The Emporia Police Department has received what they are calling a "Credible Threat" of violence at this year's Virgninia Peanut Festival. The EPD, assisted by other law enforcement agencies, will have multiple tents and an increased presence. Festival attendees are asked to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings. If you see something, say something.

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Siona Peterous

Virginia Battles a ‘Crime that Hides in Plain Sight’: Human Trafficking

By Sophia Belletti and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Robin Foster had worked with abused and neglected children for years, but it wasn’t until she came face to face with a trafficking victim that she fully recognized the dimensions of the crisis that brought a 17-year-old to a hospital emergency room early one morning.

The teen came to the hospital complaining of a sore throat but ran off when Foster tried to call her mom for permission to treat her.

“I chased her up the street at 1 in the morning,” Foster recalled.

Foster, who heads the Child Protect Team at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she later learned from police the girl had run away from her group home in Northern Virginia and was being trafficked by a man in a hotel in Richmond.

Human trafficking – a $150 billion global criminal enterprise, according to the International Labor Organization – is increasingly on the radars of law enforcement, politicians and nonprofits across the country. Statistics show the problem is worse in Virginia, and in the Richmond area, than in many other states and localities.

In 2017, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking for sex and cheap or free employment. Last year, the state reported 156 cases, and 70 percent of those were sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Richmond ranked ninth nationwide in the number of calls per capita to the hotline, according to the organization’s 2017 report on the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Virginia Beach ranked 71st for calls per capita and Norfolk was 77th.

The Richmond region’s location at the junction of interstates 64 and 95 makes the area an attractive place for traffickers, as does its large tourism and hospitality industry, says the Richmond Justice Initiative, a faith-based, anti-trafficking group.

While there is not an official estimate on the number of trafficking victims in the United States, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization that runs the hotline, estimates the number to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving federal and state prosecutors greater power to pursue websites that host sex-trafficking ads and enabling victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against those sites.

Trump’s action came a few days after several executives from the website Backpage.com were arrested on 93 indictments including knowingly facilitating trafficking through their website and allegedly laundering millions of dollars. The deaths of some trafficking victims have allegedly been linked to the website.

However, critics of the bill say it conflates legitimate and willing sex work with forced trafficking.

“I think it’s ridiculous that the two are being compared because the key difference is that trafficking victims cannot choose to stop working, they are not being empowered by what they do like sex workers are, and it (the bill) doesn’t address the reasons why people are being trafficked,” said Fay Chelmow, founder and director of ImPACT Virginia.

Chelmow founded ImPACT, a nonprofit fighting to prevent and end the sex trafficking of children, in May 2015 after reading the U.S. Department of Education report, “Human Trafficking in America’s Schools.” Chelmow said she was alarmed to learn how vulnerable youth are lured into the commercial sex industry by traffickers who scout middle and high schools.

“There still needs to be more advocating work around simply educating people that this is an issue in the first place, because trafficking is very profitable,” said Chelmow, a registered nurse since 1984 and a former hospice and palliative care nurse in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to Richmond in 2010. One of the reasons trafficking is so lucrative for criminal perpetrators, she said, is that they can sell the same person “over and over and over again.”

Human trafficking “is a crime that hides in plain sight,” said Charlotte Gomer, press secretary for Attorney General Mark Herring. “It is very difficult to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. Trafficking is about supply and demand and, unfortunately, as long as there is a demand for commercial sex and cheap or free labor, human trafficking will continue to exist.”

She said the attorney general’s office works with the city of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties to provide training, resources, victim services and operational assistance to combat trafficking.

During this year’s General Assembly session, Herring won passage of legislation that will make it harder for people who are charged with trafficking-related crimes to post bail – essentially placing a presumption of no bond for such offenses.

Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, cosponsored the legislation with Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond. Mullin, who works as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Suffolk focusing on sexual assault and gang-related cases, said that fighting human trafficking transcends partisan politics. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and has been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

“This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on,” Mullin said in a statementearlier this year.

Gomer said Herring has been working to combat human trafficking since he took office in 2014. In early 2017, Herring signed a memorandum of understanding creating the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force, a partnership involving his office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Virginia State Police and Hampton Roads law enforcement agencies, and Samaritan House, a Virginia Beach nonprofit that provides emergency shelters for domestic violence victims and homeless families.

Advocates Press for Prevention and Solutions

At Children Hospital, Foster said the biggest medical roadblock when helping child human trafficking victims is finding them a secure place, away from their exploiters.

“Where do you place these kids? So what if you recognize that they’re victims? You can’t discharge them home, so where are we putting them? A lot of the time they have drug dependency so they might have to stay in the hospital to make sure they don’t have to go through drug withdrawal,” Foster said.

Foster said helping victims is even more difficult in the case of family-controlled trafficking.

Elisabeth Corey, a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and abuse, recounts those experiences in her advocacy and book, “One Voice.” She said that her encounters with domestic violence and incest began when she was 2 years old and that after years of familial sexual abuse, her father began selling her.

Corey said her parents were highly involved at medical appointments but answered the doctors’ questions with lies. For example, Corey said she was seen frequently at a young age for urinary tract infections, but her mother told nurses it was a result of bed-wetting. Corey said that should have raised alarms because bed-wetting is a symptom, not a cause of urinary tract infections. Likewise, she said the frequency she was being seen by doctors should have raised concerns.

“It was mind-blowing they would just trust what my parents said,” Corey said. “When I was being trafficked, they (medical professionals) weren’t even addressing domestic violence – so no one even had a word for trafficking, no one was even looking for it.”

It wasn’t until Corey had severe pelvic pain during a sleepover that red flags were raised. A neighbor took Corey to the emergency room after being unable to contact her parents.

Doctors alerted child protective services officials, who placed Corey in foster care in Northern Virginia.

“Foster care was so bad – I was getting raped in foster care – that I rescinded my story so that I could go back home,” Corey said. “I literally preferred my home to the foster care environment.”

In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one out of six runaways might be children sex traffic victims and that the vast majority of those runaways had been in foster care or social services care.

Foster credited the work of Chelmow and others in drawing attention to the victimization of children by traffickers. Ten years ago, she said, the problem and strategies to fight it were “totally off the radar.” There is more awareness overall, she said, with information being placed in “schools, hospitals, airports, at bus stations – critical points people are being trafficked.”

The role of the federal government, at the same time, has helped reshape the fight against trafficking, Foster said, as has the view that “the trafficked person is a victim and not part of the problem.”

Still, many problems remain, especially among higher-risk populations – minors in the foster care or social services systems; the homeless, young people with a history of running away; and LGBTQ youth.

LGBTQ youth “are already so marginalized, and it’s all about exploiting vulnerability,” Chelmow said. “Being marginalized makes you even more vulnerable.”

Despite the wide variety of backgrounds from which young people can be trafficked, Corey said, there are common elements in identifying the abused.

“I work as a life coach all over the world, and it’s almost scary how everybody, regardless of how similar experiences are, reacts to trauma the same way,” Corey said. “We really have to get away from the idea that trafficking is in a silo because it’s not.”

Authorities investigating human trafficking should be ready to consider issues ranging from emotional abuse to financial problems, she said.

According to Foster, among the signs that medical professionals can look for is the presence of someone who is not related to the person seeking help but who acts as if they are – for example, “someone who is like an uncle but won’t really act or look like an uncle.”

Other signs include anxious behavior from a patient, the inability to speak for themselves, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Foster said practitioners should also be aware of excuses used to justify physical trauma and the possibility that any overdoses were done with the intent to commit suicide.

Some of these problems may also be seen by teachers, Corey said.

“I know, we already ask our teachers to do a lot, but they are the first responders to spotting this because they see the children every day,” Corey said. “Another solution is asking survivors what they need and what other survivors need, because we know our experience and solutions need to be trauma-informed.”

However, Corey is aware that finding survivors who are willing to speak out can be difficult due to threats to their safety from their abusers.

“Another reason they don’t come forward is that people who are trafficked have been manipulated into thinking this is their choice and it’s their fault, and they don’t know what trafficking is or what its definition is,” Corey said. “Another side of it, and this is true for me, is that they disassociate and repress the memories.”

A major part of Corey’s work as a life coach and running her website beatingtrauma.com revolves around addressing how trauma manifests through memory loss. She left home at 18, but it was not until the birth of her children in her 30s that she remembered the trafficking and other forms of physical and sexual abuse she experienced.

“There were years of me going to Christmases and events with my family before I remembered the abuse,” Corey said. “I remember always feeling angry around them and like something was not right and I couldn’t name exactly what it was, but my children reminded me of what had happened. A lot of times, children will remind survivors of their own trauma.”

Corey is no longer in contact with her family. She said avoiding the generational cycle of abuse is difficult, but possible.

“I believe that anyone who abuses their children was also abused as a child, but that does not mean every person who was abused will then go on to abuse their own children,” Corey said. “There is a process to deal with the trauma and to address it.”

Richmond’s New Art Gallery Raises ‘Important but Difficult Topics’


The Mending Project by Lee Mingwei is an interactive project where visitor's can bring their clothes to get stitched and pinned to the wall. (CNS photo by Katrina Tilbury)

Curtis Talles Santiago's "Infinity Series" uses jewelry boxes to depect scenes of violent injustice. (CNA photo by Katrini Tilbury

By Chelsea Jackson and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With an inaugural exhibit that challenges the city’s Confederate history and racial divide, Virginia Commonwealth University will open its Institute for Contemporary Art next week, and it’s generating excitement not only in Richmond but also in national and international art communities.

The 41,000-square-feet Markel Center, where the ICA is housed, cost $41 million and sits at the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets – the city’s busiest intersection, with an estimated 60,000 cars passing by every day. The location signifies the impact that officials hope the institution brings to Richmond.

The city’s only stand-alone gallery of contemporary art, which will open to the public April 21, sits between VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and the historic Jackson Ward community – a point that for decades was the divide between black Richmond and white Richmond in the one-time capital of the Confederacy.

Joe Seipel, the interim director of the ICA, said the idea for the project has been around for decades. Seipel and the ICA team say they have worked to ensure that everyone feels welcome to come enjoy the art gallery, a goal he hopes to accomplish by keeping admission free.

During a press preview Thursday, New York-based architect Steven Holl said he looked to Richmond’s deep and complicated history for inspiration and incorporated certain aspects to bridge a gap between the growing presence of VCU and the larger Richmond community. Holl’s firm, known for specializing in educational and cultural projects, was chosen from more than 60 that submitted proposals for the building.

“This may be one of my favorite buildings I’ve been working on because it makes an urban statement, because there is a relationship between the campus and the city, and it also is a statement on the concept of time,” Holl said.

The relationship among time, space and race relation was a strong influence on the ICA’s opening exhibit, “Declaration,” said the institute’s chief curator, Stephanie Smith. She conceived the idea with Lisa Freiman, Seipel’s predecessor.

“After the 2016 presidential elections, myself and Lisa Freiman decided to reshape the ICA’s inaugural exhibition given the climate of our country,” Smith said. “We were inspired to create a project that we would speak and give a platform to a diverse group of artists whose works reflect currents in contemporary arts but also catalyze change, convene people across the divide and to speak to important but often difficult topics that are relevant here as well as our nation more broadly.”

Freiman abruptly stepped down as the institute’s director in January after five years of overseeing the planning phases of the project. In a press release at the time, Freiman stated it was time for her to resume other projects she had put on hold. Despite her absence, Smith continued with the vision that created “Declaration.”

The exhibit includes projects from more than 30 artists, many of whom were commissioned by the ICA and whose work speaks to social issues of the environment, gender inequality, race and sexuality. “Declaration” features a range of mixed media platforms – from audio and film to painting and graphic design.

Expanding on one of his previous exhibits, Paul Rucker, the ICA’s artist in residence, created “Storm in The Time of Shelter” for the ICA. It features Ku Klux Klan robes in urban and contemporary fashions. The life-size figurines wear KKK robes made of colorful fabrics such as African prints and various shades of camouflage.

On the opposite end on the first floor is a massive wall featuring a series of individual screen prints. The piece is the work of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and was created with the collaboration of local barbershops and salons. Each print is a quote from a conversation overheard in the shops, capturing the role these spaces play in the city’s black neighborhoods.

The diversity of “Declaration” reflects VCU President Michael Rao’s hope that the ICA will make the city an international destination.

“We hope to become through VCUs Institute of Contemporary Art a world-class cultural hub,” Rao said. He said the ICA will help “advance the arts and invoke human senses like they have never been invoked before.”

Gov. Northam Signs Rear-Facing Car Seat Requirements into Law

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Beginning next year, Virginia will join more than a dozen states that prohibit children under the age of 2, or children who are below the manufacturer's suggested weight limit, to be placed in a forward-facing car seat.

The new law, House Bill 708, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed last month, will go into effect July 1, 2019. It was introduced by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, after she was approached by AAA about the issue.

“I’m very proud to patron this bill because I have always worked on issues about public safety and kids’ safety,” Filler-Corn said. “How could I not introduce a bill that will save lives and protect our most vulnerable Virginians, our children?”

According to Martha Meade, the public and government affairs manager for Virginia’s AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, the association has lobbied for issues of public safety on the roads for decades.

“This is an important change for Virginia because it is confusing for many folks who don’t know when the the right time is to switch their child to be forward-facing in vehicles,” Meade said. “All the major traffic safety organizations — AAA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Highway Safety Administration and the Academy of Pediatrics — recommend a child stays rear-facing until age 2, or until they've reached the minimum weight and height requirement.”

Filler-Corn said she was surprised, but not discouraged, by the intensity of the opposition to what she views as a “common-sense safety measure.” Critics of the bill argued that the government should not have a role in how parents choose to raise and protect their children.

The bill went through several rounds of amendments before passing the House 77-23 and the Senate 23-17. Filler-Corn said she received bipartisan support. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, and Sen Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, were “amazing and very supportive” advocates for the bill.

 “Everyone has the right to raise their children as they see fit, but this really is a safety measure statistically proven to work,” Filler-Corn said. “When I’m faced with opposition, I compare the enforcement of rear-facing child seats to the requirement of everyone having to wear a seat belt. It’s very similar, but one is focused on children who can’t make decisions to protect themselves.”

New law tightens bail restrictions for human trafficking defendants

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam has signed into law a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with human trafficking crimes to post bail.

House Bill 1260, which will take effect on July 1, was sponsored by two Democratic delegates, Mike Mullin of Newport News and Dawn Adams of Richmond. Mullin said they were motivated by their professional experiences handling sexual-based crimes, like trafficking.

“Delegate Adams works as a professional nurse who has seen individuals that have been harmed both mentally and physically through sex trafficking, so this is something near and dear to her heart,” Mullin said.

Mullin is an assistant commonwealth attorney in Suffolk, where he focuses on sexual assault and gang-related cases as a member of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations team. He said the law reflects a recommendation of the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force and creates a presumption against bond for defendants being tried for sex trafficking crimes.

According to a 2017 report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking. Among cities, Richmond is ranked ninth in the country with the highest number of calls to the hotline per capita.

“In Virginia, we have a number of things where we presume you’ll be a flight risk and a danger to the community — like, we assume if you’re charged with murder that you will run,” Mullin said. “So what we [the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force] did is create a presumption against bond. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get bond; it just means you have to show a higher standard of why you’re not going to run, whether it’s that you have a relationship with family in the area or that you’ve been living in the area for 15 years.”

Michael Feinmel, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico County, said trafficking is a crime requiring constant movement. Efforts to curb that movement are necessary since many times defendants use false addresses and traffickers may use the freedom of bond to contact their victims.

“The bonded pimp can contact the commonwealth’s witness and lay on the guilt trip thick: ‘They are trying to send me to prison, and it’s your fault,’” Feinmel stated in an email. “Even those victim/survivors who have acknowledged that the sex trafficker was taking advantage of them still feel some sort of emotional bond to their trafficker, and it makes things even more difficult for them to continue to want to cooperate.”

Though Feinmel said HB 1260 is an important step in addressing human trafficking crimes, not everyone thinks the legislation will do enough.

Natasha Gonzalez, a clinician at the Richmond-based non-profit Gray Haven, which focuses on comprehensive care of human trafficking survivors, said there is more work to be done.

“My role with Gray Haven is being a first point of contact. When we get a call of a potential trafficking victim it’s my job to decide whether or not it’s trafficking, which can be difficult because, for example, domestic relationships and trafficking can sometimes go hand in hand,” Gonzalez said.

A larger issue, according to Gonzalez, is that sex trafficking victims are not likely to contact police because they often fear law enforcement and sometimes are not aware they are being trafficked.

In the Capitol, however, Mullin said he is hopeful that human trafficking will receive more legislative attention in upcoming years.

“There are only a few things that we handle here in the Capitol that are partisan by nature, and this certainly is not one of them. I’ve worked very closely with Republicans and Democrats on this, and the bill came through the House and Senate without a single no vote,” Mullins said. “This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on.”

Delegate Aims to Rein in ‘Predatory Loans,’ to No Avail

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – “You’re pre-approved!” CashNetUSA, a Chicago-based company, exclaimed in a letter to Alexandria resident Mark Levine. “$1,000 is waiting!” Smaller print at the bottom of the solicitation noted that the annual interest rate would be 299 percent. As a result, the interest on a $1,000 loan, repaid over a year with monthly payments of $268, would total $2,213.

Levine wasn’t just any name on CashNetUSA’s direct-mail list. He’s also a state delegate. In his weekly newsletter to constituents, he said the interest on the loan would be far higher than the company’s figures. Surprised and outraged by the ad, he introduced a bill this legislative session to ban high-interest loans.

“If someone needs money in an emergency, then they shouldn’t have to be straddled with obscene debt for years,” Levine said. “I would love to see how many people actually are able to pay back these offensive interest rates – because the goal of these predatory loans isn’t to get people to pay them back in full; it’s to make sure they are declaring bankruptcy so the company can get everything they own.”

A CashNetUSA spokesperson disputed Levine’s characterization, saying that it is not the company’s practice to file proofs of claim against consumers in bankruptcy in Virginia and that its product is an unsecured credit offering regardless.

According to the National Consumer Law Center, Virginia is one of four states that do not regulate interest rates and borrowing requirements on open-credit loans offered by in-store or online lenders.

Dana Wiggins, director of outreach and consumer advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, said open-credit loans, which critics call predatory loans, do not take into account a borrower’s ability to repay. These loans typically have fee costs and interest rates of more than 100 percent, she said.

House Bill 404, introduced by Levine, a Democrat, in January, sought to cap the interest rate at 36 percent and give borrowers up to 25 days to pay back their loan before it would accrue interest. The bill was co-sponsored by Republican Dels. Gordon Helsel of Poquoson and David Yancey of Newport News and Democratic Dels. Paul Krizek and Kathleen Murphy, both of Fairfax.

However, the measure died last week in the House Commerce and Labor Committee after a subcommittee voted 6-2along party lines to kill it. Robert Baratta, representing the lender Check Into Cash Inc., spoke in opposition to the bill at the subcommittee’s meeting, saying it would hurt consumers by limiting their options for borrowing money.

In recent years, Virginia has cracked down on payday loans, forbidding them from charging more than 36 percent annual interest.

“I still feel like 36 percent is still too high,” Levine said. “But at least then, borrowers have a chance to pay these loans back. Because right now, if anyone were to take one of these (open-credit) loans out, my advice to them would be for them to declare bankruptcy the next day.”

According to Wiggins, the problem regulating high-interest loans can be traced to 1998 when Virginia first allowed payday loans to operate in the state.

“It’s like regulatory whack-a-mole,” Wiggins said. “Every time you put a restriction on them, these companies morph their product to be just enough different and just outside the law that’s trying to rein them in, so that they end up getting around that state statute and then another statute.”

Attorney General Mark Herring has been working on the issue of predatory loans since 2014.

“Virginians who resort to Internet loans are often exploited by their own circumstances – in need of money for groceries, rent, or car repairs,” Herring said in a press release after settling a case against a Las Vegas-based internet lending company, Mr. Amazing Loans, in October.

The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received more than 1,270 complaints about CashNetUSA or its parent company, Enova International. Complainants said the company had raised its interest rates, sought extra payments, threatened legal action against borrowers and made fraudulent claims of debt owed.

However, the CashNetUSA spokesperson said most of the claims were the result of fraud or criminal activity by fake debt collectors.

Wiggins said it’s possible to create government regulations that allow lenders to make a profit and protect borrowers from unscrupulous practices. She said Arkansas, North Carolina and other states have done so.

Officials at the Virginia Poverty Law Center were not surprised that Levine’s bill died in committee.

“We didn’t necessarily work with him or ask for him to put the bill in,” Wiggins said. “But not because we don’t agree with the policy itself – but because there is no political will to make that happen in the General Assembly.”

Talking to Students, Former CIA Director Criticizes Trump’s Foreign Policy

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a conference call with Virginia Commonwealth University students, former CIA Director John Brennan slammed several national security moves by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Brennan said some aspects of foreign relations are the same under Trump as they were under President Barack Obama. They include progress on defeating ISIS in Iraq, a stagnation on counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and strained relationships with Iran and North Korea.

However, Brennan, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama, criticized the Trump administration for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem. He said the move undermines efforts toward a two-state solution that would give both Israelis and Palestinians equal access to land.

“It’s inconsistent with our votes in the United Nations that would leave Jerusalem’s status to negotiation for both parties,” Brennan said Wednesday. “Though that may have received immediate accolades from some corners, I do think it’s going to be a setback for prospects for a viable peace process in the two-state solution.”

The conference call was hosted by the Council of Foreign Relations, a think tank that specializes in U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Brennan was critical of the Trump administration’s decision to suspend aid to Afghan and Pakistani counterinsurgency forces. He also said U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017 ceded ground to China’s growing international influence.

“Right now, Venezuelan stability and security depends on continued Cuban and Chinese support,” Brennan said in a response to a question about civil strife in the South American country. “If the Chinese are becoming more involved and engaged in our hemisphere or if we’re distracted, then we can’t fulfill what I believe is our hemispheric obligations.”

In May, the Trump administration signed America’s largest arms deal giving Saudi Arabia $350 billion over 10 years. Since then, the U.S. has been accused of funding a proxy war in Yemen, which Brennan said exacerbates American security in the region.

“I don’t know what the Trump administration is doing on this front, but I do hope they are counseling restraint so that the Saudis don’t feel they have carte blanche as far as bombing in Yemen,” Brennan said.

Brennan said the most significant security threats in the year ahead are a lack of leadership in the State Department, distractions caused by the investigations into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential elections led by special counsel Robert Muller, and a combination of increasing political partisanship and nationalism.

In recent days, Trump announced his support for the Pentagon to plan a military parade through Washington. The last military parade in the capital was in 1991 following the victory of the First Gulf War. According to Pentagon spokesman Charlie Summers, the plans are in their “infancy.”

“This idea of a military parade in Washington – I just shake my head in disbelief. These are the things I’ve seen in third-world dictatorships and authoritarian regimes,” Brennan said.

“I feel pretty strongly that the United States is strong and respected because of who we are and what we are and how we conduct our foreign policy on national security, but this very bombastic rhetoric is very antithetical to our values, to our history, to who we are.”

Despite concerns with the current administration’s national security efforts, Brennan remained hopeful as a new generation of national security professionals enters government agencies.

“I do hope that there are many aspiring national security professionals out there because your country and your governance need you,” Brennan said. “We need the best talent to deal with the challenges we face ahead.”

Disappointed by Norment bill, marijuana law reform advocates refocus agenda

By Fadel Allassan and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Marijuana law reform advocates are refocusing their agenda after Virginia’s Senate majority leader introduced a bill that eliminates jail time for first-offense possession but falls short of decriminalization — a concept he earlier said he would support.

Under the bill by Sen. Thomas Norment Jr., R-James City, first-time marijuana possession offenders would be fined but also have a chance to have their records expunged. It isn’t the decriminalization bill Norment told The Virginian-Pilot he supported last November. But a spokesperson for the majority leader now says such a bill, which could have made first-time possession a civil offense, would have little chance of passing the House of Delegates.

“It’s a disappointment to thousands of Virginians and particularly to his constituents, who were looking for him to be the leader on this issue.” said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, a marijuana reform advocacy group.

Reform advocates, who gathered at the Virginia 2018 Cannabis Conference in Richmond on Sunday and Monday, said they support the bill despite it not going far enough, but are now focusing their attention on legislation including a measure by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, that would expand the use of medical cannabis in Virginia.

Decriminalization, however, isn’t dead yet in the assembly, and advocates said they support legislation including SB111 by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, and HB 1063 by  Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth. But the bills face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled legislature. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he favors decriminalizing simple first-possession charges.

In Virginia, people charged with pot possession as a first offense are typically eligible for a probationary program that gives the chance for a judge to dismiss the charge. Norment’s legislation would make that practice law and instead of dismissal, allow expungement.

“We were expecting a bill that was more analogous to decriminalization, but instead what we see is an expungement bill,” Pedini said.

On another front, advocates said they support Dunnavant’s bill, which would allow medical practitioners to issue certifications to allow patients to use cannabis oil. It has been assigned to the Education and Health Committee and has the backing of the legislature’s Joint Commission on Health Care.

“Those health care decisions should be made by a licensed practitioner, not senators and delegates in Richmond,” Pedini said.

Last year, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed into law a bill that allows pharmacies to make and sell cannabis oils for treating intractable epilepsy. Dunnavant’s bill allows health care professionals to determine which illnesses can be treated.

Advocates at the conference – which was organized by the advocacy groups Virginia NORML, Cannabis Commonwealth and Virginia Cannabis Group – are also making phone calls and lobbying against a bill that would allow law enforcement officers to strip search people at traffic stops if there is reasonable cause to believe they may possess controlled substances.

The law is intended to battle opioid and fentanyl possession, Pedini said, but could trap  those who legally use marijuana to treat epilepsy.

“What we don’t want to see is a mother and her child driving home to be stopped and strip searched,” Pedini said.

Advocates to Lobby for Marijuana Legalization

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Advocates for marijuana policy reform will come to Richmond for a conference on Sunday and Monday to push for legislation that would decriminalize simple possession of marijuana by adults as well as expand medical access to the drug.

The Virginia 2018 Cannabis Conference is organized by Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, as well as Cannabis Commonwealth and Virginia Cannabis Group.

Jenn Michelle Pedini, president of NORML’s Virginia chapter, stated in an email that the organization works to reform all marijuana laws so that responsible use by adults is no longer subject to penalty.

Pedini will open the conference Sunday morning at the Marriott Richmond Downtown, 555 E. Canal St. The program, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., will feature a series of speakers.

The keynote speaker will be John Hudak, author of “Marijuana: A Short History.” Hudak is deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.

Closing remarks will be made by Del. Ben Cline, a Republican from Rockbridge County, and by NORML’s national outreach director, Kevin Mahmalji.

The speakers will prepare the attendees for a day of lobbying at the state Capitol on Monday. The marijuana legalization advocates will hold meetings with legislators in the morning and then attend the sessions of the Senate and House.

Northam inaugural ball showcases Virginia regions

By Siona Peterous and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Temperatures in the 20s didn’t deter a steady stream of hundreds of people dressed in fine suits and glamorous gowns from arriving at Main Street Station for Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball.

The ball opened its doors at 8 p.m. Saturday and was the first event held in the station’s newly renovated 47,000 square-foot and 500-foot long train shed.

“I’m happy to see the renovations are done and this is such a great, exciting event. It makes politics a little more fun, you know,” said Margaret Clark, a Henrico resident who teaches high school and works with a local non-profit.

The ball featured a Motown-influenced funk band, Mo’ Sol, whose high-energy twists on classics by Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and dozens more helped create a lively crowd that danced in the 90 minutes between when doors opened and the governor and first lady of Virginia, Pamela Northam, appeared on stage for their first dance.

In keeping with the theme of the Motown glory days, the couple’s first dance was to Otis Redding’s, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Foods and drinks distinct to the Commonwealth's regions were featured at tables set against the hall’s massive glass windows. Diners could sample coastal Virginia’s raw bar, pot pie from the Blue Ridge, charcuterie from Northern Virginia and an apple dessert from the Shenandoah Valley.

The ball’s open bar included a specially made beer, Inaugural-ALE from the  Ashland-based Center of the Universe Brewing Company.

“By brewing this beer with 100-percent Virginia grown ingredients, we hope to show the synergy between the Virginia craft beer manufacturers and our Virginia agricultural partners,” company founder Chris Ray said in a news release.

According to Laura Bryant, who campaigned with Northam, the focus on Virginia’s agriculture is  in line with the new governor’s promise to continue former Gov. Terry McAuliffe's work on showcasing regions outside of the economic powerhouses of Northern Virginia.

“As you can see there is a celebration of areas outside of NOVA -- Southwest Virginia, Blue Ridge Virginia and Richmond,” Bryant said. “I’m just excited because there are voices represented that would usually not be present in an inaugural setting.”

Immigrant-Rights Supporters Protest at Inaugural Ball

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- About a dozen immigrant-rights supporters protested outside Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural ball, calling on Virginia politicians to back federal legislation protecting many undocumented young adults from deportation.

The protesters urged U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to support a bill to help immigrants who qualified for protection under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. President Trump has indicated he will end the DACA policy unless Congress acts.

The demonstrators shouted their pleas Saturday night outside Main Street Station, where Northam’s inaugural ball was being held.

The protests were organized by CASA in Action, a nonprofit organization operating in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The organization says it has more than 96,000 members and is the largest electoral organization focused on immigrant rights in the mid-Atlantic region.

The president of CASA in Action, Gustavo Torres, said that the protests focused on pressuring Kaine and Warner to require a “clean” DACA bill as part of congressional negotiations over the federal budget. Such a bill would allow DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, to stay in the United States.

The activists have been following Kaine and Warner at various events to protest their previous votes against putting the DACA law in the budget legislation. Congress must take budget action by Friday to avert a government shutdown.

The fate of DACA protections has become a critical issue in reaching a bipartisan deal on a federal budget. Many Democratic leaders have announced they will not support a budget without guaranteeing the security of DACA recipients, Torres said.

“We are still very optimistic based on people’s reactions against the deportation of DACA recipients,” Torres said. “But we have to do our homework. Doing our homework is knocking on doors; it's talking to people. They (Kaine and Warner) say they are our friends, but right now we need them to be our champions. There is a strong difference.”

Luis Aguilera, a DACA recipient and an immigrant rights activist, said it’s not surprising that DACA is under attack.

“Using immigrants is a convenient political tool; however it’s not just Trump,” Aguilera said. “So we are asking Sen. Kaine and Sen. Warner to back up their claims that they are supporters of DACA.”

Though the conversation about DACA is heavily focused on Latinos, Dreamers of other nationalities also are affected.

Esther Jeon, a DACA recipient, is an immigrant rights fellow with the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.

“I don't think many people know how many Asian Americans are affected by DACA. One in six in our Korean-American community have DACA,” Jeong said.

 “We’re all here to let the government know how widespread the effects (of ending DACA protections) are -- because it’s not just Latinos, it’s Asians, and there is even a number of undocumented black immigrants in this country as well.”

As the protest was being held at the inaugural ball, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced some good news for DACA recipients: On Saturday evening, the department said it would continue to process DACA renewals in light of a ruling last week by a federal judge in San Francisco. However, that does not mean DACA is protected for the long term.

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