WTF 2016: Remembering the Year We’d Rather Forget

We as a society like to do this whole worst-year-ever thing a lot, probably because it can be a clean, almost therapeutic way to recognize all the failures of the recent past in hopes we don’t repeat them in the coming year.

But 2016 was an uncommonly awful year. Maybe you slipped into this year’s thick malaise following the Pulse nightclub shooting, because of course another mass shooting targeting one of society’s most vulnerable, stomped-on communities would happen in 2016. Perhaps for you, 2016 went full-blown nightmare when the presidential candidate who joked about sexually assaulting women and called Mexicans rapists somehow made it to the White House. Or maybe you got caught in the costliest storm in Texas history, which dumped $1.4 billion worth of hail damage on San Antonio this year. 

Then there were all the brilliant, creative minds we lost just as we needed them most. The never-ending headlines about the baby-deforming Zika virus and exploding cell phones. We ended the year watching, either shocked or numb, as civilians in Aleppo live tweeted and streamed their deaths amid a horrific bombardment that caps year six of one of the bloodiest humanitarian crises of the modern age. 

So, to all that, we say: What the actual fuck, 2016? This week, we reflect on some of the forces that combined to make this year a supremely shitty one. — Michael Barajas

The Burden is (Still) Undue

At first glance, 2016 might look like a victorious year for Texas women. In June, the state’s sweeping anti-abortion law that had placed unnecessary, burdensome regulations on abortion providers (forcing dozens to close) was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reproductive rights advocates had finally won the fight that began in 2013 with Sen. Wendy Davis’ 11-hour-long filibuster on the floor of the Texas Senate.

Or so they thought. Despite a favorable ruling, none of the 21 abortion clinics that closed under Texas’ restrictive abortion law have managed to reopen. In fact, many clinic owners had been forced to sell their buildings, surrender their leases, and offload much of their equipment. Most don’t have the kind of money to re-open a business that Texas officials had just tried to stomp out of existence. 

Naturally, the state has offered no support to clinics shuttered by Texas’ ultimately unconstitutional law. There are still only 19 clinics left in Texas, most of them crammed into the state’s major metropolitan areas — meaning thousands of reproductive-age women have to drive several hours (or hop the state line) to find an abortion provider. It’s no wonder that recent studies indicate that between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women between the ages of 18 and 49 have tried to end a pregnancy by themselves. 

And it’s not like Texas abortion opponents threw up their hands and went home after their Supreme Court loss. Jilted Texas conservatives wasted little time before letting loose new anti-abortion regulations in 2016. In fact, Gov. Greg Abbott waited a full four days after the High Court’s decision before introducing his new “fetal burial rule” — which would make state health providers cremate and bury the fetal remains of every abortion and miscarriage that takes place in their facility. In many cases, this means cremating a quarter-sized embryo. Of course, there’s no medical or scientific reason behind the rule, which abortion advocates see as just another way to burden the state’s dwindling number of abortion clinics — all while further shaming women who decide to terminate a pregnancy. 

Abortion providers have already sued to block the new rule, which had been scheduled to go into effect December 19 (a hearing on the case is now scheduled in early January). This means that in 2017, we’ll get to debate Texas-based, medically unnecessary abortion restrictions. Again. 

Oh, and speaking of women’s health care, Texas also finally followed through on its threat to kick Planned Parenthood out of the state’s Medicaid program, potentially jeopardizing the basic health care services of thousands of low-income women who use the organization’s family planning clinics. Planned Parenthood has already vowed to fight the decision in court, meaning that, in 2017, there will be not one but two Texas-based abortion-related legal fights to look forward to. — Alex Zielinski

Make America Hate Again

In just the six days following the November 8 election of Donald Trump to the White House, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented 437 cases of “hateful intimidation and harassment.”

The unnerving flood of overt, post-election displays of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia follows a year in which hate speech was mainstreamed by a presidential candidate who tapped into deep-seated prejudices to fuel his run. Take, for instance, the race-based taunting that began to pop up at high school volleyball and basketball games across the country, as white students used Trump-themed chants to mock rivals from predominantly Hispanic schools.

Perhaps what’s so depressing about politics in 2016 is how much it underscored the degree to which prejudice will continue to steer the discourse.
In Texas, a state that has become a laboratory for trickle-down Islamophobia in recent years, we’ve already had hints of what this kind of “dialogue” leads to. Going into the 2016 election, public opinion polls showed that seven out of 10 Republicans in this GOP-dominated state “strongly favored” subjecting Muslims living in this country (even American Muslims) to “more scrutiny than people in other religious groups,” echoing one of the hallmarks of the Trump campaign. Indeed, we’ve become a state where public school teachers warn their students how Islam is “an ideology of war” or might call the Muslim kid a terrorist in class; where the cops get called if a kid named Ahmed brings a clock with too many wires to school; where people protest the opening of an Arabic immersion school; where armed, masked protesters will patrol outside a mosque to, in their words, “Stop the Islamization of America”; where state officials compare Syrian refugees to a pit of venomous snakes and joke about nuking “the Muslim world”; and where a state lawmaker might make Muslim visitors to her office swear an oath “to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

As Trump’s swearing-in approaches, the public, hate-fueled reactions just keep on coming – from fliers posted around Texas State University urging people to help usher in Trump’s new “era of law and order” by reporting undocumented students, to the neo-Nazi pamphlets (which referred to immigrants as “animals”) that surfaced at a Houston apartment complex, or the hateful, racist letter sent to the Central Texas Food Bank, chiding the organization for giving freeloading “illegals” and “Africans” a helping hand.

For anyone who thought we’d started to shove hate speech into the shadows where it belongs, 2016 was the year it seemed to re-emerge loud, proud and emboldened. All after a presidential campaign that featured ample amounts of race-based taunting from the guy who ultimately won. Go figure. — MB

Problem Child

This year highlighted how hard it is to be a kid in Texas. 

It started with the fallout from a federal lawsuit accusing Texas’ foster care program of severely violating children’s rights. In her blistering December 2015 ruling, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack called the state’s foster system a place where “rape, abuse, psychotropic medication, and instability are the norm,” giving two children’s rights experts six months to come up with a solution.

In the meantime, the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services scrambled to make up for a $40 million budget shortfall, paired with a serious shortage of safe foster homes and an overworked staff. The situation worsened after reports trickled out of DFPS’ Child Protective Services arm showing that caseworkers routinely failed to check in on almost 1,000 of Texas’ most at-risk children in foster care. And that was just the number of children deemed to be at  “immediate risk of physical or sexual abuse” — in total, internal reports showed that some 5,000 Texas children who lived in homes with “suspected abuse” were going for long periods of time without critical face-to-face visits with caseworkers.

Despite his perfunctory outrage over the matter, Abbott and his fellow conservative state leaders recoiled when Judge Jack’s experts eventually unveiled 56 specific recommendations to overhaul the floundering foster care program. Attorney General Ken Paxton called the advice (which included the totally uncontroversial suggestions that CPS hire more child welfare workers, regulate the size of foster group homes, and better protect child victims of sexual abuse) “impractical” and ultimately a waste of taxpayer money. At the end of 2016, most of these foster kids are still living in dangerous homes. 

Meanwhile, another investigation (this one spearheaded by the Houston Chronicle) uncovered yet another state department that had effectively ignored tens of thousands of the state’s most vulnerable kids. According to a series of damning reports by the daily, the Texas Education Agency had effectively ordered local school districts to cap enrollment of special education students at 8.5 percent — way below the national average. That means as many as a quarter million students with disabilities may have been jettisoned from the program for no identifiable reason (other than perhaps to bring costs down), denying them critical in-school services like therapy, counseling and one-on-one tutoring. The year ended with the feds swooping in to collect hundreds of emotional testimonials from parents, teachers, and the students themselves to understand how the situation got this out of hand. If we’re lucky, federal intervention could jolt the TEA into reform. If not, Texas’ top grown-ups may need to be held back a year. — AZ  

Black and Blue

If 2015 was the year the issue of police violence finally came screaming back into the public consciousness, 2016 was the year we simply could not ignore it. Which in some ways is a good thing — greater awareness leads to more voices that lead to more questions that hopefully someday lead to more solutions and greater understanding and all that stuff. 

But this was 2016, which, true to form, decided to crap all over even the slightest of silver linings. This was a year that underscored, and in many ways seemed to fortify, the divisions between communities of color, which often bear the brunt of over-zealous policing, and a police force that feels increasingly under attack. 

A steady clip of videos featuring unarmed black men dying at the hands of police (Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile) triggered even more nationwide protest in 2016, even as mistrials in Ohio and North Carolina revealed what little such damning video evidence can even accomplish in a justice system that at times seems incapable of holding police accountable for their actions. It was the year a lone gunman targeted cops at a Dallas Black Lives Matter protest, killing five and wounding seven; the gunman, who’d been kicked out of the Army and blacklisted by black power groups, reportedly told police that he was upset about recent police shootings before they robot-bombed him to end the deadly standoff. It was the year someone ambushed and executed a beloved San Antonio police detective (who was, by all accounts, a shining example of we want a modern police officer to be) in broad daylight outside the local police headquarters (the suspect now says he was angry about a child custody dispute and “lashed out at somebody who didn’t deserve it”). The same year a San Antonio police officer shot and killed Antronie Scott because he thought his cell phone was a gun. 

This year was also when we got a glimpse of how hard it will be to pass even minor police reforms on the local level. Earlier this year, more than 90 percent of local police union members voted they no longer had confidence in San Antonio Police Chief William McManus to lead their department because he fired the officer who killed Scott (before reversing course and allowing him to stay on the force, that is) and dared to consider reforms for police use of force. The mayor’s office ultimately hammered out, and the majority of city council approved, a new contract with a police union that had refused to even consider police reforms at the negotiating table – including rules baked into the agreement that effectively cover up officer misconduct after enough time has passed, rules that remain untouched in the city’s new five-year deal with the union. 

As 2016 draws to a close, local police reform activists have already started to drop out of a task force convened by Mayor Ivy Taylor to bridge the gap between law enforcement and a disaffected community that desperately needs good policing right now. For many, we end 2016 with a better understanding of the roadblocks ahead, but only the haziest idea how to move forward. — MB

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