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“The woman in Michigan”: How Gretchen Whitmer became a target of rightwing hate

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Earlier this year, a man named Adam Fox recorded a video in which he called Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer a “tyrant bitch” for closing the state’s gyms.

Now, he and five other men known as the “Wolverine Watchmen” have been arrested on conspiracy charges, accused of plotting to kidnap the governor in retribution for her actions to limit the spread of Covid-19.

It’s an extreme, and frightening, version of the attacks Whitmer has experienced for months. Though leaders from New York City to London have seen protests and pushback against restrictions, Whitmer has been a particular target for rightwing protesters — and for President Trump, who dismissively referred to her as “the woman in Michigan” this spring before introducing the more colorful “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.”

Whitmer became a lightning rod for protesters in part because, as the governor of a hard-hit state, she instituted restrictions early. She’s also been highly visible in the media, especially when she was floated as a possible running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But there’s another reason Whitmer has been the recipient of a particular kind of hatred: her gender. Whitmer isn’t just a Democrat or a governor telling people what to do — she’s also a woman telling people what to do. That’s never been particularly popular with a certain subset of Americans, and it’s especially unpopular now that Trump and others have introduced a gendered element into the politics of Covid response, peddling the idea that it’s manly to ignore the risk of the virus.

Indeed, it’s no accident that Whitmer is being called a tyrant and a bitch. The attacks on her feed into age-old stereotypes about women in power — stereotypes that are especially dangerous now as they undermine some of the very leaders who are trying to stop the spread of Covid and keep Americans safe.

Whitmer has been the subject of rightwing ire for months

The right-wing rage against Whitmer’s Covid restrictions started back in mid-March, when the governor said in a CNN interview that she had sought help from the federal government in obtaining PPE and testing equipment for her state — then the fourth hardest-hit in the country — but had not received it. Trump fired back on Fox News, saying, “I don’t know if she knows what’s going on, but all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” Then, in a White House briefing on March 27, he claimed that he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence, then in charge of the country’s Covid response, not to call “the woman in Michigan.”

The same day, he called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” on Twitter.

Then, in April, Whitmer introduced new restrictions to battle the virus, including a requirement that large stores close off sections devoted to gardening supplies and furniture. Conservatives in the state said the restrictions felt arbitrary, and on April 15, some 3,000 protesters demonstrated in the state capital of Lansing in what they called “Operation Gridlock.”

The language of many protesters, however, went beyond mere opposition to restrictions on big-box stores. The messages took on misogynistic overtones, as demonstrators carried signs comparing Whitmer to “a tyrannical queen and an overbearing mother,” according to MLive. Some chanted “lock her up!” — Trump’s favorite rallying cry against Hillary Clinton.

Trump, meanwhile, cheered the protesters on, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” on April 17. Perhaps not surprisingly, protests continued to escalate. On April 30, armed protesters, many not wearing masks, crowded into the state Capitol and tried to get access to the House floor, as Vox’s Katelyn Burns reported. Some chanted “lock her up” and “heil Whitmer.”

In May, the state had to close its Capitol and adjourn its legislative session due to a planned protest grimly titled “Judgment Day” as well as death threats against Whitmer.

And in the summer, according to an FBI affidavit released on Thursday, Fox and his associates began planning to kidnap the governor. In a video streamed to a private Facebook group on June 25, Fox referred to her as “this tyrant bitch” and “complained about the judicial system and the State of Michigan controlling the opening of gyms,” according to the affidavit.

On a July call recorded by the FBI, he discussed a plan to kidnap the governor when she was traveling to or from her vacation house or official summer residence.

“Snatch and grab, man,” Fox said, according to the affidavit. “Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch.” The repetitive language might resonate uncomfortably for some Americans, who recall Trump’s boast on the Access Hollywood tape that he could grab women “by the pussy.”

After the kidnapping, Fox said he and others would take Whitmer to a secure location in Wisconsin for a “trial.”

Fox and five others were arrested this week, as Vox’s Andrew Prokop reports, before any plan could come to fruition. But the comments recorded in the affidavit were the culmination of a months-long pattern of attacks on Whitmer, fueled in part by the president, that cast her as a tyrannical leader illegitimately wielding power over Michigan citizens.

Trump even added fuel to the fire on Thursday night, saying in a rambling interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, “I see Whitmer today, she’s complaining, but it was our Justice Department that arrested the people she was complaining about.”

“She goes and does her little political act, and she keeps her state closed,” Trump went on. “What she’s doing is a horrible thing to the people.”

The attacks on Whitmer are part of a longstanding pattern when it comes to women in power

Whitmer isn’t the only governor Trump has criticized — back in April, he also fired off “LIBERATE” tweets about Minnesota and Virginia, other states with Democratic leadership.

She’s also not the only public official to face pushback from lockdown skeptics. Indeed, Fox spoke at one point of the possibility that other states might overthrow their governors as well, according to the affidavit: “Everybody takes their tyrants.”

But Whitmer has received a degree of personal attention, both from the president and from opponents in her state, that her male counterparts haven’t necessarily experienced. That may be because, in addition to opposition to lockdown measures, she’s running up against the still widely held belief that any woman seeking or holding power is treasonous, underhanded, or illegitimate.

“She fucking goddamn loves the power she has right now,” Fox said at one point. “She has no checks and balances at all.”

It was reminiscent of complaints against other female leaders or candidates. For example, Fox News commentator Harlan Hill tweeted during the vice-presidential debate on Wednesday that Sen. Kamala Harris “comes off as such an insufferable lying bitch” (Fox News later said he would no longer appear on the network). Asked to comment on the tweet by Mediaite, he doubled down, saying, “I stand by the statement that she’s an insufferable power-hungry smug bitch.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, meanwhile, has received intense criticism for imposing restrictions in the face of Covid, including a lawsuit by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, that named her personally. In an interview earlier this year, Bottoms wondered whether she was singled out in part because she is a Black woman and the mayor of a majority Black city. “There were other cities in our state who instituted mask mandates and he did not push back against them,” Bottoms said. “I don’t know if it’s perhaps because they were led by men or if it’s perhaps because of the demographic in the city of Atlanta.”

Historically, female leaders and candidates around the world have often been portrayed as treacherous, two-faced, corrupt, or power-hungry — “willing to do anything at all costs to win,” as Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor who studies women leaders, put it to Vox in January. Indeed, women seeking any political power at all, even the right to vote, have faced stigma — as Vox’s Li Zhou reports, the use of the word “bitch” in literature began to increase after the passage of the 19th Amendment.

And now, women like Whitmer who attempt to use their power to get Covid under control may be running up against those stereotypes. That’s especially true since Trump and his supporters have repeatedly sent the message that the correct — and manly — thing to do is to ignore the virus, refuse a mask, and carry on as normal, regardless of whether you infect yourself or anyone else.

When women like Whitmer try to restrict people’s ability to spread a deadly virus, then, according to far-right protesters, they’re infringing on men’s freedom to be men.

Fox and his associates may be under arrest, but that messaging continues with Trump taking off his mask upon his return to the White House earlier this week and telling Whitmer she should be grateful that “our Justice Department” kept her from getting kidnapped.

As long as such rhetoric continues, it’s going to be hard for Whitmer and other female leaders to do their jobs — which may be exactly what Trump wants.


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US to base Coast Guard ships in western Pacific to tackle China

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The United States will deploy Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter what it described as “destabilizing and malign” activities in the region by China, the country’s top security adviser said on Friday.

The US Coast Guard was “strategically homeporting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters … in the western Pacific,” White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in a statement.

Describing the US as a Pacific power, the statement added that China’s “illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the exclusive economic zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbors and endangers regional stability”.

It said US efforts, including by the Coast Guard, were “critical to countering these destabilizing and malign actions.”

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement, which came just ahead of a planned visit to Asia by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne pose prior to their bilateral meeting in Tokyo on October 6, 2020 ahead of the four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers meeting. – (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo led a meeting of the so-called Quad in Tokyo this month. Washington hopes the grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia can act as a bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness and extensive maritime claims in the region, including to nearly all of the South China Sea.

On Sunday, Pompeo will begin a five-day tour of India – where he will be accompanied by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper – and then he will continue on to Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia. Maritime security and a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will be high on the agenda, the State Department said.

Incursions

In July, Esper condemned a “catalogue of bad behaviour” in the South China Sea over the previous months, accusing the Chinese military of having sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassing Malaysian oil and gas vessels and escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

O’Brien added that the Coast Guard, which is under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was also studying whether to permanently station several of its patrol ships in the area of American Samoa in the South Pacific.

Last month, Indonesia protested after Chinese coastguard ships travelled into its exclusive economic zone, which is situated between its own territorial waters and international waters and where the state claims exclusive rights to develop natural resources.

China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines also claim the parts of the sea nearest to their shores.

The US Navy regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed sea – angering China, which has developed military outposts on islands and islets.

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An island built from coral: How Indonesia’s Bajau made a home

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Bungin Island, Sumbawa, Indonesia – Scattered across many of the islands and coastal communities in Southeast Asia, the Bajau, numbering about one million people, are the world’s largest remaining group of sea nomads. But their culture is under threat.

In the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines, where the Bajau have roamed the ocean for 1,000 years, insurrection by the Abu Sayyaf armed group has led to an increased military presence and curfews restricting movements on both sides of the border.

On the islands of southern Thailand, where the group are known as Moken, they live in stilt shanties that cling like barnacles to coastlines that are rapidly being consumed by buildings built for tourists.

In Indonesia and peninsula Malaysia, many Bajau have given up ocean-based life by marrying people from local communities and seeking jobs in the cities.

But one Bajau community on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa has preserved its unique way of life by building their own islet out of coral, allowing it to evolve separately from the mainland.

With 3,500 residents on just 8.5 hectares (21 acres) of land, Bungin Island also stands out as the most densely populated of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

No crime

When the first Bajau arrived in Sumbawa from the southern Philippines 200 years ago, Bungin Island was just a sandbank on the north coast. In the Bajo language, Bungin means “a mound of white sand”.

Traditionally, the Bajau harvested coral to make foundations for their homes, expanding what was once a sandbank [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

They built their spartan stilt houses on the sand, but as their numbers grew, they enlarged the island by harvesting coral to build foundations for houses on low-lying sections of the surrounding reef. With the help of relatives and friends, it typically takes a week to build a 70-square metre (172-square acre) plot and structure.

“We have a good life here and we have enough money because all the time, every day and night, we are looking for fish,” said Surat, a Bungin Island elder, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

The Bajau are accomplished fishermen and free-divers who can remain underwater for as long as eight minutes on a single breath. Some children have their eardrums pierced to prevent them from bursting from water pressure while diving.

Studies of Bajau who start diving from young have shown their spleens, the organs which store oxygenated red blood cells, are 50 percent bigger than average.

Bungin Island has also developed a strong sense of community. When the heat of the day eases at dusk, people come out onto the tightly packed streets to shop, mingle, eat and pray in the mosque.

The Bajau are renowned for their ability to free dive and are famous for their salted fish [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Indonesians are renowned for their hospitality but on Bungin Island they really roll out the red carpet, sharing drinks, meals, laughter and conversation with visitors. And apparently, there is no crime on the islet.

“We don’t have locks on our doors,” said Rizky, Surat’s neighbour. “Everyone knows each other so it’s not possible to steal anything here.”

‘The problem with corona’

The nature of the sea gypsies’ lifestyle means they have missed out on many basic services.

Bajau communities in Indonesia are lacking “in the areas of health and education … [and] many Bajau are illiterate,” found the Joshua Project, a research project focused on Indigenous cultures with Christian minorities.

In the mid-1990s, the Indonesian government embarked on several large infrastructure projects to drag Bungin Island into the 21st century.

It built a wide sand causeway linking the island to the mainland and making it easier for islanders to sell their salted fish at mainland markets.

Nearly all the Bajau on Bungin island are Sunni Muslims [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

It also built a large government school on the mainland-end of the causeway and connected the islet to the national power grid. And tackled overcrowding by shipping in thousands of tonnes of sand to reclaim an additional 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land from the seafloor.

The causeway also had an unintended effect – it turned Bungin Island into Sumbawa’s leading attraction for domestic tourists who would come to marvel at the paper-eating goats.

As plants cannot grow on the islet, the domesticated goats that roam the streets search instead for paper, cardboard and cloth. For many children, the highlight of visiting the islet was to feed the goats pages from their exercise books. For adults, it was long lazy lunches at Resto Apung, a floating seafood restaurant and fish farm with breathtaking coast and mountain views.

But when Indonesia temporarily banned domestic travel in April to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, tourism came to an end. With Indonesia’s coronavirus outbreak still surging, it has yet to recover.

“We had many tourists before the problem with corona,” said Surat. “But as we live so close together it is impossible to socially distance. The restaurant and our guesthouse had to close.”

Rubbish dump

The causeway has also brought more worrying problems.

Plastic and other household waste has collected around the shore of Bungin Island [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Before it was built, islanders ate only seafood, some greens and ric, and used organic materials like coconut shells and palm fronds as bags.

Easy access to the mainland introduced cheap packaged foods, water bottles and plastic bags and no waste management system to deal with it.

The result is that Bungin Island has been turned into a rubbish dump; its shores are carpeted with tonnes of rotting waste – all of which ends up in the delicate marine ecosystem the Bajau depend on to survive.

When asked about the problem, islanders laugh – a typical Indonesian response to awkward questions and social situations.

But a study published by the University of Queensland in July on plastic literacy in remote Indonesian coastal communities found a majority of people in the communities did not see the plastic waste as a threat and believed its only negative effect was to “make the village look dirty”.

The study’s authors suggested a two-pronged solution: the creation of “rubbish banks” – a term used in Indonesia for a recycling facility where plastic can be sold, sorted, shredded and moved down the value chain; and plastic awareness and environmental education.

Goats live on the island subsisting on a diet of paper and cardboard [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

Awareness initiatives have already led to changes of some centuries-old traditions.

In the past, customary law dictated that young people who wanted to marry had to harvest coral to build a home of their own. The 21st-century residents of Bungin have different ideas.

“Now, if you get married, you stay with your parents and slowly, you save up money to buy a house on Bungin,” said Surat. “Most people do it this way because it’s easier than building with coral and doesn’t hurt the reef where the fish live so we can keep on fishing.”

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NIH director says Covid-19 vaccine authorization ‘might not happen’ this year

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French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d'Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19.
French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd L) chairs a meeting with the medical staff of the René Dubos hospital center, in Pontoise, in the Val d’Oise, on October 23, 2020, as the country faces a new wave of infections to the Covid-19. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

France reported a new daily record for coronavirus infections with 42,032 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to numbers released by country’s health agency on Friday.

This brings the total number of confirmed cases in France to 1,041,075, according to French government statistics, and marks the first time the government’s coronavirus case tally has surpassed 1 million. 

France also recorded 298 additional coronavirus deaths, bringing the death toll to 34,508, according to the French Health Agency. 

According to government data, an additional 976 coronavirus patients have been admitted to the hospital, and a further 122 coronavirus patients entered intensive care in the last 24 hours. 

Speaking at a health center this afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron said he expects France will have to live with the virus until at least the summer of 2021.

“When I listen to the scientists, and the Scientific Council, we foresee [living with the virus] at best until next summer,” Macron said. “It is still too early to say whether we are moving towards wider local re-confinements, we will try each time to reduce the places, the moments when we have identified that the virus was circulating a lot. This is the strategy we will pursue.”

Macron added that the government aims to implement new restrictions in the most targeted way possible. 

From midnight on Friday, France’s nighttime coronavirus curfew will be extended more widely, with 46 million French people affected, announced French Prime Minister Jean Castex on Thursday. 

To note: According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, France has recorded 1,048,924 coronavirus cases and 34,236 deaths. CNN’s Paris Bureau is working on clarifying the discrepancy between state statistics and the university’s numbers.

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