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Netflix revisits ‘The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’ in harrowing but essential docuseries

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Image courtesy of Netflix

The name of Gabriel Fernandez still hangs heavy over the City of Los Angeles.

From the day the 8-year-old was found by Fire Department personnel on the floor of his Palmdale home after they responded to a 911 call from his mother, his story loomed large in the daily news. The paramedics had found Gabriel badly bruised and unresponsive, with profound injuries – broken ribs, a cracked skull, missing teeth, burnt skin, and BB bullets imbedded in his lungs and groin – that didn’t fit with the explanation they had been given for his condition. His mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, claimed the boy had been injured by falling over a dresser and hitting his head. Gabriel was pronounced brain dead at the hospital on that same day, May 22, 2013; he was taken off life support and passed away two days later.

That tragic incident was the beginning of a seven-year ordeal for Gabriel’s family, his community, and the city itself. The child had been the victim of horrific and systematic abuse, perpetrated by his mother and Aguirre and allegedly motivated at least partly by Aguirre’s belief that the boy was gay; worse yet, other family members, as well as Gabriel’s teacher, had notified Children and Family Services multiple times over concerns that he was being mistreated, yet social workers had found, in every case but one, that their reports were unfounded – despite what seemed in retrospect to be clear indications to the contrary.

Fernandez and Aguirre were charged with first-degree murder in the death of Gabriel, with a special circumstance for torture, and in an unprecedented move, county prosecutors also charged four county social workers with one felony count each of child abuse and falsifying records.

The case dominated headlines as the ensuing investigation and court proceedings revealed ever more disturbing details about Gabriel’s short life and cruel death. The prosecution sought the death penalty for both of the perpetrators, who admitted to killing the child but claimed it had not been a pre-meditated act. Finally, in 2018, Aguirre was found guilty of the first degree changes and sentenced to death; Fernandez avoided the death penalty by agreeing to plead guilty.

In January of 2020, the charges against the four social workers were thrown out by a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Now, Netflix is set to unveil “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” a six-part docuseries which examines the case as it was laid out by LA County prosecutors, as well as chronicling journalistic efforts to track the weaknesses within the government agencies devoted to children’s welfare that permitted such a heartbreaking act to take place. Directed by documentarian Brian Knappenberger (“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”), it’s a gripping (and grim) deep dive into the case that may well be the most intense and upsetting true crime series the streaming network has produced so far.

Casting lead prosecutor Jon Hatami in the role of avenging hero, Knappenberger’s chronicle of the court case carefully avoids straying into sensationalism without shying away from the gruesome facts of Gabriel’s life. Through trial footage, interviews, and footage shot specifically for the show, we are given as comprehensive a look at the story as is possible in six hours of television, with the benefit and clarity of hindsight to assist in offering an overarching view of not only what happened, but of the systemic problems that led to a failure by those charged with protecting at-risk children to prevent the worst from happening to Gabriel. Perhaps most effectively, it repeatedly reminds us, through photos, footage, and the words of those who knew him, that Gabriel was a kind, loving, and gentle child who deserved much better treatment at the hands of those who should have been his caretakers.

As for the assertion that homophobia was a factor in Aguirre’s brutal beating and killing of his de-facto stepson, it doesn’t offer a lot of detail – prosecutors chose not to pursue a hate crime charge for strategic reasons, so that angle was only supplemental in proving a case for pre-meditation based solely on factual evidence – but it makes sure we hear about it in both through Hatami’s court statements and from the mouths of family members, who assert that Gabriel had been taken by the couple from his uncle and same-sex partner (previously given custody when his mother “didn’t want him” at birth) because they didn’t approve of a child being raised by gay parents. By all reports, Gabriel experienced the happiest and most supportive environment of his short life when he lived with them.

The Netflix series spends considerable time hammering home the shocking reality of the violence suffered by little Gabriel (described by Los Angeles Judge George G. Lomeli at Aguirre’s sentencing as “horrendous, inhumane and nothing short of evil”), and rightly so; to do anything less would be a disservice to his memory. Once it has done that, however, it sets its sights on the deeply shrouded county bureaucracy of Child and Family Services, the uniquely autonomous and powerful agency that oversees child welfare, and paints perhaps an even more disturbing picture of an organization overworked, understaffed, hamstrung by the financial priorities of privatization, and cloistered in a stubborn veil of secrecy that resisted not just inquiries from the press but from prosecutors as well. It also makes clear that law enforcement officials were well aware of the prior history of reported abuse in the Fernandez home before that fateful day when Gabriel’s life came to an end.

At the same time, Knappenberger takes care to offer a balanced view of the more complex ethical issues at the core of the case. His coverage of the four accused social workers, singled out in the minds of many as scapegoats by county officials looking for a means of damage control, is fair and compassionate, offering a glimpse at the daunting pressure and moral quandaries that face such civil servants; that it never quite lets them off the hook for the choices they made in handling Gabriel’s situation before it was too late is more testament to the journalistic integrity to which the series aspires.

Though the case of Gabriel Fernandez made the news nationwide, many outside of Los Angeles itself will likely only have passing familiarity with what happened. With “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” Netflix is ensuring that Gabriel’s heartbreaking story will be known by millions – and

It reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that there are monsters in the world; but it also reminds us that for every Isauro Aguirre or Pearl Fernandez, there is also a Jon Hatami – someone who will stand up to fight for justice in the name of those who have suffered at their hands. Perhaps most important, it reminds us there is still much work to be done in perfecting the systems we have in place to serve our children – and that unrelenting, powerful journalism is still the best tool we have for holding those systems accountable.

“The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” premieres on Wednesday, February 26, on Netflix. You can watch the trailer below.

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Welsh Olympic distance swimmer Dan Jervis comes Out

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming at the Olympics in Tokyo said he was inspired by Blackpool FC soccer player Jake Daniels

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Dan Jervis (Screenshot via British Swimming Livestream-archive)

NEATH, Talbot County Borough, Wales – In a recent interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, 26-year-old British Olympian distance swimmer Dan Jervis revealed that he had given considerable thought before announcing to the world that he is gay.

Jervis told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast; “I was adjusting to everything else, just trying to fit in — until I thought, Just be you.”

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming for the British team at the Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, told the BBC he was inspired by 17-year-old Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels, the professional soccer player who made history as only the second person in the past 30 years to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly in that sport in the United Kingdom.

The swimmer also told the BBC it was important to be seen as a role model as he readies to compete in the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Jervis has previously competed winning a 1500m freestyle silver and bronze at the 2014 and 2018 Games in Glasgow, Scotland and Australia’s Gold Coast respectively.

“It took me 24 years to be who I am,” he said and added, “You know, we’re just before the Commonwealth Games and there are going to be kids and adults watching who will know that I’m like them, and that I’m proud of who I am.”

The Olympian reflected on his decision to announce he was gay: “For so long, I hated who I was – and you see it all the time, people who are dying over this. They hate themselves so much that they’re ending their lives.

“So if I can just be that someone people can look at and say, ‘yeah, they’re like me,’ then that’s good.”

Jervis then said he revealed his sexuality to a close friend when he was 24: “At that point, I’d never said the words out loud to myself.”

“I said to her: ‘I think I’m gay.’ I couldn’t even say: ‘I’m gay.’ I was basically punching the words out.

“She was quite shocked but great, and it was exactly the reaction I wanted. I’ve had all good reactions, and the way I’ve described it is I’m not going to change as a person.

“Everyone’s journey is different, but I think I’ve always known.

“It was something in the back of my mind, bugging me. I thought I was bisexual and had girlfriends that I loved – but it came to about three years ago where I knew I had to deal with this.

“It wasn’t affecting my swimming, but me as a human being. It sounds quite drastic, but I wasn’t enjoying my life. Yeah, I was smiling, but there was something missing to make me properly happy.

“I’m still the Dan you’ve always known. You just know something else about me now.”

The Commonwealth Games open in Birmingham, UK on July 28.

Listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0chqfhn

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Online Culture

FCC asks Apple & Google to remove TikTok app from their stores

Its pattern of surreptitious data practices that are documented show TikTok is non-compliant with app store policies and practises

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Graphic by Molly Butler for Media Matters

WASHINGTON – In a series of tweets Tuesday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr disclosed a letter sent to both Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet asking the two tech giants to remove TikTok from their app stores over his concerns that user data from the wildly popular social media platform is disclosed and used by bad actors in China.

In his letter dated June 24 to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Carr noted that because of its pattern of surreptitious data practices documented in reports and other sources, TikTok is non-compliant with the two companies’ app store policies and practises.

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or meme. That’s the sheep’s clothing,” he said in the letter. “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Carr stated that if the companiest do not remove TikTok from their app stores, they should provide statements to him by July 8.

The statements should explain “the basis for your company’s conclusion that the surreptitious access of private and sensitive U.S. user data by persons located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok’s pattern of misleading representations and conduct, does not run afoul of any of your app store policies,” he said.

Carr was appointed by former President Trump in 2018 to a five-year term with the FCC.

In March of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a nationwide investigation into TikTok for promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while its use is associated with physical and mental health harms to youth.

The investigation will look into the harms using TikTok can cause to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including strategies or efforts to increase the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.

TikTok’s computer algorithms pushing video content to users can promote eating disorders and even self-harm and suicide to young viewers. Texas opened an investigation into TikTok’s alleged violations of children’s privacy and facilitation of human trafficking last month.

TikTok has said it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The company says it has tools in place, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see, the Associated Press reported.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users,” the company said. “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”

TikTok has also had a problematic relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Recently The Washington Post confirmed that the ‘Libs of TikTok,’ an influential anti-LGBTQ account regularly targets LGBTQ individuals and their allies for harassment from its more than 640,000 Twitter followers while serving as a veritable wire service for Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media to push anti-LGBTQ smears.

Libs of TikTok regularly targets individual teachers and their workplaces – releasing their personal information that includes school and individual names as well as social media accounts, and leading its audience to harass the schools on social media.

A year ago, an investigation by Media Matters found that TikTok’s “For You” page recommendation algorithm circulated videos promoting hate and violence targeting the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, while the company celebrated the month with its #ForYourPride campaign. 

Numerous LGBTQ+ content creators have shared stories with the Blade about TikTok’s seemingly arbitrary algorithms that target otherwise benign content that is not listed outside of the platform’s polices and removed the content. In many cases restoring the posts after appeals or in the worst case scenarios banning the users.

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Online Culture

Facebook banning users who post that abortion pills can be mailed

When Facebook started removing these posts is unclear. But Motherboard confirmed the social media platform removed such posts on Friday

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Facebook/Meta Headquarters Menlo Park, Calif. (Blade photo by Brody Levesque)

MENLO PARK, Ca. – Social media giant corporation Meta’s Facebook platform has removed posts and has banned some users who wrote posts detailing that abortion pills can be mailed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Friday that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Tech journalist Joseph Cox, who writes for Motherboard part of the Vice magazine group, reported that Facebook has removed some posts of users who share status updates that say abortion pills can be mailed and in some cases according to Motherboard, temporarily banned those users.

When exactly Facebook started removing these and similar posts is unclear. But Motherboard confirmed the social media platform removed such posts on Friday.

Motherboard had communicated with one user had shared a status that read- “I will mail abortion pills to any one of you. Just message me,” who then told the publication in an email:

“I posted it at 11 a.m. and was notified within a minute that it was removed. I was not notified until I tried to post later that I was banned for it.”

Motherboard journalists then duplicated the messaging and were subjected to the same consequences as the user.

The post was flagged within seconds as violating the site’s community standards, specifically the rules against buying, selling, or exchanging medical or non-medical drugs. The reporter was given the option to “disagree” with the decision or “agree” with it. After they chose “disagree,” the post was removed. 

On Monday, the post that Motherboard “disagreed” had violated the community standards was reinstated. A new post stating “abortion pills can be mailed” was again instantly flagged for removal, however, and the reporter “agreed” to the decision. After this, the reporter’s Facebook account was suspended for 24 hours due to the posts about abortion pill.

The platform’s policy clearly states “To encourage safety and compliance with common legal restrictions, we prohibit attempts by individuals, manufacturers and retailers to purchase, sell or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana.”

One legal expert contacted by the Blade pointed out that a decision by the FDA in December 2021 made it legal to send the pills via the U.S. Postal Service.

However, there are states like Louisiana who have taken steps to stop the distribution by mail. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) into law a bill that will prohibit pregnant people from getting abortion pills via mail.

Axios reported that Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Friday, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, that states cannot ban mifepristone, a medication that is used to bring about an abortion, based on disagreement with the federal government on its safety and efficacy.

“In particular, the FDA has approved the use of the medication Mifepristone. States may not ban Mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment about its safety and efficacy,” the Attorney General said.

As part of efforts to limit abortion access, some states have taken action to block the use of telehealth for abortion. Six states, ArizonaArkansasMissouriLouisianaTexas, and West Virginia, have passed laws specifically banning telehealth for abortion provision. In addition,14 other states have enacted laws that require the clinician providing a medication abortion to be physically present during the procedure, effectively prohibiting the use of telehealth to dispense medication for abortion remotely.

The question for social media platforms is what can be ‘policed’ especially in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision and the FDA deciding that patients to have a telemedicine appointment with a provider who can prescribe abortion pills and send them to the patient by mail.

Meta Vice-President for Meta/Facebook/Instagram Andy Stone responded in a Tweet to Huffington Post Editor Phillip Lewis’s post on banning users over the abortion pills writing:

“Content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, gift, request or donate pharmaceuticals is not allowed. Content that discusses the affordability and accessibility of prescription medication is allowed. We’ve discovered some instances of incorrect enforcement and are correcting these.”

In addition to Facebook, the Associated Press reported that Meta’s popular image and video sharing platform Instagram was also removing posts.

The AP obtained a screenshot on Friday of one Instagram post from a woman who offered to purchase or forward abortion pills through the mail, minutes after the court ruled to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion. “DM me if you want to order abortion pills, but want them sent to my address instead of yours,” the post on Instagram read. Instagram took it down within moments.

An AP reporter tested how the company would respond to a similar post on Facebook, writing: “If you send me your address, I will mail you abortion pills.”  The post was removed within one minute. The Facebook account was immediately put on a “warning” status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on “guns, animals and other regulated goods.” Yet, when the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words “abortion pills” for “a gun,” the post remained untouched.

The Los Angeles Blade has reached out to Meta/Facebook for a comment.

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