spending billions of dollars on a train that less than 1 percent of the state’s population will likely ever use.

Yes, California is easy to mock, from its epileptic reaction over everything President Trump does or says, to its strange devotion to gray Toyota Priuses. Sensible Californians never tire of complaining about the wacky things our state does—so here’s another one to add to the list: California’s ambitious goal to eliminate the state’s net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. That goal sounds fabulous but can be pretty stupid in practice.

Here’s a perfect example: I live in a neighborhood in Los Angeles that’s more than 85 percent Latino, many of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. At about 25,400 residents per square mile, it’s one of the highest-density neighborhoods in LA. It’s also one of the poorest: We have a median household income of $26,400, and less than 10 percent of residents are homeowners. People here bike not to be environmentally virtuous, but because they can’t afford to own a car. Those who do have vehicles drive beat-up Toyota Siennas, mechanic vans, and cheap used cars bandaged with duct tape. A few residents live in RVs boarded up with cardboard and blankets.

What this all means is that most people here cannot pay the $70 to $100 per month required to park in a garage. So most of the 42,300 residents in this 1.67-square-mile neighborhood park their vehicles on the streets. Over the years, as the population has grown, I’ve noticed that it’s harder and harder to find street parking. Every evening, I see cars circling block after block looking for a space to park, and every night, I see cars parked illegally in red or tow sign zones. I’ve done that plenty of times myself—we just try to wake up at the crack of dawn to move our cars before parking enforcement officials write us a hefty ticket. It’s a stressful way to live, but our City Council member hasn’t made any effort to alleviate the parking situation.

But several months ago, I noticed that the city had blocked off a portion of my street for construction work. Days later, five all-electric cars sat there parked on the street next to charging stations—white, compact hatchbacks with rounded features and a blue sticker that read “blueLA” on their sides. Curious, I went to investigate, and read that the service charges a monthly fee of $5 with a one-year commitment and 20 cents per minute of use, or 15 cents per minute if you qualify for low-income subsidies. Drivers must stay within the driving zone (basically, within LA County), return the cars within eight hours, and pay for any damages to the vehicle.

Turns out, BlueLA is a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” car-sharing service from France that’s funded in part by a $1.7 million grant through an anti-climate-change state program called California Climate Investments. The state program aims to use cap-and-trade dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in zero-emission vehicles. The goal is to deliver 100 of these zippy electric cars to the most “disadvantaged communities” in Los Angeles.

There’s also a political agenda: This is a protest against President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed to uphold climate change policies even if the rest of the nation does not, but he has a long way to go, considering that LA is one of the most congested and polluted cities in the country. City officials have long sought to force Angelenos to give up their cars, but LA will never be Copenhagen or Amsterdam: It’s too big and sprawling a city, and despite the billions of dollars of investment, LA’s public transportation still, quite frankly, stinks.

Another the pesky problem: Many of my neighbors sell tamales and tacos and pupusas near the Food 4 Less supermarket. They sing at one of the dozen tiny Pentecostal churches in the neighborhood and rely on their kids to help interpret English. They cannot afford to buy a Tesla, install solar panels, or shop for organic kale at the farmers market—and neither do they care. They have more important things to worry about than becoming carbon neutral by 2045. Being “green” is largely an option for the white and privileged. And that must be when our state officials had a lightbulb moment: Why not provide electric cars to us poor unfortunate souls, so that we too can help save the planet?

Except that folks in my area never asked for such a service. Why would anyone pay 20 cents a minute to drive a car to the grocery store when several Hispanic markets already offer free shuttle services? Why would anyone drive such a time-restricted and distance-limited car to work? Why would a mother with a baby and a stroller use that tiny car to pick up her other kids from school? This BlueLA program is yet another well-intentioned but senseless project that completely misses the actual needs of the community. Instead, the city has stolen five precious parking spaces from us and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on European cars that, from what I’ve seen so far, few people have used.

Dear California officials, give us back our parking spots. Put us to a vote—and we’ll ask for more parking spaces and fixed potholes and safer streets so our bikes don’t get stolen all the time. If you truly want to help our “disadvantaged” communities, then come look for parking on our streets at 8 p.m.

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VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

Kyrgyz men hold portraits of relatives they fear are being held in notorious ‘re-education camps’ in China’s Xinjiang region. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

Uighurs on Twitter

Brewing anger over detention of a famous singer and other Uighur minorities sparks a new social media campaign

Most Muslim countries have remained silent since reports began circulating last year about the Chinese government’s detention of 1 million Muslim Uighur minorities in Xinjiang, China’s semi-autonomous region in the Northwest. Many of those same countries have close trade ties with China. 

Yet on Saturday, Turkey condemned China for holding hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in re-education camps, where they face “torture and political brainwashing.” The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the reintroduction of internment camps a “great shame for humanity.”

“We call on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang,” spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement. 

Aksoy went on to claim that the agency had learned that famous Uighur singer Abdurehim Heyit, whom Chinese officials imprisoned over a controversial song, had died while serving his sentence. Heyit was well-known in China for his skill at playing the dutar, a two-stringed lute, and performed with national arts troupes. He was detained for a song he performed called “Fathers,” which took its lyrics from a Uighur poem about the sacrifices of ancestors, according to the BBC. The lyrics “martyrs of war” caused the Chinese government to view Heyit as a terrorist threat and sentence him to eight years in prison. 

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded Monday by calling Turkey’s accusations “vile.” China Radio International’s Turkish language service posted a 25-second video on Sunday that purportedly showed Heyit was still alive. In the video, Heyit is seen in front of a gray wall, speaking haltingly. “My name is Abdurehim Heyit. Today is February 10, 2019. I’m in the process of being investigated for allegedly violating the national laws. I’m now in good health and have never been abused.”

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Elise Amendola/AP

Sacra at his home in Holden, Mass. (Elise Amendola/AP)

Celebrating endurance

A big prize for a doctor who lived through Ebola, and honor for a genocide survivor

A New York moment:

Dr. Rick Sacra, one of the American missionary doctors who contracted Ebola in 2014, is back serving in Liberia. But he was in New York this month to collect a $500,000 L’Chaim prize for his remarkable work, money that will go to expand the work of the ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, a ministry of the missions organization SIM. Several Liberians based in the United States came to the prize dinner too—the Liberian community in Worcester, Mass., recently raised money for the first residency program at ELWA. 

The likelihood of dying from Ebola, as Sacra put it in New York, was “more than 50 percent.” When he had just recovered from Ebola in 2014, I interviewed him at his U.S. home in Massachusetts, and he was impatient with all the questions about his own health. “Are we going to talk about Africa?” he asked. Sacra, his wife Debbie, and their three sons lived in Liberia through the country’s brutal civil war, so Ebola wasn’t their first brush with difficulty. 

It’s nice to see these folks get some recognition for their decades of work, even if Sacra doesn’t love the spotlight.

This week I learned: 

The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities named Jacob Atem its young alumni of the year. Atem was a “Lost Boy” who escaped genocide in Sudan and won refugee status in the United States. He completed his undergraduate degree at Spring Arbor University, and has since gathered degrees in public health. 

He’s now a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health. He founded the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization and opened a clinic in his hometown. WORLD reprinted a story about Atem back in 2015. Atem is my age, but he says, “Every day is my birthday.”

Worth your time:  

If you’ve not yet heard about “The Nerdwriter” (aka Evan Puschak), now is the time. Puschak posts fantastic video essays analyzing films and other pop culture on YouTube, and has garnered nearly 2.5 million subscribers. And while Christmastime is past, it’s never a bad time to watch his commentary on It’s a Wonderful Life, a commentary I found incredibly moving. For example, I had never heard someone contrast Mr. Potter with Mary Bailey rather than George.

A court case you might not know about: 

While reading old Supreme Court rulings for an article I was working on, I came across Goesaert v. Cleary. The 1948 case challenged Michigan’s ban on female bartenders, a law that included an exception for the wife or daughter of the bar owner. The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban, concluding that the state was trying to prevent “moral and social problems” and that “ownership of a bar by a barmaid’s husband or father minimizes hazards that may confront a barmaid.” Michigan wasn’t the only state with such a law. California had a ban on female bartenders until 1971, when the California Supreme Court tossed it. 

Culture I am consuming: 

Silas Marner by George Eliot.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org

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