The more things change

ADDITIONAL CONTEXT This week, a climate crisis that isn't wildfires, a health crisis that isn't COVID, and a housing crisis that — well ... it's the same old housing crisis.

Hey look: the smoke and heat are back and so are a bunch of familiar local calamities. We know it’s starting to wear thin, these nonstop health, housing and climate crises, so for a little variety, this week’s climate and health crises aren’t the ones you expect! (The housing crisis, unfortunately, is exactly the one you expect.) But, if you read all the way to the end, you’ll see two fascinating little morsels about how Seattle might soon have an abolitionist city prosecutor and how Apple will definitely soon be spying on your porn! — Luke

DEFINITELY NOT NOT A CONCERN

Remember July 26, when Mayor Woodward declared a housing emergency? Sure, it was over a year after tenants advocates and landlord lobbyists banded together for perhaps the first time in recorded history to warn of a housing emergency, but better late than never, right? 

And when the press release declaring the emergency carried the quote from her saying, in part, “I am taking immediate action to address the critical housing needs in our city,” a reasonable person might have made certain assumptions around the swiftness and scale of those actions. So let’s check in on the “immediate action(s)” catalyzed within the ol’ department of Community Housing and Human Services (CHHS), shall we?

Well: last week, David Lewis became the fourth city leader on homelessness to resign in the last 6 months, following Tija Danzig, Amber Richards and Cupid Alexander. Two other employees left the office in July, leaving a department budgeted for 22 employees with just 14, and literally decades of experience sucked into the leadership vacuum. Not to worry, said Kirstin Davis, the acting head of CHHS — one of the few warm bodies left in the office — who told the Spokesman there is “definitely not a concern that things will be missed.”

Did she mean “not a concern”? Maybe “Not not a concern?”

That couldn’t possibly be foreshadowing, could it?

Hard cut to this Wednesday, when CHHS announced it just wasn’t going to offer more than $1 million dollars in affordable housing funding because of staff shortages. Davis reassured reporters that the money wasn’t going away or anything, the implementation was just delayed, and the call for proposals could (emphasis: could) go out next spring.

It’s a seriously tough pill to swallow following a declaration of emergency. Not only is there no discernible forward momentum, existing programs are being cut or postponed. Money that could help — and in the past has helped — catalyze development is now being left for some indeterminate future.

It’s not like time is of the essence or anything.

Meanwhile, in other parts of America, the bidding wars that have become a staple of home buying have found their way to the rental market. No reports of that reaching Spokane, yet, but given our trajectory, it’s hard to imagine it being far off. 

Thankfully, this looming housing catastrophe — much like climate change — is waiting patiently for us to get our shit together before anything truly irreversible happens. Oh wait. — Luke

BLUE-GREEN BLUES 

Uncomfortably hot temps might make you eager to splash into the nearest lake or river to cool off, but there’s a dangerous threat literally brewing in Inland Northwest bodies of water this summer. 

Blue-green algae is a type of cyanobacteria that thrives in warm, still waters. It’s toxic to swimmers, who can develop rashes and even organ damage from exposure. For dogs, contact can be lethal. At least four pups have died in Spokane after swimming in affected waters. Blue-green algae looks like greenish, sometimes oily sludge floating on the surface of water.

Typically the scummy substance prefers stagnant water and isn’t much of a problem in rivers. However, the climate-crisis-fueled heat surge has created ideal conditions for cyanobacteria to bloom and grow, even in places like the Little Spokane and Spokane Rivers.

We’ll bring you expanded code-red climate crisis coverage next week. For now, stay algae-cautious and keep your dogs close. — Elissa

WILL THEY OR WON’T THEY?! COVID MANDATE EDITION

It’s been a wild few days in mask mandate world. We won’t even get into the national debate (or Idaho, lol). It’s hard enough keeping up with Washington:

This jockeying comes at a vital juncture for the Inland Northwest. After a region-wide spike in COVID hospitalizations, we’re back in the hospitals-are-postponing-elective-surgeries phase of the pandemic again. Multicare paused procedures last week. Providence followed suit on Tuesday, as did Coeur d’Alene’s Kootenai Health, which has the highest number of COVID patients of any hospital in Idaho. — Luke

VD DAY

Speaking of preventable public health calamities, here’s a terrifying statistic: between 2015 and 2019, syphilis infections in Spokane increased by 386%.

The once-waning STI has made an alarming comeback across the country in the past decade, particularly among heterosexuals. Contributing factors vary widely, from increased use of dating apps and decreased public health funding for STD screening clinics.

However, Spokane is seeing a disproportionate number of cases, specifically congenital syphilis (passed from parent to baby during pregnancy), which can result in birth defects, developmental problems, and even stillbirth. 43% of Washington babies born with syphilis in 2015-2019 were in Spokane County. 

Experts worry emergency redirection of healthcare funds in response to COVID-19 means the next round of syphilis data could look even more alarming.

While the bacterial infection is easy to detect with a rapid blood test, and treatable with penicillin shots, multiple factors contribute to Spokane’s high numbers. Some studies suggest a link between the disease and meth use — which super-charges libido as it suppresses the little voice that tells you to remember the condom.

Housing instability and a lack of adequate prenatal care can mean untreated syphilis in a parent can lead to undetected congenital syphilis in children. While State health officials urge doctors to add a second prenatal syphilis test (in addition to the required first-trimester test) and be more proactive about testing anyone who presents with symptoms, the stigma around STIs like syphilis remains. As Planned Parenthood of Spokane’s Jessica Lucht says, “We really want to destigmatize testing. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The tests are quick, most of them are noninvasive and painless.”  — Elissa

APPLE WATCHING

“Save the children!” is a rallying cry that’s been used to push anti-transgender bathroom bills, QAnon conspiracies, and — in proof that irony is dead — parental protest of school mask mandates. Add to this list one extremely strange bedfellow: our friends at the Apple Computer Corporation. Last Thursday the world’s most valuable company announced it would use a tool called NeuralHash to scan US iPhone photos for images of child sexual abuse when users upload the photos to iCloud. Photos flagged by the ma algorithm will then be further analyzed. NPR reports:

If child pornography is confirmed, the user's account will be disabled and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children notified.

Separately, Apple plans to scan users' encrypted messages for sexually explicit content as a way to stop adults from sending explicit pictures to kids, but again, the harm of this increased surveillance might outweigh any benefit. Because child pornography laws only care about the age of the subject, and not the age of the viewer, tweens and teenagers — who, let’s face it, are notoriously horny — can be charged with child pornography for sending pics of themselves back and forth to the people they are dating. 

There is also, of course, the nightmarish possibility of technological failure framing innocent people and incorrectly flagging users. Apple says there is "less than a one in one trillion chance per year of incorrectly flagging a given account," but tell that to anyone who’s had their YouTube account suspended because of a bot error, their Facebook account frozen because the AI doesn’t understand irony or that TikTok user who got banned for posting feet(?!).

It’s one of those situations where, if the technology fails, it’s bad, and if it works, it’s potentially even worse. 

There’s also the matter of providing a backdoor to encrypted information. Apple is assuring us that user privacy won’t be compromised, but privacy advocates — and even Apple itself! — have said there is no way to create a backdoor to encryption that can only be used by the “proper authorities.” 

To quote the Electronic Freedom Foundation, though, “even a thoroughly documented, carefully thought-out, and narrowly-scoped backdoor is still a backdoor.”

Either things are encrypted or they aren’t. The moment you create a door, someone can find a way in.

That’s why there is real concern about exploitation by hackers or by malign governments for the surveillance of dissidents. It requires literally zero imagination, given how much is happening right in front of us in places like Toppenish and Yakima, where police are using Ring’s Neighbors app to monitor local posts and send out crime-related messages. 

While many people responded with shock at the news, decrying Apple’s decision as a fundamental betrayal of the parasocial relationship humanity has developed with its smart devices, one group saw it coming:

Sex workers saw it coming because they’ve been dealing with the fallout from another well-intentioned law. In 2018, national legislation known as FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act/Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) became law, purportedly to — you guessed it — fight sex trafficking. 

The law, though, cast to broad a net, and while it may or may not have stopped some trafficking, it also shut down many of the digital tools sex workers had developed over decades to keep themselves safe from bad johns, rapists and other predators

So while it’s too early to tell how the scales will tip on Apple’s new policies — how many kids it may save from predators compared with how many lives it could destroy with false positives and how many horny teenagers it might ensnare — we have a possible window into that future with FOSTA-SESTA. 

While the act has pushed an entire industry of people who were already at risk further into the shadows, a new government report shows that in the three years since it became law, only one case of trafficking has been prosecuted under FOSTA-SESTA. — Elissa

ABOLITION IN THE NORTHWEST

This is a Spokane publication. We don’t like talking about Seattle unless it’s extremely embarrassing for them. However, we also like to highlight any jurisdiction who moves toward decriminalizing laws that disproportionately impact people of color and the poor.

In the race for Seattle City attorney, a too-close-to-call primary race has ended with 12-year incumbent Pete Holmes conceding defeat after placing 3rd in the top-two primary.

Holmes was the moderate in the race, and the two women who beat him out did so by flanking to his right and left, respectively. Ann Davison, a Republican, ran on a sort of compassionate conservatism, was characterized as the law-and-order candidate, and ultimately won the endorsement of the Seattle Times editorial board. 

Former public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, on the other hand, ran far to the left, as a carceral abolitionist who didn’t jump into the race until mid-May and who intends, if elected, to stop prosecuting most misdemeanors

Davison led on election night with Thomas-Kennedy in third. By Aug. 6, Thomas-Kennedy had taken the lead over Davison by 2%. The gap has widened since then. 

We haven’t seen any analysis yet on how Holmes’ voters are going to sort out, but in the last few years, public defenders who become abolitionist prosecutors have been having a moment, despite the powerful forces arrayed against them. 

In San Francisco, opponents of decarceral District Attorney Chesa Boudin began a recall campaign less than a year after he was sworn in, but this week the recall failed to get enough signatures. Boudin has pursued restorative justice practices during his tenure. 

In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner famously fired 31 lawyers — as much as 10% of his prosecutorial staff — just three days after taking office in 2018. Krasner pursued a policy of non-prosecution for petty crimes and, despite what sure felt like a concerted media campaign to paint a national rise in homicides during COVID as the specific fault of lax prosecution in Philly, he cruised to victory in May’s Democratic primary 65%-35%. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Philadelphia 7 to 1, so the primary victory is as good as a re-election. — Luke

MUTUAL AID

Speaking of burritos! Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) and Best Damn Restaurant in Spokane (Ruins) continue their collaboration to provide free burritos to anyone who wants one every Sunday on West Main. Go grab one this week and next week, email justice@scarspokane.org to volunteer.