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General Assembly Expands Revenge Porn Law to Include Fake Nudes

By Caitlin Morris, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to expand revenge porn laws to include realistic fake images.

In 2014, Virginia outlawed the dissemination of explicit photos or videos without the consent of the person seen in the images. The images may have been originally shared in agreement between both parties, but in cases of revenge porn, get posted online by people seeking to embarrass the victim.

“They put them on a website with the intent to coerce, harass or maliciously hurt those folks,” said Del. Marcus B. Simon, D-Fairfax.

Simon introduced HB 2678 to protect victims of an emerging trend known as “deepfakes.” These realistically fabricated images and videos are becoming more common as modern software develops and social media creates easier access to images.

“These days you don’t even need to actually have photos like that — of the person, in your possession … all you have to have are pictures of their face,” Simon said. “You can use artificial intelligence to wrap that on the body.”

Roughly 10 million Americans have been threatened with or become victims of revenge porn. Women are twice as likely to be threatened by men, according to a 2016 study by the Data and Society Research Institute.

“The non-consensual dissemination of intimate photos or videos is not just humiliating for victims, but it can also carry significant emotional, psychological and even financial repercussions,” Simon said.

In a 2015 study from the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, 51 percent of victims of revenge porn indicated that they had considered committing suicide, and 39 percent said the crime affected their career and professional lives. Ninety percent of victims, according to the same group, are women.

Revenge porn laws now exist in 41 states and Washington, D.C., but according to Simon’s team, HB 2678 is “one of the first of its kind in the country.”

The bill adds language to existing law that includes protection for victims when their image is used in the creation, adaptation or modification of a video or picture. Violators of the law could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“Deepfakes are yet another malicious tool used to harass and terrorize individuals, who are most often women,” Simon said.

If signed by the governor, the “deepfake” cyber harassment bill will go into effect July 1.

Legislators Delay Decision on Funding I-81 Improvements

By Kathleen Shaw, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Interstate 81’s heart pumps through rural Virginia with veins that run from Tennessee to the Canadian border — a vital roadway for manufacturers, farmers and commuters.

With a long track record of crashes and congestion, Virginians looked to legislators for solutions to improving the interstate. But Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said the General Assembly passed only “a shell of a bill.”

At the beginning of the session, Gov. Ralph Northam met with legislators to announce bipartisan support for finding a revenue source for improvements to Virginia’s 325-mile stretch of I-81, which accounts for 42 percent of statewide interstate truck traffic.

“Making these improvements will take money. Finding money requires tough choices,” Northam said.

Legislators ended their session Sunday without finding the money. So Virginians will have to wait another year before seeing a plan to pay for improvements to the highway.

In December, the Commonwealth Transportation Board released a study that identified $4 billion in construction needs for I-81, including $2.2 billion in priority projects. Officials floated various ideas, from taxes to tolls, to finance the improvements.

As the General Assembly convened in January, lawmakers filed six bills seeking to address the problem. They included HB 2718, sponsored by Del. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, and SB 1716, introduced by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham. Those bills sought to impose tolls on I-81, with the revenues designated for improvements on the interstate.

The House and Senate each passed different versions of the measures. When a conference committee met to resolve the differences, legislators switched gears and approved the twin bills without a drop of funding for the interstate improvements.

The legislation was reworked to remove any language about tolls. Instead, the bills would simply create an Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Transportation Committee and an unfunded Interstate 81 Corridor Improvement Fund.

“The Committee shall conduct regional public meetings on options for funding and improvements” and offer recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by Dec. 15, the legislation states.

Stephanie Kane, communications director of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates, said the bills were changed because of the public outcry against tolls. She said tolls are harmful to commuters and threaten economic development by forcing businesses to increase prices.

“Tolls can be a politically convenient way to raise taxes without having to vote for that three-letter word,” Kane said. “The I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund just creates the existence of the fund, but it’s like creating the bank account without the money to go in it — there’s no revenue source.”

In late 2018, the polling firm Public Opinions Strategies conducted a survey of 500 residents in the I-81 corridor. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents supported a $2 billion plan for improvements needed on the stretch of I-81 that state officials have designated a high priority. Those improvements would include a third lane and signage to deter congestion.

Sens. Edwards and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, proposed raising the motor fuels tax to fund transportation improvements statewide and especially on I-81. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House of Delegates.

Edwards said the measure seemed to have bipartisan support at first, but some lawmakers backpedaled because all legislative seats are up for election in November.

“My impression was that there was pressure from leadership in the House. The House leadership says, ‘We can’t have a tax this year because that’s wrong — it’s an election year,’” Edwards said. “It’s nice to have a fund on paper, but with no money, you can’t do anything with it. It’s just a shell of a bill.”

Black-owned Restaurants Serve Culture and Cuisine

By Madison Manske, Capital News Service

 RICHMOND — “People in Richmond don’t talk to each other,” said Kelli Lemon, owner of Urban Hang Suite. She created her coffee shop last year to make a comfortable space for customers to connect with one another despite their differences.

Lemon is also tri-owner of the Virginia Black Restaurant Experience — an opportunity for people throughout the Richmond and Henrico area to connect and to enjoy the diversity of meals offered by black-owned restaurants.

The third annual Richmond Black Restaurant Experience starts Sunday and runs through March 10. This year the event features 30 restaurants as well as food trucks, caterers and local chefs.

The theme is Culture Meets Cuisine, and the food is served up for a good cause: It will raise money for the Mary G. Brown Transitional Center, a nonprofit agency that helps people with housing, job training and other services. With every event ticket purchased, proceeds will go directly to the center. Events that serve alcohol will give 100 percent of their sales to the center.

Each restaurant participating in the RBRE will have a passport that lists all other restaurants included in the experience. Mama J’s, Vagabond, Pig & Brew and Urban Hang Suite are a small handful of what to expect — with vegan options available at certain restaurants.

Throughout the week, the RBRE will also sponsor various events that require a ticket:

  • Mobile Soul Sunday on Sunday (March 3)
  • A Seat At The Table — Dinner Party Social on Monday (March 4)
  • Zumba and Cocktails with Jackie Paige and DJ Nobe on Monday (March 4)
  • Wine Tasting and Pairing at C’est Le Vin on Tuesday (March 5)
  • Hip Hop Karaoke with Pro DJ Direct and Unlocking RVA on Tuesday (March 5)
  • Afrikana Film Festival - Invisible Vegan on Thursday (March 7)
  • ART for the SOUL on Friday (March 8)
  • Brunch Trolley Tour on Saturday (March 9)
  • Diaspora and Untold RVA on Saturday (March 9)
  • Stick A Fork In It! on Sunday (March 10)

In its first year, the RBRE consisted of 19 restaurants. Last year, 10 restaurants joined the list bringing it to 29. Every year, more jobs are created and more money is raised through special event ticket sales.

The experience was created by Lemon, Amy Wentz and Shemicia Brown with the aim of addressing economic disparities within the city’s minority-owned business community as well as advancing Richmond’s growing culinary tourism scene.

The inaugural event helped launch the business the three women operate as Virginia Black Restaurant Experience. Events such as the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience operate under the VBRE umbrella, Lemon said. The women organize the annual RBRE with support from Dominion Energy.

“We felt like what we do is bigger than just a week, so we started Virginia Black Restaurant Experience,” Lemon said. “It’s just an experience of celebrating culture and cuisine that often times gets ignored for various different reasons.”

Benefiting a community organization

For the last two years, the beneficiary of the RBRE was Renew Richmond, an organization dedicated to increasing healthy food efforts by creating urban gardens and offering educational and other programs.

“We wanted to give someone else the opportunity to be able to grow their nonprofit,” Lemon said.

This year’s beneficiary, the Mary G. Brown Transitional Center, is a partner in the Richmond Food Justice Corridor, a network of organizations seeking to address food access, build community, reduce violence, inspire youth and accomplish other community goals.

Richmond is a popular food destination where Lemon says minorities in the food industry often get overlooked. When Lemon opened Urban Hang Suite in October, she wanted to open a space that allowed engagement to anyone who walks in the door.

Located at 304 E. Broad St., her coffee shop offers a traditional grab ’n’ go setting in the front with an open space in the back for people to connect.

According to Lemon, black-owned restaurants can face challenges in terms of obtaining financing, promoting and managing the business.

“Because of that lack, we found it important to be an assistant or just to be an ally to these restaurant owners in pursuit of giving them a true, proper place within the Richmond culinary scene,” Lemon said. “You have to realize that in some of these smaller black-owned restaurants, they’re the chef, they’re the marketer, the GM — they may be a host one day.”

Inner City Blues, home of Carolina Bar B Que, has participated in the RBRE every year so far. Co-owner Alicia Hawkins said she and her husband see higher sales each year, and that allows them to be more active in the business and the community.

“Richmond is a foodie town, and a lot of times with the small businesses, a lot of people don’t know that these small businesses exist,” Hawkins said. “I have customers come in all the time to say, ‘We didn’t know you were here,’ which is kind of strange.”

Before the restaurant moved to 3015 Nine Mile Road in 2014, it was Inner City Blues Takeout on Gilpin Court in Jackson Ward. When the landlord wanted to make changes, Hawkins and her husband had to relocate. After the owner of their current building retired, the space opened up for them.

“It was a business opportunity that it was just as if God had opened the doors,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins went to the original Armstrong High School. Having grown up in the area, she was familiar with her new business location.

Hawkins said the RBRE is a chance to showcase restaurants like hers.

“We also saw the lack of black-owned restaurants in the larger restaurant weeks,” Lemon said.

Richmond is home to many food festivals from Richmond Oktoberfest to Festival of India. According to Lemon, when VBRE was created, the organizers got criticized and called racist for celebrating African-American restaurants.

“We had to remind everyone of the other festivals that happen all the time in this city,” Lemon said. “All these festivals celebrated culture and heritage, and that’s all we’re trying to do.”

For a full list of participating restaurants and event/ticket sale information, visit The website also has a link for donations.

“It’s very important for those that are not familiar with this week to know that it is open to everyone,” Lemon said. “We hope that people come out of their comfort zones for this week.”

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