A fearless investigation into child migrant labor. Reconstructing an activist’s tragic killing. A trip back to the place you once called home. A character study dressed as a plumbing mystery. A new look at an old trope. All that and more in this week’s installment.
Hannah Dreier | The New York Times Magazine | September 18, 2023 | 7,705 words
The past week saw no shortage of quality investigative reporting—Wired putting the lie to Elon Musk’s claims about Neuralink lab monkeys, ProPublica uncovering how Columbia University protected a predatorial doctor—but work like Hannah Dreier’s exposé of the child labor powering poultry plants doesn’t come along often. It begins with 14-year-old Marcos Cux getting his arm nearly torn off by a conveyor belt at 2:30 in the morning. It ends, multiple surgeries and untold heartbreaking stories later, with Cux going back to another night shift at an even more dehumanizing job. He has to; his family in Guatemala is depending on him. In between, Dreier brings you into the migrant community of rural Virginia: Dreamland, the trailer park where many of these child workers live with their relatives and guardians. The high school where exhausted children sleep through class and teachers keep their students’ overnight work schedules on sticky notes. The convenience store where teen after teen cashes in their paychecks to send money home to their families. This isn’t a drive-by, it’s a live-in, fueled by tireless reporting and peerless scenework (and phenomenal photography, courtesy of Meridith Kohut). And crucially, it’s a wake-up call. Everyone knows how the factory farming industry disrespects the animals it turns into food. They even know how that same industry feasts on the people who keep its slaughterhouses running. But until now, many of us could plead ignorance of how the Perdues and Tysons of the world, buffered by the third-party contractors they hide behind, chew through the childhoods of those who have no choice. That time is over. —PR
Jason Fagone and Julie Johnson | San Francisco Chronicle | September 19, 2023 | 9,717 words
In 1969, charismatic Mohawk activist Richard Oakes led the occupation of Alcatraz, an island that was once Ohlone land. The “invasion” was in protest of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, and an act of reclamation. Oakes became the face of the “Red Power” movement, inspiring protests across the country and laying the groundwork for expanding Indigenous rights. Decades later, however, his name is largely unknown. In 1972, at just 30, he was fatally shot in the woods north of San Francisco, unarmed, by a wilderness camp caretaker who claimed self-defense. After a trial in which his shooter was acquitted, his loved ones believed that Oakes had been targeted because of his Native identity and activism. Jason Fagone and Julie Johnson dig deep to reconstruct, with meticulous detail, the events leading up to Oakes’ death. (Kudos to the whole Chronicle team for the immersive design, placing the reader right there in Oakes’ final moments in the woods.) They interview family, prosecutors, and law enforcement, and draw from hundreds of government records and secret FBI files obtained through FOIA—information never revealed during the trial—to fill in the gaps. Their words alone are powerful, but the digital presentation, including portraits of fellow activists, officials who were involved in the case, and Oakes’ living family members, come together to tell an important story about a forgotten civil rights leader. —CLR
Shruti Swamy | AFAR | September 19, 2023 | 2,173 words
Shruti Swamy plumbs childhood memories of Mumbai, India, as she returns for the first time as a wife and mother. This is a lovely, striking meditation on what it means to return to a place you once knew—and to show it to those you love. Swamy’s dissonance is palpable when she struggles to be understood in Hindi and to navigate a city altered by time. She asks: “But is there a moment, a meal, an exchange that will make Mumbai legible to us?” As the young family visits markets, beaches, and street vendors, Swamy revels in the smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of the city. She recounts the pleasure of promised coconut cream for her four-year-old daughter and the street bite that made me want to book a plane ticket: “My husband will tear into a lifafa wrap from Swati Snacks, the both of us nearly shouting at the exquisite mix of mint and fat, the slow burn of chili. Like biting into art.”As a reader, it’s wonderful to watch as her persistence is rewarded: “Moment by moment, this city will teach me to stay awake to the present, to pay attention, to follow the thread of human connection, to take pleasure where it’s found.” If this is what it means to go home again, count me in. —KS
John Jeremiah Sullivan | Harper’s Magazine | August 14, 2023 | 3,700 words
I have a fear of needing to call a plumber to my house. Experience has taught me they will inevitably sigh, then inform me that whoever last ventured near my dodgy pipes was a cowboy, with hundreds of dollars now needing to be spent. My anxiety is so great that—to my immense pride—I recently fixed a running toilet myself, tying down the ballcock with a sparkly purple ribbon I found in the knickknack drawer. (A cowboy job indeed.) Obviously, I leapt to read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s delightful piece about his own plumbing woes. His innocuous opening sentence, “Here is the tale of something plumbing-related that happened at my house[,]” belies the rollercoaster journey you are about to embark on. Halfway through, I was just as invested in where that mysterious sewage smell was coming from as Sullivan. To find the solution, we have to go rogue, bringing in Greg and Fran, plumbers with “crackhead power” from the underbelly of the contractor world. Having never known of this mysterious plumber stratum, I devoured the glorious descriptions of these two men, Sullivan conjuring them from the page until I felt they stood in front of me: Fran with his buzzcut and denim culottes, bitching about Greg; Greg with his “formidable gray mustache, strong hands, and wild, piercing eyes” talking at length about bowel movements. Sullivan may be as flummoxed by plumbing issues as I am, but he is a master in character study. —CW
Kristen Arnett | Vox | September 18, 2023 | 1,634 words
Have you played the game Florida Man? It’s simple: type your birthday (month, date) and “Florida Man” into a search bar. You will be regaled (as I was) with not one, but several inane crimes committed over the years by men in Florida. As Kristen Arnett explains, “These crimes are odd and incomprehensible; the kind of behavior that someone might associate with a badly behaved toddler whose brain has yet to fully develop.” I had several to choose from; my favorite was the Florida Man who was caught on video driving down I-4 while standing up, his upper body poking through the sunroof. Arnett explains that the game is made possible because of the Sunshine Law, which makes arrest records and mugshots “readily available online for the general public to gawk and point at. If you’ve committed a crime in the Sunshine State, that information becomes accessible to everyone, everywhere, immediately.” This piece is far more than just a litany of bizarre behavior. Arnett, a third-generation Floridian, suggests that while the Florida Man meme makes it easy for outsiders to dismiss the state as the epicenter of America’s ills, we need to look deeper. “I think the harder lesson is that Florida is no different from anywhere else; the headlines just turn our hardships into a joke to make things more palatable,” she writes. “We can’t and won’t disregard the fact that we’re going to stay strange and continue to be completely, authentically ourselves; we also can’t forget the wonderful alongside the troubles.” Maybe it’s time we embraced that little bit of Florida Man in all of us. —KS
What was our readers’ favorite this week? The envelope, please.
How Columbia Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors and Protected a Predator For More Than 20 Years
Bianca Fortis and Laura Beil | ProPublica | September 12, 2023 | 8,522 words
For more than two decades, patients of an OB/GYN named Robert Hadden warned Columbia University that he was sexually inappropriate and abusive. One woman even called the police and had him arrested, but Hadden was allowed to return to work days later. In other disturbing incidents, patients describe Hadden’s colleagues brushing off his behavior, or even looking away while in the exam room. Over the years, Hadden’s superiors failed to take action. To date, more than 245 patients have alleged that the obstetrician abused them, and Columbia—a prestigious institution committed to “the highest standards of ethical conduct”—continues to aggressively fight new lawsuits from his victims. This is a piece of tremendous reporting—but it’s also deeply triggering and upsetting. —CLR