Archive for April, 2018


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A federal jury convicted three Kansas militia members were for their role in plotting to bomb a mosque and apartment complex housing Somali refugees.  The plot was thwarted by another member of the group who tipped off federal authorities about escalating threats of violence.  Gavin Wright, Patrick Stein and Curtis Allen were convicted of one count of conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and one count of conspiracy against civil rights. Wright was also convicted of a charge of lying to the FBI. Sentencing is scheduled for June 27.

An FBI informant said they were plotting to use guns and car bombs to mass murder Somalis. The three men belonged to a militia called the Crusaders which was a splinter group of the militia Kansas Security Force.  Testimony and recordings indicate the men tried to recruit other members of the Kansas Security Force to join them.  The men were indicted in October 2016 for plotting an attack for the day after the presidential election in the town of Garden City, about 220 miles west of Wichita.

According to prosecutors, Stein was recorded discussing the type of fuel and fertilizer bomb that Timothy McVeigh used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. The men discussed obtaining vehicles and filling them with explosives and parking them at the four corners of the apartment complex to create an explosion that would level the entire complex.  They downloaded recipes from the internet and they experimented with and tested those explosives.  Stein was arrested when he delivered 300 pounds of fertilizer to undercover FBI agents to make explosives.  Wright is captured in one recording saying he hoped an attack on the Somalis would “wake people up” and inspire others to take similar action against Muslims.

Defense attorneys argued that the FBI set up the men with a paid informant and all the talk about violence wasn’t serious. They said the men had a right to free speech and association under the U.S. Constitution.  Prosecutors argued that the plot was more than just words and presented enough evidence to convince the jury of a conviction.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the verdicts a significant victory against domestic terrorism and hate crimes.  “The defendants in this case acted with clear premeditation in an attempt to kill people on the basis of their religion and national origin,” Sessions said in a news release. “That’s not just illegal — it’s immoral and unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it.”

 

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Barbara Bush Passes Away

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Former first lady Barbara Bush has died at her home in Houston, Texas at the age of 92 at. She is one of only two women in U.S. history to be both the wife of a U.S. president and the mother of another.  The mother of six children — one of whom, a daughter, Robin, died as a child from leukemia, stood by her husband George H.W. Bush’s side during his nearly 30 year political career has he rose to become vice president and president.

Known as the “enforcer” in her family — the glue who kept the high-powered clan together, she adopted literacy as a cause, raising awareness and eventually launching the nonprofit Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. After George H.W. Bush’s presidency, he and Barbara raised more than $1 billion for literacy and cancer charities.  “I chose literacy because I honestly believe that if more people could read, write, and comprehend, we would be that much closer to solving so many of the problems that plague our nation and our society,” she said.

She had been admired by many for her trademark bluntness, her championing of literacy efforts and her embrace of HIV-positive babies in the late 1980s, when ignorance about the disease was rampant.  Grief over her daughter Robin’s death from leukemia allowed her to comfort others who were afflicted and made it easy for her to relate to the underdog.

Bush battled health problems for most of her later years of life. In 1988, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that commonly affects the thyroid. In 2008, she underwent surgery for a perforated ulcer and in 2009 she had open-heart surgery.  In her final years, she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as congestive heart failure.   Despite these health setbacks, she and her husband kept an active public schedule, raising money for charity.

In April 2018, her family released a statement regarding her failing health, stating that she had chosen to be at home with family-desiring “comfort care” rather than further treatment.  According to family spokesman Jim McGrath, her decision came as a result of “a series of recent hospitalizations.”  Funeral services will be held April 21st at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.

 

 

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One person was killed and seven others sustained minor injuries on a Southwest Airlines flight from New York to Dallas when an engine exploded in midair.  The explosion occurred about 20 minutes into the flight, shattering a window that passengers said partially sucked a woman out of the aircraft.  The Southwest plane, a two-engine Boeing 737, made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport at about 11:20 a.m.  Flight 1380 was on its way from La Guardia Airport in New York to Dallas Love Field with 144 passengers and five Southwest employees on board.

It quickly lost altitude after the explosion and violently depressurized after shrapnel from the explosion burst through the window.  Passengers said the window burst and the woman, identified as 43 year old Jennifer Riordan, was partially sucked out of the 10-by-14-inch window head first.  Firefighter Andrew Needum, of Celina, Texas, said he heard a “loud pop” moments after flight attendants had begun to take drink orders. Needum, seated next to his father and son, turned back to see that oxygen masks had deployed in the cabin and there was a commotion a few rows behind him.  When he rushed to row 14, passenger Tim McGinty was trying to pull Riordan back inside the plane. Needum helped McGinty pull Riordan back inside the plane but she was unconscious and seriously injured.

Passenger Peggy Phillips, a retired nurse and an emergency medical technician onboard laid the woman down and immediately began administering CPR, while the pilot urged everyone to brace for an emergency landing.  They continued CPR for the entire 20 minutes until the plane landed safely and airports EMT’s took over.  Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow said Jennifer Riordan, a mother of two and Wells Fargo executive from Albuquerque, died of blunt force trauma to her head, neck and torso and that her death was listed as an accident.

For that terrifying 20 minutes, passengers and flight crew unsuccessfully tried to plug the hole with luggage and clothing, which was just sucked out of the broken window.  Finally, another brave passenger stood in front of the broken window with his lower back covering the hole to help maintain cabin pressure.  Other terrified passengers spent those minutes thinking they were their last.  Many were scrambling for phones and other electronic devices to record their final goodbyes or purchase wifi to contact loved ones.

Southwest captain Tammie Jo Shults, a former fighter pilot with the U.S. Navy, on her final approach to an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport calmly described conditions on the craft to the air traffic controller:

“Southwest 1380, we’re single engine,” said Shults,. “We have part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.” She asked for medical personnel to meet the aircraft on the runway. “We’ve got injured passengers.”

“Injured passengers, okay, and is your airplane physically on fire?” asked the air traffic controller.

“No, it’s not on fire, but part of it’s missing,” Shults said, pausing for a moment. “They said there’s a hole, and, uh, someone went out.”

The National Transportation Safety Board has said the principal culprit of the explosion was a fracture — most likely because of metal fatigue — of one of the 24 fan blades in the engine. When that blade broke away at the fan’s hub, it carried with it parts of the engine cowling and related engine parts.

 

 

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The crude oil spill from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota last November has turned out to be nearly twice as big as first reported.  Around 407,000 gallons spilled onto farmland when the pipeline broke near Amherst in Marshall County on Nov. 16th.  TransCanada had originally put the spill at 210,000 gallons but the new number would make the spill the seventh-largest onshore oil spill since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

TransCanada had shut down the 590,000 barrel-per-day pipeline, one of Canada’s main crude export routes linking Alberta’s oil fields to U.S. refineries, immediately following the spill.  Repairs were made and TransCanada resumed using the pipeline 12 days after the leak.  Immediately after the leak was reported South Dakota regulators said they could revoke TransCanada’s permit for the Keystone Pipeline if an investigation concludes that the company violated its terms. If that happens, the company would have to correct any issues—in the worst case, even replace part of the pipeline—before oil shipments could resume.

A preliminary report indicated that the pipeline might have been damaged during its’ construction in 2008, though the investigation is ongoing. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is expected to release its final report on the leak in the next few weeks. The federal agency has estimated that the leak cost TransCanada $9.57 million.  The Keystone Pipeline carries oil more than 2,600 miles from Alberta, Canada, to Oklahoma and Illinois.

In February, TransCanada Corp. reported that the cleanup of the massive oil spill was halfway finished.  TransCanada spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said work at the Amherst site has transitioned from excavation to remediation. She stated that all of the excavation work has been completed and most of the impacted soil has been removed.  In late March, Tysver said the company had replaced the last of the topsoil and have seeded the impacted area.”   The company also agreed to restore the roads used by trucks transporting equipment and soil.

A spill and activity report on the agency’s website shows that TransCanada has installed groundwater monitoring systems, which haven’t yet detected any contamination.

The pipeline runs through both Dakotas and two other states and drew fierce resistance from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, the tribe’s allies and environmentalists.  Opposition to the pipeline sparked month’s long protests, with as many as 10,000 people participating during the peak of the demonstrations.

 

 

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The federal government, along with state regulators have halted the demolition of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation until a safe plan can be developed after the discovery that dozens of demolition workers have inhaled or ingested radioactive particles in the past year.  The Hanford site is a plutonium processing plant from the 1940s located Richland, Washington that took liquid plutonium and shaped it into hockey puck-sized disks for use in nuclear warheads.  The plant helped create the nation’s nuclear arsenal and made key portions of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan that ended WWII.

Plutonium production ended in the 1980s and by 1989, the site switched its focus to cleanup of nuclear wastes.  The contamination is a discouraging delay in a massive $2 billion a year cleanup effort that started in 2016.  Hanford is the nation’s most polluted nuclear weapons production site. The Energy Department, which owns Hanford, has launched an independent investigation into the spread of radiation at the plant.

Hanford officials issued a report in late March that said a total of 42 Hanford workers inhaled or ingested radioactive particles from demolition of the Plutonium Finishing Plant when they were exposed during contamination events in June and December of last year.  Radioactive contamination was also found outside plant offices and inside two dozen vehicles, the report said.  Seven workers’ homes were checked for radioactive contamination, with none found, the report said.  The report concluded Hanford officials placed too much reliance on air-monitoring systems that failed to pick up the spread of radioactive particles.

According to the report, managers of the private contractor performing the demolition work for the federal government were caught between maintaining safety and trying to make progress toward project deadlines.  The risk escalated as walls of the plutonium plant were knocked down and the rubble was stored in piles. The report stated that fixatives sprayed on the rubble to keep radioactive particles from blowing away may not have been effective.  This theory seems to be backed up by the the state Health Department’s findings of very small amounts of airborne radioactive contamination near Highway 240 in the past year that is believed to have come from the plant demolition 10 miles away.

The amount of radiation involved was reportedly low, lower than naturally occurring levels of radiation people are exposed to in everyday life.  The amounts of radiation that have escaped are considered too small by state experts to pose a health risk.   All the contamination was found on lands that are closed to the public.  The project was not supposed to exposed workers to any contamination but in June radioactive particles escaped and traces were found inside 31 workers.   In December, eleven more workers were found to be contaminated which prompted the government to shut down demolition.

The state Health Department said there is presently no threat to public health from the releases.  “However, we are concerned if work resumes without better controls, a risk to the public may develop,” the agency said in a recent letter to Hanford managers.

 

 

 

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Mark Zuckerberg spent two days on Capitol Hill seeking to placate angry lawmakers by saying he would be open to some sort of regulation to protect the privacy of users on his global social-media platform.  The hearings are the result of revelations last month that a company called Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of 50 million Facebook profiles.  This information was allegedly used to map out voter behavior in 2016 for both the Brexit campaign and the US presidential election.

Cambridge Analytica is a British company that helps businesses “change audience behavior”.  Back in 2015, a Cambridge psychology professor called Aleksandr Kogan built an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” and Kogan’s company Global Science Research had a deal to share info from the app with Cambridge Analytica.  The app was a personality quiz that asked Facebook users for information about themselves and an estimated 270,000 Facebook users signed up and took personality tests.  The app collected the information of each user’s Facebook friends, who had not provided consent.

The company used the data to build psychological profiles of 87 million Facebook users in order to tailor ads that could sway their political views.  Since the breach was revealed Facebook has stated that Kogan’s app picked up information in “a legitimate way” but that their rules were violated when the data was sold on to Cambridge Analytica.  Around the same time the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, news that Facebook has been collecting and storing call records and SMS data from Android devices for years.

Facebook has been requesting access to contacts, SMS data, and call history on Android devices to improve its friend recommendation algorithm and distinguish between business contacts and  personal friendships. Facebook appears to be gathering this data through its Messenger application, which often prompts Android users to take over as the default SMS client. Facebook has, at least recently, been offering an opt-in prompt that prods users with a big blue button to “continuously upload” contact data, including call and text history. It’s not clear when this prompt started appearing in relation to the historical data gathering,

The hearings were held to determine whether Washington will create regulations that address increasingly widespread concerns about digital privacy.  During Mr. Zuckerberg’s two days of testimony, he repeatedly said that he had learned the lesson of the recent data-breach scandals, saying he thought it was inevitable that there will need to be some regulation but warned that poor regulations could leads to unintended consequences.

Following Wednesday’s hearing, House Commerce Chairman Greg Walden described it as “a wake-up call for Silicon Valley and the tech community that if you let these things get out of hand, having grown up in a very lightly regulated environment, you could end up with a lot more regulation than you seek.”  “I don’t want to rush into regulation minutes after having the first hearing of this magnitude. But certainly if they can’t clean up their act, we’ll clean it up for them.” ​He said lawmakers would consider calling other tech CEOs.

 

 

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The wave of teacher protests in recent weeks has shown no signs of slowing down.  School districts in Oklahoma and Kentucky were forced to close due to statewide teacher sickouts.  Thousands of Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers rallied Monday at their state capitals, demanding more education funding for students.  Many say they’ll keep fighting until lawmakers meet their demands.

The state of Oklahoma has the lowest average teacher salaries in the US with many teachers saying they have not received a pay raise in 10 years.  Many say that the lack of funding and low wages keep new teachers out of their districts which have seen classroom sizes swell to 40 kids because of teacher shortages.

The Oklahoma teachers union wants $10,000 raises for teachers, $5,000 raises for support staff such as janitors and cafeteria workers and $200 million in education funding.  Ultimately, the governor signed legislation last week granting teachers’ pay raises of about $6,100, raises of $1,250 for support staff and $50 million in education funding.  The state’s two largest school districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, announced that schools would be closed Monday as the strike enters its second week.

In an effort to produce for state revenue so more can be allocated to education funding, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), working in collaboration with lawmakers, is seeking to end the strike by Tuesday following Friday’s passage of a revenue and tax bill that is expected to raise $20 million from an internet sales tax and $24 million from the legalization of “ball and dice” gambling in the state.  The union praised the senate’s action on Friday and called for two additional measures of removing capital gains exemptions, saying that this would add an additional $100 million in revenue, and for Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to veto the repeal of a tax on guests at hotels and motels—another regressive measure.

Meanwhile, more than 30 Kentucky school districts had schools close after massive teacher call outs.   Educators were furious after the state Legislature approved changes to their pension the day before.  Kentucky teachers have opposed changes to their pension, which was in Senate Bill 1 that proposed reducing benefits.  But in a surprise move, elements of Senate Bill 1 were tucked into another bill, Senate Bill 151, which had been about sewage services.  The nearly 300-page Senate Bill 151 passed both the state House and Senate on Thursday.

The Kentucky Education Association, which represents teachers and other education professionals, slammed the maneuver as a “classic legislative bait and switch.”  “It stripped all the ‘local provision of wastewater services’ language out of SB151 and replaced it with many of the harmful provisions of SB1,” the association stated.

Under the new pension bill, new hires will have to use a hybrid cash balance plan, rather than a traditional pension, which will drive new teachers to leave the state.  Other elements of the bill include limiting the number of sick days teachers can put toward their retirement and no changes to the annual cost of living adjustments, which will remain 1.5%.

Gov. Matt Bevin supports reforming the system and says it’s critical to fix the pension crisis, which ranks as one of the worst in the US. He said a wider demonstration like a teacher strike would be “illegal.”  “I would not advise that,” Bevin said during a Capitol news conference. “I really wouldn’t. I think that would be a mistake.”  In Kentucky, public employees are prohibited from striking.

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Three people were shot Tuesday at the Silicon Valley headquarters of YouTube when a woman opened fire before turning the gun on herself. The violence broke out just after noon in a courtyard outside YouTube’s main building in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno. Police have identified the shooter as 39 year old Nasim Najafi Aghdam.

Aghdam was a frequent uploader to YouTube who’d had videos banned from the streaming service for “multiple or severe violations” of its policy. Beginning in 2010, she posted more than 500 videos, a total of 17 hours about fitness, veganism and animal rights. About a year ago she started expressing her anger with YouTube’s censorship.  “My new videos hardly get views … so this is because I’m being filtered,” Aghdam said in one video.

In one online video, Aghdam accused YouTube of censoring her and depriving her of income from advertising. The woman’s grievances against YouTube appear to focus on censorship and revenue.  “There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to!!!!!” one post reads. “Youtube filtered my channels to keep them from getting views!”  Another post accuses “close-minded” YouTube employees of putting an age restriction on videos, saying it’s aimed at reducing views and discouraging the woman from making new videos.

On April 2, 2018, Aghdam was reported missing by her family.  On April 3rd at 1:40 AM, police officers found her sleeping in her car in a Walmart parking lot in Mountain View, 25 miles south of YouTube’s headquarters.  After speaking with her for 20 minutes they did not identify her as a threat or have any reason to detain her.  They notified her family that she had been found.

Later that morning Aghdam practiced shooting her legally purchased 9 MM Smith & Wesson at a gun range in San Bruno.  She then parked near YouTube headquarters and entered the campus on foot.  After walking through a parking garage into a courtyard she opened fire with a handgun, wounding three people before killing herself.  Police say she had no connection to her victims her motive was apparently a grievance with YouTube’s practices and policies.  Two of her victims have been released from the hospital and one was listed in serious condition.

More than 1,100 people work at the YouTube campus in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. Employees there include engineers for the site and sales teams that work with advertisers and content creators.  The company said Wednesday it will increase security at its headquarters and offices around the world.

 

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During the trial of Noor Salman, widow of the Pulse Nightclub shooter, testimony has revealed that the father of shooter Omar Mateen had worked as an FBI informant. Seddique Mateen, Omar’s father, was a confidential FBI informant from 2005 to 2016. He is now under investigation for money transfers to Turkey and Afghanistan.

FBI Special Agent Juvenal Martin, who was on the stand in the terrorism trial of Noor Salman, said Omar’s father, Seddique, was upset and had called him while his son was being investigated for the extremist comments in 2006.  Martin testified that, during the call which took place a decade before the Pulse attack, Seddique told him something like “if he had done those things he was being stupid.” Martin said the FBI interviewed Omar two other times as part of that investigation, but eventually determined he wasn’t a security threat. The bureau even considered turning Omar into a confidential informant himself, according to Martin’s testimony.

The trial produced several revelations about the shooting. Prosecutors said Mateen originally intended to attack Disney World, using a gun concealed in a baby stroller, but changed his mind after seeing police at the entertainment complex.  Government witnesses, using data from Mateen’s cell phone, said he looked up information about Orlando nightclubs and went back and forth between two of them before setting on Pulse as his target.

Omar Mateen’s widow, Noor Salman, was found not guilty of all charges against her in the only trial to stem from the deadly June 2016 shooting rampage.  She was accused of helping her husband plan his terror assault on the Orlando, Florida, nightclub and of falsely denying her role afterward.  The government equated Mateen’s actions with supporting terrorism, because he repeatedly pledged allegiance to ISIS before and during the attack, which left 49 people dead and 53 injured.

Salman was charged with aiding him in providing material support to a terror group.  She was also charged with obstruction of justice, accused of misleading police and FBI agents by making contradictory statements about whether she knew what he was planning.  In opening statements, defense attorney Linda Moreno said Salman was a person with a low IQ who did not know “she would wake up a widow, and Omar Mateen a martyr for a cause that she didn’t support.”

In a November 2016 interview with The New York Times, Salman apologized for her husband’s act and claimed she was unaware of his plan.  “I don’t condone what he has done,” she told the newspaper. “I am very sorry for what has happened. He has hurt a lot of people.”  FBI agents arrested Salman in January 2017 inside the California home she shares with her young son and she had been in custody since then.

Outside the courtroom, a spokesman for Salman’s family said “The family really wants to first say that we’re very sorry for the family members and friends of the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and also the survivors of that horrible attack.” “Noor can go home now to her son, Zack, resume her life and try to pick up the pieces.”

The June 2016 Pulse Nightclub massacre was the deadliest single gunman mass shooting in United States history until the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.  It is the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in U.S. history and the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the September 11 attacks of 2001.

 

 

 

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On the evening of March 18, 2018, 23-year old Stephon Clark was shot and killed in his grandmother’s backyard where he lived, by two officers of the Sacramento Police Department.  When the officers confronted Clark, they were looking for a suspect who, according to the 911 call, was breaking car windows in the Meadowview neighborhood and was running through backyards.

Footage of the shooting, which was captured by the two officers’ body cameras and a police helicopter-was released to the public three days after the shooting.  It shows the two officers pursuing a man who hopped a fence into the grandmother’s property.  The body camera videos show the brief encounter between police and Clark, lasting less than a minute, from the moment one of the officers yelled: “Hey, show me your hands. Stop. Stop.”

Police said the officers entered the front yard and saw the suspect along the side of the home. The man “turned and advanced toward the officers while holding an object” extended in front of him, according to the police account.  “Show me your hands!” one of the officers yelled. “Gun, gun, gun.”  Seconds later, officers opened fire as they took cover near a wall.  The officers fired 20 shots, hitting Clark multiple times but no weapon was found, only a cell phone.  Police said they found at least three vehicles with damage they believe Clark caused, as well as an adjacent residence with a shattered sliding glass door. Deputies in the helicopter witnessed him shatter the door, police said.

The two officers have been placed on paid administrative leave amid a use of force investigation.  The shooting has sparked protests on the streets of Sacramento.  The family of Stephon Clark is demanding criminal charges for the Sacramento police officers responsible for the fatal shooting.  Stephon Clark’s grandmother, Sequita Thompson, spoke at a news conference “My grandson was 23 years old. And then, now my great-grandbabies don’t have their daddy, because they didn’t even stop. Why didn’t you just shoot him in the arm, shoot him in the leg, send the dogs, send a taser? Why? Why? You all didn’t have to do that. You all didn’t have to—over a cellphone. I just want justice for my grandson, for my daughter, my poor babies. They’re in so much pain. She’s in pain, and the brothers. He’s got two brothers. Justice. I want justice for my baby! I want justice for Stephon Clark! Please, give us justice!”

An independent autopsy — commissioned Clark’s family and conducted by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a private medical examiner — showed that Clark was shot eight times.  He was shot three times in his lower back, twice near his right shoulder, once in his neck and once under an armpit. He was also shot in the leg. The neck wound was from the side, the doctor found, and he said that while the shot to the leg hit Mr. Clark in the front, it appeared to have been fired after he was already falling.

His relatives have hired civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others.  “The shooting death of Stephon Clark is an all-too-common tragedy,” Crump said in a statement. “It is yet another troubling example of a young, unarmed black man being shot by police under highly questionable circumstances.”