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NAACP protests Trump's US Attorney General pick with sit-in

The NAACP staged a sit-in on Tuesday to protest the nomination of conservative U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions as the nation's next Attorney General, vowing to occupy his Mobile, Alabama, office until he withdrew as a candidate or demonstrators were arrested.

Sessions, 70, has a record of controversial positions on race, immigration and criminal justice reform. Along with the sit-in, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized demonstrations at his offices statewide to draw attention to their concerns about his track record.

"Senator Sessions has callously ignored the reality of voter suppression but zealously prosecuted innocent civil rights leaders on trumped-up charges of voter fraud," NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said in a news release. "As an opponent of the vote, he can't be trusted to be the chief law enforcement officer for voting rights."

Brooks posted a photo on Twitter of protesters in suits occupying the senator's Mobile office.

Sessions' office could not immediately be reached for comment.

President-elect Donald Trump in November named Sessions to lead the Justice Department and the FBI, and his history could see scrutiny during a confirmation process before his fellow senators.

Sessions was a federal prosecutor in 1986 when he became only the second nominee in 50 years to be denied confirmation as a federal judge. This came after allegations that he had made racist remarks, including testimony that he had called an African-American prosecutor "boy," an allegation Sessions denied.

Sessions said he was not a racist but he said at his hearing that groups such as the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union could be considered "un-American."

He also acknowledged that he had called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a "piece of intrusive legislation."




Black College Band Marches Into Controversy Over Trump Inauguration

The marching band for America’s oldest private, historically black liberal arts college has apparently agreed to perform Donald Trump’s inauguration ― triggering a storm of controversy and two rival petitions this week. The 200-member Talladega College Marching Tornadoes feature on a list the presidential inauguration team released of entertainers scheduled for Jan. 20, reports. Other historically black schools, such as Howard University, have turned down offers to perform at the event.

Talladega College officials had yet to comment on the controversy, but news of the band’s reported participation outraged many, including graduates of the school.

Shirley Ferrill, a 1974 alum, launched a petition Monday, urging the college to withdraw from the event. “In view of his behavior and comments I strongly do not want Talladega College to give the appearance of supporting him,” she says of Trump in her plea.

Seinya SamForay was among those commenting on the school’s social media sites, according to The Associated Press. “After how black people were treated at Trump’s rallies, you’re going to go and shuck and jive down Pennsylvania Avenue? For what?” said Seinya SamForay to the AP.  “What they did is a slap in the face to other black universities.”

Talladega student Dollan Young has started his own petition in defense of the college band. “Its not to support of no political party its about the experience that the students will obtain,” he says in his appeal.

The college was founded in 1867 by the descendants of slaves who helped to construct its first building.

Trump’s inauguration team has struggled to attract big names to perform at the event and they’ve encountered problems with those they’ve asked to appear. The Rockettes are reportedly reluctant to perform, while Mormons are petitioning to keep the Tabernacle Choir away from the event. And singer Rebecca Ferguson has said she’ll only appear if she can sing what is perhaps the best-known song about racism in America, “Strange Fruit.”

Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, also ran into controversy when it was announced that its band would play in the parade.

A college spokesman told the AP up to eight of the band’s 100 members had chosen not participate.

“They don’t want to have anything to do with the inauguration or President Trump and we respect that, and that’s their right,” he said.


Obamacare Is First Item On Congress' Chopping Block

Congress is back in session on Tuesday, and leaders of both houses say their first order of business will be to repeal Obamacare.

If they do that, it will be a slap in the face to President Barack Obama just three weeks before he leaves the White House. The Affordable Care is the outgoing president's signature achievement, marked by an elaborate signing ceremony in March 2010 at the White House, with lofty speeches from the vice president and Obama himself.

"Today, after almost a century of trying, today after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America," Obama said that day, to long applause from the assembled crowd.

And Joe Biden famously leaned over to remind the president that it was "a big ***ing deal."

But Republicans have been vowing to repeal the law since the day it passed, and they'll soon have a sympathetic president in the White House to sign whatever bill they send him.


"We will repeal the disaster known as Obamacare and create new health care, all sorts of reforms that work for you and your family," President-elect Donald Trump vowed last month in Orlando.

That new health care plan hasn't been fleshed out yet by Trump or his allies in Congress. So they say they'll vote to get rid of Obamacare, but delay its demise until they come up with a replacement that will cover the millions of people who have insurance thanks to the law.

But insurance companies and health care analysts are worried.

"I don't see how you talk to any [insurance] carrier and give them any desire to hang around to see what they replace it with," says Dr. Kavita Patel, an internist at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Why would you stick around for that?"

Patel worked in the White House and helped create the Affordable Care Act. But she's not alone in her concern.

Last month the health insurance trade group America's Health Insurance Plans sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to keep in place many of the financial incentives that are central to the law — including subsidies for patients to help them buy insurance and cover copayments, and a provision that eliminates some taxes on insurers.

The American Academy of Actuaries also warned in its own letter that a repeal of the ACA without replacing it would be dangerous to the long-term health of the insurance market.

Still, Republicans appear determined to move ahead with the vote as soon as this week.

Some history:

Democrats rammed the Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2010 with no Republican support.

It was a huge, complicated law and, like most legislation, it was flawed. Over the subsequent six years, Republicans, who were angry at the way the Affordable Care Act was passed, refused to cooperate in any actions that would be seen as helping it succeed. Instead, they promised in speeches and television interviews to repeal it entirely. In fact, the House has voted more than 60 times over the years to do just that.


Then-Speaker of the House John Boehner stands next to a printed version of the Affordable Care Act during a Capitol Hill news conference on May 16, 2013.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"There's no getting around the fact that lots of Republicans campaigned hard against the ACA and a lot of them won, including the person at the top of the ticket," says James Capretta, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

But even with control of both chambers of Congress and with Trump in the White House, Republicans can't simply repeal Obamacare. They would need the help of at least a handful of Democrats to overcome a filibuster.

Democrats can't, however, filibuster budget bills. So Republican leaders have decided to defund Obamacare, eliminating the tax penalties for those who don't buy insurance and the subsidies to help people pay their premiums. Essentially, that guts the law's main elements.

The problem for Republicans is that today, an estimated 20 million people get their insurance through Obamacare. About 10 million buy policies through the exchanges set up by state and federal governments, and most of those patients get subsidies to help pay the premiums.

And millions more are covered because the law allows states to expand the number of people who are eligible for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.

So people who had pre-existing conditions that shut them out of the insurance market before the ACA passed, or people who had reached insurer-imposed lifetime benefit limits, generally like the law.

But, then there are people like Will Denecke, who is mad because his insurance costs have gone up since Obamacare passed. Before the law was enacted, he spent about $340 a month on health insurance.

"Incredibly, we got a notice from my health care company, Moda, which has been having financial problems, that my premium was going up to $930," he said last October.

He's a self-employed urban planning consultant in Portland, Ore., and, unlike most people in Obamacare, he makes too much money to qualify for government subsidies.

"I've had health insurance my whole life, but it's just offensive in principle to think of spending $1,000 a month on health care insurance when there is a good chance I won't need it," he said.

He was considering just letting his coverage lapse.

And, on the other side, you've got people like Leigh Kvetko of Dallas. She takes 10 medications every day because she's had two organ transplant procedures, and the drugs are part of her daily regimen to survive. After Obamacare passed, she was able quit her job at a big company and start a business with her husband, because she could finally get individual insurance.

"This particular plan, the fact that they cannot discriminate against me because of how I was born, was a lifesaver, literally," she says.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady told the Washington Times last month that consumers needn't worry. "We can assure the American public that the plan they're in right now, the Obamacare plans, will not end on Jan. 20, that we're going to be prepared and ready with new options tailored for them," he said.




The Bright Stuff: Inside the making of Hidden Figures

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, but the heroic astronaut would have failed to launch without the efforts of a group that included three brilliant mathematicians, minds so gifted they were referred to within NASA as “human computers.” Yet these key players in the history of the U.S. space program — Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — were basically forgotten in the annals of history, their groundbreaking contributions obscured by the long shadow of racism in the Jim Crow-era South. “I thought it was historical fiction,” says Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help). “To find out it was actually true? It was about time to credit them for their contributions.”

Hidden Figures (out now in limited release) is all about giving the women that long-overdue recognition. The movie, directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent), stars Taraji P. Henson (Empire), Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Moonlight) as Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively, and focuses on their professional hurdles and the friendship that sustains them amid the sexism and forced segregation of the era. (Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons costar as fellow NASA employees.)

It’s a bond that carried over for the three actresses, too. “It’s a serious movie, but in order to breathe life into the seriousness of the role and the profundity, you have to have moments of levity,” Spencer says. “There was no lack of that on the set. Taraji, being the social bug that she is, likes to entertain people. She would have us over to her house and cook for us.” Still, Henson says, no one doubted the magnitude of the stories they were telling. “The film is bigger than me. Bigger than any award. On these wonderful women’s shoulders, we ride.”

After 60 years of their stories being in the darkness, it took the daughter of a NASA research scientist to finally bring the women of Hidden Figures into the spotlight. Writer Margot Lee Shetterly’s father worked with Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, and the author learned about the ladies through him. Shetterly’s 55-page book proposal for Figures eventually made the rounds in Hollywood and caught the attention of Melfi. “I couldn’t believe that there were black women at NASA and that they were segregated from the white people at the same time they were working on the same project,” Melfi says. “I was floored that we didn’t know anything about these women.”

Before shooting began in Atlanta in March 2016, Melfi and Henson visited 98-year-old Johnson at her home in Virginia to learn more about her experiences firsthand. “We sat and talked and went through photo albums,” Henson says. “Her children were there, and her grandchildren. I really felt a responsibility when her children met me. They were like, ‘We couldn’t think of a better actress to play our mom.’ I was like, ‘No pressure!'” Johnson was surprised that anyone found her story so compelling, Melfi says. “She said multiple times, ‘I don’t know why you’re making a movie about me. I just did my work,'” he says. “She’s just so humble and doesn’t understand what she’s done to pave the way for other women or women of color.”

Melfi set out to celebrate just how special Johnson and her colleagues were — and to pay tribute to good old-fashioned brainpower. “We don’t have parades for mathematicians, we have parades for astronauts,” he says. “You don’t think about all the thousands of people who worked on that capsule and crunched the numbers and were integral in getting that into space.” To that end, the production sought to depict historical events with great accuracy, if only on a faster timetable. Case in point: In the film, Henson as Johnson has to compute the stats for Glenn’s landing in minutes. In reality, she had three days. “What’s dramatized is the way things happened but not the fact that they happened,” Melfi says.

Besides, the facts alone are more than enough. Johnson became a trusted member of Glenn’s flight team and the first African-American woman to sit in on NASA briefings. She was responsible for the equations that led to Glenn — who died on Dec. 8 at age 95, just weeks before Figures‘ release — both launching and landing safely for his 1962 orbit around Earth. Henson, who failed a college math course, says that mastering rocket-science-level equations to play Johnson helped her conquer her own phobias. “Math always made me nervous,” she says. “I always felt unworthy. This helped heal that. I faced that fear.” Vaughan became the first African-American supervisor in the space program, later teaching herself the agency’s state-of-the-art IBM computers. Jackson went on to be NASA’s first African-American female engineer.

To depict these pioneers’ victories, however, the cast also had to shine a light on the struggles they endured, which often proved painful. “I gotta tell ya — that era sucked,” Spencer says. “I’ve become this person who does period movies, and I actually hate having to be there emotionally. It’s not something you can easily walk away from.” Monáe also says shooting some of the film’s most poignant scenes — in which Jackson must legally petition to be allowed to attend university classes at night at a segregated high school — took an emotional toll. “All I could think about was how wrong and upsetting and sad it was,” she says. “I just had to use it to fuel my drive to make sure I honored this woman [in a way] that hopefully will make her proud.”

Melfi is hoping that in a complicated post-election landscape, Figures‘ themes of female empowerment will resonate strongly with audiences. “Raising two daughters, I just wanted to tell the story for them and for all the women around the world who need to be lifted up,” he says.

Critics’ groups are certainly taking note. In the lead-up to Figures‘ Christmas release (it will expand to more theaters Jan. 6), the film earned Spencer nominations for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for best supporting actress. The cast, too, was nominated by SAG for best ensemble.

Perhaps the most notable accolade so far, though, is the response from Johnson, the only living member of Figures’ trio (Vaughan and Jackson died in November 2008 and February 2005, respectively). In November, Melfi and the studio rented a theater in Johnson’s hometown of Hampton, Virginia, to screen the film for her and her daughters. In the dark screening room, the family wept. “We will be a part of the telling of their history,” Spencer says. “To me, that is a great achievement.”





Trump praises Putin for holding back in U.S.-Russia spy dispute

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Friday praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for refraining from retaliation in a dispute over spying and cyber attacks, in another sign that the Republican plans to patch up badly frayed relations with Moscow.

Putin earlier on Friday said he would not hit back for the U.S. expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies by President Barack Obama, at least until Trump takes office on Jan. 20.

"Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!" Trump wrote on Twitter from Florida, where he is on vacation.

Obama on Thursday ordered the expulsion of the Russians and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking political groups in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.

"We will not expel anyone," Putin said in a statement, adding that Russia reserved the right to retaliate.

"Further steps toward the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of President D. Trump will carry out," he said.

Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and nominated people seen as friendly toward Moscow to senior administration posts, but it is unclear whether he would seek to roll back Obama's actions, which mark a post-Cold War low in U.S.-Russian ties.

Trump has brushed aside allegations from the CIA and other intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the cyber attacks. "It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," Trump said on Thursday, though he said he would meet with intelligence officials next week.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia was behind hacks into Democratic Party organizations and operatives before the presidential election. Moscow denies this. U.S. intelligence officials say the Russian cyber attacks aimed to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Russian officials have portrayed the sanctions as a last act of a lame-duck president and suggested Trump could reverse them when he takes over from Obama, a Democrat.

A senior U.S. official on Thursday said that Trump could reverse Obama's executive order, but doing so would be inadvisable.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the Obama administration "a group of embittered and dim witted foreign policy losers."


Should Trump seek to heal the rift with Russia, he might encounter opposition in Congress, including from fellow Republicans.

Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Friday that Russia must face a penalty for the cyber attacks and that is was possible to impose many sanctions.

"When you attack a country, it's an act of war," McCain said in an interview with the Ukrainian TV channel "1+1" while on a visit to Kiev.

"And so we have to make sure that there is a price to pay, so that we can perhaps persuade the Russians to stop these kind of attacks on our very fundamentals of democracy." added McCain, who has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on foreign cyber threats.

Other senior Republicans, as well as Democrats, have urged a tough response to Moscow.

A total of 96 Russians are expected to leave the United States including expelled diplomats and their families.

Trump will find it very difficult to reverse the expulsions and lift the sanctions given that they were based on a unanimous conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies, said Eugene Rumer, who was the top U.S. intelligence analyst for Russia from 2010 until 2014.

But that might not prevent Trump from improving ties to Russia, said Rumer, now director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy institute. "If Mr. Trump wants to start the relationship anew, I don’t think he needs to walk these sanctions back. He can just say this was Obama’s decision,” said Rumer.

As part of the sanctions, Obama told Russia to close two compounds in the United States that the administration said were used by Russian personnel for "intelligence-related purposes."

Russia was given until noon on Friday to vacate both premises. Convoys of trucks, buses and black sedans with diplomatic license plates left the countryside vacation retreats outside Washington and New York City without fanfare.




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