In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

In Episode Ten, Justin interviews Dr. Terrence Roberts, a member of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education, nine African American students were enrolled in the previously whites-only Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. The students were initially prevented from entering the school by hordes of angry, racist protestors and the Arkansas National Guard, which was deployed by Governor Orval Faubus. President Dwight Eisenhower had to call in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school. One of those nine students was Terrence Roberts, now a management consultant and author who has lived in Pasadena for more than 30 years.

Everyone go vote!

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on PasadenaMedia.org. Check that website for showtimes, or watch anytime on their streaming app.

Pasadena Activist Joins Advisory Council for New Political Group Humanists for Biden

Photo by Mercedes Blackehart

A new political group aims to rally support for Joe Biden among non-religious voters in the final weeks of the campaign

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Now, 10/6/2020

Ryan Bell, a Pasadena tenants’ rights activist and the humanist chaplain at USC who ran for a seat on the Pasadena City Council earlier this year, has joined the advisory council of a new political group called Humanists for Biden.

“We will accomplish a great deal by removing Donald Trump from office and positioning ourselves to keep fighting for freedom and justice on stronger footing,” said Bell, who also serves as national organizing manager at the Pasadena-based Secular Student Alliance.

The group hosted its virtual launch event last Thursday to rally support among secular Americans — humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the nonreligious — to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the final stretch of the 2020 presidential campaign. The inaugural kickoff will feature artists, activists, chaplains, lawmakers, musicians, and authors with just a month to go before the election.

Speakers included humanist U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s daughter Sasha Sagan, former National Poetry Slam champion Regie Gibson, Biden campaign officials, humanist leaders, and a musical performance by the Flaming Lips.

Bell, a formerly devout Seventh-day Adventist pastor-turned-atheist who founded a consulting firm and podcast called Life After God after losing his faith, added that Biden was not his first choice for president. However, Bell realized that too much is at stake to not throw his support behind the Democratic candidate on Nov. 3.

“In fact, [Biden] was almost my last choice, just above [New York City Mayor Michael] Bloomberg,” Bell said. “I did not come to this decision lightly. But now the decision is quite clear to me. We must remove Trump from office by voting for Joe Biden. Trump is a clear and present danger to millions of Americans and people around the world. His administration and his campaign for reelection are a threat to democracy. He stokes white nationalist violence. His lies and incompetence have cost tens of thousands of lives during the coronavirus pandemic and he daily threatens the well-being of immigrants, African Americans, LGBTQ individuals and the environment.”

Humanists for Biden is authorized by the Biden for President campaign and is a program of and paid for by the Secular Democrats of America. The group is chaired by Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT. Other advisory council members include Sagan, Debbie Allen, Jason Callahan, Hemant Mehta, Mary Ellen Giess, Vanessa Gomez-Brake, Sarah Levin, Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Anthony Pinn, Roy Speckhardt and Megan Phelps-Roper. Phelps-Roper is an estranged member of the family that founded the Westboro Baptist Church, denounced as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Humanists for Biden released a video about its campaign to elect Biden and Harris on Sept. 28, available at youtube.com/watch?v=SRpz86CMnOk.

The number of people who identify as religious in the United States has been declining for many years. According to a study by the Pew Research Center last October, 65 percent of Americans said they were Christians, down from 77 percent just 10 years ago. The number of those who said they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” increased from 17 percent in 2009 to 26 percent in 2019.

Still, Bell pointed out that “many elected officials do not disclose their nonbelief for fear of the political risks.” Conventional political wisdom suggests atheists can’t get elected to public office and don’t have broad support among the American public. According to a 2019 Gallup study, however, 60 percent of Americans said they would vote for an atheist for public office. But that statistical position is still next to last, just below Muslims and just above socialists. Still, that’s up from 58 percent in 2015.

Young people in particular are increasingly non-religious. Voter turnout among young people is also historically low, a trend Humanists for Biden aims to reverse.

“At a time when the fastest-growing ‘faith’ group in the United States is people with no religious affiliation, we are delighted to announce an initiative of nonreligious people — humanists, atheists, agnostics and others — proud to stand with the Biden-Harris campaign,” reads a statement from the group. “Humanists for Biden marks the first time representatives of the nation’s growing number of secular Americans have been invited to participate in a coalition of communities of faith and conscience, working together on a presidential campaign. The Biden-Harris campaign is working to create the most inclusive campaign and administration in the history of American politics, and we are honored to take part in this effort.”

Members of the group have diverse political beliefs and affiliations, and many of them are publicly endorsing a candidate for the first time. As they put, “The stakes are too high, and the differences between the two campaigns are too dramatic, for us to remain on the sidelines. We are grateful that the Biden-Harris campaign has given us a platform we can support. The religious values Joe Biden and Kamala Harris hold dear overlap with our humanist values.”

Secular humanism is a philosophy that “embraces human reason, secular ethics, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, and superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.”

“The humanist community, like all others, is diverse,” reads the statement. “However, many of us share a number of goals: We support church/state separation; we respect science and listen to scientists; we want religious freedom for all Americans rather than only for a privileged few; we want a society committed to equity; and we want public policy that is rooted in facts and evidence. Beyond that, because we believe this is the only life we are guaranteed, we stand for racial, social, environmental, and economic justice for all Americans, now. There is no room for bigotry of any kind in this country. These are all values that the Biden-Harris campaign stands for as well.”

Learn more at humanistsforbiden.org.

2020 Election Series: A Guide to the California Ballot Measures That Have Local-to-global Implications

On November 3, Angelenos and Californians will have the opportunity to weigh in on a number of issues that have “local-to-global” implications; Justin Chapman explores how some of these state and county ballot measures relate to issues that other countries are also grappling with, presented as part of our voter initiative, 2020 Election: A Local-to-Global Opportunity


By Justin Chapman, Pacific Council on International Policy, 9/17/2020


In addition to one of the most consequential presidential elections in modern times—if not American history—on November 3, Angelenos and Californians will have the opportunity to weigh in on a number of issues that have “local-to-global” implications. The ballot will include 12 measures covering affirmative action, cash bail, rent control, and more.

The following is an exploration of how some of these state and county ballot measures relate to issues that other countries are also grappling with, presented as part of our voter initiative, 2020 Election: A Local-to-Global Opportunity. This initiative focuses on what it means to be a local-to-global voter, a concept we are exploring and sharing with members through our virtual events, social media resources, volunteer opportunities, and expert commentary and analysis in our online Magazine.

We are not telling you how to vote. Rather, we are sharing this nonpartisan, factual information that will help inform and equip you with expected outcomes. The Council values global engagement, inclusion, and bipartisanship—while maintaining our status as a nonpartisan not-for-profit. The Council believes that having a local-to-global mindset as a voter leads to better policy outcomes.

Get Involved: In order to expand upon these issues, the Pacific Council will host a Local-to-Global Ballot Initiative Party (on Zoom), where Pacific Council members will debate the pros and cons of three California ballots for the 2020 Election—and we want YOUR help. We are looking for presenters on California propositions 16 and 17 and LA County’s Alternatives to Incarceration Charter Amendment to address either the pros or cons of the measure. If you are a Council member who is interested in participating, learn how you can get involved here.

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LA County—Alternatives to Incarceration Charter Amendment

If approved, this measure would amend LA County’s charter to require that no less than 10 percent of the county’s general fund be appropriated to community programs and alternatives to incarceration, such as health services and pre-trial non-custody services. (Ballotpedia)

Coupled with the national conversation around the role of law enforcement is the ever-growing rate of incarceration. In the United States, 693 people out of every 100,000 are incarcerated, the highest rate in the world, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. No industrialized nation even comes close. The countries with the next highest rates include El Salvador, Turkmenistan, Thailand, Palau, Rwanda, and Cuba. Germany, to cite one example on the other hand, incarcerates 76 per 100,000 residents.

Prison reform has thus emerged as a bipartisan issue in the United States. According to Vera, the U.S. prison population has increased 700 percent in the last 40 years. “Despite this massive investment in incarceration, the national recidivism rate remains at a stubborn 40 percent—meaning that four in 10 incarcerated people will return to prison within three years of release.”

Additionally, overcrowding is a direct result of mass incarceration, which results in human rights violations. Building more prisons does not alleviate the problem; it exacerbates it. Instead, “numerous international instruments recommend a rationalization in sentencing policy, including the wider use of alternatives to prison, aiming to reduce the number of people being isolated from society for long periods,” according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The United Nations has argued that framing prison reform as a human rights issue has not been enough to implement such reforms. “The detrimental impact of imprisonment, not only on individuals but on families and communities, and economic factors” as well as public health must also be taken into account.

IN THE UNITED STATES, 693 PEOPLE OUT OF EVERY 100,000 ARE INCARCERATED, THE HIGHEST RATE IN THE WORLD. HOW DO OTHER COUNTRIES HANDLE ALTERNATIVES TO INCARCERATION?

How do other countries handle alternatives to incarceration? In Germany and the Netherlands, both of which have significantly lower incarceration rates compared to the United States, prison systems are “organized around central tenets of resocialization and rehabilitation,” whereas the U.S. system is “organized around the central tenets of incapacitation and retribution,” according to Vera. Both European countries impose shorter prison sentences than the United States and instead issue fines or community-based sentences. When prison sentences are implemented, they make life in prison “as similar as possible to life in the community,” an approach known as “normalization.”

Norway also issues shorter prison sentences. Additionally, Norway’s low-level and serious offenders are housed in different kinds of prisons with varying levels of security, freedoms, and responsibilities. The Norwegian system avoids overcrowding by maintaining one prisoner per cell, and also offers education, drug treatment, mental health, and training programs, according to a study submitted to the World Economic Forum.

A study conducted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which pointed out that there is little research on the impact of alternatives to imprisonment in Europe, explained that several European countries have had success in utilizing alternatives to incarceration. Those measures include community sanctions (often involving unpaid work for a certain period of time); curfews enforced by electronic monitoring or suspended custodial sentences; supervision or control with treatment or rehabilitation, (for example, supervised access to training, education, drug or alcohol treatment, mental health care, or restorative justice, often with regular probation supervision); decriminalizing low-level offences (including non-violent drug offences); and abolishing mandatory minimum sentences.

Prop. 16: Ending the ban on affirmative action

This statewide measure would allow schools and public agencies to take race and other immutable characteristics into account when making admission, hiring, or contracting decisions. (CalMatters)

Californians voted to ban affirmative action in state institutions back in 1996. According to CalMatters, this resulted in “an immediate drop in Black and Latino enrollment at the state’s elite public universities.” Since then, the conversation around race and systemic racism has changed and calls for equitable representation in all areas of society have grown. According to Politico, California is “one of only eight states that do not allow affirmative action in hiring, awarding state contracts, or accepting students.”

As an article in The Hill points out, “using educational remedies to help address social injustice is not unique to the United States.” Globally, about 25 percent of the world’s countries have some form of affirmative action, according to a study in The Conversation. India has policies in place for lower-caste students, South Africa has policies that admit underrepresented students as well as mentor them to success, and Brazil is also developing such policies after years of denying racial inequities.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IS ALIVE AND WELL—AND ON THE RISE—AROUND THE WORLD.

Many countries focus their affirmative action policies on women, including in Africa, Europe, and North America. Indeed, affirmative action policies for women are the most prevalent kind around the world. More countries are also introducing gender quotas for public elections. “Half of the countries of the world today use some type of electoral quota for their parliament,” according to IDEA.

Some countries that don’t want to take race or ethnicity into consideration instead consider geography. Sri Lanka and France use geographic district because “it’s less controversial than ethnicity or language. Affirmative action based on geography (the place a student comes from) appeals to policymakers reluctant to give race, ethnicity, or caste such a prominent and explicit role.”

As the study points out, “affirmative action is alive and well—and on the rise—around the world.” Innovation in this area is mostly taking place outside the United States.

Prop. 17: Restoring the right to vote to people on parole

If passed, this measure would allow Californians who are currently on parole to vote. (CalMatters)

Unlike the United States, many countries allow their ex-felons to vote. More than 6 million Americans with current or former felony convictions are disenfranchised, according to The New York Times.

In much of Europe, prisoners currently serving time can still vote, let alone after they’ve paid their debt to society. “In democracies the world over, being incarcerated does not strip someone of citizenship and the voting rights that come with it,” an international election monitor wrote in the Times. Rather, they’re “encouraged to take their duties as citizens in a democracy seriously.” According to Newsweek, “only four democracies—including the United States—restrict voting rights after a person’s period of incarceration has ended.”

In the United States, the rules vary from state to state. In California, those with a criminal record can still vote if they are not currently in state or federal prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony. Prop. 17 would restore voting rights to Californians in that latter group, bringing the state one step closer to norms practiced in most democracies.

IN MUCH OF EUROPE, PRISONERS CURRENTLY SERVING TIME CAN STILL VOTE, LET ALONE AFTER THEY’VE PAID THEIR DEBT TO SOCIETY.

In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee argued that the United States “should adopt appropriate measures to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole,” and that disenfranchisement laws were discriminatory and violated international law.

According to Human Rights Watch, “no other country in the world restricts people with felony convictions from voting for life.”

This measure also ties into the LA County Alternatives to Incarceration Charter Amendment discussed earlier. Biases in the criminal justice system mean that poor people and people of color are more likely than others to be convicted of crimes and to lose their voting rights, while wealthy people can always afford the best lawyers. When people feel that they are valued members of their community, and that their voices matter and concerns are addressed, they are less likely to re-engage in criminal activity. Evidence shows that people who are able to become civically engaged in their communities after they are released are actually three times more likely to never be arrested again.

Prop. 18: Letting (some) 17-year-olds vote (some of the time)

If passed, this measure would allow 17-year-old U.S. citizens to vote in primaries and special elections as long as they will turn 18 by the subsequent general election. (CalMatters)

Voter turnout across the United States is historically low. The argument in favor of the proposition says that allowing 17-year-olds to vote could improve youth engagement in civic affairs, combat voter apathy, and increase voter turnout.

Several countries go even further and allow 16-year-olds to vote, including Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, according to a report in The Guardian. Other countries, such as East Timor, Ethiopia, Indonesia, North Korea, and Sudan, allow 17-year-olds to vote (with varying levels of electoral legitimacy overall). There are even countries where the voting age is higher than 18, such as 19 in South Korea, 20 in Japan, Bahrain, Nauru, Cameroon, and Taiwan, and 21 in Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the Solomon Islands, and Tonga. The other 86 percent of countries have a voting age of 18, according to Batch Geo.

IN THE UNITED STATES, ON ISSUES SUCH AS GUN CONTROL, CLIMATE CHANGE, RACIAL JUSTICE, AND MORE, YOUNG PEOPLE ARE MORE INVOLVED, INFORMED, AND ACTIVE THAN THEY HAVE BEEN IN DECADES.

Germany allows 16-year-olds to vote in some state elections. In Italy’s senate elections, voters must be 25 years old. And the only state in the world with a maximum voting age, according to The Guardian report, is Vatican City, where “only cardinals aged under 80 are allowed to cast a vote in papal elections.”

In some countries, voting is actually compulsory between certain age limits such as 18 to 65, and optional outside those ranges. This is another example where other countries go even further than California—let alone the United States—on some of the issues that are being addressed in November’s ballot measures.

In the United States, on issues such as gun control, climate change, racial justice, and more, young people are more involved, informed, and active than they have been in decades. Proponents of Prop. 17 argue that allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primary and special elections will encourage them to get involved even more. A more active and engaged citizenry can lead to better policy outcomes and a more equitable society.

California would not be the first state to enact such a policy; 23 other states already let 17- year-olds vote under various circumstances, according to CalMatters.

Prop. 22: Self-employment for ride-hail and other app-drivers

If passed, this measure would turn “app-based” drivers into independent contractors, exempting companies such as Lyft and Uber from standard wage and hour restrictions. It would also guarantee these drivers an earnings floor, a stipend to purchase health insurance, and other minimum benefits. (CalMatters)

In 2019, the California legislature approved and Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 5, a controversial law that requires certain companies to treat their independent contractors like employees. While the aim was to improve workers’ benefits, pay, and protections, “it upended the business models of Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Postmates, and Instacart, all of which rely on an army of phone-toting gig-workers to provide their various services,” according to CalMatters. The bill also placed restrictions on writers, photographers, and other freelancers unless employers also treated them as employees. This resulted in unintended consequences.

Prop. 22, prompted by a campaign funded by Lyft, Uber, and Doordash, seeks to remedy those consequences and void the regulations imposed by AB 5. App-based rideshare and delivery companies could hire drivers as independent contractors, who could decide when, where, and how much to work but would not get standard benefits and protections that businesses must provide employees.

If this measure is not approved by voters, app-based rideshare and delivery companies would have to hire drivers as employees and follow AB 5’s other regulations. Drivers would have less choice about when, where, and how much to work but would get standard benefits and protections that businesses must provide employees.

While the implementation of the ride-sharing business model has been highly controversial around the globe, the widely-used, now ubiquitous independent contractor model has blurred the lines of labor rights. Ride-sharing drivers are not guaranteed a minimum wage and do not enjoy benefits and other protections. In a state with the strictest labor laws in the country, how this measure fares may prove to be influential in other countries where the controversial business model flies in the face of socialist/welfare policies.

WHILE THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE RIDE-SHARING BUSINESS MODEL HAS BEEN HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL AROUND THE GLOBE, THE WIDELY-USED, NOW UBIQUITOUS INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR MODEL HAS BLURRED THE LINES OF LABOR RIGHTS.

Many of these companies have substantial global reach. Uber, for example, is available in more than 900 cities in 69 countries, according to the company’s February 2020 Investor Presentation. It also owns a significant stake in similar ride-sharing companies in Russia, Southeast Asia, and China, and claims 65 percent market share in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Middle East, and Africa, and a 50 percent market share in India.

Business of Apps estimated around a quarter of Uber’s driver base are domestic, with the other 75 percent international. “We don’t have a breakdown of how many are based in the United States, and how many in the rest of the world,” it reported. In terms of riders, though, Uber’s biggest market is the United States with 41.8 million riders as of March 2018. Brazil is Uber’s second-biggest market with 17 million riders. In Europe, the UK is its biggest market with 3.5 million riders.

“The global net revenue of the market leader, Uber, amounted to $11.3 billion from 2013 to 2018,” Onde reported. “Lyft, the next-closest competitor, made $2.16 billion from 2016 to 2018.”

This issue could be one in which California takes action and the rest of the country and the world follow suit, as the state has done many times in the past. The outcome of this ballot initiative could have ripple effects with global implications.

Prop. 24: Stronger consumer privacy laws

If passed, this measure would strengthen California’s already strongest-in-the-nation consumer privacy law and establish a California Privacy Protection Agency. (CalMatters)

This is an issue that’s not specific to California or the United States. Digital privacy rights are a hot button topic around the world. In the EU, for example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the “toughest privacy and security law in the world,” according to the regulation’s website. It doesn’t just apply to activity in the EU, but to organizations anywhere that target or collect data related to people in the EU.

The GDPR, which was enacted in 2016, has strict rules about the collection, processing, storing, accessibility, erasure, security, etc., of people’s personal data. Organizations or individuals who violate the GDPR can face stiff penalties such as fines up to €20 million or 4 percent of global revenue (whichever is higher). Data subjects also have the right to seek compensation for any damages.

DIGITAL PRIVACY RIGHTS ARE A HOT BUTTON TOPIC AROUND THE WORLD. TODAY’S TECHNOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE OFTEN POSITS THAT CONSUMER/PERSONAL DATA IS THE NEW HUMAN RIGHT.

Prop. 24 would expand on the existing consumer data privacy laws and rights in California, including the California Consumer Privacy Act, which was passed in 2018 and gave consumers the right to find out what data companies are collecting about them, to opt out of having it collected, and to have that data scrubbed upon request. According to CalMatters, it was and remains the only such law in the country.

Today’s technological landscape often posits that consumer/personal data is the new human right. Should this measure pass, California would become an even stronger leader in this arena and potentially the globe. It would also beef up financial penalties for violators and allow consumers to demand that personal information not be shared at all, rather than simply not sold. This could have ramifications for commerce between California and industries around the world.

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Justin Chapman is the Communications Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Ashley McKenzie and Moriah Tafoya contributed to this report.

Learn more about the Council’s 2020 Election: A Local-to-Global Opportunity initiative here.


Justin was a guest on Pasadena Media's "Arroyo Live" TV show along with Pasadena Star-News editor Larry Wilson. They talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting local politics, the mayoral race, journalism, schools, restaurants, etc. Watch the full episode below:





In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture, presents his reporting on a variety of subjects, and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

This episode features an interview with Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of Motherless Brooklyn, The Arrest, Fortress of Solitude, Chronic City, As She Climbed Across the Table, Dissident Gardens, The Feral Detective, A Gambler's Anatomy, The Ecstasy of Influence, and many others.

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on PasadenaMedia.org. Check that website for showtimes, or watch anytime on their streaming app.



In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture, presents his reporting on a variety of subjects, and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

This week's episode of "Well Read with Justin Chapman" features excerpts from my interview with journalist Jessica Yellin, former CNN Chief White House Correspondent, founder of #NewsNotNoise, and author of "Savage News."

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on Pasadena Media. Check justindouglaschapman.com and pasadenamedia.org for showtimes.



Justin's latest article in the summer 2020 issue of Alta Journal is his eyewitness account of the flat earther daredevil rocketeer Mad Mike Hughes' third and final/fatal rocket launch in February 2020 in Barstow, California:



“Mad” Mike Hughes fell from the sky pursuing his dream of touching space in a homemade rocket.

By Justin Chapman, Alta Journal, Summer 2020

I first encountered “Mad” Mike Hughes, a self-taught rocketeer, about a year before his death. He was speaking at the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles. The then-62-year-old flat-earther had already launched himself nearly 2,000 feet into the sky twice in steam-powered rockets that he’d built himself—and he was planning to do it again.

Hughes was also building a “rockoon”—part rocket, part balloon—to send himself 62.8 miles up to the edge of space, known as the Kármán Line, to “see what shape this planet is” for himself this October. His talk at the Adventurers’ Club, a men’s organization with exotic animal busts and shrunken heads and mastodon tusks on the walls, was part self-promotion and part of his $2.8 million crowdfunding effort for the rockoon launch.

“At one time in this country, we thought anything was possible, but we don’t believe we can do anything anymore,” Hughes told me. “Maybe [this launch] inspires the guy who’s really going to change the world, or the group of people.”

Hughes’s exploits included a Guinness World Record for longest limo jump in 2002, a run for governor of California in 2018, and hosting a Flat Earth conference in Vegas in 2019. He was the subject of a documentary called Rocketman, and he was taking part in an upcoming Science Channel show called Homemade Astronauts. He was also known for his fiercely anti-government views.

Born in Oklahoma City in 1956, Michael Jay Hughes started racing motorcycles at age 12 and later competed on the AMA Pro Flat Track racing circuit. In the ’80s, he was part of a NASCAR pit crew, and in the ’90s, he became a limousine driver. He branded himself King of the Daredevils and began jumping limos by driving them off ramps. He wanted to soar across the quarter-mile-wide Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket-propelled motorcycle, a stunt Evel Knievel had failed to do in 1974. But Hughes couldn’t get the necessary local government approval, so he taught himself rocket science—and how to do actual rocket launches—in Arizona and California. In 2014, Hughes sent himself 1,374 feet into the air in a self-made, steam-powered rocket. Four years later, he topped that, soaring 1,875 feet. He crash-landed and seriously injured himself both times, but that didn’t stop him.

After his talk at the Adventurers’ Club, I started writing a profile of Hughes. I visited him at his home, in Apple Valley, California, a small desert town about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Tall, white, ranch-style gates with bull horns, an old lamppost, and a sign that read El Ranchito Rakete—the Rocket Ranch—marked the entrance of a five-acre property he rented from Waldo Stakes. Aside from being his landlord, Stakes helped build Hughes’s rockets, the rockoon, and a boat Hughes hoped would break the world speed record.

Hughes was tinkering with a 14-foot rocket in the driveway when I arrived. The parts he was collecting for the rockoon—which he and Stakes had named Hemingway—lay on the concrete floor of the garage. A broken-down limo sat in a corner of the dusty yard.

Hughes looked the part of a mad-scientist daredevil with his wild silver hairdo and boyish grin. He had four cats, which he was quick to point out made him a crazy cat person, though not as crazy as if he’d had six, like he used to have. His latest book, Mad Mike Hughes: The Tell-All Tale, was dedicated to those two late felines, Alex and JoJo.

He lived a simple life. Stakes said Hughes paid him $323 a month in rent. They bought parts for the rockets as cheaply as they could, from scrap-yards, Craigslist, or eBay. Hughes took a 35 percent cut in his Social Security payments by retiring at age 62 instead of 67. “As a daredevil, I figured I was playing the odds,” he quipped.

The walls of his living room were decorated with newspaper clippings, magazine covers, pieces of aircraft, his Guinness World Records plaque, the remains of a ripped-up parachute, numerous photos, and the armband he wore in the greenroom before his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. There were also the books he’d authored (or dictated), a Mad Mike coloring book, and memorabilia from his NASCAR and motorcycle racing days. He was particularly proud of the prototype of a rabbit astronaut doll called Stunt Bunny that Hughes was going to carry with him up to the Kármán Line. He predicted that it would be the hottest toy this Christmas.

After showing me his mementos, Hughes delivered a rambling, passionate diatribe about lies and corruption in our society and various conspiracy theories he believed. He argued that a person’s name in all caps—such as on a passport or birth certificate—is not actually their name but rather a business entity that someone else can purchase via UCC-1 financial statement filings with the California secretary of state.

He told me how he had “purchased” the “entities” of President Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and many others, including judges, traffic cops who’d issued him speeding tickets, and lawyers who’d sent him cease-and-desist letters. He then filed lawsuits against the people whose entities he’d purchased in a futile attempt to extract money from them for improperly using his “property.” At the time of his death, several of his lawsuits were lingering in San Bernardino superior court. After accessing his court records, I learned that his lawsuit against Obama had been dismissed because Hughes hadn’t shown up at a trial-setting hearing in February. Not surprisingly, neither had Obama.

Kooky stuff, yes, but Hughes was all business when it came to planning his third rocket launch. Although Stakes was against the steam-powered rocket launches because he considered them too dangerous, Hughes wanted to do a last, higher launch before they attempted to send him up in the rockoon in October. After nearly a year of multiple delays, I saw Hughes speak again at the Adventurers’ Club and learned that the launch was set for February 22.

That day, I drove two hours from L.A. to an undisclosed location on the desert outskirts of Barstow. I couldn’t find the launch site, so I asked a waiter at a local biker bar. Luckily, she had seen Hughes’s team transporting the rocket a couple of days before and gave me loose directions.

I found the spot and briefly spoke to Hughes just before the launch. He wore a blue jumpsuit adorned with patches from his sponsors: a New Zealand dating app called Hud (its slogan: “Dating isn’t rocket science”) and a restaurant chain called Juan Pollo, which is a fast-food chicken business owned by Albert Okura, who bought the town of Amboy for $425,000 in 2005 and allowed Hughes to launch his second rocket there.

Hughes was pacing nervously and declined to grant me an interview. “Launch day is an intense day,” he had told me earlier. “I’m not fearless. Things do scare me.”

Nearby, the freshly painted white and purple rocket, bearing sponsor logos and the words “Research Flat Earth,” rested on a metal launch ramp fastened to the back of a semitruck. About 50 excited spectators, including a crew from the Science Channel and some of his flat-earth buddies, gathered a few dozen yards away. Stakes told the crowd not to take their eyes off the rocket: “Right now, this thing’s a bomb. Once it launches, it’s a missile.” I asked him how high Hughes was planning to go that day. He paused, turned to me, and said, “Real high.”

At 1:44 p.m., Hughes climbed up a metal ladder that he’d insisted—against his team’s advice—be affixed to the launch ramp to make it easier for him to slide into the rocket’s cockpit.

As soon as the rocket lifted off, something went wrong. Hughes and his rocket climbed several thousand feet into a windy, partly cloudy sky before the rocket’s flight path curved into a large arc, its ascent becoming a descent. Excitement turned to horror. Spectators wailed as the rocket nose-dived into the desert floor. Then, an eerie, solemn silence. Hughes’s final flight had lasted about 30 seconds.

Stakes’s initial assessment was that the fuselage had grazed the ladder, ripping off a parachute can and causing it to deploy prematurely. He later concluded that a pneumatic cylinder had damaged a nozzle, making the rocket jolt to the right. Stakes thinks that likely knocked Hughes out. He never pulled his reserve parachutes.

I had filmed the event and posted the video on Twitter; it went viral, with five million views in three days, and garnered significant media attention. It was a surreal experience, and some questioned the ethics of posting what essentially amounted to a snuff film. But I know Hughes would have wanted me to. He had wanted everyone to see his launches, and he was fully aware of the possibility of a tragic outcome. “Most people will not roll the dice,” he had told me.

I wish Hughes could have lived to launch himself in his Hemingway rockoon to the edge of space. He wanted it to be the most-watched event in human history and to provide incontrovertible proof of the shape of our planet. I’m no flat-earther—it’s a ridiculous theory—but I can’t help being struck by how often Hughes risked his life for the sake of doing something extraordinary. If his goal was to inspire people, then I know he succeeded. There’s nothing ridiculous about that.

Justin Chapman is a journalist and the communications officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is the author of Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia.





In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture, presents his reporting on a variety of subjects, and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

Episode Seven is Part IV of a very special 4-part series, featuring Justin’s reporting on Mad Mike Hughes, the flat earther daredevil rocketeer who died February 22, 2020, during his third and final rocket launch in the desert outside Barstow, California. This episode features an exclusive interview with Waldo Stakes, Mad Mike’s landlord and collaborator who helped him build the steam-powered rockets, the rockoon they planned to use to launch Mike up to the edge of space so he could see for himself “what shape this planet is,” and other death-defying vehicles in Apple Valley, California.

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on Pasadena Media. Check justindouglaschapman.com and pasadenamedia.org for showtimes.



In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture, presents his reporting on a variety of subjects, and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

Episode Six is Part III of a very special 4-part series, featuring Justin’s reporting on Mad Mike Hughes, the flat earther daredevil rocketeer who died February 22, 2020, during his third and final rocket launch in the desert outside Barstow, California. This episode includes a deep dive into Mad Mike's three rocket launches, including his final launch in February.

This episode also features an exclusive interview with Waldo Stakes, Mad Mike’s landlord and collaborator who helped him build the steam-powered rockets, the rockoon they planned to use to launch Mike up to the edge of space so he could see for himself “what shape this planet is,” and other death-defying vehicles in Apple Valley, California.

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on Pasadena Media. Check justindouglaschapman.com and pasadenamedia.org for showtimes.

"I Am a Man Who Will Fight for Your Honor" by Chris Zabriskie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/)



In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture, presents his reporting on a variety of subjects, and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

Episode Five is Part II of a very special 4-part series, featuring Justin’s reporting on Mad Mike Hughes, the flat earther daredevil rocketeer who died February 22, 2020, during his third and final rocket launch in the desert outside Barstow, California. This episode includes a deep dive into the obscure conspiracy theory Mike adhered to in which he believed he could purchase the "entities" (a person's name in all caps) of famous people including Obama, Zuckerberg, Musk, etc., and then sue them for improperly using his "property."

This episode also features an exclusive interview with Waldo Stakes, Mad Mike’s landlord and collaborator who helped him build the steam-powered rockets, the rockoon they planned to use to launch Mike up to the edge of space so he could see for himself “what shape this planet is,” and other death-defying vehicles in Apple Valley, California.

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on Pasadena Media. Check pasadenamedia.org for showtimes.




In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture, presents his reporting on a variety of subjects, and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

Episode Four is Part I of a very special 4-part series, featuring Justin’s reporting on Mad Mike Hughes, the flat earther daredevil rocketeer who died February 22, 2020, during his third and final rocket launch in the desert outside Barstow, California. This episode includes Justin’s viral video of the fatal stunt and a deep dive into the many fringe conspiracy theory beliefs Mad Mike adhered to.

This episode also features an exclusive interview with Waldo Stakes, Mad Mike’s landlord and collaborator who helped him build the steam-powered rockets, the rockoon they planned to use to launch Mike up to the edge of space so he could see for himself “what shape this planet is,” and other death-defying vehicles in Apple Valley, California.

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or PasadenaMedia.org.


In "Well Read," host and journalist Justin Chapman provides analysis on news, politics, arts, and culture and interviews guests about their projects and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting their lives. Featuring segments by Senior Influencer Correspondent, @BradtheInfluencer, and Senior Toddler Correspondent, Sienna. Justin also provides recommendations for good reads in each episode.

In Episode Three, Justin interviews Andre Coleman, managing editor of Pasadena Now.

You can watch "Well Read" on YouTube or on Pasadena Media, the local public access TV corporation, which airs the show a couple of times a week on channel 32 on Spectrum/Charter and channel 99 on AT&T Uverse, and on pasadenamedia.org. Check that website for showtimes.


JANE OLSON: THE PACIFIC COUNCIL IS A WEST COAST INSTITUTION

MAY 1, 2020
By: Justin Chapman, Pacific Council

As part of the Pacific Council's 25th anniversary commemoration, we will publish reflections and stories from and about some of our members and directors who were there at the beginning. Their hard work and determination brought the Pacific Council on International Policy to life, turning it into a renowned West Coast organization dedicated to global affairs within a few short years. Throughout 2020, we will release pieces in the “Founders Series,” published here in the Pacific Council Newsroom.

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A member of the Pacific Council on International Policy’s Board of Directors from 2006-2017, Ms. Jane Olson is a significant figure in the international policy world. She helped organize the Council’s first members’ retreat in 1995 and co-founded Human Rights Watch’s Los Angeles Committee in 1989.

She served as chair of the Board of Trustees of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based international human rights organization, from 2004-2010. She also chaired the Board of Directors of the Landmine Survivors Network and served as co-chair of the Women’s Refugee Commission in the 1990s. Ms. Olson co-founded and served as co-chair of the California Committee of Human Rights Watch from its inception in 1989 until 2000.

Ms. Olson has been on many missions to the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, South America, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to look at problems associated with refugees, human rights, HIV/AIDS, and landmines. She and her husband Ron received the 2000 Humanitarian Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice in Los Angeles. She also received the inaugural 2005 Eleanor Roosevelt Award from Feminist Majority, the Community Achievement Award from Public Counsel, the Corita Kent Peace Award from Immaculate Heart College Center, and the Silver Achievement Award from the YWCA of Greater Los Angeles.

Human Rights Watch presented her its Allison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism in 2010. She holds an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from California Lutheran University. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and The Trusteeship. She serves on the Board of Directors for Direct Relief International in Santa Barbara.

The Pacific Council spoke with Ms. Olson to discuss her role in the early days of the Council, what role LA can and should play on the international stage, and what she hopes the Council will look like in the years to come.

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Pacific Council: What was your role around the establishment of the Pacific Council and its early days?

Jane Olson: You’re talking about ancient history, but I do remember it quite well. My daughter got her Master’s in International Studies and she was at USC getting her Ph.D. in Economics. [The Pacific Council’s founding President] Abe Lowenthal hired her for his staff. The way I got involved was Abe called and asked if I could help organize their first members’ retreat. He had a small staff, and the woman who was in charge of it was completely overburdened. It was a stressful job.

When I got started, we had a short deadline, only a couple months before it had to be pulled off. Abe had very ambitious ideas and good speakers, and we really wanted it to be a success. I knew we needed expertise that we didn’t have on our staff, and we needed corporate support. I went to two personal friends, one was Shelby Coffey who was editor-in-chief of the LA Times and he got Times Mirror involved, and the other was John Bryson who was CEO of Southern California Edison. Both of them committed staff members to helping us. That was probably my best contribution to the Pacific Council. That first members’ retreat was what got the Pacific Council launched, and I do remember thinking that it was a big success.

Los Angeles is often called a cultural or intellectual desert, which I’ve never believed. The Pacific Council did fill a tremendous void. It’s always about creating community with people who share interests.

Los Angeles is often called a cultural or intellectual desert, which I’ve never believed. We moved out here in ’68 and found it had more to offer than we possibly had time to partake in. But I do think we were lacking a center where people who cared about and had knowledge in or experience with global affairs could come together and share ideas, relationships, and contacts. Almost right away, the Pacific Council became a West Coast version of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). It did fill a tremendous void. It’s always about creating community with people who share interests.

How has the Council evolved and grown since then?

Any organization moves in the direction of leadership. With Jerry Green, the mission is still the same but we’ve highlighted different kinds of expertise. One of the things that Abe was really interested in, because he was connected with a university, was having research fellows, most of them at USC who produced reports. Abe also was more interested in Latin America. But it was more intellectually based research and it appealed more to academics.

Jerry has expertise in Middle Eastern affairs. I knew Jerry from RAND. My husband chaired their board for a number of years and Jerry was head of their Middle East center. He came in with a different personality and goals and really built the membership. It’s expanded largely, tenfold or more. Jerry didn’t continue the research fellow roles, but he wanted to see impact. We didn’t just want to be a speaker’s bureau like the World Affairs Council. He wanted to see our meetings lead to something. So we come together, we hear from a panel or speaker about important issues, and then what? That’s what interested me, because I can read books and go to lectures and learn, but for me it’s always about gathering people to focus on some outcome that can make a difference and have impact on the world. Jerry had that focused energy.

How has the Council impacted your life over the years? How have you seen it impact other people’s lives?

For me, the most important thing always is community. When I started supporting Human Rights Watch, I built it as a family, with people who cared about it, enjoyed each other, and wanted to be together but for a higher purpose. That’s what I always wanted to do at the Pacific Council, also. It’s one of the centering institutions that brought together Eastside and Westside Los Angeles.

Our meetings in the beginning were mostly downtown, either at the offices or the California Club or hotels. Now it’s gotten to be much harder to gather people because of traffic issues. The Council became one of the important organizations for which people would go a long distance to get together downtown. I really liked seeing my Westside friends who would make the trek. The other thing we started doing was diversifying membership, especially age diversity.

I’ve been a longtime volunteer in many organizations and causes, primarily global affairs, but I felt that for any organization to survive and thrive you really need to bring in the next generation and mentor them. The Council has done a marvelous job at that. Of course, it’s always exciting and inspiring for us old timers to meet the next generation and see that they care and they have a lot of knowledge to bring to the table. There’s a kind of two-way mentoring: I learn from them, they learn from us, so that’s been very helpful and gratifying for me.

What role can and should LA play on the world stage?

When I was on the Council’s Board, I was chair of the Programs Committee, and we had a strategic planning process that the Board undertook. It was pretty serious and rigorous, trying to find a focus that made sense for LA. The city is a collection of small towns, as people say. The city center is hard to define. That gave us the idea that LA really is the most global city in the world. We’ve got the greatest diversity of almost every nationality, certainly in the Western Hemisphere and also Asia. I don’t think there’s a city that has the numbers of diversity that we have. So I really like the Council’s focus on LA as a global city.

For most of the boards I’ve chaired, they were all based in New York or D.C., so I was always going back to the East Coast and spending several days a week for board meetings, because most foreign policy was really European centric. We focused on NATO and our European allies. Clearly, the world has changed. The big player now is China but also all Asian countries are much more important on the world stage than they were even 10 years ago but certainly 20 years ago.

That means the West Coast is therefore more important as the launching pad. That makes LA a more important center for Latin America and Asia, particularly, while the East Coast is still more focused on Europe. That gave the Pacific Council some distinction and gave us an expertise that I wish had been called on more, quite honestly. Most of the media are headquartered in New York, the news starts at 6 a.m. on the East Coast, and when there’s a global event that needs experts on a panel, they tend to call on the same East Coast people all the time. That’s the one role I hope the Council will step into more in the future.

I would like to see more West Coast experts being engaged as commentators in the news. We have a lot to offer on the West Coast, and the Pacific Council should be one of those go-to organizations.

For instance, Jerry is probably one of the world’s experts on the Middle East. With all the problems with Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, throughout the Iraq War, Jerry should be called on first. 

The other thing that goes along the same line is the fact that we have a number of ambassadors based in California, especially LA. Jerry’s had a strategy of inviting ambassadors to join the board, to do programs, to share their expertise. They’ve loved having this core institution as a gathering point for them to share their experiences. It’s sort of like soldiers who fought in a platoon together or a basketball team or football team. You share experiences that normal civilians don’t understand and you want to get together with your teammates, and ambassadors have those kinds of relationships vis-à-vis each other no matter which president or party they happened to serve. That’s been a wonderful thing that’s been birthed at the Pacific Council that I’ve enjoyed watching.

What do you hope the Council will look like in the years to come?

We’re going to learn from this COVID-19 episode. We’re going to have a lot more virtual meetings. We’re going to understand that the traffic in LA is literally a roadblock to getting together, if you’ll excuse the pun. I’m hoping to see greater diversity. I know the Council has programs to help fund younger members. There’s a real effort to bring in the younger generation. That means many of them won’t be able to give the financial support but I think we need to look for resources outside the organization.

Clearly, the topics are going to broaden. Instead of just classic foreign policy, we’re going to look a lot more at science, healthcare, and the issue of the Global South moving to the Global North because of climate change or poverty. There are a lot of critical crisis issues that the Pacific Council’s in a very good place to address.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience with the Pacific Council?

I’m grateful for all the time I spent with the Council. I tried to contribute as well as I could. For every organization I’ve ever joined, to me it’s all about the staff. I’ve always worked as a volunteer, so my inclination is to work with the staff side by side. I haven’t had a chance to do as much of that with the Council, but I absolutely love and respect the staff. I’ve always been so grateful.

It’s been one of the highlights of my life being involved. I’m very proud of everything I read about. I would like to see more West Coast experts being engaged as commentators in the news. There’s an East Coast/West Coast bias, but we have a lot to offer on the West Coast, and the Pacific Council should be one of those go-to organiztions.

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Justin Chapman is the Communications Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Learn more about the Pacific Council’s 25th Anniversary and read more stories in the Founders Series.