Special Briefing: The Art of the Kneel

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This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What’s the state of free speech in America? Muddled, bordering on incoherent. In the past several weeks, debates on the nature and scope of free speech in the United States have flared up over everything from neo-Nazi protests and campus demonstrations against conservative speakers to an ESPN host calling the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and a Google employee getting fired for questioning his employer’s diversity efforts. And then …

What happens when the president shouts “You’re FIRED!” in a crowded arena? At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, President Donald Trump said that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, like the “son of a bitch” Colin Kaepernick, should be fired. Widespread protests erupted across the league in response, as dozens of players knelt and others stood and locked arms — while a few teams remained in their locker rooms — during the national anthem.

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Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline, during the anthem, prior to the game against the Los Angeles Rams in December 2016.

Source Michael Zagaris/Getty

Is this just “locker room talk”?  The kneeling controversy has reignited a larger debate in a nation divided over how, where and to what degree its people, including its president, should be able to express themselves. Tune in to Third Rail With OZY on PBS at 8:30 p.m. tonight where we’ll host a full discussion.



Why They’re Protesting the Protest.  Taking a knee is meant to protest police brutality and systemic racism toward people of color in America. But many critics say they see the protests as an affront to veterans, the military, the national anthem and the United States itself.

A Prevent Defense.  The White House, put on defense this week, has echoed these sentiments. “This isn’t about the president being against anyone,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, maintaining it was appropriate for the president “to defend our national anthem.” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin argued that players “have the right to have the First Amendment off the field.”

Chilled Water Cooler Conversations. What do Colin Kaepernick, former Google engineer James Damore and Gary Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser, have in common? They have all experienced adverse employment outcomes as a result of speaking their minds, underscoring the reality that most employees in America do not enjoy free speech in the workplace. No NFL team will hire Kaepernick, Damore was fired by Google and it appears that Cohn’s criticism of his boss’s remarks about the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, hurt his expected promotion to Federal Reserve chairman.

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A demonstrator holds a banner reading

Source Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Shrinking Opportunities for Speech. It’s not just the workplace where free speech is curtailed. Many U.S. colleges limit discourse through so-called speech codes and free speech zones. And in at least 12 states, many of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War marches of the 1960s would be illegal today because they block traffic or “disrupt commerce.”

Hindsight is 80/20. Speaking of marches, according to a 2016 poll, 54 percent of Americans disapproved of athletes like Kaepernick kneeling in protest. But Americans’ views of civil rights protests and their participants tend to evolve over time: 60 percent had an unfavorable view of the March on Washington in 1963, according to Gallup, and 63 percent a negative impression of Martin Luther King Jr. Today, 80 percent have a favorable view of King, and the March is considered a landmark success.

Around the World. People in America still enjoy a more robust freedom of speech than many across the world. On Monday in Cairo, seven concertgoers unfurled a rainbow flag and were subsequently arrested for “inciting immorality,” which officials said was necessary to “protect social values.”


How the NFL Watered Down Colin Kaepernick’s Protest, by Jamil Smith at theWashington Post

“This past weekend, the NFL took an opportunity to throw its weight to aid the cause of racial justice and turned it into a bland exhibition of corporate ‘unity.’”

Colin Kaepernick’s Mother Responds to the President, by Teresa Kaepernick on Twitter

“Guess that makes me a proud bitch!”


History: The Legacy of Political Protest in Sports

“America has a long history of athletes using their high-profile status to protest against the government and its policies.”

Humor: Trump’s NFL Comments Have Everything To Do With Race

“Saying that kneeling is a protest against the flag is like saying Gandhi’s hunger strikes were a protest against snacking.”

What to Say at the Water Cooler

To play it safe, try “helluva game on Sunday.” Or test the free speech waters with: Is the president undermining the Justice Department’s position on free speech? The Trump administration recently argued to the Supreme Court that free speech protects a Christian baker’s refusal to serve LGBT customers. When it comes to protected speech, is refusing to serve a customer more justified than refusing to stand during an anthem?

Whose Free Speech Are You Knocking?

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Join us for Third Rail With OZYa new TV show presented by OZY and WGBHwhere we debate provocative hot topics with experts and celebrities every Friday night. The subject of this week’s show: “Is free speech alive and well?” Tune in Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS, or online, and be sure to weigh in on social media (#ThirdRailPBS) and/or email us at thirdrail@ozy.com with your take!

Missed the previous episodes? Catch up here!

Liberals are forgetting their liberal values. Case in point? For as wrong as it was for President Donald Trump to lambaste football players exercising their right to freedom of expression, UC Berkeley’s student-led effort to host a “Free Speech Week” featuring uber-conservative speakers failed miserably, resulting in cancellation. Barring speech or expressions we disagree with, whether it’s taking a knee during the national anthem or far-right rhetoric on our college greens, is barring someone from expressing their views. And that’s a slippery slope.

I grew up in Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, where I walked down Telegraph Avenue past murals of Mario Savio speaking at Sproul Plaza and drank hot chocolate at Free Speech Cafe. I believed in free speech before I even knew what it meant. So I was taken aback more than a decade later when my college, Claremont McKenna, like many others, got swept up in controversy last year over student protesters trying to shut down a conservative speaker’s event.

… students should have the freedom to make their own decisions and attend schools that trust their students to decipher the truth on their own.

The First Amendment doesn’t apply at my small liberal arts college in Southern California because it’s a private institution — as opposed to public schools, which are bound by the Constitution. Still, the “liberal” in liberal arts refers to the idea of freedom, and students should have the freedom to make their own decisions and attend schools that trust their students to decipher the truth on their own. They are, after all, designed to provide students with the knowledge and opportunity to think freely. 

Last April, I tried to help ensure that Heather Mac Donald, a conservative political commentator, could exercise her freedom of expression against the protests of my classmates. As associate student manager of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government — the organization that hosted Mac Donald on campus — my job was to serve as a liaison between the students and the institute. About a week before Mac Donald’s talk, I heard that students were going to be protesting, and as the event approached, calls for protests morphed into demonization of Mac Donald, as well as vilification of my co-workers. The two previous student managers were publicly targeted as racist on social media, and several of my co-workers were added to the “Shady People of Color List.”


On the day of the speech, we ensured that there were fences and security outside the event, but it soon became clear that these precautions were not enough: Students surrounded the building where Mac Donald was set to speak, accusing her of “white supremacist and fascist ideologies,” and chanting about her racist tendencies, shutting down her speech.

The whole ordeal left me feeling conflicted. While I strongly disagreed with Mac Donald’s viewpoints and thought she shouldn’t speak if people were going to feel victimized by it, I also felt that Mac Donald, like the rest of us, should have the right to express her opinions. College students don’t need to be sheltered from controversial viewpoints. So, despite my liberal upbringing, I walked away from junior year feeling uncertain about freedom of speech … and then I visited Morocco.

A month after the Mac Donald fiasco, I was living and working in Marrakesh. On one of my first days there, while riding the public bus, I asked a Moroccan about her thoughts on Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. Confused, she explained that she didn’t know him personally. I clarified, asking her what she thought of his policies, and in a hushed tone she explained that Moroccans don’t have a choice; they must like the king.

This gave me a new perspective on America’s freedom of speech, and when I returned to Berkeley as the city and campus were consumed by controversies over Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon, I was adamant that free speech has to go both ways. Whether we like it or not. 

Colleges are within their rights to ban incitements to violence. But maintaining echo chambers of the same liberal ideas begins to look a lot like Morocco’s muzzle. Liberal arts colleges are based upon the same liberal notions as our nation — that citizens should be free to make decisions of their own. If these schools care about autonomy and trust students’ ability to make decisions, they must also take freedom of expression seriously and strengthen our ability to hear, process and decide upon a wide array of opinions.

Once we start claiming that some speech is worthy of protection and others are not, we are taking a ride on King Mohammed’s bus.

Hit ‘Send’ Too Fast? This Entrepreneur Has a Fix for That

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Maci Peterson knows too well the potentially disastrous consequences of sending a text to the wrong person or firing off an email whose meaning gets lost in transit. When autocorrect altered a text she sent to her then boyfriend — and she couldn’t figure out how to retrieve it — she set her sights on solving a universal problem.

Her solution was the basis for On Second Thought, a Silicon Valley company Peterson founded in 2014, after winning the #StartupOasis pitch competition at South by Southwest. Initially, it was the only company offering a texting app that allows users to recall messages before they get delivered. Since then, a number of competitors have cropped up, including RakEM and unSend.it.

We started to realize from our users that there were so many more applications for our technology outside of SMS messages.

Maci Peterson, Founder and CEO, On Second Thought

On Second Thought quickly gained 100,000 users and its popularity spread outside the United States to users in 190 countries, from Australia and India to South Africa and the U.K. As more customers came on board, Peterson got asked: Does the app work in WhatsApp? What about Twitter? How about PayPal? Can I use it to retrieve emails or photos?

“We started to realize from our users that there were so many more applications for our technology outside of SMS messages,” Peterson says.

For instance, a user in Kenya told her most of the population there doesn’t use traditional banking systems like in the United States — instead, they send money via mobile transfers. But, if you send money to the wrong person or send the wrong amount, the only way to get it back is to beg the recipient to return it. “Here, we use Venmo to pay friends back for dinner. There, they are using mobile transfers to pay vendors or to pay for rent,” Peterson says. “These are serious transactions and, if something goes wrong, it can have a significant impact.” 

That was just one conversation that prompted Peterson to pivot this year, changing On Second Thought from a business-to-consumer company to a business-to-business company that licenses a patented technology to multiple firms rather than selling a single app to consumers. “This gave us a clear path to revenue,” she says, noting that most apps have a difficult time generating enough revenue because they are marketing to individual consumers, who are one-time buyers of the app.


Peterson, 30, brought in longtime friend Stewart Voit to help develop the technology while she focused on brand development and marketing — two areas where she’s got deep experience: She was brand manager at Marriott International, led the marketing department at The Washington Post’s subsidiary The Root and did product placements on hit films including 27 Dresses, Marley & Me, Juno and The Devil Wears Prada.

On Second Thought now owns the patent for delay and recall of mobile communication technology that covers messaging, money, email, photos and documents, and is negotiating with four of the five largest telecommunications companies, one of the most popular dating apps and the largest social media platform in the world, Peterson says. “Our technology will be a feature within each platform,” she says, “and we will be licensing it platform by platform.” Peterson expects a telecommunications company to roll out the recall feature before the end of the year, at which point the On Second Thought app will be discontinued so it doesn’t compete with the company’s clients.

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Maci Peterson speaking at the 2016 TC3 Summit, an annual gathering of companies building innovative communications networks

Source Courtesy of Maci Peterson

The company’s decision to move to a business-to-business model and discontinue the app makes sense, says Chandra Bajpai, vice president of advance products at OpenMobile. “While recalling text messages is a great idea, it’s a feature, not a company,” he says.

One of the drawbacks of the current app, Bajpai explains, is that consumers have to set On Second Thought as their default SMS app for the recall technology to work. Once the technology is deployed as a feature within each platform, that requirement falls away. And, while consumers who use the current app will need to find a new method to recall messages, Bajpai doesn’t anticipate consumers having to pay for the feature. “What messaging app do you know that isn’t free?” he asks.

Reconceiving On Second Thought as a business-to-business company, Voit says, is just one example of Peterson’s entrepreneurial vision. “The idea and the building of the company and its growth is really about leadership, and that’s her forte,” he adds. 

The two met 10 years ago at Campus Harvest, a conference for Christian college students, when Peterson nudged a napping Voit during one of the sessions. “At first he was extremely irritated, but by the end of day we were good friends,” Peterson recalls. “Sometimes you meet those people you’re just meant to know, and I think that was the case here.” Peterson, who grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, went on to earn a degree in public relations and advertising from Chapman University. She launched a digital magazine called Mwali (“young woman” in Swahili) and started a hair-care company around the time she founded On Second Thought.

With a background in marketing and business development, Peterson is an expert at analyzing consumer behaviors, positioning products and bringing them to market. Still, she readily admits that she needs Voit’s technical prowess to bring her ideas to life. “When you’re business partners, you are truly partners,” she says. “You fight and argue, and there are times when you can’t stand each other. Having this experience with someone who knows me … who can also just call me out and tell me when I’m wrong or I’ve done something poorly, it’s truly a privilege.”

Looking ahead, Peterson says that if she ever decides to sell On Second Thought, she will use 90 percent of her profits to create a foundation focused on a particular societal issue, devise a solution and then hire a team to execute it. “When it becomes bigger than what we can do on our own, we will pass that solution on to an NGO, and then reconvene and determine the next problem to solve.”

Is Free Speech Alive and Well? What Do You Think?

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Join us for Third Rail With OZYa new TV show presented by OZY and WGBHwhere we debate provocative hot topics with experts and celebrities every Friday night. The subject of this week’s show: “Is free speech alive and well?” Tune in Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS, or online, and be sure to weigh in on social media (#ThirdRailPBS) and/or email us at thirdrail@ozy.com with your take!

Missed the previous episodes? Catch up here!

Imagine a world in which NFL owners fire all their opinionated players — from those demanding more pay to those kneeling to protest what they see as abusive treatment of Blacks by law enforcement. Conservative speakers, meanwhile, stop speaking at liberal arts colleges for fear of rioting students; children across America get expelled from school for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance; and, to top it all off, Twitter blocks Donald Trump’s account, closing off his spigot for dispersing “the truth” …

Well, that would make for a very different country indeed. And, presumably, not one that most Constitution-loving Americans could abide.

… private schools can say ‘No, thank you’ to the likes of Heather Mac Donald, Louis Farrakhan or Milo Yiannopoulos.

The fact is, Twitter can halt @realDonaldTrump in its tracks anytime. The York family, owners of the San Francisco 49ers, can pink-slip any players they like (barring contractual arrangements). And private colleges can see to it that no conservative rhetoric is spouted from their podiums. “As a matter of constitutional law,” says Kent Greenfield, a law professor at Boston College, “if the Constitution only governs actions of governments or government actors, not private employers, an NFL owner could fire someone in the organization for speaking out in a way that the owner felt was inappropriate, as long as it doesn’t violate their contract.”


Same goes for private versus public schools. Public institutions can’t ban speakers whose views they disagree with — though they have wiggle room in demanding that a controversial speaker’s hosting organization pay for added security, if needed. But private schools can say “No, thank you” to the likes of Heather Mac Donald, Louis Farrakhan or Milo Yiannopoulos.

What’s more, Twitter and private schools are immune to constitutional restrictions. “As a private party, they can use their platform for whatever they want. [Twitter has] a policy that officially accepts all comers, but they could change their policy and say that from now on, Twitter’s only going to be a platform for anti-Trump or pro-Trump speakers,” Greenfield explains.

We too could take the safe route and shy away from the bigger issues, but that wouldn’t be very OZY. Instead, we’re leaning in a la Third Rail With OZY, encouraging our readers, viewers and listeners to chime in — whether by phone, email and through social.

By all means, tell us what you think: Is free speech alive and well?

The Tiny Welsh Town of a Million Books


Hay-on-Wye is quintessential rural Britain. With a backdrop of sheep-speckled green hills rolling into the distance, a winding single-track road leads into the tiny village of quaint stone cottages with small manicured front gardens and potted flowers. The town lies smack on the border between England and Wales — a small side-of-road sign as you enter reads Croeso i Gymru above the English translation: Welcome to Wales. And below that, another sign: Y Gelli: tref y llyfrau … Hay-on-Wye: town of books.

Because just about every other building in this tiny village (population 1,598) is a secondhand bookshop — around two dozen of them in total. You’ll find Boz Books and Addyman Books and Rose’s Books; the specialists — the Poetry Bookshop, Haystacks Music and Books, Murder and Mayhem and Mostly Maps — and then, of course, the massive Richard Booth’s Bookshop, which claims to be the world’s largest secondhand bookshop. And those are just the official establishments: On any given street you’re likely to encounter a passageway lined with bookshelves (leave your money in the honesty box). There are also two outdoor bookshelves (who knows what happens when it rains) by the entrance to a crumbling castle atop the hill in the center of town. Some are mere shacks hidden in corners.


Tucked away around a hidden corner by the castle is a shack where the shelves are color-coded rather than alphabetized. An honesty box collects the cash.

Source Courtesy of Paul Watkins

Most of the buildings that aren’t bookshops are tea rooms, pubs or ice cream parlors. There are also a few creative shopkeepers trying to sell local Welsh textiles, outdoor wear or antiques (though many of them still shelve a few old books in the window, just to partake in the bibliomania). 

Books are often arranged in no logical order, so good luck finding any specific title you’re after. 

The craze all started when an eccentric Richard Booth started opening bookshops in 1962 and never stopped. With books collected from closing-down libraries around the world, he eventually opened more than 30 stores in Hay. Now, at age 78, he owns just one, the King of Hay. The name isn’t a metaphor: In 1977, after purchasing the castle, Booth proclaimed Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom with himself as the monarch. The publicity stunt worked: Hay gained an international reputation as a book town, which now boasts an annual book festival — once described by Bill Clinton as a “Woodstock of the mind” — that draws tens of thousands of visitors annually.


The joy of Hay is in browsing its eclectic and never-ending catalog. Books are often arranged in no logical order, so good luck finding any specific title you’re after. There is beauty in the chaos; creaking plywood shelves have handwritten notes taped to them. I spy a shelf of ancient, weighty, leather-bound tomes — they’re from the 1760s, the shopkeeper tells me, “but don’t let that stop you from picking them up and having a look!” Meanwhile, at Boz Books, Hay’s first bookshop, owner Peter Harris modestly says, “We don’t have anything particularly old in at the moment — only from about the 17th century,” as I admire a whole shelf of first-edition Dickens.


Vampire and werewolf books? No problem.

Source Courtesy of Paul Watkins

Alas, “a lot of the shops have shut down” in recent years, says Steve from the “world-famous” Hay Cinema Bookshop. Even Harris is thinking of moving “onto the Net.” He bemoans the commercialization of Richard Booth’s Bookshop, which is now owned by an American and stocks about one-third new books — the height of controversy in Hay. Almost betraying the village’s authenticity, its oldest books are now sensibly behind glass, the aisles are spacious and well-lit and there’s even an in-store cafe.

But the rest of the town is still locked in a time period long gone by. Some store owners wear clothes befitting the era of some of the editions they sell. And locals drinking at Coffee Shop Isis don’t seem to realize it’s no longer an appropriate name for a cute little establishment serving up homemade soup, baked potatoes and fruitcake. Never change, Hay — never change.

Will Conservatives and Budget Cuts Claw Back Brazil’s Progress on AIDS?

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In June, infectious disease specialist Felipe Pires was at a loss. He didn’t know how much medication to give his HIV-positive patients in Porto Alegre, a coastal city in southern Brazil with the highest rate of AIDS in Brazil — more than twice that of other major cities. His supply of viral load tests, which measure the amount of HIV genetic material in the blood, was being rationed by federal health officials. “Miscalculating [the dosage] could make my patients irreversibly sicker faster, he told OZY.

Rationing of vital medical supplies has sounded the alarm in Brazil about how much the public health system stands to lose from federal austerity measures that began in 2015 under former president Dilma Rousseff and, after her impeachment, deepened dramatically under center-right interim president Michel Temer. Temer’s latest belt-tightening, which included a pledge to cap growth in government spending for the next two decades at the rate of inflation (currently 2.46 percent), is intended to bounce Brazil out of its worst economic slump in decades.

We need to return to being bold in the way we talk and act about AIDS.

Carla Almeida, director, Group of Aids Prevention Help 

Particularly striking have been the effects of slashed health budgets on Brazilians at risk for HIV and those already HIV-positive, like Pires’ patients. Experts tell OZY that cutbacks in the number of specialized doctors, outreach and safe-sex programs, and citizen policy oversight committees have all contributed to Brazil moving against the global trend of decline in new HIV infections. While worldwide the yearly total of new HIV cases dropped 16 percent between 2010 and 2016, in Brazil it rose 2 percent, with 48,000 new cases in 2016, according to UNAids.

Prior to the austerity era, Brazil’s AIDS response was hailed as a Global South success story — one that was developed by hard-charging activists in the late ’80s. In 1996, Brazil became one the first countries to offer free universal AIDS treatment through a public health system. Two years later, the federal public school curriculum began to include sex education. By 2005, a school census showed that 60 percent of schools had STD/AIDS prevention programs. And Brazil shocked the world in 2007 when it began to break drug patents to offer affordable generic antiretroviral drugs to people with HIV. “First came the political will” to fight AIDS, says Columbia University public health professor Richard Parker, who has researched AIDS in Brazil for 30 years. “Then, once laws passed, [came] the technical conditions,” such as prevention programs and national drug distribution, “to make them possible.”


These days the political will to deal with the epidemic is meeting tough opposition in the form of a socially conservative evangelical movement. In 2014, evangelical voters sent 74 representatives to the 513-seat lower house of Congress — double the number in 2006 — and today evangelical representatives are a third of that body. They form a disciplined coalition that’s been effective in blocking progressive agendas, including legislation aimed at penalizing anti-gay discrimination and hate crimes. Marco Feliciano, a member of the evangelical congressional bloc, famously described AIDS as “a gay cancer.” (Feliciano did not reply to a request for comment.)

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Residents of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil hosted a concert to protest the planned eviction of local AIDS organization Group of Aids Prevention Help (GAPA) from its headquarters in December 2016.

Source Giovanna Pozzer

This new conservative political muscle has rolled back some of Brazil’s advances in confronting AIDS. Prevention campaigns that featured sex workers — a key HIV-affected population — were canceled, as was the public school program that taught openly about safe sex. Government research now shows condom use is decreasing among young Brazilians, which has consequences beyond HIV: Health ministry reports of syphilis rose from 1,249 cases in 2010 to 65,878 new cases in 2015.

Meanwhile, what Parker calls Brazil’s “triumphalist narrative” led international foundations to begin defunding prevention programs on the assumption that the health crisis was under control. The budget of Parker’s own watchdog NGO, the Brazilian Interdisciplinary Aids Association (ABIA), has been roughly halved since 2007. University of São Paulo medical school professor Mario Scheffer sums up Brazil’s retreat on AIDS response as “a deadly warning sign against declaring early victory.”

Brazil’s internationally praised ability to deliver medicine to clinics in remote parts of the country is still robust, and it is currently rolling out universal access to the new HIV-treatment drug Dolutegravir. This makes the current trend a paradox, says Scheffer, because “crucial non-pharmaceutical interventions like preventative education are withering.” So, too, is follow-up on patient care: 14,000 Brazilians die of AIDS-related illnesses each year, a number that has not dropped since 2005 and that Scheffer says is high for a country with universal treatment.

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The AIDS organization GAPA in Porto Alegre, the Brazilian city with the highest AIDS rate, was forced to close its doors in August due to years of government failure to pay rent.

Source Flávio Dutra

Ministry of Health AIDS official Adele Benzaken tells OZY that the health funding cap will not hurt the response to HIV “under any hypothesis.” To address the rising infection rate in young men ages 15 to 29, she points to a government peer-testing program and partnerships with YouTube stars and the hookup app Hornet that promote condom use. Benzaken says Porto Alegre’s shortage of viral tests was due to “pharmaceutical companies’ failure to bid on government drug contracts at a reasonable price.” In an email, a spokesperson for the state health department tells OZY that “we have a depletion of specialized services for treatment retention,” and that state officials are teaming up with federal health HIV/AIDS providers “to help the cities most affected by the epidemic.”

The viral tests were restocked in July. Still, ABIA vice president Veriano Terto says the drug shortages in Porto Alegre — treatment drugs for pregnant women and newborns were rationed in July — “is proof that civil society should be able to monitor government drug auctions, something we’ve long demanded and been denied.”

When the state government closed the Porto Alegre headquarters of an NGO called Group of Aids Prevention Help (GAPA), it ignited two months of protests and public hearings, which led the city to provide a new shared space for the organization. According to GAPA director Carla Almeida, “We need to return to being bold in the way we talk and act about AIDS.”

I Sparred With a Pro MMA Fighter

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I have a very strange, possibly self-destructive idea. I want to spar with Gastón Bolaños.

At 24 years old, the Peruvian is an exceptional pro fighter in three sports, but he couldn’t care less about his official record. He is an artist of the martial variety, and performance is his concern.

Bolaños’ first love is Muay Thai, a violent and majestic sport I’ve practiced for four years. Ballet lovers see grace and timing in the vaulting jetés of Mikhail Baryshnikov; I see the same when Bolaños rips a 45-degree angle into a man’s nose with a spinning back elbow.

Kirian Fitzgibbons is Bolaños’ coach, and owner of Combat Sports Academy in Dublin, California. I contact Fitzgibbons and propose to spar with Bolaños and then write something about the experience. Fitzgibbons is skeptical. He gets lots of media requests for Bolaños, but no writer has asked to spar with him before.

Fitzgibbons warns me that Bolaños is a “mean” fighter. He reminds me that Bolaños is Latino, which I understand as prone to machismo. He says that Bolaños fights a little meaner than Joe Schilling, a former world-champion kickboxer and co-owner of the Yard, the prison-inspired gym on Los Angeles’ Eastside where I train. Schilling is an approachable family man outside the ring, but his appearance and physical bearing are terrifying. I have difficulty imagining a meaner sparring partner than Schilling.

I can’t say I precisely remember those nine minutes. 

Great fighters attack meanly. But what does “mean” mean? Meanness in fight sports is the ultimate intangible, beyond strategy and technique. “You’re mean” is the greatest compliment a coach can pay a fighter. But meanness in combat is not the same as bullying or sadism. It relates to intent, and the conscious will to inflict damage, or a “killer” instinct. 

Bolaños agrees to spar. I try not to think about fear. I will not do anything stupid. I will follow proper sparring etiquette according to my training. And I will not be what Fitzgibbons calls a “comedian,” a guy who shows up at a martial arts gym and impetuously demands to joust beyond his depth with a more experienced partner. Bolaños earned his nickname, “the Dreamkiller,” for his relish in making sure such jokers never came back.

I drive up to the East Bay. OZY Editor-at-Large Eugene S. Robinson meets me at my hotel wearing a black suit and shirt, mustachioed, with his gray-streaked hair carefully conked. Editors do not usually accompany reporters doing fieldwork, but Eugene is a fighter and if someone is going to get thumped, he wants to be there.

Gastón Bolaños

Gastón Bolaños will crush your soul.

Source Courtesy of Gastón Bolaños/Facebook

I drive a battered, black Audi S8 sedan, a rare model that gives off a distinct ex-CIA-agent-on-the-skids vibe. With a video producer in the passenger seat and the underworldly Mr. Robinson in the back, only the S8’s limo-tinted rear windows prevent us from getting pulled over en route to the gym. 

We get to CSA and meet Bolaños and Fitzgibbons. I stretch, jump.

Fitzgibbons gives Bolaños some instructions that I can’t hear. We decide to spar for three rounds, each three minutes in length. Fitzgibbons says “Ding!” like a bell, and looks at me with pity, as if to say, “If you fuck up, you’re going to the hospital.” And we spar.


I can’t say I precisely remember those nine minutes. We often hear of the brain’s fight-or-flight mechanism, but there is a third common response to violence, which is to give up and shut down completely.

I do remember that I did not jump out of the ring and flee, nor did I turn my back and run in circles to evade my counterpart, as Conor McGregor did in his second bout with Nate Diaz. I also remember getting knocked on my ass several times, and sustaining many painful kicks and punches to the sternum, solar plexus and liver. The mental dynamic of sparring with a far more experienced partner moved between fighting to defend myself and shutting down completely.

Ronen Segman, an Israeli psychiatrist focused on combat stress, explains why the event is so blurry in my memory. “In violent situations, your conscious awareness is fluctuating,” he says. “When the pain becomes overwhelming, you dissociate. It’s a mental defense mechanism.”

Memory is subjective and I haven’t seen video footage of the “fight” (which it certainly was for me). But one moment stands out in my mind. I have no idea what round it was, but I noticed that Bolaños’ left hand was lowered, likely from kicking me with his left leg. Seeing the opening, I punched him in the face with my right hand.

Time froze, and I witnessed a portal into my own mortality shaped like a well-groomed, high-cheekboned Latino with the capacity to destroy me.

That’s it, I thought. I pissed him off and now I’m dead. Bolaños looked into me penetratingly, and flicked his head such that his hair would fall back into place. Then he continued beating me up. Face punching is no personal affront in our sport.

I survived three rounds with Gastón Bolaños. 

Four days later, in LA, I was signing the check in a diner and noticed I was having difficulty writing. Putting the pen down, I saw my hands were shaking uncontrollably. The reason, leastways as I can figure it: combat stress.  

America’s New Tech Hubs? Look to Its Small Cities

Scioto River In Columbus, Ohio

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Exposed pipes run above a pod of hot desks, crammed with hoodie-clad software engineers tapping at their laptops. Though millions of dollars are being generated here, it’s not your typical corporate environment; the buzzy room is brightened by floor-to-ceiling windows, bean-bag breakout areas and a scattering of succulents. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact picture one conjures when you think “coworking space”; it’s also located in a state that, last year, deployed $362 million in venture funds to startups and raised an additional $420 million in new venture capital. But we’re not in California or New York. We’re in Columbus, Ohio.

While tech companies have fast become the major drivers of every industry across America — disrupting everything from health care to food delivery to manufacturing — the likes of Silicon Valley have so far reaped the lion’s share. And yet this shift presents more democratic opportunities: Because if technology can be applied anywhere, then can’t anywhere become a tech hub? That theory is now coming into sharper focus thanks to an emerging crop of tech communities in “second cities” like Columbus, including Portland, Oregon, and Wilmington, Delaware. And the major upshot is this: Should they thrive, and should other cities follow their example, then job growth and economic health could be more evenly distributed across the country.

Columbus has more new businesses that grow to 50 or more employees in their first 10 years than any other major U.S. metropolitan area.

The rise of these new tech hubs is down to a combination of factors. For Phil George, co-founder of MentorcliQ, a “software as a service” provider, “Columbus is truly a fantastic place to start a B2B business because there are so many great companies in the area.” George had lived in California but moved to Columbus to launch his enterprise; the move not only brought down operating costs but also helped him take advantage of a boom time for new business here. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship, Columbus has more new businesses that grow to 50 or more employees in their first 10 years than any other major U.S. metropolitan area.

At least part of that success is down to Columbus’s proximity to nine of the nation’s 10 largest GDP producers — such as New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania — and resultantly a host of Fortune 500 companies. The latter point has played no small part in attracting investment here.

But there are also more nuanced catalysts. In Delaware, nonprofit coding boot camp Zip Code Wilmington is retraining a workforce left floundering when its two largest employers, both chemical manufacturing giants, closed up shop. “These people have years of experience working in highly analytical jobs, and with a slight pivot in their skill set could prove to be highly effective programmers,” explains Tariq Hook, Zip Code’s Director of Education.

The boot camp was launched by venture capitalist Ben DuPont in partnership with JPMorgan Chase. So far, 96 percent of graduates have found jobs in local companies; 50 of those individuals are at JPMorgan Chase, filling a need for locally based software developers. Therein lies the beauty of such schemes: Upskilled workers remain in the area and “pay it forward” by contributing to the city’s ongoing growth.

All this said, it would be remiss to suggest these “second cities” haven’t been blessed with specific advantages. For Columbus, it’s location; Wilmington, a ready and willing workforce, combined with a large conglomerate capable of employing them. In Portland, top-drawer educational institutions, like Portland State University (PSU) and Oregon Health and Science University (OHASU), have helped the city become a leader in health technology. “Being sandwiched between two universities is extremely helpful,” admits Matthew Johnson, general manager at APDM, a Portland-based wearable-tech company that, among other things, has worked with athletes from the national men’s gymnastics and diving teams.

APDM itself emerged from PSU’s Business Accelerator, which is ranked among the top 25 university business incubators by research firm UBI Global. It has also partnered with OHASU on projects totaling more than $10 million in worth — largely funded by the National Institutes of Health.  

But if technology is changing every industry, then perhaps other cities can start to create their own advantages. Some appear to be doing just that; coding bootcamp directory Course Report lists more than 100 such schools across the country, while the government’s TechHire initiative, which aims to accelerate training to build local tech sectors, now has a network of almost 240 providers.

Certainly this is beginning to look a lot like a new opportunity for America — one in which a greater spread of local economies can thrive.