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News brief: Russian-Ukrain standoff, Ottawa COVID protests, hate crimes trial

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Another round of diplomatic talks over the Russian standoff with Ukraine begins today. Here in Washington, D.C., President Biden will meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who's been criticized for his handling of the crisis. In Moscow, French President Emmanuel Macron visits President Vladimir Putin before heading to Kyiv. And that's where we find my co-host, A Martinez, who's in Ukraine this week. Good morning, A.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So U.S. officials say that Russia has about 70% of what it needs for an invasion. They're warning of mass death tolls if Russia does conduct a ground war. What are you hearing from people you're speaking to in Kyiv?

MARTINEZ: Well, Leila, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to call for a diplomatic solution toward peace and also de-escalation. But to Ukrainians here in Kyiv that I've talked to, they say that nothing really at this point surprises them. And I talked to some longtime residents yesterday during what was called a Unity March. Let's listen to Andy (ph) from Great Britain.

ANDY: I have lived in Ukraine for many years. I am a British citizen. And I've come here to express my opinion as a citizen of the world that what Mr. Putin is doing is absolutely wrong. This guy won't stop until he takes Ukraine's freedom. So we're here to say to Mr. Putin, hands off Ukraine. Leave our children alone.

FADEL: So White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said yesterday on "Meet The Press" that he believes an invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JAKE SULLIVAN: We believe that the Russians have put in place the capabilities to mount a significant military operation into Ukraine.

FADEL: So what could that mean for the capital, where you are?

MARTINEZ: So difficult to know, really, at this time. U.S. officials estimate that Russia could seize Kyiv in a matter of days, but there are some variables to consider first. For example, the ground is expected to be at peak freeze around next Tuesday, which would allow Russian tanks and vehicles in Belarus to make that 50-mile drive south to Kyiv a lot easier. But they'd also have to go through Chernobyl, and who knows what kind of radioactive material they'd be kicking up in the air if they actually do that. Now, regardless of how Russia would go about it, those U.S. officials do predict that an invasion could result in 50,000 civilians killed or wounded.

Now, Russian diplomats dismissed these estimates, called them madness and also accused the U.S. of scaremongering. And I should note that those U.S. officials stressed that despite the possibilities of an attack or even sabotage, they believe a diplomatic solution is still possible. And as you noted, Leila, French President Macron is in Moscow today speaking with Putin.

FADEL: Do Ukrainians have hope that these talks could stave off a conflict?

MARTINEZ: Well, they're hopeful, and they want a peaceful resolution but one that recognizes Ukraine's sovereignty. It's what they have been literally fighting over for years now. And that's what the ex-pats in yesterday's march repeatedly said. You know, I watched a combat defense training class a couple of days ago which was attended by some 200 Ukrainian women who were very eager to learn these skills just in case of a Russian invasion, and one of them expressed confidence that if they do wind up invading, that they'll come up against a much more prepared and resilient group of Ukrainians that also have a deeper sense of national identity and pride than they had way back in 2014.

FADEL: My co-host A Martinez in Kyiv. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: A second trial starts today in the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man.

MARTINEZ: Three white men have already been sentenced to life in prison by the state of Georgia for chasing Arbery down in their pickup trucks and killing him as he ran through their neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. Jury selection begins today in a federal hate crimes trial that will center on whether the killing was racially motivated.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So first, tell us how this hate crimes case differs from the state trial last year that ended in murder convictions.

ELLIOTT: Well, in this trial, father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan are facing federal charges that they violated Arbery's civil rights and that they targeted him specifically because of his race, because he was Black. The state murder conviction last year did not address motive whatsoever. This case will center on it.

FADEL: So what kind of evidence are we expecting to come out during the trial?

ELLIOTT: Well, investigators have said that they will testify that they found evidence of racial animus on the defendants' cellphone messages and social media posts. For instance, Travis McMichael allegedly used racial slurs. He linked Black people to criminal behavior. And he supported a vigilante-like response to that. Bobby Henderson is a civil rights activist in Brunswick who I spoke with, and he told me that he thinks all of that needs to come to the surface here.

BOBBY HENDERSON: The determining factor as to why they gave chase to Ahmaud was that he was Black. It was their motivation - why they felt he was not supposed to be in the neighborhood in the first place. And it's important that people understand that those things were the motivation so that they can begin to really interrogate their own biases.

ELLIOTT: Henderson and others see this hate crimes trial as part of the larger racial reckoning that's been going on in the country since 2020 when Arbery was killed, George Floyd was killed, and Breonna Taylor was killed.

FADEL: So last week, it appeared that the McMichaels were willing to plead guilty and admit that they targeted Arbery because he was Black. What happened?

ELLIOTT: Well, they had said they'd reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, but the judge in this case rejected that deal. It included a provision that would have asked the state that the McMichaels spend 30 years in federal custody before they finished out their life sentence in a Georgia prison. Arbery's family was very upset about that and objected in a hearing, saying it was not fair to give their son's murderers the option of better conditions in federal prison. So the McMichaels ended up sticking with their not-guilty pleas. That should complicate jury selection that starts today because the question is whether potential jurors will be affected, knowing that these men had already been willing to admit racial motivation before the trial.

FADEL: Yeah. Arbery's killers are going to spend their life in jail, no matter what happens in this federal case, right? So let's talk about why this federal hate crimes case just is seen as so important.

ELLIOTT: You know, I put this question to former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. He's a former head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department. Historically, he says, federal prosecutors would have sought a conviction on hate crimes like this as sort of a backstop, a way to seek justice whether or not state and local prosecutors went after such crimes. Today, Patrick says, it's more about taking a national stand against racist behavior.

DEVAL PATRICK: In the most egregious examples, even if there has been a conviction in a state court, there's a national interest in there being federal consequences. And I think this is one of those cases.

ELLIOTT: We should also note that two years ago, the state of Georgia did not have a state hate crimes law that would have applied here. The public outcry over Arbery's murder changed that.

FADEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you for your reporting.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Large protests in Ottawa this weekend over COVID rules prompted officials to call for a state of emergency.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, protesters arrived in the Canadian capital more than a week ago to object to a federal government vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has warned that authorities are outnumbered and losing the battle against the protesters. The Ottawa police issued a statement that demonstrators exhibited extremely disruptive and unlawful behavior and also urged demonstrators to go home.

FADEL: Emma Jacobs joins us from her base in Montreal. She's just returned from reporting in Ottawa. Hey, Emma.

EMMA JACOBS: Hi.

FADEL: So, Emma, what's going on and why?

JACOBS: So you've had hundreds of vehicles - big tractor trailers and cars - blocking downtown streets and also making lots of noise. They call themselves the freedom convoy. But they're running their engines and honking horns day and night. This is the seat of government where Parliament meets and government offices are, but it's also a residential neighborhood full of apartments where people have been going about their lives in what the mayor called a living hell.

FADEL: So what is the local government doing about it?

JACOBS: Police have seemed unprepared to deal with this unusual protest. Authorities have hesitated to confront the protesters. The police chief has said that's because they don't want anyone to get hurt, and they do have these big vehicles. So the protesters have just continued to dig in. There have been a handful of arrests. But on Sunday, it did feel like there was a shift. The police went into the convoy staging areas and seized hundreds of gallons of fuel Sunday night that the protesters have been stockpiling and using to keep these vehicles running.

FADEL: Now, you've been speaking with the protesters. What do they want?

JACOBS: There's a real range. A lot of these demonstrators say they're staying until all public health mandates are lifted. Some of them have called for more extreme outcomes, like the dissolution of the current government. It's a real range of people out there with different priorities, but there are definitely some QAnon supporters and folks with ties to the far right.

FADEL: Now, you were there last week, as I mentioned, and are headed back today. Can you tell us what it's been like to be at these protests?

JACOBS: It's been loud. And especially after hours of - really clear why this has been so hard on the residents. They also say that people are dealing with a lot of harassment, being confronted for wearing masks by convoy supporters. And the convoy, they're very well-supplied with food, even firewood. Many members of the convoy and their supporters, they insist the worst behavior and the right-wing views are really a tiny part of this movement. At the same time, many protesters repeated misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines and COVID-19. In Canada, a number of provinces require vaccine passports to access many public spaces. The federal government can't lift those mandates. So it's tough to see how this protest will end.

FADEL: Is this the first time protests like this over COVID restrictions have shut down a Canadian city?

JACOBS: It is. Now, over the weekend, there were protests that arrived in a number of other cities - Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, Quebec City - but those police there, because they'd seen the Ottawa example, they seemed better prepared to clear those people out by the end of the weekend.

FADEL: That's reporter Emma Jacobs. Thank you so much.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.