In Small Town America, Voters Want Change

In Small Town America, Voters Want Change

Berryville (United States) (AFP) — Deep in the postcard-perfect Shenandoah Valley, just over an hour’s drive from Washington, the autumn leaves are ablaze with color, and Virginia voters are hankering for change.

“We’ve given the other side six years to have their way,” said general contractor Charles Kaster after casting his ballot in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

“And it doesn’t seem to be working out too good,” added the 49-year-old former Marine and lifelong Republican.

“Maybe it’s time to switch back to something else.”

Across the United States, Republicans looked poised to profit from President Barack Obama’s troubles as the nation elects a new crop of senators and representatives.

Virginia’s 10th Congressional District — which includes Berryville, a bucolic town of clapboard Victorian houses and quaint shops — traditionally leans conservative.

Chatting with voters outside the polling station at the Berryville Primary School — each of them sporting “I voted” lapel stickers — provided a sense of many Americans’ frustration with the Obama administration.

“I don’t always vote Republican. I’m just not liking what the Democrats say,” said Lorie McKay, who owns a local landscaping service.

“I’ve had enough of the Democrats, actually. They’re doing a lousy job,” she told AFP after giving her vote to the Republican slate.

“I don’t know if that’s the answer, what I just did, but I’m hoping it’ll change things.”

– ‘We’re not happy’ –

Building inspector Tommy Parker, who arrived early to vote with his wife Joyce, expected Tuesday’s election to signal “dissatisfaction with the federal government.”

He expected voters to “send a message that we’re not happy with the way things are going at a national level or an international level.”

Ironically, the woman favored to keep the 10th Congressional District in Republican hands, Barbara Comstock, 55, is something of a Washington insider.

A political consultant to, among others, the 2012 Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, Comstock once interned for Frank Wolf, who has represented the district since the 1980 election that put Ronald Reagan in the White House, and is retiring after this term.

Her Democratic rival John Foust, 63, got headlines when he questioned whether she had ever “had a real job”, given her political operative background.

Comstock, for her part, once suggested that if Federal Express could track packages with precision, the federal government ought to be able to track immigrants as well.

In this town of 3,000, Democrats are not entirely unknown. Alexis Stickovitch, 20, is a forensic chemistry student with dreams of achieving a doctorate degree.

“I voted all Democrat. I guess it’s because I’m young,” Stickovitch said — adding she was unhappy with those in the Republican camp trying to roll back abortion.

“Some of the conservatives (on the ballot) are against abortion and birth control, and those are pretty important to me. I feel I have a right to what happens to my body, not someone else.”

Larry Bowie, an African-American native of Maryland who retired to Berryville after 20 years in the U.S. army, was a rare voice defending Obama.

“It goes with the territory. Bush had his time,” he said, recalling how George W. Bush exited the presidency under a cloud amid the worst economic downturn since the 1930s and unfinished war business in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“He’s hanging in there. He’s doing the right thing,” Bowie said of Obama.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

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Big Ammo Stash Found In White House Intruder’s Car

Big Ammo Stash Found In White House Intruder’s Car

Washington (AFP) — A homeless U.S. army veteran who jumped a fence and ran into the White House with a knife had more than 800 rounds of ammunition in his car, a court heard on Monday.

Omar Gonzalez, 42, appeared in U.S. District Court as Barack Obama’s spokesman said the president is “obviously concerned” by Friday’s stunning security breach.

Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, Gonzalez stood impassively as U.S. prosecutor David Mudd revealed that investigators had found the ammunition — “in boxes and magazines” — during a search of a car that was parked near the White House.

Also discovered were two hatchets and a machete, said Mudd, who made no mention of any firearms but described the accused as homeless, penniless and a flight risk.

Gonzalez was arrested on Friday after he evaded the outer layer of security around the U.S. presidential residence, carrying a folding knife, and made it inside before being tackled.

A native of Texas who twice served in Iraq, he is charged with unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds while carrying a deadly or dangerous weapon.

If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

Mudd revealed that Gonzalez had been free on bail following his arrest in July in the nearby state of Virginia on felony charges of eluding arrest and possession of a sawed-off shotgun.

On that occasion, he said, police found “numerous firearms” in Gonzalez’s vehicle, including a sniper rifle, plus a map tucked into a Bible with the White House and a Masonic temple circled.

Gonzalez was also stopped, but not arrested, outside the White House in August with a hatchet in his rear waist band. Police searched his car, but only found camping gear and two dogs.

– ‘Danger to president’ –

“Mr Gonzalez’s preoccupation with the White House and accumulation of a large amount of ammunition… renders him a danger to the president,” Mudd told Judge John Facciola, who set October 1 for a detention hearing.

Gonzalez was assigned a public defender to represent him, but an offer of a mental health assessment was declined.

Earlier Monday, as the Secret Service reviewed its security practices, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama had been repeatedly briefed on Friday’s incident.

“His family lives in the White House, and so he is obviously concerned by the incident that occurred on Friday evening,” he said.

“At the same time, the president continues to have complete confidence in the professionals at the Secret Service.”

Obama, who had set off for a family weekend at his Camp David retreat in Maryland shortly before the incident, later said that he thought the Secret Service did “a great job.”

“I am grateful for all the sacrifices they make on my behalf, and on my family’s behalf,” he told reporters.

Earnest said the review by the elite presidential protection branch would test the feasibility of what he called the “positioning of tactical and non-tactical assets inside and outside the fence line.”

It would also look at Secret Service staffing, procedures, and physical and technical security enhancements, he said.

The drama has whipped up intense media and public interest, prompting Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to warn against jumping to premature conclusions.

– ‘No rush to judgement’ –

“I encourage all of us to not rush to judgement about the event and not second-guess the judgement of security officers who had only seconds to act, until all the facts are in,” he said.

U.S. lawmakers are also scrutinizing the incident, setting up a September 30 meeting of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to examine the circumstances of the breach.

The fence-jumper’s former stepson told CNN that Gonzalez suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and paranoia.

Extra Secret Service officers were in evidence around the presidential mansion and adjacent Lafayette Park on Monday.

Earnest said the ceremonial front door — through which large groups of tourists routinely file on White House tours — would from now on be secured when not in use.

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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FBI Opens Probe After Police Shooting Of Black U.S. Teen

FBI Opens Probe After Police Shooting Of Black U.S. Teen

By Robert MacPherson

Washington (AFP) — The FBI opened a civil rights investigation on Monday after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager led to rioting in a Missouri suburb and stirred racial tensions.

The family of Michael Brown demanded “justice for our son” as witnesses and police gave conflicting versions of how the 18-year-old was shot in broad daylight on Saturday, two days before he was to start college.

“We think it will be very clear, when all of this is over, what really happened and how this child was executed,” Brown’s lawyer Benjamin Crump told reporters as the teenager’s grieving mother broke down in tears.

Looters targeted more than a dozen businesses in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson overnight Sunday after a vigil on the sidewalk where Brown died erupted into clashes with police armed with tear gas and clubs.

Thirty-two people were arrested, police said, as Mayor James Knowles — whose town of 21,000 has a majority Africa-American population, but an overwhelmingly white police force — appealed for calm.

Protesters returned to downtown Ferguson on Monday, as did riot-equipped police, but no incidents were reported, as Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington said Brown’s death “deserves a fulsome review.”

The FBI investigation is to run concurrently with another being undertaken by St. Louis County police, FBI spokeswoman Cheryl Mimura told AFP.

“There is no timeframe for how long the inquiry will take. The FBI will dedicate the necessary resources to investigate this matter as efficiently and thoroughly as possible,” she said.

Social media exploded Monday with accusations that Brown had been “murdered” as well as condemnation of the overnight violence.

Brown’s death stirred comparisons to the February 2012 fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida by pistol-toting neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who claimed he acted in self-defense. He went on to be acquitted of murder, two years ago this week.

It also renewed a debate about race and law enforcement in the United States, a month after the death of an asthmatic African-American father of five who was subjected to a “choke hold” by New York police in full view of passers-by.

“Another senseless death of another person of color,” said Crump, a Florida-based civil rights attorney who previously represented Martin’s family, as he took up the Brown case.

Details of Brown’s death differed.

A witness identified as Dorian Johnson told KMOV News 4 television in St. Louis that he had been walking with Brown when a police officer confronted them and drew his weapon.

The officer shot Brown, who “turned around and put his hands in the air,” Johnson said. “He started to get down and the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.”

But St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told a news conference Sunday that Brown was killed after physically assaulting a police officer and struggling to get his weapon.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said the incident brought to light a lingering tension between Ferguson’s mostly white local police force and its growing African-American community.

“The death of yet another African-American at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the community where he lived is heartbreaking,” said Cornell Williams Brooks of the NAACP civil rights organization.

Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, told KMOV TV on Sunday her first-born son had just graduated from high school.

“Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many,” she said.

“Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway.”

AFP Photo/Michael B. Thomas

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Google Defends Child Porn Tip-Offs To Police

Google Defends Child Porn Tip-Offs To Police

By Robert MacPherson

Washington (AFP) — Google defended its policy of electronically monitoring its users’ content for child sexual abuse after it tipped off police in Texas to a child pornography suspect.

Houston restaurant worker John Henry Skillern, 41, was arrested Thursday following a cyber-tip that Google had passed along via the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), based outside Washington.

“He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email,” said detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce.

“I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo — but Google can,” he told Houston television station KHOU, which first reported the story.

It’s common knowledge that the world’s leading Internet service, like its rivals, tracks users’ online behavior in order to fine-tune its advertising services.

But the Texas case prompted concerns about the degree to which Google might be giving information about its users’ conduct to law enforcement agencies.

“The story seems like a simple one with a happy outcome — a bad man did a crime and got caught,” blogged John Hawes, chief of operations at Virus Bulletin, a cyber security consultancy.

“However, there will of course be some who see it as yet another sign of how the twin Big Brothers of state agencies and corporate behemoths have nothing better to do than delve into the private lives of all and sundry, looking for dirt,” he said.

In an email to AFP, a Google spokesperson said Monday: “Sadly, all Internet companies have to deal with child sexual abuse.

“It’s why Google actively removes illegal imagery from our services — including search and Gmail — and immediately reports abuse to the NCMEC.”

The NCMEC operates the CyberTipline, through which Internet service providers can relay information about suspect online child sexual abuse on to police departments.

“Each child sexual abuse image is given a unique digital fingerprint which enables our systems to identify those pictures, including in Gmail,” added the spokesperson, who did not disclose technical details about the process.

“It is important to remember that we only use this technology to identify child sexual abuse imagery — not other email content that could be associated with criminal activity (for example using email to plot a burglary).”

In a separate email to AFP, the NCMEC said federal law requires Internet service providers to report suspected child porn to the CyberTipline.

“NCMEC makes all CyberTipline reports available to appropriate law-enforcement agencies for review and possible investigation,” it said.

On its website Monday, KHOU described Skillern as a registered sex offender, convicted 20 years ago of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old boy.

Investigators who raided his home allegedly found child porn on his phone and tablet device, as well as cellphone videos of children visiting the Denny’s family restaurant where he worked as a cook.

Skillern has been charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of promotion of child pornography. He remains in custody on a $200,000 bond, KHOU said.

Google’s online set of “program policies” for its Gmail service, with more than 400 million users worldwide, includes “a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery.”

“If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities and may take disciplinary action, including termination, against the Google accounts of those involved,” it states.

Last year, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond, writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, acknowledged Google had created technology to “trawl” for known images of child sex abuse.”

“We can then quickly remove them and report their existence to the authorities,” he said.

AFP Photo/Lionel Bonaventure

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Reagan Spokesman, U.S. Anti-Gun Activist James Brady Dies, 73

Reagan Spokesman, U.S. Anti-Gun Activist James Brady Dies, 73

By Robert MacPherson

Washington (AFP) — Former White House spokesman James Brady, a tireless advocate for gun control after being severely wounded during a 1981 attempt on the life of his then-boss Ronald Reagan, has died at the age of 73.

In a statement to U.S. news media Monday that specified no date or place of death, Brady’s family said he passed away “after a series of health issues.”

“We are enormously proud of Jim’s remarkable accomplishments — before he was shot on that fateful day in 1981 while serving at the side of President Ronald Reagan and in the days, months, and years that followed,” they said.

Brady was among four people shot and wounded — including Reagan himself — when John Hinckley Jr. tried to kill the newly-inaugurated president on a rainy day outside the Washington Hilton hotel on March 30, 1981.

His serious head wound left him with partial paralysis and slurred speech. Unable to return to work, the Illinois native nevertheless retained the title of White House press secretary throughout the Reagan administration.

– Sought tougher gun laws –

With his wife Sarah, Brady took a front-and-center role in efforts to enact tougher handgun laws in the United States, notably through an advocacy group that came to be known as the Brady Campaign.

Success came in November 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, which required background checks for anyone buying firearms from a licensed retailer in the United States.

He remain committed to gun control throughout his life, saying on Capitol Hill in 2011: “I wouldn’t be here in this damn wheelchair if we had common-sense legislation.”

“Jim was the personification of courage and perseverance,” said Reagan’s widow Nancy Reagan in a statement.

“He and Sarah never gave up, and never stopped caring about the causes in which they believed.”

More than two million attempts by prohibited individuals to buy firearms have been foiled since the “Brady Bill” — which did not extend to gun sales between individuals — came into force, said Brady Campaign president Dan Gross.

“Jim never gave up fighting and never lost his trademark wit,” said Gross, whose own brother suffered a traumatic brain injury during a shooting at the Empire State Building in New York.

– ‘Saved many lives’ –

“In fact, there are few Americans in history who are as directly responsible for saving as many lives as Jim,” he said in a statement.

At the White House, where in 2000 the press briefing room was renamed in Brady’s honor, spokesman Josh Earnest told journalists he was “saddened” by the news.

“He was somebody who showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about,” Earnest said.

“He leaves the kind of legacy that, I think, certainly this press secretary and all future press secretaries will aspire to live up to.”

For his attempt on Reagan’s life, Hinckley — who got his .22 pistol from a pawn shop in Texas, and claimed he was trying to impress actress Jodie Foster — was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Now 59, he resides at a Washington mental hospital, but has court permission to pay regular visits to his mother’s home in Virginia.

AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan

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Americans Alarmed As Heatstroke Kills Kids In Cars

Americans Alarmed As Heatstroke Kills Kids In Cars

Washington (AFP) — Leaving children in parked cars in the blazing heat of summer: it’s so obviously wrong, yet it happens with astonishing regularity, with tragic results.

From 1998 through 2013 in the United States, officials say, an average of 38 children a year have died of heatstroke in cars — the overwhelming majority of them under the age of five.

And so far this year, the toll stands at 17, prompting a national campaign urging parents and caregivers never to leave kids alone in parked cars.

“Every summer it seems that we live out the same nightmare,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a father of two, at Thursday’s launch of the “Where’s Baby? Look Before You Lock” drive.

To make the point, thermometers fitted to a dark green Chevrolet Cruze sedan at the launch in Washington showed 78.3 degrees outside, but 96.1 degrees inside — and that, on an overcast day.

Twenty-nine percent of children who die of heat stroke in cars got into the vehicle by themselves — but in another 52 percent of cases, they were simply left behind by forgetful adults, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said.

Young children are particularly vulnerable because their body temperature can rise three to five times faster than an adult’s, said pediatrician Leticia Manning Ryan of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

“When a child’s internal temperature gets to 104 degrees, major organs start to shut down — and when that child’s temperature reaches 107, the child can die,” she said.

More often than not, children are forgotten in cars because stressed-out parents and caregivers suffer memory lapses, Foxx said.

“Based on the data we have, often, it’s being fatigued and overwhelmed that leads to these kinds of tragedies,” he said.

Tragic tales of children — many of them buckled into special child seats that are mandatory on U.S. roads — are a regular summer fixture of U.S. news coverage.

In this year’s most sensational case, a Georgia man left his 22-month-old son inside a sweltering hot SUV outside the Home Depot store where he worked.

At his ongoing murder trial, police alleged that the father, Justin Ross Harris, 33, was more interested in “sexting” a teenage girl than caring for the welfare of his baby Cooper.

In a online survey, 11 percent of American parents — two-thirds of them men — admitted to having left a child locked inside a parked car by mistake.

That represents more than 1.5 million parents, said Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the study at the start of the year.

At Thursday’s campaign launch, Reginald McKinnon painfully recalled the day he took his 17-month-old to a doctor’s appointment, then rushed to his telecoms job in Florida — forgetting to drop her off at the nursery.

“To my horror, I realized (upon returning to the vehicle at the end of the working day) that Peyton was still in her car seat,” he said. “I heard someone screaming — it was me.”

Two years ago, NHTSA studied three devices which claim to detect the presence of young children in locked cars, but concluded that their performance fell short of satisfactory.

More than 5,800 people have signed an online petition launched by, an advocacy group, urging President Barack Obama to fund more research into such devices.

“Sadly, the technology is not there yet,” said NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman on Thursday.

Until it is, adults are advised to put something they’d instinctively reach for at the end of a car journey — like a mobile phone, a laptop, or handbag — right next to their child, and never to let youngsters play in a parked vehicle.

And should anyone happen upon a child alone in a locked car, Foxx said, they should immediately call the police or firefighters. Or smash the window.

AFP Photo / Jonathan Alcorn

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