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News brief: D.C. sues groups over Capitol attack, pandemic deaths, tornado damage

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Prosecutors want to impose a price for disrupting a democratic election.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're following two developments on the investigation of the January 6 attack. The House Committee has referred Mark Meadows to federal prosecutors. The one-time White House chief of staff cooperated for a time, but then stopped and now faces a possible charge of criminal contempt. In a separate case, the attorney general of Washington, D.C., has filed a civil lawsuit. It targets two important groups that played a role on January 6. Karl Racine, the D.C. attorney general, accuses the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers of plotting and coordinating violence.

INSKEEP: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been covering this lawsuit. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's named in these documents?

LUCAS: Well, the two groups are named. But the groups' leaders, as well as some two dozen suspected members, most of whom are facing criminal charges over January 6, as well, are also named in this suit. Now, the lawsuit accuses them of coordinating and plotting the violence that occurred on January 6 at the Capitol. And it says the District of Columbia, the city, its residents and in particular the D.C. police officers who defended the Capitol that day were all traumatized by the events of January 6. Karl Racine is the attorney general for Washington, D.C. He announced this lawsuit yesterday. Here's a bit of what he had to say.

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KARL RACINE: While some desperately want to rewrite history and sweep the events of January 6 under the rug, the District of Columbia and its residents have chosen to speak truth through this filing, through this complaint, through this case.

INSKEEP: How does this civil suit differ from the criminal charges that have been filed and also differ from some other civil suits that have been filed?

LUCAS: Well, interestingly, on the other civil suits, there are two similar civil suits that have been filed in the past year or so. One was filed by members of Congress. The other was filed by police officers who were in the fight defending Congress from the mob on January 6. This is the first lawsuit, though, to be filed by a government agency to try to hold someone civilly responsible and to seek damages for the Capitol riot. But there's an interesting common thread in all three of these lawsuits. They all cite the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. That's a law that was passed after the Civil War to try to protect Black Americans from intimidation and threats. And there's also kind of a growing trend of using that law. It's one of the laws that was used to sue, for example, the far-right groups behind the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and a jury in that case awarded plaintiffs around $25 million in damages.

INSKEEP: Wow. When you talk about damages on that scale, it makes me wonder, is the idea to bankrupt the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers by suing them for January 6?

LUCAS: Racine says there are several goals here. Accountability is one of them, holding accountable the folks who stormed the Capitol or planned and enabled it. The lawsuit, he also says, would allow him to follow the money and see who helped finance January 6. But yes, Steve, you kind of hit the nail on the head. This is also very much about seeking punitive and compensatory damages. Racine said the district wants to squeeze, quote-unquote, "every penny" that it can from these groups.

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RACINE: We're using the Klu Klux Klan Act and other laws to absolutely bring as much financial pain, hit them in the pocket, as possible.

LUCAS: And Racine also said that, you know, if this lawsuit just so happens to bankrupt the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, so be it. He said that if that were to happen, that would be a good day.

INSKEEP: Ryan, thanks so much.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

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INSKEEP: So many Americans have died from coronavirus that it's now about the same as if a major city like Seattle or San Francisco simply vanished.

MARTIN: We want to take a moment to reflect on the people behind the numbers and remember the mothers, fathers, other family members who were lost. Chencho Flores from Roswell, N.M., talked with us about his grandmother, Florinda. On December 13, 2020, they got on FaceTime and said goodbye to one another.

CHENCHO FLORES: And I said, hi, grandma. And she just - big smile on her face, she waved. And she said, I'm dying. There was no sadness, none of that, just I'm dying. And of course, my first thought was saying, no, no, you're going to be fine; you're going to get - you're going to beat this. But I didn't, actually, you know, made myself stop. And I just said, I love you. We'll see you again. We'll see you in heaven.

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FLORINDA FLORES: Merry Christmas. Hi, mijo. This is your grandma. Just thought I'd call to see how you were doing. OK? Love you, jito (ph). Bye-bye.

INSKEEP: The late Florinda Flores is one of 800,000 people killed by the pandemic so far, and we're heading into winter. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to talk about what's next. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I sometimes think back to when we talked about the early deaths in coronavirus or when people said, wow, we're heading for 60,000 deaths. This is a calamity. And now we're just so far beyond that.

STEIN: Yeah, Steve, it is just stunning, really, when you think about it. I remember marking 100,000 deaths, 200,000 deaths, 400,000 deaths, each one shocking at the time. No one ever thought we'd reach 800,000. I talked about this with Natalie Dean at Emory University. She's been tracking the pandemic from the beginning.

NATALIE DEAN: It's all so beyond the realm of what I ever could have imagined at the beginning of the pandemic that I feel like my brain hasn't even caught up with some of the reality. That's just such an enormous number.

STEIN: And you know, Steve, one of the things that jumped out at me is that more people died from COVID-19 in this country in 2021 than in 2020. And that's exactly the opposite of what everyone thought would happen. I mean, this is the year we got the vaccines, which we thought would beat back the virus. It's really just unbelievable when you stop to think about it.

INSKEEP: So what went wrong?

STEIN: Well, that's obviously the big question. And the answer is obviously quite complicated. But one simple answer is the U.S. just failed to get enough people vaccinated fast enough. And that's what makes this so tragic. So many of these deaths were preventable. The U.S. developed incredibly powerful vaccines incredibly quickly. They're nothing short of medical miracles, really. But we just haven't been able to get enough shots into enough arms to stop the virus.

And the reasons for that are a complicated mess of how polarized our society has gotten, how politicized everything about the pandemic has become, how fragmented and neglected our public health systems are, which all kind of conspired to create this worst-case scenario. And then there's the virus itself, which turned out to be far more unpredictable and formidable than anyone thought. Every time we thought we had it licked, another even more threatening variant erupted, first, the incredibly contagious delta and then, before we could even catch our breath, omicron, the best variant yet. It's sneaking around our immune systems.

INSKEEP: I just have to note - winter is arriving, and a million dead is in sight.

STEIN: Yeah, you know, it does feel like yet another very ominous moment in the pandemic. As you said, deaths are rising again. Hospitals are overwhelmed again. But there's just a sense that people have, you know, had it. They're just exhausted, especially heading into what they thought would finally be a happy holiday season. Here's Natalie Dean again from Emory.

DEAN: And I'm - yeah - feeling like we're still sleepwalking into more death.

STEIN: People just continue to resist getting vaccinated, wear their masks. They're letting down their guard more and more, just as the omicron variant is taking off. And some of the early projections of what could happen are quite alarming.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing, Steve.

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INSKEEP: Today President Biden visits Kentucky to see tornado damage.

MARTIN: We've been reporting this week on the destruction. And while there are still more than a hundred people unaccounted for, what the president is likely to see are towns and people like Jeff Story in Dawson Springs, Ky., who's facing a long road ahead of him, cleaning and rebuilding.

JEFF STORY: I don't really know how to describe it. Just there's so much destruction.

INSKEEP: We hear his voice thanks to NPR's Brian Mann, who's been reporting for much of the week in and around Dawson Springs and joins us once again. Brian, good morning.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who you been talking with?

MANN: Yeah, it's - I've been out talking to people who are just in shock. A lot of people lost neighbors and family to this storm. Many more lost their homes and livelihoods. And their world's just taken away in a handful of minutes. I met Dennis Brasher standing outside a shattered building in Dawson Springs, Ky. This was his business, and he says he really lost everything.

DENNIS BRASHER: Our personal home is completely gone. We lost everything there. We've got rental houses, probably in the neighborhood of 30 or so. And if we have - if you can count them on one hand when this is over with, I'm going to be surprised. So my rebuilding is going to be ugly.

MANN: That's a lifetime of work right there.

BRASHER: I lost it in about 30 seconds - worked all my life for it and lost it in just a matter of minutes.

MANN: And Steve, Dawson Springs is a community where the economy was already challenged before this storm ever hit.

INSKEEP: That's on my mind, Brian, because we're talking in many cases about smaller towns where the economy may have been rather fragile, where things may have been in decline for a long time. People would like to turn it around. How does a community start rebuilding in that circumstance?

MANN: That's a question on a lot of people's minds. I spoke about this with Melissa Goodacre, who was working in one of the few businesses open downtown in Dawson Springs, an insurance company that was busy taking claims and talking to customers, as you can imagine. And she said that while she's grateful for being able to help folks, she's frightened for the future of her community of 2,500 people, uncertain what's going to remain.

MELISSA GOODACRE: (Crying) I don't know how we'll come back, but maybe we will.

MANN: I'm very, very, very sorry for your loss.

GOODACRE: We will get through. We're strong. We will get through. I don't know how many will stay, but we will. Part of us - part of the people here will stay and rebuild. Part of them may move on. Can't says I blame them.

MANN: And I hear this over and over, fear and doubt and then this kind of weary resolve. It is important to say there has been progress, a lot of progress. Tens of thousands of people have seen power restored. But in places like Dawson Springs and Mayfield, people are just going to be starting from scratch.

INSKEEP: Aren't rescuers still searching for the missing?

MANN: Yeah, that part is still going full steam. It's sort of two-pronged here. Volunteers and National Guard are out there. I saw crews in neighborhoods through the day yesterday. And while people are starting to clean up, this other reality weighs on people. They worry about missing neighbors. One good bit of news, Steve, is that there have been no more bodies found in the wreckage of that candle factory in Mayfield, Ky. You'll remember at first there was fear a lot more workers might be trapped in under there in the wreckage. It does appear now the overwhelming majority made it out alive.

INSKEEP: Does the pandemic make it any harder or any different to go about this work, Brian?

MANN: People just aren't talking about COVID here right now. They're really focused on getting through this hard moment. But hospitals are strained by people injured in the storm and by high numbers of COVID cases. Very few people here wear masks, and Kentucky only has a vaccination rate of 54% percent. So with all the confusion after these tornadoes, people are mixing and mingling living in shelters. The pandemic could really add to the hardship, especially as omicron continues to spread.

INSKEEP: Brian, I think I'm going to remember for a while that gentleman who told you that he lost a lifetime of work in 30 seconds. I really appreciate you bringing those voices to us.

MANN: Thank you very much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.