BARCELONA, Spain — In the spring of 2019, an emissary of Catalonia’s top separatist leader traveled to Moscow in search of a political lifeline.
The independence movement in Catalonia, the semiautonomous region in Spain’s northeast, had been largely crushed after a referendum on breaking away two years earlier. The European Union and the United States, which supported Spain’s effort to keep the country intact, had rebuffed the separatists’ pleas for support.
But in Russia, a door was opening.
In Moscow, the emissary, Josep Lluis Alay, a senior adviser to the self-exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, met with current Russian officials, former intelligence officers and the well-connected grandson of a K.G.B. spymaster. The aim was to secure Russia’s help in severing Catalonia from the rest of Spain, according to a European intelligence report, which was reviewed by The New York Times.
recordings revealed a Russian plot to covertly finance the hard-right League party. In Britain, a Times investigation uncovered discussions among right-wing fringe figures about opening bank accounts in Moscow. And in Spain, the Russians have also offered assistance to far-right parties, according to the intelligence report.
Whether Mr. Alay knew it or not, many of the officials he met in Moscow are involved in what has become known as the Kremlin’s hybrid war against the West. This is a layered strategy involving propaganda and disinformation, covert financing of disruptive political movements, hacking and leaking information (as happened in the 2016 U.S. presidential election) and “active measures” like assassinations meant to erode the stability of Moscow’s adversaries.
It is unclear what help, if any, the Kremlin has provided to the Catalan separatists. But Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow in 2019 were followed quickly by the emergence of a secretive protest group, Tsunami Democratic, which disrupted operations at Barcelona’s airport and cut off a major highway linking Spain to northern Europe. A confidential police report by Spain’s Guardia Civil, obtained by The Times, found that Mr. Alay was involved in the creation of the protest group.
Unit 29155, which has been linked to attempted coups and assassinations in Europe, had been present in Catalonia around the time of the referendum, but Spain has provided no evidence that they played an active role.
Many Catalan independence leaders have accused the authorities in Madrid of using the specter of Russian interference to tarnish what they described as a grass-roots movement of regular citizens. The referendum was supported by a fragile coalition of three political parties that quickly dissolved over disputes about ideology and strategy. Even as some parties pushed for a negotiated settlement with Madrid, Mr. Puigdemont, a former journalist with a Beatles-like mop of hair, has eschewed compromise.
Asked about the Russian outreach, the current Catalan government under President Pere Aragones distanced itself from Mr. Puigdemont.
railed against the “silence of the main European institutions.”
The European Union declared the Catalan independence referendum illegal. Russia’s position, by contrast, was more equivocal. President Vladimir V. Putin described the Catalan separatist drive as Europe’s comeuppance for supporting independence movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“There was a time when they welcomed the collapse of a whole series of governments in Europe, not hiding their happiness about this,” Mr. Putin said. “We talk about double standards all the time. There you go.”
In March 2019, Mr. Alay traveled to Moscow, just weeks after leaders of the Catalan independence movement went on trial. Three months later, Mr. Alay went again.
In Russia, according to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met with several active foreign intelligence officers, as well as Oleg V. Syromolotov, the former chief of counterintelligence for the Federal Security Service, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, who now oversees counterterrorism as a deputy minister at the Russian foreign ministry.
Mr. Alay denied meeting Mr. Syromolotov and the officers but acknowledged meeting Yevgeny Primakov, the grandson of a famous K.G.B. spymaster, in order to secure an interview with Mr. Puigdemont on an international affairs program he hosted on Kremlin television. Last year, Mr. Primakov was appointed by Mr. Putin to run a Russian cultural agency that, according to European security officials, often serves as a front for intelligence operations.
“Good news from Moscow,” Mr. Alay later texted to Mr. Puigdemont, informing him of Mr. Primakov’s appointment. In another exchange, Mr. Dmitrenko told Mr. Alay that Mr. Primakov’s elevation “puts him in a very good position to activate things between us.”
Mr. Alay also confirmed meeting Andrei Bezrukov, a decorated former officer with Russia’s foreign intelligence service. For more than a decade, Mr. Bezrukov and his wife, Yelena Vavilova, were deep cover operatives living in the United States using the code names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley.
It was their story of espionage, arrest and eventual return to Russia in a spy swap that served as a basis for the television series “The Americans.” Mr. Alay appears to have become close with the couple. Working with Mr. Dmitrenko, he spent about three months in the fall of 2020 on a Catalan translation of Ms. Vavilova’s autobiographical novel “The Woman Who Can Keep Secrets,” according to his encrypted correspondence.
Mr. Alay, who is also a college professor and author, said he was invited by Mr. Bezrukov, who now teaches at a Moscow university, to deliver two lectures.
Mr. Alay was accompanied on each of his trips by Mr. Dmitrenko, 33, a Russian businessman who is married to a Catalan woman. Mr. Dmitrenko did not respond to requests for comment. But Spanish authorities have monitored him and in 2019 rejected a citizenship application from him because of his Russian contacts, according to a Spanish Ministry of Justice decision reviewed by The Times.
The decision said Mr. Dmitrenko “receives missions” from Russian intelligence and also “does different jobs” for leaders of Russian organized crime.
A Political Tsunami
A few months after Mr. Alay’s trips to Moscow, Catalonia erupted in protests.
A group calling itself Tsunami Democratic occupied the offices of one of Spain’s largest banks, closed a main highway between France and Spain for two days and orchestrated the takeover of the Barcelona airport, forcing the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.
The group’s origins have remained unclear, but one of the confidential police files stated that Mr. Alay attended a meeting in Geneva, where he and other independence activists finalized plans for Tsunami Democratic’s unveiling.
Three days after Tsunami Democratic occupied the Barcelona airport, two Russians flew from Moscow to Barcelona, the Catalan capital, according to flight records obtained by The Times.
One was Sergei Sumin, whom the intelligence report describes as a colonel in Russia’s Federal Protective Service, which oversees security for Mr. Putin and is not known for activities abroad.
The other was Artyom Lukoyanov, the adopted son of a top adviser to Mr. Putin, one who was deeply involved in Russia’s efforts to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.
According to the intelligence report, Mr. Alay and Mr. Dmitrenko met the two men in Barcelona for a strategy session to discuss the independence movement, though the report offered no other details.
Mr. Alay denied any connection to Tsunami Democratic. He confirmed that he had met with Mr. Sumin and Mr. Lukoyanov at the request of Mr. Dmitrenko, but only to “greet them politely.”
Even as the protests faded, Mr. Puigdemont’s associates remained busy. His lawyer, Mr. Boye, flew to Moscow in February 2020 to meet Vasily Khristoforov, whom Western law enforcement agencies describe as a senior Russian organized crime figure. The goal, according to the report, was to enlist Mr. Khristoforov to help set up a secret funding channel for the independence movement.
In an interview, Mr. Boye acknowledged meeting in Moscow with Mr. Khristoforov, who is wanted in several countries including Spain on suspicion of financial crimes, but said they only discussed matters relating to Mr. Khristoforov’s legal cases.
By late 2020, Mr. Alay’s texts reveal an eagerness to keep his Russian contacts happy. In exchanges with Mr. Puigdemont and Mr. Boye, he said they should avoid any public statements that might anger Moscow, especially about the democracy protests that Russia was helping to disperse violently in Belarus.
Mr. Puigdemont did not always heed the advice, appearing in Brussels with the Belarusian opposition and tweeting his support for the protesters, prompting Mr. Boye to text Mr. Alay that “we will have to tell the Russians that this was just to mislead.”
The Taliban cracked down on protests that erupted in at least four cities in Afghanistan on Thursday and rounded up opponents despite promises of amnesty, even as fearful workers stayed home and thousands of people continued a frenzied rush to leave the country.
Even as the Taliban moved to assert control, hundreds of protesters took to the streets for a second day to rally against their rule, this time marching in Kabul, the capital, as well as other cities. Again, the Taliban met them with force, using gunfire and beatings to disperse crowds. And again the actions of Taliban foot soldiers undermined the leadership’s suggestions that, having taken power, they would moderate the brutality they have long been known for.
The police officers who served the old government have melted away, and instead armed Taliban fighters are operating checkpoints and directing traffic, administering their notions of justice as they see fit, with little consistency from one to another.
according to witnesses and a security assessment prepared for the United Nations. Though the Taliban have said there would be no reprisals, there have been arrests, property seizures and scattered reports of reprisal killings.
city after city with remarkable speed once most U.S. forces had withdrawn, brushed aside the demoralized and disorganized Afghan security forces, and swept into Kabul on Sunday. Now they are learning that while conquest may have been swift, governing a vibrant, freethinking society is not so easy.
The anti-Taliban protests have been a remarkable display of defiance of a group that has a long history of controlling communities through fear and meeting dissent with lethal force. The protests also offered evidence that while tens of thousands are now seeking escape, some of those left behind would try — for now, at least — to have a voice in the country’s direction, despite the growing crackdown.
independence from Britain in 1919. It was not clear whether the victims had been shot or had died in a stampede.
There were even demonstrators waving the flag in Kandahar, the southern city that is considered the birthplace of the Taliban. In the southeastern city of Khost, the group imposed a curfew, a day after demonstrations and clashes there. The protests on Thursday in Kabul included one near the presidential palace, and another that drew about 200 people before the Taliban used force to break it up.
The events, led primarily by young men and women, were a wholly new experience for Taliban insurgents who have spent the last 20 years mostly in the mountains and rural districts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the same name they used a generation ago.
The tricolor flag flown by the collapsed government, taken down by the Taliban and replaced by their own banner, has become a repeated flash point, with people in multiple cities beaten for displaying it. On Wednesday, the Taliban fired on demonstrators waving the flag in the eastern city of Jalalabad, with reports of two or three people killed.
she said on Twitter.
She added that after the Taliban spokesman’s first news briefing, held on Tuesday, when he insisted that the rights of the media and women would be respected, she had not expected much good to come.
“I had low expectations but now it has become clear that there is a gap between action and words,” Ms. Atakpal said.
Residents of Kabul were feeling their way under the new regime gingerly. The streets were quiet, largely empty of traffic, interrupted by occasional bursts of gunfire and the roar of American military planes patrolling and conducting the round-the-clock evacuation.
their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
One woman complained that popular Turkish television serials were no longer airing, after cable companies closed down their services. The Taliban, which banned all television during their previous time in power, have since embraced media as a propaganda tool, and cable companies were already anticipating new rules on morally acceptable content in accordance with the militants’ strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Mr. Shesta said he was deleting photos from his cellphone of him meeting with the former president, Ashraf Ghani, and other government officials, many of whom have fled the country. Mr. Ghani left the capital on Sunday, and several of his senior officials traveled to Turkey on Monday.
At the Kabul airport, which is still controlled by U.S. troops, the Taliban are in charge outside its blast walls and used force and intimidation to control access, beating people back and firing their rifles.
Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, cited multiple reports that the Taliban had a list of people to question and punish, as well as their locations. Military and police personnel and people who worked for investigative units of the toppled government were particularly at risk, according to the document, which was dated Wednesday.
Already, the Taliban were going door to door and “arresting and/or threatening to kill or arrest family members of target individuals unless they surrender themselves to the Taliban,” said the document, which was seen by The New York Times.
It contained a reproduced letter dated Aug. 16 from the Taliban to an unnamed counterterrorism official in Afghanistan who had worked with U.S. and British officials and then gone into hiding.
The letter instructed the official to report to the Military and Intelligence Commission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Kabul. If not, it warned, the official’s family members “will be treated based on Shariah law.”
Victor J. Blue, Helene Cooper and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.
SOACHA, Colombia — Already, two of Gloria Vásquez’s children had dropped out of school during the pandemic, including her 8-year-old, Ximena, who had fallen so far behind that she struggled with the most basic arithmetic.
“One plus one?” Ms. Vásquez quizzed her daughter one afternoon.
“Four?” the little girl guessed helplessly.
Now, Ms. Vásquez, a 33-year-old single mother and motel housekeeper who had never made it past the fifth grade, told herself she couldn’t let a third child leave school.
“Where’s Maicol?” she asked her children, calling home one night during another long shift scrubbing floors. “Is he studying?”
have returned to the classroom, 100 million children in Latin America are still in full or partial distance learning — or, as in Maicol’s case, some distant approximation of it.
The consequences are alarming, officials and education experts say: With economies in the region pummeled by the pandemic and connections to the classroom so badly frayed, children in primary and secondary school are dropping out in large numbers, sometimes to work wherever they can.
1.8 million children and young people abandoned their educations this school year because of the pandemic or economic hardship, according to the national statistics agency.
Ecuador lost an estimated 90,000 primary and secondary school students. Peru says it lost 170,000. And officials worry that the real losses are far higher because countless children, like Maicol, are technically still enrolled but struggling to hang on. More than five million children in Brazil have had no access to education during the pandemic, a level not seen in more than 20 years, Unicef says.
Increased access to education was one of the great accomplishments of the last half century in Latin America, with enrollment soaring for girls, poor students and members of ethnic and racial minorities, lifting many toward the middle class. Now, an onslaught of dropouts threatens to peel back years of hard-won progress, sharpening inequality and possibly shaping the region for decades to come.
some of the world’s worst outbreaks, yet several South American nations are now experiencing their highest daily death tolls of the crisis, even after more than a year of relentless loss. For some governments, there is little end in sight.
But unless lockdowns end and students get back into the classroom soon, “many children may never return,” the World Bank warns. And “those who do go back to school will have lost months or even years of education.” Some analysts fear the region could be facing a generation of lost children, not unlike places that suffer years of war.
Even before the pandemic, graduating from high school in Ms. Vásquez’s neighborhood was no small feat.
She and her children live at the end of a dirt road, just beyond Bogotá, Colombia’s sprawling, mountain-flanked capital, a deeply unequal city in one of the most unequal regions in the world. Violence and crime are as common here as the ice cream cart that circles the block each afternoon. For some children, the pandemic has been yet another trauma in a seemingly endless succession.
Many parents in the neighborhood make their living as recyclers, traversing the city with wooden wheelbarrows hitched to their backs. And many of their children don’t have computers, internet or family members who can help with class work. Often there is one cellphone for the family, leaving students scrambling for any connection to school.
Ms. Vásquez dropped out at 14 to help raise her siblings, and it has been her greatest regret. The motel she cleans is far from home, sometimes forcing her to leave her children for more than a day — 24 hours for her shift, with at least four hours of commuting. Even so, she rarely makes the country’s monthly minimum wage.
She had hoped her children — Ximena, 8, Emanuel, 12, Maicol, 13, and Karen, 15 — whom she calls “the motor of my life,” would leave the neighborhood, if only they could get through this never-ending pandemic with their schooling intact.
“I’ve always said that we have been dealt a difficult hand,” but “they have a lot of desire to learn,” she said.
Before the virus arrived, her children attended public schools nearby, wearing the colorful uniforms typical for Colombian pupils. Karen wanted to be a doctor. Maicol, a performer. Emanuel, a police officer. Ximena was still deciding.
By late May, the two boys were still officially enrolled in school, but barely keeping up, trying to fill out the work sheets their teachers sent via WhatsApp each week. They have no computer, and it costs Ms. Vásquez 15 cents a page to print the assignments, some of which are dozens of pages long. Sometimes, she has the money. Sometimes not.
Both girls had dropped out altogether. Ximena lost her spot at school just before the pandemic last year because she had missed classes, a not-so uncommon occurrence in Colombia’s overburdened schools. Then, with administrators working from home, Ms. Vásquez said she couldn’t figure out how to get her daughter back in.
Karen said she had lost contact with her instructors when the country went into lockdown in March 2020. Now, she wanted to return, but her family had accidentally broken a tablet lent to her by the school. She was terrified that if she tried to re-enroll, she would be hit with a fine her mother had no money to pay.
The family was already reeling because Ms. Vásquez’s hours at the motel had been cut during the crisis. Now they were four months behind on rent.
Ms. Vásquez was particularly worried about Maicol, who struggled to make sense of work sheets about periodic tables and literary devices, each day more frustrating than the last.
Lately, when he wasn’t recycling, he’d go looking for scrap metal to sell. To him, the nights out with his uncle were a welcome reprieve, like a pirate’s adventure: meeting new people, searching for treasure — toys, shoes, food, money.
But Ms. Vásquez, who had forbidden these jaunts, grew incensed when she heard he was working. The more time Maicol spent with the recycling cart, she feared, the smaller his world would become.
She respected the people who gathered trash for a living. She’d done it when she was pregnant with Emanuel. But she didn’t want Maicol to be satisfied with that life. During her shifts at the motel, cleaning bathrooms, she imagined her children in the future, sitting behind computers, running businesses.
“‘Look,’ people would say, ‘those are Gloria’s kids,’” she said. “They don’t have to bear the same destiny as their mother.”
Over the last year, school began in earnest only after she came home from work. One afternoon, she pulled out a study guide from Emanuel’s teacher, and began dictating a spelling and grammar exercise.
“Once upon a time,” she read.
“Once upon a time,” wrote Emanuel, 12.
“There was a white and gray duck —”
“Gray?” he asked.
When it came to Maicol’s more advanced lessons, Ms. Vásquez was often lost herself. She didn’t know how to use email, much less calculate the area of a square or teach her son about planetary rotations.
“I try to help them with what I understand,” she said. “It’s not enough.”
Lately, she’d become consumed by the question of how her children would catch up when — or if? — they ever returned to class.
The full educational toll of the pandemic will not be known until governments bring children back to school, experts warn. Ms. Di Gropello, of the World Bank, said she feared that many more children, especially poorer ones without computers or internet connections, would abandon their educations once they realize how far behind they’ve fallen.
By mid-June, Colombia’s education ministry announced that all schools would return to in-person courses after a July vacation. Though the country is enduring a record number of daily deaths from the virus, officials have determined that the cost of staying closed is too great.
But as school principals scramble to prepare for the return, some wonder how many students and teachers will show up. At Carlos Albán Holguín, one of the schools in Ms. Vásquez’s neighborhood, the principal said some instructors were so afraid of infection that they had refused to come to the school to pick up the completed assignments their pupils had dropped off.
One recent morning, Karen woke before dawn, as she often does, to help her mother get ready for her shift at the motel. Since leaving school last year, Karen had increasingly taken on the role of parent, cooking and cleaning for the family, and trying to protect her siblings while their mother was at work.
At one point, the responsibility got to be so much that Karen ran away. Her flight lasted just a few hours, until Ms. Vásquez found her.
“I told my mother that she had to support me more,” Karen said. “That she couldn’t leave me alone, that I was an adolescent and I needed her help.”
In their shared bedroom, while Ms. Vásquez applied makeup, Karen packed her mother’s blue backpack, slipping in pink Crocs, a fanny pack, headphones and a change of clothes.
Ms. Vásquez had gone out to march one day, too, blowing a plastic horn in the crowd and calling on the authorities to guarantee what she called a “dignified education.”
But she hadn’t returned to the streets. If something happened to her at the marches, who would support her children?
“Do you want me to braid your hair?” Karen asked her mother.
At the door, she kissed Ms. Vásquez goodbye.
Then, after months of hardship, came a victory.
Ms. Vásquez received messages from Maicol’s and Emanuel’s teachers: Both schools would bring students back, in person, in just a few weeks. And she finally found a spot for Ximena, who had been out of school entirely for more than a year.
“A new start,” Ms. Vásquez said, giddy with excitement.
Karen’s future was less certain. She had worked up the courage to return the broken tablet. Administrators did not fine her — and she applied to a new school.
Now, she was waiting to hear if there was space for her, trying to push away the worry that her education was over.
“I’ve been told that education is everything, and without education there is nothing,” she said. “And, well, it’s true — I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil in Bogotá and Soacha, Colombia; José María León Cabrera in Quito, Ecuador; Miriam Castillo in Mexico City; Mitra Taj in Lima, Peru; and Ana Ionova in Rio de Janeiro.
ROTTERDAM — The Italian band Maneskin celebrated its 2021 Eurovision win by the rock ’n’ roll playbook, with bare chests covered in tattoos, champagne spraying and the thuds of fireworks exploding.
The win was a close and deeply emotional one, with the band’s song, “Zitti e Buoni,” or “Shut Up and Be Quiet,” edging into first place in an exhilarating vote that was ultimately decided by the public. Maneskin barely beat France’s Barbara Pravi, and her chanson “Voilà.” After the victory, an Italian reporter was sobbing as tears streamed down his face.
Capturing what many felt, he said the victory was a fresh start for Italy. “It was a very difficult year for us,” the reporter, Simone Zani, said, talking about the devastating impact of the coronavirus. Explaining through his tears, he said, “We are from the north of Italy, from Bergamo,” an Italian city with record numbers of Covid-19 deaths. “To be No. 1 now, this is a new start for us, a new beginning.”
Eurovision, the largest music contest in the world, is a campy trifle to some, but it celebrates Europe’s cultural diversity and is a reflection of the times we live in. For many outside Europe, the attraction of Eurovision can be hard to comprehend. But a key reason the 200-million plus audience is watching is that there is no cultural mold for the event. Anything goes, and diversity is highly encouraged. The global entertainment business may be dominated by U.S. pop culture, but at Eurovision, 39 different countries can showcase their ideas of music and pop culture with no industry rules other than a three-minute song limit.
Jendrik playing a diamond studded ukulele while being accompanied by a dancing finger. Tix, the singer for Norway, has Tourette’s syndrome. He was dressed in a gigantic fur coat and wearing angel wings, while being chained to four horned demons. “Remember guys, you are not alone,” he said to everyone “suffering” in the world.
The three singers of Serbia’s entry, Hurricane, may have sported the big hair look of American groups of decades past, but despite seeming as if they had bought up most of the hair extensions on the continent, they sang their song, “Loco Loco,” in Serbian.
Nikkie Tutorials. The crowd went wild every time she came onstage or even walked past the corridors.
Dadi Freyr, and other group members, watched from a hotel room as the results came in. Standing in for the missing performers were dolls wearing the band’s outfit, topped with iPads showing their faces. Despite the recorded performance, Iceland landed fourth place.
Duncan Laurence, who had won for the Netherlands in 2019, also contracted the virus and wasn’t able to perform during this year’s finals as is the tradition. The event was canceled in 2020.
Hossein Zenderoudi. Her song dusts off the French chanson, recalling singers like Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg.
Some had criticized her, calling her style of singing out of fashion, but Ms. Pravi strongly disagreed. “You don’t need to make concessions in music,” she said. “You can be absolutely yourself, doing the music you like, say the words you want and being the woman you want to be. And now I am here at Eurovision, the biggest contest in the world.”
Early Sunday morning Ms. Pravi was seen in the dimly lit press center speaking to French reporters who couldn’t believe that their country had come so close to victory, after having achieved almost no Eurovision honors since their victory in 1977.
James Newman, the United Kingdom’s entrant, was nowhere to be found. His song “Embers” had received zero points from both the national juries and the international audience. “It’s Brexit,” said Meg Perry-Duxbury, a Briton living in Rotterdam, sitting next to me in the arena. “Europe doesn’t want us to win.” She herself was supporting Cyprus (another song featuring devils) anyway, Ms. Perry-Duxbury said. “So whatever.”
The costume designer and wardrobe stylist Zerina Akers does not want people to think that her life is picture-perfect, even if she spends her time making sure that her clients are.
“I want to dispel the thought that it is glamorous,” she said of her days, which often include piecing together ensembles for her celebrity clientele, overseeing fittings and tending to her e-tail site. “Yeah, you’re dealing with beautiful things, but you also have to deal with all the luggage, getting all the looks right and running around. It’s a lot of hard work and heavy lifting.”
And, lately, she has been doing all of that on a wounded ankle. She’s mainly worn comfort shoes during the pandemic, but a pair of post-quarantine wedge heels led to her recent mishap. (“Who did I think I was?!” she said, while describing the stumble during a phone interview.)
Ms. Akers, 35, is the go-to stylist for Beyoncé Knowles-Carter — the iconic oversized black hat that the singer modeled in the 2016 “Formation” music video was her handiwork. She also compiled the wardrobe for Ms. Knowles-Carter’s opulent 2020 visual album, “Black Is King,” pulling designs from both established European fashion houses and independent designers from across the African diaspora.
Black Owned Everything, an e-commerce hub featuring a curated selection of apparel, accessories, beauty and décor products.
“Last summer, there was a huge surge in support of Black brands,” she said, describing widespread calls for inclusivity and representation that swelled after the protests against racism and police brutality. That led some people to ask a new question: How long would this last?
“Would it be something that’s going to stick around and really create change, or was it just a trend?” Ms. Akers said. “I felt it was important to not wait around and gauge the reaction of the fashion industry. We were able to create something that we own, and we’re going to keep it going,” she said of the website, which features about three dozen brands.
Ms. Akers, a Maryland native who is based in Van Nuys, Calif., has also been designing clothing recently, a throwback to her teenage years spent creating garments for school fashion shows. Some of her work — a color-blocked dress, a chain-trim bodysuit, a trench jumpsuit — is featured in a capsule collection of separates for Bar III, the private label from Macy’s.
We spoke with her in early May, as she mulled over ideas for revamping the Black Owned Everything site and sorted through wardrobe items intended for the Colombian reggaeton artist Karol G and Chloe Bailey of the R&B duo Chloe x Halle.
Interviews are conducted by email, text and phone, then condensed and edited.
Brandice Daniel, the founder and chief executive of Harlem’s Fashion Row, as part of their annual Designer Retreat. We’re on with the accessories designer Brandon Blackwood, talking about our career paths and giving advice to young people on how to make it in fashion. I talk about the importance of being in good financial standing and doing what you love without prioritizing being “internet famous.”
3:30 p.m. My assistant, Christian Barberena, arrives at my house and we chill in the backyard, going over our next two weeks of work and divvying up tasks. Usually, my team handles internet shopping and sourcing items in stores. Then, I’ll primarily handle things that are being custom-made by designers.
5:45 p.m. I realize I’m about 15 minutes late for a Netflix virtual screening event for “Halston,” and Chris and I tune in to watch. It’s a must-see. Based on what I’ve read about him, it was well-cast — and it’s visually quite stunning.
Today in Business
8 a.m. I awake with a bit of anxiety, because I’ve been trying to figure out how to seamlessly do some construction on the Black Owned Everything site without alarming our followers. I want it to have much more storytelling, engage more Black photographers and graphic designers, and make it more than just a generic e-commerce space. I also have to find an entry-level social media manager to help make the Instagram account more robust while the site is down.
The Rooftop by JG with Liza Vassell, the founder of Brooklyn PR. We’re both late but make it just in time to not lose our table. It’s our first time connecting outside of work and we spent an hour and a half stuffing our faces, discussing our experiences being Black women making our own way, and investing in and supporting each other.
6:30p.m. Today was one of those weird days — productive, yet somehow I was left feeling like I didn’t quite do enough. I start checking out mentally by watching trash TV.
8:30 a.m. My makeup artist, Leah Darcy Pike, arrives to help me get ready for a portrait for this column. I decided to throw on an aqua blue look from my Macy’s collection.
1:17 p.m. I call my product development consultant and deliver the good news that I love our new Black Owned Everything candle sample. It’s kind of woody and sort of like patchouli, with these other weird notes. We also discuss possible product ideas we could launch for Juneteenth, like a summer travel kit.
2:05 p.m. I open my garage in an attempt to organize it, then close it back. It’s filled with jewelry, clothes from past photo shoots, my personal wardrobe overflow, B.O.E. stuff … it’s gotten a little crazy.
3 p.m. It’s Chris’s birthday, so I run out and grab a cake from Sweet Lady Jane and we indulge for just a moment.
4:15 p.m. I go to a mall in Sherman Oaks to pick up monochromatic sneakers for my weekend shoot with Karol G. I love color-blocking, particularly red shoes and red bags.
Sally Hemings. I’m currently obsessed with the narratives of slaves. The varied experiences never cease to amaze me. I keep them etched in my brain as a reminder of how resilient we really are as a people.
8:33 a.m. I’m cracking open the week’s packages one by one. There are 20 to 30 — a combination of gifts, things from Black-owned businesses that they want us to review, and some celeb stuff. For the most part, I try to have some stuff go to my office, but since we’re blurring lines with the pandemic, I’ve just been having it come straight to one place.
10:45 a.m. Head out to meet Chris so we can set up a rack for Karol G before heading into a fitting. The first thing I usually try to do with fittings is see what makes the client’s face light up, then I’ll start with those things that they’re most excited about. Typically, the trickiest part is the alterations because you want to make sure they hold up and last, but not damage the garment. On this day, everything went smoothly.
5:33 p.m. After grabbing a bowl of fried tofu with veggies and grits at Souley Vegan, I head to my office to work on a new project with Chris. We’re trying to start a virtual reality character for the site. She’ll be dressed in the Black-owned brands and you can follow her day-to-day.
8 p.m. We realize we should probably stop working and head home to pack for a shoot in San Francisco. When I fly, I have to have my travel blanket (right now, it’s Burberry), my memory foam neck pillow and a sleep mask — I can never stay awake on a plane, even if it’s just an hourlong flight.
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Defund the Food Police
I am a senior leader in a large health care system. In my department’s break room, I noticed a small, empty wicker basket. I started to fill it (anonymously) with individually wrapped chocolates I buy personally, as a small morale booster. Every week or so I refill the basket. Last week I walked into the office of one of my direct reports for a brief meeting and noticed on their desk a small pile of Hershey Kisses, likely taken from the basket in the break room.
This employee is a high-performing, outstanding individual. They are also quite overweight. I said nothing of course, but now am wondering: am I contributing to this person’s weight problem, with all its attendant health risks, or am I just doing something nice for the office staff, or both? Do I continue to fill the basket with chocolates?
— Anonymous, New Hampshire
Your employee’s weight is not a problem. Your employee’s weight is none of your business. What they eat is none of your business. Your employee is a high-performing, outstanding individual, in your words. That is all that matters. Their health is not your business and you should not make assumptions about what their health is or is not. Keep filling the basket with chocolates or don’t but stop obsessing about someone else’s public body and private life. It is fatphobic and unkind and unnecessary.
I work as a contractor, freelancing on a large project I really enjoy for a project manager I love — with a co-worker who has me pulling out my hair. We are both working on the same project, for which we bill hourly. We do the same set of tasks, but my colleague works much less and bills more hours. On the list of nearly identical tasks for this project, I’ve completed 75 percent of the tasks to her 25 percent, and our project manager — who doesn’t seem to be aware of the division of labor — recently let slip that my colleague has been billing more hours than I have. I don’t think my colleague is patently dishonest or even a bad person. I think she’s very, very slow and fudges her hours.
I don’t know whether to bring this to my project manager’s attention. Normally, what another person earns is not my affair. And I don’t want to create bad feelings, especially between me and my project manager, for whom I’d like to work a lot more. But the other freelancer and I are paid out of the same pot of money. We’re actually competing for it — for time and for dollars.
My project manager is blinding herself to what’s going on because it’s easier than having to confront an often challenging person. Of course the injustice stings. But I’m not sure I should say anything, though I am the only person in a position to do so.
— Anonymous, California
Your colleague’s business is none of your business. This isn’t injustice. Injustice is … voter suppression or police brutality or any number of truly horrible things. This is frustrating and, perhaps, unfair. I hear your frustration. I do. Our co-workers often do maddening things. They seem to get away with behaviors we would never get away with or even attempt. I want you to think about why this bothers you so much. Why do you care? You don’t think your colleague is “patently dishonest or even a bad person,” right? Your colleague isn’t really taking money you would otherwise receive. She is earning money for work she performs, just like you. If you genuinely think your colleague is doing something nefarious, let your manager know and then it is up to her to handle the matter. If your colleague, however problematic in other ways, just works more slowly and differently, let it go. Or work more slowly, yourself. The only thing you can really control in this situation is you and I don’t think it serves you or your well-being to obsess over this.
In a small argument, not related to work, my husband basically told me I am worthless, that my salary (with benefits) does not make enough compared to the pension he started receiving at age 60 (he’s been unemployed for four years and he is still looking for work). How do I counter this language being thrown in my face?
A decade ago, after a rained-out Thanksgiving desert camping trip with our five kids, my wife, Kristin, and I headed to the nearest available lodging, the now-shuttered Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas. Watching our brood eat their Thanksgiving meal as cigarette smoke and slot-machine clamor wafted over their cheeseburgers, Kristin and I locked eyes with an unspoken message: We are the world’s worst parents.
We have avoided Las Vegas with the kids since then, but an aborted drive to slushy Aspen this April with three of our heirs caused us to pause in Vegas. At the time, the city was just awakening from its Covid slumber, with mandatory masks and limited capacity in most indoor spaces, traffic so light that cars were drag-racing down the normally packed Strip, and a lingering, troubling question over the whole place: Will this reopening really be safe?
But extraordinary things have been happening during this slumber, and while we were only going to spend one night there, we had so much fun that we ended up staying four. At first we spent most of our time in the relative safety of the outdoors, but then we started to relax along with the rest of the city, drowning our hands beneath the ubiquitous liquid sanitizer dispensers, masking up and heading indoors.
I knew things had shifted in Sin City when, while maneuvering the minivan through some seemingly dicey neighborhood between Downtown and the Strip, I noted on the back alley wall of a hair salon a striking mural depicting the cult outsider artist Henry Darger’s seven Vivian Girl warriors in their trademark yellow dresses. What were the Vivian Girls doing here?
Makers & Finders — and wandered along Spring Mountain Road, the hub of the city’s Chinatown, rapidly expanding westward. In the midcentury mecca of East Fremont Street, a $350 million investment by the tech titan Tony Hsieh, who died last year, has produced a boulevard of fantastical art installations, restored buildings and a sculptural playground surrounded by stacked shipping containers converted to boutiques and cafes, all guarded by a giant, fire-spewing, steel praying mantis.
“Vegas is going through a cultural renaissance,” a former member of the city’s Arts Commission, Brian “Paco” Alvarez, told me in a recent telephone interview. “A lot of the local culture that comes out of a city with two million unusually creative people didn’t stop during the pandemic.”
Area15, which opened in February in a mysterious, airport-hanger-size, windowless building two miles west of the Strip. Imagine an urban Burning Man mall (indeed, many of the sculptures and installations came from the annual arts festival held in northern Nevada), with some dozen tenants providing everything from virtual reality trips to nonvirtual ax throwing, accompanied by Day-Glo color schemes, electronic music, giant interactive art installations and guests flying overhead on seats attached to ceiling rails. Face masks are currently only mandatory in Area15 for self-identified unvaccinated people, though some of the attractions within still require face masks for everyone. Everywhere, we encountered the constant presence of cleaning attendants spraying and wiping surfaces.
Blue Man Group, who was bringing his creative magic to Area15 in the form of a “Psychedelic Art House Meets Carnival Funhouse” called Wink World (adult tickets start at $18). Wink World is centered around six rooms with infinity mirror boxes reflecting Slinkys, plasma balls, fan spinners, Hoberman Spheres and ribbons dancing to an ethereal soundtrack of electronic music, rhythmic chanting and heavy breathing.
“I worked on these installations for six years in my living room in New York,” Mr. Wink told me. “I was trying to evoke psychedelic experiences without medicine.”
My unmedicated children were transfixed, as if these familiar toys frolicking into eternity were totems to their own personal nirvanas. I’ve never seen them stand so still in front of an art exhibit.
Omega Mart (adult admissions start at $45, face mask and temperature check mandatory), the biggest attraction in the complex, lines one side of the complex’s atrium and seemed — at first — to provide a banal respite from Area15’s sensory overload. Along the sale aisles I found Nut Free Salted Peanuts, Gut Monkey Ginger Ale and cans of Camels Implied Chicken Sop.
Meow Wolf (the name derived from pulling two random words from a hat during their first meeting), Omega Mart is an amalgamation of some 325 artists’ creations tied together by disparate overlapping story lines which one can follow — or not.
For a short time, I tracked the story of the takeover of Omega Mart’s corporate headquarters by a hilariously manipulative New Agey daughter, and then got sidelined into the tale of a teen herbalist leading a rebellion to something else. I have no idea what I experienced other than that Brian Eno composed the music to one of the installations. None of my kids could explain what they experienced either, other than something mind-expanding. If it wasn’t for dinner, we might still be in there.
Raku. Step behind an understated white backlit sign and you enter an aged wood interior of an intimate restaurant that you might find off a Kyoto alley. We slid into the family-style tables behind the main dining room and commenced to feast. There’s a $100 tasting menu if you are feeling adult, but my tribe ordered cream-like tofu with dried fish, foie gras skewers and a dozen other items.
Chinatown became our go-to-spot for snacks and boba tea between adventures. A favorite spot became Pho 90, a low-key Vietnamese cafe with outstanding noodle dishes and exquisitely layered banh mi sandwiches for picnics in the wild.
Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Strip, is like walking into a Road Runner cartoon with a Technicolor ballet of clashing tectonic formations. We grabbed our admittedly reluctant brood on a 2.4-mile, round-trip hike on the Keystone Thrust Trail through a series of gullies until we emerged above epic white limestone cliffs jutting through the ocher-colored mountains. Here we had our Vietnamese picnic overlooking the monolithic casinos in the distance.
Rail Explorers has set up rail bike tours on the abandoned tracks leading to the Hoover Dam construction site. We booked a sunset tour (from $85 to $150 for a tandem quad bike). After some quick instruction, we, along with three dozen other visitors, climbed into an 800-pound, four-person Korean-made bike rig and, giving the group ahead of us a three-minute head start for some space, started peddling.
Our route was along four miles of desert track gently sloping into a narrowing canyon pass. As we effortlessly peddled at 10 miles per hour, we noticed that the spikes holding down the railroad ties were often crooked or missing. “I bet these were all driven in by hand,” my teenage son, Cody, a history buff, noted.
In the enveloping dusk, we glimpsed shadows moving along the sagebrush: bighorn sheep, goats and other critters emerging for their nocturnal wanderings. But the most surreal sight was at the end of the ride, where a giant backlit sign for a truck stop casino appeared over a desert butte — Vegas was beckoning us back, but now we welcomed the summons. Here we were, peddling into the sunset, feeling more athletic, cool and (gasp!) enlightened than when we first rolled into Vegas four days ago. Oh what good parents we were!
“The moniker of ‘Sin City’ is totally wrong,” Mr. Alvarez told me, “if you know where to look.”
FRANKFURT — One of postwar Germany’s most spectacular terrorism trials opened Thursday, with federal prosecutors laying out their case against a military officer who they said had been motivated by a “hardened far-right extremist mind-set” to plot political murder in the hope of bringing down the country’s democratic system.
The case of First Lieutenant Franco A., whose surname is abbreviated in keeping with German privacy laws, shocked Germany when he was arrested four years ago and has since pushed the country to confront a creeping threat of infiltration in the military and the police by far-right extremists.
Franco A. was caught in 2017 trying to collect a loaded gun he had hidden in an airport bathroom. His fingerprints later revealed that he had a second — fake — identity as a Syrian refugee, setting off alarm bells and an investigation that would span three countries and multiple intelligence agencies. Prosecutors have accused him of planning terrorist attacks using that identity with the intention of stoking growing fears over immigration in Germany and triggering a national crisis.
The case has become the latest warning for a country that has spent decades atoning for its Nazi past but that also has a track record of turning a blind eye to far-right extremism and terrorism.
far more extensive than they had imagined.
One group, run by a former soldier and police sniper in northern Germany, hoarded weapons, kept enemy lists and ordered body bags, and is the subject of an ongoing terrorism investigation. Another, run by a special-forces soldier code-named Hannibal, put the spotlight on the KSK, Germany’s most elite force. Last year, after explosives and SS memorabilia were found on the property of a sergeant major, an entire KSK unit was disbanded by the defense minister.
In all these cases the authorities had failed to identify extremists inside the institutions, sometimes for years. Franco A. is no exception. He received glowing reports from superiors throughout his military career even as he wrote and publicly spoke about his far-right views.
In 2014, after submitting a Master’s thesis riddled with far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, he was asked to write another one. But he was never reported even though a military historian who had been asked to assess the thesis called it a “a radical nationalist, racist appeal.”
Ms. Weingast, the prosecutor, described Franco A.’s views as stemming from a “longstanding hardened far-right extremist mind-set” that was particularly hostile to Jews. Franco A., she said, was convinced that Zionists were waging a “race war” that would lead to the extinction of the German race. He considered Germany to be under occupation by the United States.
All this had motivated him to plan “a violent attack on life” that would “create a climate of fear,” Ms. Weingast told the court.
“This was the intention of the accused,” she said.
According to the indictment, Franco A. had gone beyond abstract plotting and in July 2016 had traveled to Berlin to visit the workplace of one of his alleged targets, Ms. Kahane, the Jewish activist. He drew a sketch of the location of her office and took several pictures of the license plates of cars in the parking garage.
Franco A.’s lawyer, Mr. Fricke-Schmitt, dismissed any suggestion that his client had a far-right mind-set. “He is interested in rowing,” he said. “He listens to punk music.”
But Franco A. kept a record of his far-right ideas in a diary and a series of audio memos on his phone. The New York Times has a transcript of these audio memos.
In them he praises Adolf Hitler, indulges in global Jewish conspiracies, argues that immigration has destroyed Germany’s ethnic purity, hails Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as a role model and advocates destroying the state.
He added that office workers represent “the first wave of a very essential layering of the density of New York City that’s needed to bring this city back.”
Today in Business
Still, people will be returning to a new type of corporate environment. Saks started making changes to its office in the fall, when it had been contemplating a broader return until the pandemic took a turn for the worse. It has added amenities like a nail and hair salon and subsidized lunches to ease the lives of employees. It is also pursuing a fully open floor plan, where only a handful of people, including Mr. Metrick, will have offices. Other offices will be converted into Zoom rooms or in-person conference rooms.
“It’s literally round tables with five chairs and people can plop down there with their laptops,” Mr. Metrick said. “It’s kind of like a student union in college would have been. It’s a very social and open work environment.”
Mr. Metrick, who has led Saks since 2015, said that the retailer has hit a wall with Zoom, comparing its popularity to “when cigarettes went mainstream.”
“It wasn’t until a few years later that people realized, ‘Oh my god, this stuff kills you,’” he said.
Mr. Metrick said he did not agree with recent comments by WeWork’s chief executive, Sandeep Mathrani, who said at a Wall Street Journal event last week that the least engaged employees are the ones most comfortable working from home.
Saks, like many consumer-facing businesses, has a close and collaborative work environment based on its business model, where “it’s not as easy to draw lines about where responsibility ends and where the next person’s responsibility begins,” Mr. Metrick said. He has been more concerned about company culture than how hard employees have been working at home, especially as new hires have joined Saks, he said.
“Zoom and the virtual world is a culture killer for companies,” Mr. Metrick said. “It doesn’t mean the individual is engaged or not engaged, or working hard or not working hard, or productive or not productive — but culture is so important to a business. And there’s no way that having 900 people dispersed and only existing in an intentional Zoom world with no unintentional conversation is good for a culture.”
NEW DELHI — Joefred and Ralfred Gregory moved through life as one.
They went to the same college. They studied the same thing. They wore matching clothes. They trimmed their beards the exact same way.
Identical twins, they were two handsome young men in northern India who above all else really loved each other. And when they both were struck by Covid-19 last month and hospitalized, it was like they shared one sick body.
Hours after Joefred died, Ralfred’s mother told him that his brother was still alive, to keep his spirits up.
has suffered so much and keeps suffering. Though India’s overall case numbers have dropped this past week, the deaths keep going up.
On Wednesday, India broke a world record for the most reported Covid deaths in a single day: 4,529. However alarming that number is — three Indians dying every minute because of the coronavirus — experts say that it is just a small fraction of the true toll and that the real numbers are far higher.
Joefred and Ralfred, 24, had a special bond. Though their parents gave them similar names, they said they didn’t raise the twins to copy each other. Still, neighbors said that where you saw one, you saw the other, even after they reached adulthood.
the worst surge of infections that any country had seen since the pandemic began.
So many people were getting infected at the same time, especially in northern India, where Meerut is, that hospitals couldn’t cope. Sick people were being turned away. They were dying in the streets, in the back seats of cars parked in vain outside hospital gates, at home, gasping for air.
There was a deadly shortage of lifesaving oxygen and medicine. It was the Covid nightmare that all nations have feared since the pandemic began, exploding with a fury.
leading Indian newspapers ran stories, showing the two brothers side by side in identical suits. Television stations jumped in as well, with their doctor talking about how thoroughly the virus had destroyed their lungs.
Of all the thousands of deaths in recent days, these two seemed to really unsettle people, perhaps because the twins were just in their 20s and had looked so healthy, or maybe it was simply their closeness. Across social media, people exchanged messages such as “This is so heartbreaking!” and “How devastating it must be for the parents. So young …”
Their father says he feels like his heart has been torn from his body.
“I keep thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have brought them to the hospital,” he said. “Maybe I should have kept them at home. There is a parental love that the hospital can’t give.”
“But there’s no use of saying, ‘If this could have happened, or that could happened,’” he said. “My children are gone now.”
Every day, he said, he visits the graveyard.
Beneath a young neem tree, Joefred and Ralfred Gregory are buried in two coffins but one grave.