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5 important stories that aren’t about the midterms

These days it can be hard to keep up with the stories in your newsfeed. We take a moment each week to look at what’s happening outside of the Capitol and the White House. Here’s what we’re reading now.

1. Washington state just eliminated the death penalty

Protesters calling for an end to the death penalty unfurl a banner before police arrest them outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

Protesters calling for an end to the death penalty unfurl a banner before police arrest them outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 2007. Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

Washington became the 20th U.S. state last week to eliminate its capital punishment law, with the state’s Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty is “invalid” after additional data into the issue revealed it lacked “fundamental fairness,” because it has been “imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

The death penalty, which had been blocked by a moratorium since 2014,“is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the court’s majority.

The ruling stems from an appeal in the case of convicted murderer Allen Eugene Gregory, a black man who, along with seven other death row inmates, will now have his death sentence commuted to life in prison without parole, The Seattle Times reported.

Cal Coburn Brown was the last inmate to be executed in the state in 2010, the newspaper reported. [The Seattle Times]

Why it matters: While 30 states still have death penalty in the books, they don’t all use it with the same frequency. (Before last week’s ruling and even the 2014 moratorium on the practice, the rate of executions in Washington state had already slowed.) According to the Pew Research Center, 11 states that allow the practice haven’t used it in more than a decade.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, told the Associated Press that executions have largely become a “creature of the Deep South and the Southwest.”

Texas remains the No. 1 state leading in executions, according to the Washington, D.C.-based group. In Texas, 10 people have been executed so far this year.

The group’s data also shows executions overall have been trending downward since the peak of the 1990s.

Data was key to the Washington decision, which was bolstered by an analysis from the University of Washington that found that juries were about four times more likely to seek the death penalty for black defendants than for other races.

Up until that 2014 published study, no other had “examined the role of race in capital sentencing in Washington State, where the death penalty was first authorized 160 years ago,” UW sociology professor Katherine Beckett and then-grad student Heather Evans wrote.

2. A “Proud Boys” brawl with “Antifa” protesters in New York triggers call for probe

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called on the FBI to investigate a violent fight Friday between members of a far-right group and anti-fascist protesters.

The fight followed a public appearance by Gavin McInnes, who founded the group of self-declared “Western chauvinists,”at the Metropolitan Republican Club in Manhattan.

McInnes’ visit drew protesters, who vandalized the club’s building earlier in the day and greeted him when he finished his performance. “McInnes said someone lobbed a bottle of urine at him, and he is later seen on video getting out of a car and drawing a sword from its sheath above his head before the police forced him back inside,” the New York Times reported.

But a few blocks away, another violent confrontation broke out, captured by several people at the scene, including independent journalist Sandi Bachom. A group of men, believed to be Proud Boys, are seen kicking protesters on the ground while yelling slurs. Three protesters were arrested, the Times reported, but nobody associated with the Proud Boys appeared to be taken into custody by the police, sparking criticism from activists over how police handled the incident.

On Sunday, the NYPD wrote on Twitter that “we continue to investigate the violent incident on the [Upper East Side] on Friday night, and need information regarding these persons-of-interest. no complaints have been filed.”

Cuomo criticized the club — which was founded in 1902 and used to count Theodore Roosevelt among its members — for inviting McInnes, who was suspended by Twitter earlier this year for violating the social media company’s policy on “violent extremist groups.” Cuomo also asked the New York State Police’s hate crimes unit to work with the NYPD “on thorough investigations into these incidents and any additional acts of violence or discrimination by the group across the state

The club’s president, in response to Cuomo, told the Times: “We’re the victims here.” [The New York Times]

Why it matters: Friday’s fight is the latest to ignite between far-right and “Antifa,” short for anti-fascist, activists. Members of the Proud Boys were associated with the 2017 “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one woman died after a man drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. On Saturday, in Portland, Oregon, some members of the group reportedly participated in a far-right march for “law and order” that confronted a vigil for the 27-year-old black victim of a fatal police shooting. The groups traded taunts before the scene turned into a bloody clash, the Oregonian reported. No arrests were made after the march, police said, though they continue to investigate.

The Manhattan Club, which on its website lists Ann Coulter and Mike Huckabee as other prominent speakers, defended its invitation to McInnes, telling Buzzfeed News “we do invite speakers to the Club with differing political points of view — some we agree with and some which we do not. But we are staunch supporters of the 1st Amendment … We want to foster civil discussion, but never endorse violence. Gavin’s talk on Friday night, while at times was politically incorrect and a bit edgy, was certainly not inciting violence.”

President Donald Trump has taunted “Antifa” protesters in his campaign rally rhetoric, as part of a larger attack on Democrats as an “angry mob.” At a September event in Missouri, he said members “look like” they live in their parents’ basements. He added that protesters were “ so lucky that we’re peaceful,” referring to Republicans.

3. Vaccination rates continue to rise in the U.S., but pockets of unimmunized kids are growing, too

A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet is seen at Boston Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week showed that vaccination rates among toddlers and kindergarteners continue to rise, according to data it pulled from schools and health care providers last year. But the report also showed vaccine exemption rates are on the rise, “creating volatile pockets” of unimmunized children that pose the threat of disease outbreak even among those who are up to date on their shots, the PBS NewsHour’s Jamie Leventhal reported last week.

“For the third consecutive school year, unvaccinated communities have seen small but notable growth, according to the CDC’s latest National Immunization Survey. One school in Oregon has toddler vaccination rates lower than those in Venezuela,” Leventhal wrote. “Only half of the preschoolers in the state received their MMR vaccines, compared to 57 percent of Venezuelan toddlers.” [The PBS NewsHour]

Why it matters: “Research has repeatedly shown that vaccines are safe and prevent certain highly contagious diseases,” Leventhal reported. Meanwhile, “a child who hasn’t received the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine is 35 times more likely to contract measles than a vaccinated child in the U.S., and 90 percent of unvaccinated people who come into contact with an infected person will catch the disease.”

What can states do about it? Some have seen significant improvements in vaccination rates after introducing tighter regulation through legislation.

West Virginia Commissioner of Public Health Rahul Gupta told the NewsHour that after passing a law that requires all children to be up-to-date on vaccinations before child care entering public schools, the state saw a 10-point jump in its vaccination rate.

“That’s a testament to how having strong policies at the state level really protects your children and the state,” Gupta said.

4. Walmart agrees to settle California lawsuit over cashiers who want seats

Cashiers work at the checkout lanes of a Walmart store in Los Angeles in 2013. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Cashiers work at the checkout lanes of a Walmart store in Los Angeles in 2013. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Walmart is prepared to pay about $65 million in a settlement from a class-action lawsuit over not giving cashiers in California the chance to sit while performing their jobs.

In a case that has almost lasted a decade, the retail giant was accused of violating a 2001 California wage and conditions order that said employees “shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.”

The settlement, which requires approval from a judge, could affect as many as 100,000 current and former Walmart cashiers in the state, The Los Angeles Times reported.

The newspaper reported that the chain has denied any wrongdoing leveled by the lawsuit, brought on behalf of Nisha Brown since 2009, and has argued that the work didn’t require seats because employees are expected to move to greet customers and stock shelves. The company also said that seats would make cashiers less efficient and that customers had preferred them to stand.

The company, per the settlement, has agreed to launch a pilot program that provides stools to cashiers in California. [The Los Angeles Times]

Why it matters: Walmart is not the only company pressed by the courts to provide chairs to their employees. More than two years ago, CVS and JPMorgan Chase faced a similar class-action lawsuit, from their cashiers and bank tellers in California.

Ruling in favor of the standing cashiers, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the state’s Supreme Court, “There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing.”

5. Hungary bans sleeping in public areas

Civilians attend a demonstration in support of the homeless in front of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Civilians attend a demonstration in support of the homeless in front of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

Hungary’s new, tougher measure on those living in public areas took effect this week, after an amendment to its constitution was made in June.

The crackdown is meant “to ensure that homeless people are not on the streets at night-time and that citizens can make use of public space unimpeded,” Social Affairs State Secretary Attila Fulop was quoted as saying by BBC.

The revision would allow police to issue warnings to anyone seen “living rough” in public areas. Four warnings within a 90-day timeframe would lead to jail time or up to six months in a work program, the Associated Press reported.

The latest measure builds on legislation from 2013 that made homelessness punishable by fines, BBC noted. [BBC]

Why it matters: The United Nations strongly condemned the measure earlier this summer when it was first introduced by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.

In an open letter sent to the government of Hungary, U.N. housing expert Leilani Farha said the country’s move against the homeless was “cruel.”

“What is this ‘crime’ they have committed? Merely trying to survive,” Farha said in a statement.

Orban’s government has said it was taking measures to improve funding for provisions for the homeless, and that help was provided “in a dignified manner.”

The European Union, however, has pledged to take legal action against Hungary, saying the country’s treatment of the homelessness was a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values, BBC reported.

READ MORE: 5 important stories that have nothing to do with the White House

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