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Photo courtesy of Madeline Whitehead
Two weeks ago, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was released with the blessing of Oprah Winfrey’s semi-dormant Book Club—and those familiar with the author’s work couldn’t help but chuckle at the occurrence. A well-regarded ironist with a bleak comic outlook who writes obliquely about race, Whitehead has a sensibility that feels, if not at odds with Winfrey’s, then certainly at a remove; with The Underground Railroad, Whitehead takes on the specter of American human bondage with hints of Marquez’s magic realism, DeLillo’s insidious intelligence, and the playful postmodern systems analysis of Pynchon. His droll humor comes in smaller doses than usual—after all, it’s hard to make slavery funny.
The book tells the story of Cora, a 17-year-old Georgia woman born into slavery who attempts the flight north with a man named Caesar. During their escape from the plantation, the couple are briefly apprehended, and Cora kills a pre-teen slave patrolman with a rock. Now sought out as murderers, Cora and Caesar flee via the Underground Railroad, which Whitehead reimagines as a literal subterranean rail line manned by conductors and station
When Whitehead arrived for our chat at Manhattan’s Corner Bistro, he was decked out in a black Misfits T-shirt, tight jeans, dark sunglasses, and his trademarked dreads—not the mode of dress we normally associate with middle-aged black men, let alone one who just published a novel of startling aesthetic and emotional power on slavery. But Whitehead isn’t your run of the mill novelist, black or otherwise; The Underground Railroad is the type of slavery novel in which the Misfits get thanked in the acknowledgements, and the book has a driving, propulsive energy that keeps you jumping up and down even if you aren’t at CBGBs.
VICE: What was your notion of slavery as a child?
Colson Whitehead: As a young African American male growing up in the 70s, Roots was obviously a major touchstone. When it first broadcast, it was a national obsession. Like a lot of other African American families, we’d gather around the TV and watch the 70s version of the story play out. In school, you hear about slavery and then jump to Abraham Lincoln immediately—there are not a lot of units describing the degradation.
You conceived of The Underground Railroad when you were younger and only picked the idea back up a few years ago. How would the book have differed if you had written it around when you first came up with the idea?
I was a 20-something New York hipster, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice at that moment. I was still in Gen-X slacker mode, so the protagonist would have been a guy
trying to escape for his own freedom. The notion of escaping to find your child, or a spouse—or a daughter looking for her mother—didn’t occur to me then. All of the fantastic gestures would have been broader or bigger, instead of being woven into Cora’s timeline and technology.
What is your creative routine like?
For the last couple of books, I had a page count of about eight pages a week. Seven is
meh, nine is better, but eight is a good steady pace, and it adds up. Eight pages a week is 400 pages a year, and that’s a novel. I have kids, and some days I don’t feel like working.
Sometimes I have to go to the dentist, and I can’t work if I have to go to the dentist. If I don’t feel like working, I’ll improvise. I’m always going forward and backward, forward and backward.
With this book, I wrote the first third, and then I showed it to my agents, my editor, and my wife, who were like, “You’re doing good!” Sag Harbor was a really personal book, so every time I’d finish a chapter, I would show it to my agent just so she could say, “It’s good, keep going!” With Zone One, I didn’t show anybody until it was done—I think I was sort of depressed and wanted to hole up like Mark Spitz.
Are there aspects of the book’s characters that are autobiographical?
The Colossus of New York is probably my most autobiographical book—it’s just me, without any narrative filter, having ideas about the city. I’m in most of my characters, and that includes the villains. In my better moments, I see myself in some of the more enlightened characters. You’re always putting the good and bad parts of yourself in the characters to make them real.
Did you ever think your sensibility would be admired by Oprah Winfrey?
Well, you hope if you do a good book, people like it. She’s picked great books. I loved Beloved and I loved The Road, and both of those influences are in this book. It was shocking because was such a force for so many years, then it slowed down. When I first started publishing, you’d be in a hotel bar after doing a reading and someone would say, “Has Oprah picked it?” Then it died down because she stopped doing the book club, so when I got the call in April, I wasn’t even thinking about it —I’d just finished copy edits. It came out of the blue and made this summer a lot better.
What do you consume in the media?
I’ve been distracted, and I haven’t read as much this year. My big find was the movies Point Blank and Payback, which are based on these novels by Richard Stark following a guy named Parker. There are 30 of them, so I’ve read six of them back to back. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was really great. It overlaps in some ways with The Underground Railroad, in terms of a person being hemmed in by a multitude of societal forces and finding how to make their way. But I find it hard to read when I’m working, and I’ve also been consumed with the primaries and the post-primaries and the daily outrage.
Does the current political climate surprise you?
Having written a book about lynching and slavery, not really . But as a rational human being who doesn’t want the world to blow up, I think everything is surprised by the
constant stream from the Trump campaign—the rhetoric and the daily outrage.
When I was writing some of The Underground Railroad‘s graphic passages—like the lynching scene—I went in between about if I was going too much over-the-top. Then I’d research and be reassured that violence and brutality happened to many people. The lynching scene as a communal entertainment for the town isn’t so far-fetched, so the rhetoric that comes out at a Trump rally is reflective of a primal human impulse toward hate that’s not specifically American. In the same way, if you’re going to make a satire of a demagogue, you couldn’t come up with Trump, who strains the credibility of satire every day.
Why do you think slavery is on so many people’s minds right now in culture?
The number of black writers, filmmakers, and TV producers aren’t huge, but there are more than there were ten years ago. I don’t feel like there can ever be enough as long as there’s more ground to cover. There are many corners of African American history that have not been explored, and we have more choice over what we want to tell now.
You’ve been doing an increasing amount of nonfiction. Does that work a different muscle in your writing repertoire?
My introduction to nonfiction was reading my sister’s copies of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, and music journalism—I’d come home from school on a Wednesday afternoon reading the Village Voice in the 80s, see who’s playing at Irving Plaza, and read the music criticism. At the time, there weren’t a lot of outlets for first person nonfiction, but the Voice had some of that. My introduction to book criticism was also through the Voice, and that was one of my inspirations for writing.
When you imagined the career you would embark upon when writing your first book, does it career at all resemble what your life and work is at 46?
In terms of work, it’s the same. These last two weeks really aren’t going to happen again—the next book will probably have a normal launch—so I’m just trying to enjoy the success of this book. I’ll put another book out, no one will know what I’m doing, I’ll take the hit, and move on. I’m just going to keep writing either way.
Indy Neidell is really excited to cover the Centrocaspian Dictatorship. It was a rebellious, unstable state that popped up in Eastern Europe during the constant reshuffling of World War I, a nonviolent coup d’etat between Russian socialist revolutionaries and Armenian liberation front the Dashnaks that established a dictatorship in the Azerbaijani city of Baku. It lasted about a month and a half in the summer of 1918, before being swallowed up by the encroaching Ottomans.
The Centrocaspian Dictatorship is the sort of random historical minutia that’s rarely included in big-picture storytelling, and that’s what Neidell’s YouTube documentary series “The Great War” tries to address. He and his team started the project on the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and have since produced weekly episodes covering the war. So far, he’s made 108 videos, including plenty of one-offs focusing on subjects spanning Austro-Hungarian pistols and the plight of Chinese workers on the Western front. Slowly but surely, Neidell is building the most expansive repository of World War I knowledge ever produced.
“Even though the episodes are 10 minutes long, this is way more comprehensive than any documentary,” says Neidell in an interview with VICE. “It’s really cool to make it in real time, and that we get away from the Western front and you get to see the stuff that happened in Africa and Persia.”
Neidell studied both American and European history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut but has lived in Sweden since 1996. In the past, he’s made money by playing in bands, doing voiceover work, and running a booking company; in 2013, after uploading a couple videos about baseball history to YouTube, he was contracted by German company Mediakraft to build “The Great War,” covering every facet of one of the most complicated times in history. Neidell’s been walking through the information as methodically as possible, and in doing so, he’s created a “new style of documentary” that puts into clear focus the tremendous breadth and scope of the war.
“If you watch Ken Burns’s The Civil War, it’s brilliant but static,” says Neidell. “You might be sitting at home saying, ‘My great-great-grandfather fought in the war, and he wrote in his diary that this happened and that happened,’ but that can’t become part of the show. “The Great War,” however, is worldwide, free, interactive, and evolving all the time.”
On average, Neidell is writing about five episodes of “The Great War” at once, studying macro-analyses like Sir Martin Gilbert’s The First World War and daily newspaper archives. Through the series, he’s become one of the most informed human beings on the planet on the topic of WWI; as such, the Great War (and “The Great War”) has started to seep into other facets of his life—he’s now doing consulting work with Swedish video game studio EA DICE, which is hard at work on the upcoming World War I–themed first-person shooter Battlefield 1.
“I realized that taking on the Great War was a daunting task, and there were many things I wanted to validate with Indy,” says Stefan Strandberg, creative director at DICE. “The Great War can be viewed through many different lenses, and a lot of myths are being debunked with new research today—so I needed partners who echoed my passion for this period in history.”
World War I ended after four years, and “The Great War” will also come to an end at some point—something Neidell’s given plenty of thought. “It’s going to be really sad,” he says. “We’re already thinking about doing Korea the same way, since there hasn’t been a great Korean War documentary. Because of “The Great War,” we’ll be able to raise a lot of money independently “
And chances are he’s right: “The Great War” currently pulls about $12,000 a month on Patreon and has almost 400,000 YouTube subscribers. Neidell’s proof that, with the right tone and the right knowledge, you don’t have to compromise your vision—if you work hard enough, anything can be your job, and the sun will rise on the Centrocaspian Dictatorship one last time.
Follow Luke Winkie on Twitter.
Photos of Jesse Martinez by Dan Levy
Dogtown and Zephyr
may have sparked the skate scene in Venice Beach, but it was the unruly Venice
locals, headed by Jesse Martinez, who doused it in gasoline to see how high the
flames would go.
Born in 1965 and
raised in a Venice Crip family, Martinez found salvation on his skateboard. While
most pros of his day were rocking Day-Glo spandex and surf trunks, Martinez
sported Crip blues and full cholo gear in his ads. He didn’t need any marketing
gimmicks—his well-deserved reputation as one of skateboarding’s most notorious
enforcers set him apart. His brawls are the stuff of legend. While riding for
the wholesome Bones Brigade, he knocked a guy out at a demo for slapping Lance
Mountain. Another time he threw a guy down a set of stairs at Disneyland. At a
time when skateboarding was making the shift from backyard ramps to street
skating and searching for an identity, Jesse became the poster boy for the code
of the streets. His documented defense of both himself and his local scene
empowered an entire generation of skaters.
Penson’s new documentary
Made in Venice
focuses on the 20-year battle to get the Venice skatepark—the most expensive
skatepark in the world, according to the film—built, but it could just as easily have been about
Martinez. For more than three decades, Martinez has been the lifeblood of the
humble Venice community, and he was the driving force behind getting the park
I caught up with
Martinez in a back alley in Venice on the two-year anniversary of the passing
of original Z-Boy and our dear friend Jay Adams to discuss his city and the
many opportunities he’s passed up to get off the streets of Venice over the
VICE: What is your earliest memory of
Jesse Martinez: I was living with my mom, and my
grandmother lived across the alley over on Sunset. I was like five and I
remember my Uncle Wes waking me up like, “Get
up! Get up!” He runs to the window with me and goes, “Run to your Grandma’s!”
Then drops me out the window. Right when he did, a bunch of narcs passed me with
shotguns, and then a bunch of those stun grenades went off. I remember running
across the alley, and my grandma came running and grabbed me. I think it’s a
memory stuck in my mind because of the flash of the concussion grenades.
What happened with your uncle?
They went on a
vacation for a little while. They got out, eventually. Everything was cool.
At what point does Venice change from
just where you live and become home?
It’s still there
in a weird way, but in our day to be from Venice, you stood up for the
neighborhood. You stood up for all your buddies. Sometimes whether right or
wrong, it doesn’t matter—you stand up for them. We weren’t a gang. There were
more than one hundred of us. It was more a tight brotherhood. Even with the
local gangs, whether they were Mexican or black, we had mutual respect. The
skaters and surfers actually intertwined with the local gangs; we were family,
friends, and brothers with them. My actual family were all gang members, yet
here I am skating and surfing, and a lot of us were like that in Venice. There
were just offshoots— cousins, brothers of gang members, Crips—so it was like
this camaraderie. I miss it.
It’s understandable. Venice has been
gentrified with the influx of techies washing up on Silicone Beach.
people. You can’t help if they happened to choose the right thing to be into.
We were into skateboarding while this guy was into some computer things. That
was his gig. That’s what he likes. What he liked happened to make $450,000 a
year. I just happened to like skateboarding, which made $37,000 a year.
That’s something I wanted to talk about:
the money. You were in a few different situations where you were a cunt hair
away from striking it rich. You helped make World Industries what it was. You
helped broker a deal for
to be sold to Flynt. Duffs. Ghetto Wear…
Yeah. I’ve had
chances. I take them in stride. I blew it at Powell. Now that I’m older I’ve
realized I didn’t need to hit that guy at the demo. I could’ve ran up and just
grabbed him and let a few other guys call the cops, but instead I walked up and
hit him. It wasn’t Powell’s fault. I had a few little issues on the road. It
wasn’t really my fault, both issues, but the way I handled them was not right.
Now that I’m older, I could have handled both situations that led to me being
fired differently. I don’t really blame Powell.
You don’t blame Powell, but in Made in Venice , Block, the owner of Venice
Originals Skateshop, claims that Stacey Peralta signed you to Powell just to keep
you on the road so you wouldn’t take out any of the other Bones Brigade guys at
street contests. How do you feel about that?
I’m honored by
that compliment from Block, but the reason they kept me on the road for so long
was Powell had a system back then. They had the number one freestyler, number one
vert guys, and the top street skaters in the world with Tommy Guerrero and Mike
V. They weren’t really holding me back; they were just building my name, which
I really believe they were doing. Without Powell Peralta’s Bones Brigade tour
forcing me out on the road everywhere, I wouldn’t be as known. That’s just
straight out fact. I thank Powell for tha,t even though they gave me the boot.
The reality in that is, the first fight I got into in Boston, that dude had
just smacked Lance Mountain, and when I was walking up, he was
getting ready to hit me. I just happened to be a little quicker. The Disneyland
incident… that wasn’t my fault.
What was the Disneyland incident?
The reason I got
fired. I was with Julien Stranger, another Venice Dogtown homie. We were doing
some demo in Disneyland, and Stranger somehow wound up with us. We were walking
to the arcade together to go play some games. We had just entered the hotel
hallway, and he goes, “I don’t have any money, man.” I was riding for Powell, so
I just used a credit card and pulled out like $500. I had a bunch of 20s, and he’s all, “Killer!” We were ghetto rich. This guy who was standing against
a stairwell saw me pulling the money out and hand Stranger a $20 bill, goes,
“How’d you make so much money?” I go, “What’s it your business?” He goes, “What
do you do? Sell rock or cocaine?” I go, “What? F you.” One thing led to another,
and somehow he fell down the stairs and hit his head. That was the end of the
fight. I left my skateboard there. Security chased me away. It doesn’t take a
rocket scientist to go, “What does this say on the board? Jesse Martinez?” Then
I went to court and was found not guilty of all charges, and everything was
dropped. I tried explaining to them, “I don’t know why you’re firing me. It
wasn’t my fault. I was protecting myself.” But I love Powell. They helped me
get on a team even after they let me go. Stacey got me on Santa Cruz. Anything
I’ve needed since then they have been by my side, and now that I’m older, I know
that they did the right thing. I was a liability. I had a short temper for
After Powell, you helped start Word
Industries, owning a third of it. It sold for $29 million. How did you end up
getting only 30 grand?
I can almost
never tell anybody how it really ended in the parking lot, what made me walk
away that day. I can tell you pieces of it. World Industries was having tax
issues, supposedly. I owned like 33 percent back then; we’re all equal partners.
I got kind of worried, but I was just about to have a kid. I’m like, “Ah fuck, I
suck at skateboarding now. This is about to eat shit.” I had just gotten done
doing a demo with Jeremy Klein, Mike V, and Jason Lee, and they just dismantled
me. It was the last time I ever did a demo. I was in a bad spot, thinking what
am I going to do with my life. I was inches from getting in my car and just
leaving and not coming back. Whatever shares I had in the company, well if it
eats shit, it eats shit, and if it makes it, it makes it, and then I’ll get rich. I was
just about to leave, but I had talked to somebody else in that parking lot, which
completely changed my mind to walk back in and sign out. Which unfortunately turned
out to be, with no exaggeration, a couple million-dollar mistake, one that
would alter my life for sure. But what do to the French say, se la vie? Who
Hell no. There’s
only forward. I can dwell on the past, but I still have to move forward. Rocco’s
one of my best friends. We play golf all over the place together. I hung out at
his house, and we still talk all the time. Rodney Mullen is still one of my
great friends; they both are. If you can’t separate business and friendship, then
maybe you shouldn’t do business, especially with a friend. Whether it was done
on purpose or not doesn’t matter anymore. Those guys are two of my best friends,
and they got rich off it. I walked away with $32,000. When shit hits the fan
and my back’s up against a wall, I can call either one of those dudes, Rodney
or Rocco. Whether they like it or not, they will loan me money for whatever I
need at that moment and not ask for a penny back. Without question.
I know it’s difficult for you to take
money in general, even when you’re doing work that deserves payment. You’re
promoting this documentary about the Venice skatepark, but somehow you’ve become
the guy out there every morning cleaning the park, free of charge. How does
that happen? Why isn’t the City of Los Angeles paying you for your service?
We had finally
gotten a park, and we started cleaning it, and the city at first was like, “Whoa,
what the hell?” Nathan Pratt was giving me money each month to clean the park.
It was the best year and a half that park had ever seen, sparkling clean
everyday. Here was the real problem: We had handed the City of Los Angeles a
contract stating we wanted a five-year agreement to clean the skatepark. They
said no. We came back with a one-year agreement, and they said, “No deal, you’re
out,” out of the blue. I guess they don’t know me very well. I guess they
thought I was just going to go away. Nathan sat me down that day and told me by
law, we’re a legal nonprofit that pays you for what you do up there, but now
you’re not doing it, and we don’t have a contract anymore to justify paying.
He’s right. It’s all legal. That’s how shit goes in the real world. So he told
me for now he can’t pay me, but if I want to keep cleaning that park, it’s on me.
I have no insurance, no right of entry, no driver permit… they took all my
shit, my keys, my power, everything. So I let it go for about three days, four
days, and the park was destroyed. The city wasn’t cleaning the park, so I went
home and got all my equipment, my blower and everything, and I cleaned the whole
park. For 18 months now, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I get out there
between 5 and 5:30 AM, six days a week. It takes about two and a half hours, three
Recently it was
to proposed to Councilman Mike Bonin to get me right of entry along with a certain
amount of money for pay every month. Bonin’s reaction, I’d give it a 50/50.
Bonin said he’s going to reach out to Parks and Rec and the higher ups with the
deal and try to work something out. That was a week ago. That’s where I stand
right now with the city.
What keeps you going back every single
day to clean that place?
Dogtown-Venice-Santa Monica Airlines-Zephyr pride in me that says this is our
neighborhood, and I don’t need your job. I don’t need your fucking money. I’m
going to take care of the neighborhood, whether you guys pay me or give me your
blessing or not. It doesn’t matter. That is one of the last holdouts for the
old way of Venice. I want that park to say, “Welcome to Venice.”
Click here for more on Made in Venice
for more skateboard stuff.
Photographer and Video Artist Gillian Wearing Takes a Self-Portrait While Wearing a Mask of Her Own Face
photographer and video artist Gillian Wearing shot to fame in the 1990s for a
series of portraits of strangers, each holding a sign with their innermost
thoughts written on it. Since then, she has continued to work in photo and
video portraiture with a particular focus on teasing out repressed experiences
or personalities, often making use of masks.
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an Israeli mixed-media artist and curator who lives and works in Brooklyn,
based this portfolio on a collection of her personal letters and writings, as
well as archival materials and clippings from Israeli newspapers, all from the
1980s. Synthesizing all of this, she reconstituted different moments from her
adolescence, casting amateurs as a number of characters, with multiple actors
often playing the same role. The story, partly documentary, partly scripted,
focuses on two teenage girls, Peti and Lucy, who work at a cut-rate Israeli
version of McDonald’s and are obsessed with a family of wrestlers from
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Brandon S Blackmore listened carefully. He had to hear past
the hissing sound in the recording, and the panting. One voice on the recording
was unmistakable, though—the soft, monotone tenor of Warren Jeffs, the deranged leader of North America’s largest polygamist sect.
Just a year earlier, Brandon had been a member of Jeffs’s flock, a Mormon splinter group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Jeffs—whose followers believe he is a prophet and the voice of God—even officiated Brandon’s 2004 wedding, near the FLDS headquarters in Colorado City,
Arizona. As Brandon would later learn, just a few minutes before that ceremony, the FLDS leader had also been married, taking Brandon’s 13-year-old half-sister, Millie Blackmore,
as one of his plural wives. Jeffs was 48 years old at the time.
Now it was August 2013. Jeffs was in prison, serving a life sentence on multiple counts of child rape, and two investigators from the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had asked Brandon to listen to a recording of the FLDS leader having sex. They wanted to know if he heard Millie on the tape. Though
her name was never said aloud, Brandon could tell by the voice that the woman Jeffs was having sex with was his half-sister. Yes, he told the
investigators. It was Millie.
“He was asking her how it felt and a bunch of weird things,”
Brandon told VICE in a recent interview. He said the investigators told him the
tape was made sometime around 2004 or 2005 at a motel in New Mexico. Brandon
declined to elaborate further on what else he heard on the recording, the
existence of which has not been previously reported.
The RCMP wanted confirmation of Millie’s voice as part of a
case they were building against Millie’s parents, Brandon J Blackmore and his
wife, Emily Gail Crossfield Blackmore, whom
Canadian authorities claim took their pre-teen daughter across the border to marry Jeffs in
Colorado City in 2004. In 2014—the year after the Mounties asked Brandon to listen to the recording—
the couple was charged with one count each of removing a child from Canada for the purposes of sex.
The prosecutions are believed to be the first time parents
have been held criminally responsible for the 1,100-mile child-bride pipeline
that FLDS members ran for decades between the Canadian polygamist enclave in
Bountiful, British Columbia, and the sect’s headquarters in the twin towns of
Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, collectively known as Short Creek.
According to a 2011 count from
Stop Polygamy in Canada,
an anti-polygamy nonprofit based in Alberta, Canada, at least
50 Canadian girls between the ages of 12 to 17
were married to FLDS men in the United States between 1990 and 2006, when Jeffs
was arrested in the US on sex-crimes charges.
Young girls in the polygamous enclave of Bountiful, British Columbia. All photos by Jackie Dives unless otherwise noted
In 2014, at the same time charges were filed against Millie’s parents, Canadian authorities also charged two former FLDS bishops from British Columbia, Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, with polygamy. The cases against the four Canadian FLDS members are still pending.
Since his arrest, Jeffs has halted all marriages among the
FLDS, and it is not clear if his followers have continued the cross-border
transport of child brides. But recent interviews conducted by VICE revealed that Canadian law
enforcement have continued to question FLDS defectors in the US and Canada in
an attempt to learn more about how the sect’s bride pipeline worked and whether
there is evidence to charge anyone else with a crime.
As recently as last fall,
investigators with the RCMP had traveled to the US to speak with relatives and
former associates of Jeffs. And law enforcement in both the US and Canada are
monitoring the border for signs of human trafficking or other crimes committed
by members of the sect, according to interviews and documents obtained by VICE.
In an interview, RCMP sergeant Terry Jacklin, a Mountie in
southeastern British Columbia who has been on the trail of the Canadian FLDS
polygamists since 2011, confirmed that his agency continues to investigate the
sect’s marriages, and that more criminal charges may be filed against FLDS
members in Canada. Although he would not
provide details about the investigation, Jacklin told VICE that the RCMP is
working with law enforcement in the US, and that he and his partner may travel
to Utah again “within the next couple of months.”
The Mounties are also trying to find Millie and two other Canadian
Rae Blackmore and Nolita Colleen Blackmore, both of whom were married to Jeffs
at the age of 12. The three brides, all of whom would now be in
their early to mid 20s, are thought to still be loyal to Jeffs. They’re presumed to be living on one of the FLDS compounds in the American West, or at
secret locations known among members as “Houses of Hiding,” where FLDS followers have been hiding out, waiting for God to free Jeffs from his prison cell in Texas.
Though the current charges against the Canadian polygamists
weren’t filed until 2014, the case actually begins more than a decade earlier, in
Short Creek. By that point, Jeffs—who took control
of the FLDS church after the death of his father, Rulon Jeffs, in 2002—was already accumulating wives,
including one of Millie’s sisters, Annie Mae Blackmore.
In 2004, Jeffs sent word to the girl’s father, Brandon J Blackmore, that he wanted to marry Millie as well, and asked that the teenager
be brought to Colorado City from her home in Bountiful, BC.
A journal entry dated March 1, 2004, dictated by Jeffs to one of his wives and later
seized by US authorities in Texas, describes what happened next:
“I sat down with Brandon Blackmore and his wife and his
daughter, gave a training on the redemption of Zion in brief, in summary, and
this girl was called on a mission, and they received it joyfully,” the entry
reads. “And there Mildred Marlene Blackmore, age 13, was sealed to Warren Steed
Jeffs for time and all eternity.” The entry also notes that Brandon J Blackmore
witnessed the wedding.
Millie Blackmore. Photo courtesy of Brandon S Blackmore
It wasn’t the only marriage ceremony that took place in
Short Creek that day. Brandon S Blackmore, Millie’s half-brother, had also
been called to make the 16-hour drive from Bountiful, though he traveled
separately from his father and half-sister. When he arrived, he met the woman
he was assigned to marry, and Jeffs performed their wedding ceremony, shortly
after his own marriage to Millie.
The younger Brandon Blackmore claims he didn’t know that Millie also
got married that same day, or even that she was in Colorado City at the time.
But shortly after his wedding, he told VICE, he went years without seeing
Millie around Bountiful; members of the community were told she was on a
mission for the church, he said. In reality, Millie was traveling with the
Jeffs family, including his estimated 81 plural wives, moving among secret FLDS locations across the western US, as authorities began their hunt for the polygamist prophet, who was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 2006.
In an interview, Rachel Jeffs, Warren’s 32-year-old daughter
from his second marriage, confirmed that during the early 2000s, a series of teenage
girls—including Millie— arrived in the Jeffs household without any
explanation. When she asked, Rachel told VICE, she was told that the girl
was her father’s new wife. Rachel, who left the FLDS in January 2015, said she was angry, but never
confronted her father about marrying girls so young.
“If you do, then you lose your place in the church,” she
explained. “I wasn’t so worried about losing my place in the church. I just
would never get to see my family again.”
Rachel said she remembers Millie crying a lot, and that
things got worse for the young girl after Warren married the two Canadian
12-year-olds, Alyshia Rae Blackmore and Nolita Colleen Blackmore, in December
2005, at the Yearning for Zion ranch, an FLDS compound near Eldorado, Texas. “I saw her
struggle emotionally a lot,” Rachel said of Millie. “She wasn’t really stable.”
After Jeffs’s arrest, FLDS leaders frequently moved his wives and
closest children to keep them away from authorities. Sometimes the family
members would be stashed in one of the FLDS communities; other times they would
be separated and put up in one of the sect’s Houses of Hiding. Often, Rachel
said, members of the family didn’t even know where they were. She recalled that
she and Alyshia were once taken in the middle of the night to a House of Hiding
in Idaho—she doesn’t know where exactly, since the women weren’t allowed to go
outside for more than a few minutes at a time.
Alyshia Rae Blackmore. Photo courtesy of Brandon S Blackmore
Then in 2008, local, state, and federal law enforcement in Texas raided the FLDS compound near Eldorado, responding to what turned out to be a bogus tip about a girl being held against her will. Inside, they found pregnant teens and teens with babies, as well as the temple where Jeffs reportedly engaged in orgies with the girls.
Texas rangers also found hundreds of thousands of documents, including ledgers, Warren’s journals, family rosters, and family photos, which revealed the names of the sect’s underage sexual abuse victims and their perpetrators, as well as dates and other details about the abuse. The raid, and the trove of evidence it uncovered, changed the way law enforcement across North America investigated the FLDS, turning what had been a relatively unknown group of polygamists into a household name.
Brandon S Blackmore says he saw his half-sister Millie
again near the end of 2009, when she returned to Bountiful in the wake of the
Texas raid. The following summer, Brandon said, as they sat on a rocking bench in the yard of Brandon’s home near Bountiful, the
conversation turned to his wedding day, and Millie told him she had watched the
ceremony from an adjoining room through a double-sided mirror. Then she
revealed that she too had gotten married that day, to Jeffs.
Her half-brother was stunned: After the Texas raid, FLDS leaders in Bountiful had told followers that authorities were lying about the evidence they’d uncovered. Casting the incident as yet another example of their religious persecution, they defended Jeffs and insisted that the church had not been marrying off underage girls.
As he listened to Millie’s account, Brandon realized all this had been a bald-faced lie.
FLDS women burn something in the front yard of a house in Bountiful, British Columbia.
In an interview with VICE, Brandon said that though he and Millie
didn’t discuss her marriage or relationship with Jeffs much, it was clear that
his half-sister remained loyal to the FLDS leader, who by that time had already
been incarcerated for four years.
Millie vanished again later that summer. Two years later,
Brandon left the FLDS sect, divorcing his wife who remains loyal to Jeffs,
and with whom he shares custody of their four children. In August 2013, he went
to the RCMP to offer his help in their investigation into the FLDS. It was then
that the authorities played him the audio recording of Millie and Jeffs, which
had apparently been uncovered during the US government’s investigations of the
“I don’t want my dad going to jail if I can help that, but
it has got to stop,” Brandon said. “This marriage of underage girls has got to
Brandon J Blackmore, the father of Millie Blackmore, has been charged with child trafficking for allegedly taking his underage daughter across the border to marry Warren Jeffs.
While he said he believes the case against his
father and stepmother should move forward, he also expressed some sympathy. At
the time of Millie’s marriage, he explained, the couple faced tremendous pressure
from inside the FLDS. Had they refused to marry their daughter to Jeffs, Brandon added, they would have been excommunicated—a fate that would have meant
separation from their families and denial of the faith that they continued to
In the end, Brandon’s father was excommunicated anyway,
after FLDS leaders got wind of the RCMP investigation into Millie’s marriage.
The younger Brandon Blackmore assumes that the church was trying to avoid paying his
father’s legal fees.
“They’re not going to gain anything by prosecuting him,”
he said of the Canadian investigation into his father. “It’s
not going to stop the FLDS.”
The father and son now live two blocks from each other in a
hamlet about 30 minutes east of Bountiful. The elder, Brandon J Blackmore, who
once had five wives and has 40 children, now lives alone. When I visited his
residence on a recent trip to Bountiful, he would not talk about the charge against him, saying repeatedly, “I don’t know anything.”
Brandon S Blackmore explained that while he doesn’t believe his
father condones Jeffs’s crimes, he also doesn’t talk about it much.
have to confront that he made a big mistake,” he said.
To understand these conflicting allegiances, it helps to
understand the community of Bountiful, nestled in the Creston Valley, at the
southern reaches of the Columbia Mountains just north of the Idaho border in
British Columbia. Since the 1940s, the settlement has been an outpost for breakaway Mormon polygamists. Most
of its 600 or so inhabitants are descended from just a handful of men, creating a community with so few surnames that it tends to be easier to refer to people by only their first names.
For years, Bountiful aligned itself with the FLDS, existing
as a sleepy northern outpost of the sect led by Jeffs’s father, Rulon. But in
2002, in an event known locally as the “Split,” The Jeffs’excommunicated the top FLDS
leader in Bountiful, Winston Blackmore. The reasons behind the excommunication are not known, but it was one of hundreds of culls Warren Jeffs initiated to neutralize rivals within the sect and scare members into remaining
divided the local polygamist community in Bountiful, which numbered as many as
1,000 at the time of the Split. On one side, there are the Warrenites, who
remained loyal to Jeffs; on the other are the Winstonites, who broke away from
the main FLDS sect to follow Winston Blackmore, who built his own meetinghouse
and chapel in Bountiful. Both Winston Blackmore and Jim Oler, the leader of the Warrenites in Bountiful, are named in the 2014 polygamy indictment. (Oler was also charged with removing a child from Canada for the purposes of sex.)
A new chapel built by Canadian polygamist leader Winston Blackmore in Bountiful, British Columbia
The groups are
friendly with each other. Virtually everyone in Bountiful has relatives in both camps, and
members of both groups—as well as polygamous residents who remain neutral in the
schism—are beneficiaries of the Utah-based
that holds Bountiful’s 300 acres and the 55 homes on it. Winstonites, who dress in secular, if modest clothing, and those unaffiliated with either group serve
on civic boards together, and many of their children go to the same schools. The
Warrenites, in their mono-colored,
House on the Prairie
don’t mix much, but are nevertheless a
visible, and mostly neighborly, presence in the town.
It’s a marked
contrast to the atmosphere in Short Creek, where those deemed disloyal to Jeffs
are banished and bullied, and divisions between FLDS followers and apostates
have pushed the community to the brink of civil war. From the Texas prison
where he is currently serving a life sentence, Jeffs continues to exert
control over his flock, demanding the near-total isolation of the sect, and
imposing a series of bizarre restrictions, including banning dietary staples, like dairy and oatmeal,
forbidding sex between spouses, and demanding that followers only turn on bathroom
faucets with their right hands.
The Canadian polygamists have also had far fewer legal
problems than their American counterparts. Since the 2008 raid on the FLDS
compound in Texas, the US branch of the FLDS has faced intense government
scrutiny, including charges of
money laundering and food stamp fraud, and fines for child labor violations; earlier this year, a jury in
Arizona found that the towns of Hildale and Colorado City had
violated the civil rights of nonbelievers living there.
But apart from the 2014 charges, the FLDS followers in Bountiful have largely avoided prosecution, despite allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse against many of the sect’s leaders there.
A “Zion” plaque hangs above a door in Bountiful, British Columbia, to signal that the owners remain loyal to imprisoned FLDS “prophet” Warren Jeffs.
interviews with former Warrenites indicate that the branch’s numbers have
declined since Jeffs’s conviction in 2011. Former Jeffs followers in the
community, like Twyla Quinton, are dismayed at the direction the FLDS has
taken. Once a true believer, Quinton was married at age 16
in a mass wedding ceremony officiated by Jeffs’s father, Rulon.
“We were sort of given a choice,” Quinton told VICE. “It
was definitely encouraged to get married. All of my friends were getting
married. I had finished all the school available to me. It was the next step in
life. So I approached Winston, I did, and I told him I wanted to get
“I was happy to be getting married,” she said, adding,
“I know that’s not the same for all the girls.”
Quinton, who is now unaffiliated with either of the sects in Bountiful,
credits her husband Ron—who is also
married to her younger sister—with getting their family out of the church. The FLDS
members in Bountiful are “awesome people,” Quinton said, but she wishes the
Warrenites would “behave like normal Canadians” and stop allowing Jeffs to
dictate their lives.
People in Bountiful see the RCMP’s
child-bride investigation as part of the Canadian government’s broader pursuit
of Winston Blackmore, who at last count had 27 wives and 145 children, the youngest of
whom was born this past April, according to Blackmore and several of his relatives. In 2014, six months before his indictment in Canada,
Winston testified in a deposition
for a civil case in Utah that at least a few of his wives were 15 or 16 when he
married them, though those weddings apparently occurred before Canada set 16 as
a minimum age for marriage in 2008.
“He is the king stud of Canada,” said Nancy Mereska, founder
of Stop Polygamy in Canada, which has been openly critical of the Canadian
government’s failure to crack down on the polygamists in Bountiful. “They were putting people in
prison , and we were just wanting things to go ahead in Canada.”
Three of Winston Blackmore’s daughters. Two of the girls wear hats with their father’s initials on the front, and their number in the birth order of his children on the back.
Canada’s efforts to nail Winston date back several
decades, and the FLDS leader said in
an affidavit submitted to a British Columbia
court that he first became aware that the RCMP was investigating him for
polygamy in 1990. That first investigation did not result in charges. But
according to Zelpha Chatwin, who says she is Winston’s eighth wife, an RCMP
investigator visited Bountiful as far back as 2005, asking general questions
about polygamy and the community there.
Chatwin told VICE that about a year after that first visit, another group of Mounties
came to Bountiful and began questioning women in the community. According to
her and other women VICE spoke to in Bountiful, the law enforcement officials wanted
DNA samples from them and their children, and asked women a range of personal
questions, including the names of their husbands, their children, and when
their marriages were consummated.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that Canadian authorities
finally charged Winston and Jim Oler with polygamy. That case was stayed over
questions about the British Columbia attorney general’s selection of a special
prosecutor. Charges were filed again in 2014, at the same time that Brandon J Blackmore and Emily Gail Crossfield Blackmore were charged in the case related
to their daughter, Millie. The couple’s trial is scheduled to begin November 14
in Cranbrook, British Columbia, according to a spokesman for the province’s
Ministry of Justice. Trial dates have not been set for either Winston or
Young men work on a fence in Bountiful. At least one is a son of Winston Blackmore, the leader of one of the town’s two polygamous sects.
In the meantime, the Canadian government has pursued Winston in other ways. In 2013, a federal judge there ruled that the polygamist leader had underreported income from his logging and trucking businesses by about $1.8 million (Canadian) over
a six-year span, and ordered Winston to undergo a
reassessment and pay $150,000 in penalties. A Canadian appeals court
affirmed the decision
Neither Winston nor his attorney responded to VICE’s
requests for an interview. However, at the
Sunstone Salt Lake Symposium, a
gathering of followers from both mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism held
in Utah this July, Winston complained about the government’s
continued efforts to prosecute him.
“Those suckers are after me by day and by night,” Winston told the audience. “I’ve got to go another round with them.”
In the years after his meeting with the RCMP—and after hearing the tape of his half-sister having sex with Jeffs—Brandon S Blackmore tried to look for Millie himself,
traveling to places where the FLDS have enclaves or compounds. In Short Creek,
as well as in Pringle, South Dakota, and Mancos, Colorado, he would sit outside the
sect’s properties, hoping to catch a glimpse of his missing sibling.
“More than anything, I wanted to see how she was,” he said, “if she’s still alive.”
Brandon S Blackmore in his home near Bountiful, British Columbia
The Mounties have taken a more systematic approach to finding
Millie and the other two Canadian brides. In the fall of 2015, Jacklin and
Constable Shelley Livingstone, the
RCMP investigators, visited Rachel Jeffs in Montana. They also visited Salt
Lake City, according to people with knowledge of the investigation. In an
interview room at the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building, the Mounties met
with another one of Warren’s daughters who lived with the Canadian brides and
asked her to identify photographs of the girls and to help them interpret some
of her father’s journals. Roy Allred, one
of Jeffs’s former drivers and family caretakers,
has also said that RCMP investigators requested
to meet him, near his home in Elko, Nevada, but did not return messages from
VICE to confirm that the meeting had occurred.
Canadian authorities are also monitoring the
border to see which members of the sect are traveling between Bountiful and
FLDS enclaves in Idaho and other Western states. Willie Jessop, a former Jeffs
bodyguard and FLDS spokesman who has since become a witness in multiple legal
proceedings against the sect, acknowledged in an interview with VICE that the
RCMP occasionally calls him to ask about people crossing the US-Canadian
border. Jessop said they have also asked if specific crossers are still loyal
to Jeffs and, if so, what role those individuals have in the church.
A Warrenite woman in Bountiful crosses the road to avoid the camera.
Neither Jacklin nor Livingstone would confirm whom they have spoken with in Utah. In his recent interview with VICE, Jacklin did say that the
RCMP is working with US authorities on its investigations, though he declined
to specify which agencies are collaborating. “We are still building, we
are still gathering evidence,” he said, “and we are still in the process of
providing more information to our prosecutor in respect to additional charges
against additional people.”
According to Jacklin, the RCMP first obtained the Texas
evidence in 2011 and began its investigation into the child brides that year.
Asked why the process has taken so long, Jacklin cited the tremendous amount of
evidence investigators have had to sort through; the evidence acquired from the
Texas raid alone amounts to six terabytes of data.
Jacklin also acknowledged another, more complex obstacle—one
that additional manpower or overtime hours won’t be able to solve. “Some of
these girls don’t see themselves as victims,” he said. Jacklin didn’t say how many former child brides the RCMP has approached, or whether the investigation includes additional women besides Millie, Alyshia, and Nolita.
In Bountiful, the RCMP’s investigation into underage
marriages has raised uncomfortable questions for people like Twyla Quinton, who continues to live in the community despite no
longer aligning herself with either Jeffs or Winston Blackmore.
Determined to share her frustration with what’s happened to
the FLDS, Quinton and her 16-year-old daughter, Bianca, hiked into the
mountainside above Bountiful last summer, where someone has sprayed “KEEP
SWEET” on a boulder along the trail. It’s a shortened version of a popular
message in Bountiful, “Keep Sweet No Matter What,” which FLDS leaders attempt
to ingrain in their followers. The subtext, Quinton said, is that people—particularly women and children—should do what they’re told and shut up about
Children play outside in the secluded polygamist community of Bountiful, British Columbia.
Armed with spray paint cans, Quinton and Bianca covered the
slogan in white paint. Then, in red, they wrote their own message: “BE AWESOME.” It was a striking act of defiance in a community where such acts are
exceedingly rare. But while Quinton told VICE that she doesn’t support teenage
marriages—although hers has been a good one—she also questioned the Canadian
government’s determination to punish someone for the practice.
“A little girl getting married is not OK, but whose fault is
that?” she told VICE. “If you’re going to save a child bride, do it when she’s
still a child.”
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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election: Bernie Sanders and the Battle for Universal Healthcare in Colorado
Bernie Sanders during this year’s Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
In his June non-concession concession speech, before
grimacing in support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention, Bernie
Sanders called on his followers to take their “political revolution” to state
and local races. “I hope very much that many of you listening tonight are
prepared to engage at that level,” he said. It wasn’t clear what form the
continuing revolution would take—amid
allegations of dysfunction around Our Revolution,
his new organization—but last week Sanders
indicated at least one measure he was backing: a
little-noticed ballot initiative to bring universal health care to Colorado.
In November, Colorado’s voters will be asked whether
the state should increase taxes by $25 billion a year—nearly doubling the
entire state budget—for a program that would provide every resident with health
insurance. The proposal, which would become Amendment 69 in the Colorado
constitution, would direct the state to begin creating an entity called
ColoradoCare. This organization, with its own elected board, independent of the legislature, would then
implement the first statewide universal health-care regime in the country. Colorado would opt out of Obamacare—using a provision for state innovation
in Obamacare itself—and those receiving care through Medicare or the Veterans
Administration would keep the coverage they had. In exchange, Coloradans would be
hit with a steep income tax hike—10 percent divided between employees and
employers. But in the end, in theory, most people would end up paying less for
better coverage than they get now, and every state resident would be covered.
It’s not surprising that Sanders would support this
measure—he mentioned it
during his primary campaign, which made universal
medical coverage a signature issue, and he won Colorado. But ColoradoCare also
brings him into conflict, once again, with the Democratic powers that be.
Amendment 69 earned its place on the ballot thanks to a grassroots campaign that, among other tactics,
collected petition signatures at Sanders rallies. It’s no surprise that Republicans
oppose this new government program funded with a new tax, but many of
Colorado’s top Democratic politicians are also against it. The opposition group,
Coloradans for Coloradans, is co-chaired by a former Democratic governor, Bill
Ritter, and has
raised more than $3.5 million, much of it from
the medical industry,
compared to a few hundred thousand for the yes
campaign. (This is despite the ColoradoCare endorsement in
this year’s state Democratic Party platform.) Those
opponents who aren’t worried about the business models of the health care
establishment, or allergic to tax hikes, shudder at the consequences of searing
11-page proposed amendment into the state
With the forces against them mounting, ColoradoCare
advocates are looking to Sanders as a chance to turn their fortunes. They
began calling on Sanders, once the primary was over, to turn his attention to
their cause. “As his presidential campaign comes to an end, his campaign for a
decent health care system can continue,” T.R. Reid, chairman of the
Colorado Foundation for Universal Health Care, told VICE at the time. Reid and
his team appear to have succeeded.
“It is absurd, it is beyond belief, that here in America
we remain the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all
people,” Sanders said during his rally in Vermont last Wednesday announcing Our
Revolution. “If that proposal can win in Colorado, I believe that idea will
spread around the country.” The Our Revolution
includes ColoradoCare among “our ballot initiatives,” alongside state measures
limiting the rights of corporations and abolishing the death penalty.
ColoradoCare is not the single-payer solution that many healthcare
reformers long for, since it keeps existing public insurance programs in place
and allows those who so choose to buy their own insurance if they want, instead
or in addition—though they still pay the hefty income tax. (That’s the stated
reason that kept Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein
Amendment 69 until she
changed her mind over the weekend.) It’s like public schools for medicine; part
of the deal is that some people will have to pay for services they don’t use so
all their neighbors get covered. Its appeal for progressives is far than
certain, however, because the program
may be unable to provide coverage for most abortions, thanks to an amendment to
the Colorado constitution that voters approved in 1984 banning state-funds for such
procedures. Whether the ban would apply to ColoradoCare’s para-governmental
entity remains unclear; it would need to be decided in court.
“Because Amendment 69 can’t provide guarantees to
affordable abortion access, it isn’t truly universal health care,” NARAL
Pro-Choice Colorado’s director, Karen Middleton,
told the Colorado Independent in June.
The very ballot-proposal process that makes Amendment 69
possible may be its undoing. ColoradoCare’s inventive structure itself is an
attempt to work around conservative-backed constitutional amendment that voters
passed in 1992 restricting the state legislature’s ability to increase taxes.
Such past amendments are cautionary tales. If voters approve Amendment 69,
that’s language nobody—not the legislature, not the program’s elected board,
not even voters—will have an easy time changing. These kinds of voter-suggested-and-approved
amendments can do brave things that legislators facing re-election might be too
careful to try, like the one in 2012 that legalized marijuana. But they can also
have unexpected consequences.
Then again, Americans are unusually prone to trepidation
when it comes to giving up a broken medical system. As Sanders has often pointed
out, universal healthcare is something just about every wealthy country in the
world got it long ago, and few of those countries’ citizens are complaining. But
now what hangs in the balance with Amendment 69 has to do with more than taxes
and healthcare. It’s a test of Sanders and his allies’ ability to fight—and
win—the local battles that they deem so important.
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