‘We Left the Girls Too Long in That Place’

When I first interviewed Yama Bullum and his wife, Falmata, in 2015, they were desperate for the safe return of their daughter Jinkai, who was one of the 276 girls abducted from their school in Chibok, in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

In the years following the 2014 kidnapping, I spoke with many of the teenagers’ parents. The raid was part of an extended campaign of violence by Boko Haram—whose name roughly translates to “Western education is sin”—to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. The kidnapped girls, most of whom were Christian, were taken to Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest, where they endured harsh conditions and were subjected to Islamic instruction sessions lasting up to 11 hours a day.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign rallied celebrities and activists around the world, yet rescue attempts were largely unsuccessful. With few other options, the Nigerian government turned its focus to negotiating with the militants. Mediators helped broker a deal, and in 2016 and 2017, Boko Haram agreed to hand over a total of 103 of the abductees. Controversial amnesty programs began allowing Boko Haram members to reenter society after serving time at rehabilitation camps. The Chibok girls faded from the headlines.

[Read: When America couldn’t bring back our girls]

One reason is many of the women who remained with Boko Haram had married into the group. Although the women now say they were not forced, they faced intense pressure. Those who complied were granted privileges such as access to more and better food, and even possession of slaves. At times, those slaves were chosen from among their own classmates. Married women were usually moved away from the other Chibok captives, deeper into the forest. They were hard to locate, and even if they were found, it wasn’t always clear that they wanted to leave.

In the past couple of years, some of those missing women have finally emerged, but they are not the same girls who were taken into the forest a decade ago. Twenty have been rescued since 2021, and they have brought with them 31 children. (Almost 100 of the Chibok captives are still missing; about 20 may have died during childbirth, from illness or snakebites, or in joint Nigerian and American military air raids targeted at Boko Haram.) Most of the freed women are widows, but seven—including Jinkai—came out with their husbands or partners. They all moved into a large house in Maiduguri, where the government provides for them. In other words—in a decision that has angered the women’s families and baffled many Nigerians—taxpayers are supporting these former militants to live with the very women they kidnapped.

It is difficult to overstate how famous the “Chibok Girls” are in Nigeria. When the military finds one, it usually summons the media, positions the woman in front of the cameras, and marks her name off the list circulated by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Occasionally, the freed captives recount their experiences—describing the hardships of captivity and lavishing gratitude on the armed forces for liberating them.

So I was not surprised, when I first met Jinkai and the other recently freed women on a Sunday afternoon in January, to find them somewhat bored to be going through the routine once more. Sitting in their hijabs under a tree outside their house in Maiduguri, they told me the usual things about being thankful for their freedom. But when I tried to probe them about their feelings on the transformations they had undergone, the narrative got more complicated.

In 2022, Jinkai and her three children left the forest and surrendered to the Nigerian military. She told reporters that her husband, Usman, had given her permission to go, and planned to follow: “I just hope Usman surrenders as soon as possible. I can’t wait to reunite with him,” she said. She was transferred to a rehabilitation camp in Bulumkutu, along with the other recently freed women. After several weeks, they were released and granted permission to return home to visit their families in Chibok.

[Read: The world’s deadliest terrorist organization]

“The day she returned, we were all so happy and rushed to hug her,” Jinkai’s father, Bullum, told me. They celebrated with a thanksgiving service at church. She’d brought her children, and her family allotted her a portion of their farmland where she could start growing peanuts. But soon, she left for the house in Maiduguri, where, to her family’s surprise, Usman was waiting. “She was a Christian, but when she went into the forest, they turned her into a Muslim,” her father, Yama Bullum, told me. “I sent her to school and now she doesn’t want to go to school again. The girl is not even talking to us.”

Jinkai got married a year after she was abducted, and had her first child by the age of 22. She’s 29 now. When I spoke with her on a video call after our first meeting, she told me, “In terms of religion, I am happy with the one I am doing now, which is Islam.” When I asked her about the tensions with her family over her husband and religion, she said, “How I feel about my family is not anybody’s business,” and hung up.

“How do you deal with the issue of agency of women who were abducted as children?” Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode asked me. She organized the Bring Back Our Girls activist group and is the CEO of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, which supports the women and their families. “We left the girls too long in that place. The longer we left them, the more they changed.”

Boko Haram husbands were not always treated so generously. In 2016, the Nigerian military discovered one of the Chibok girls, Amina Ali, roaming the forest with her baby and a man who claimed to be her husband. She said he’d helped her escape, and yet he was swiftly taken into custody by the Nigerian military and labeled as a criminal. I conducted one of the first interviews with her, during which she said she missed her husband. “Just because we got separated, that does not mean that I don’t think about him,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with the way I’m being kept from him.”

The state government is only trying to protect the women’s welfare and mental health by supporting them as they stay with their husbands, the governor of Borno and architect of the policy, Babagana Umaru Zulum, told me. But it is also a tactic. By speaking publicly about the treatment they receive upon returning, the women can play a crucial role in persuading others to come out of hiding.

[From the May 2021 issue: A kidnapping gone very wrong]

Besides, Governor Zulum said, the women were interviewed and “they said this is what they want. And even before they came out of the forest, some of them gave us conditions that for them to come out, they will come with their husbands. We want to see if we can get more.”

It’s true that the couples seemed determined to reunite. Last year, one of the freed women, Mary Dauda, was visiting her family in Chibok when a former militant arrived, seeking to discover her whereabouts. “He was arrested by vigilantes,” Yakubu Nkeki, the chair of the Chibok parents’ group, told me, and barred from seeing Mary. Nevertheless, she ran away from her family to join him. They’re now living together in Maiduguri.

Many spoke fondly of their husbands. Aisha Graema has had two children and been married to the same militant for eight years. She told me they agreed together on their escape: “I first came out of the forest and then he followed me,” she said. “There in the bush, we had no relative, no brother, no sister. That is why we decided to come out. He finished deradicalization before we were allowed to stay together. The government welcomed us well, gave us food, shelter, everything.” She added, “All my prayers are that I just want my husband to get a good thing to do in life.”

Residents walk under power lines in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. Islamic militant group Boko Haram, and more recently a faction called ISWAP, have been waging an insurgency in northeast Nigeria for more than a decade.
A street in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State (Sally Hayden / SOPA Images / Getty)

But the women’s parents have a very different view. Many of them think the government is sacrificing their daughters for the sake of stability, to appease Boko Haram, an accusation that Governor Zulum denied.

Dauda Yama (no relation to Mary—many of the families have similar names), whose daughter Saratu is among the recently released women, told me, “I would prefer the girl to come and live with us.” He said people in Chibok are talking; one said to him, “‘Your daughter has been rescued but she is still with Boko Haram?’ I am very pained. It’s not right.”

“I am not happy with what the governor did,” Jinkai’s father said. “The girls managed to come out of the forest and the governor married them off again.”

Over multiple conversations with the women, I struggled to know for sure how they felt. I had trouble connecting with Jinkai because every time I called, Usman answered her phone and promptly hung up. When I asked different women in the house to deliver my messages to her, they hesitated and appeared fearful, mentioning the presence of her husband.

All of the women I interviewed that first day, and in phone calls that followed, at times repeated what sounded like Boko Haram propaganda. “I am happy that I was taken. I was not happy at the beginning, but as they started teaching me Islamic religion, that is when I became happy,” said Mary, who is pregnant with her second child. Dauda Yama’s daughter, Saratu, told me, “When they took us from school, I was sad, but when they started teaching me about Islam, I was happy.” When Jinkai and I finally talked, she said, a bit defensively: “I have completely forgotten about the kidnapping.” They expressed few goals for the future beyond nurturing their children, the success of their husbands, and getting into paradise.

How, many people wonder, could these women want to stay with their tormentors after all they’ve been through? I asked Somiari Fubara, a Nigerian American psychologist, if she could make sense of it. She worked for two years with former captives from Chibok studying in a special program at the American University of Nigeria in Yola. She emphasized how traumatized the women had been. They did not know “if they were ever going to be released.” They bonded with these men in part because they had to in order to survive. “The girls didn’t even know that the world was looking for them. The information they were getting was solely what they were fed by Boko Haram.”

I asked the same question of Fatima Akilu, the director of a crisis-response group, Neem Foundation, and a psychologist who has worked to deradicalize wives of Boko Haram commanders and other freed captives. She said it can take a long time to undo women’s ties to the militants’ ideology; after all, “Boko Haram have taken their time to indoctrinate them.” The women may also be struggling to reintegrate into society. They don’t fit in, they are ostracized, and as a result they may say to themselves that they were better off “in the group, where I had a sense of belonging.”

Akilu said she encourages the women to think for themselves and ask questions like “If they are really working for God, why are they killing children?” She said that these women “have been told what to believe all their lives”—first by their parents and community, and then by Boko Haram. But, she said, “when you try to teach some to figure it out for themselves, they usually are quite good at understanding what they’ve been through, what it’s meant.”

Most of the women who were stolen from Chibok have gone on to live relatively normal lives, Fubara said, reunited with their families and continuing their education. But they spent far less time in the forest than the women now living in Maiduguri. Most remained unmarried, living with other captive women, with fewer chances for deep radicalization.

The house in Maiduguri is really more like a mansion—each couple has a room to themselves, and the children romp through its extensive grounds. I was given a tour by Kauna Luka, a 26-year-old widow. We settled in her room, where a photo of her before the kidnapping, unsmiling in a white dress, hung on the wall. The room was bright and airy, with blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, and suitcases piled up in one corner.

About a dozen of the women crowded into the room to talk. Some told me about their husbands who died in the forest, speaking matter-of-factly. Others mentioned that they were dating militants they’d met at Bulumkutu. Governor Zulum has promised the women that they will not lose government support if they choose to marry now—the state will also provide accommodation to their spouses. The women cheerily described how the government meets all their needs, giving them pocket money every month and bags of rice.

[Read: Lessons from a kidnapping]

Every weekday, a bus ferries them to a “second-chance school,” where they learn skills such as tailoring and computer literacy. State security agents closely observe their movements, and they must obtain permission before going anywhere or receiving visitors.

None of the husbands was home when I visited (and despite repeated attempts to contact them, I found that their phones were always switched off). Some of the women told me that their spouses had traveled as far away as the southwestern city of Lagos or Cameroon, saying they were looking for work. I was struck by the fact that the former militants enjoy the freedom to move about as they please. Having completed their rehabilitation, they are treated like ordinary citizens. The women, however, are under strict monitoring.

The government says it has its reasons. “Our main objective is to protect them,” Zulum told me. “We are very much afraid that if we allow these Chibok girls to go back to Chibok, these useless people will come and abduct them again. We are also afraid that if we allow them to roam anyhow, even within Maiduguri, maybe some culprits may attack them. We receive complaints from parents and others that we don’t want to allow these Chibok girls to go back to their communities, but we also see the dangers inherent in allowing them to go anywhere they want.”

The Borno government is following a policy similar to one implemented by the federal government. The 103 girls freed in 2016 and 2017 were kept in custody in Abuja, the capital, for up to a year. Even when they were permitted to visit Chibok for Christmas, they were confined to the house of a local politician, for fear that they might be kidnapped again.

But the house in Maiduguri may be another kind of captivity. One of the women who originally lived there, Hauwa Joseph, has since left it behind to start a different life. I spoke with her mother, Esther. “My daughter tried to return to Christianity while in Maiduguri, but being with the others made it difficult,” she told me. “She refused to put on the hijab, and the other girls called her an infidel.” They told her that she would never find a man who wasn’t a militant to marry her. When the women were permitted to visit Chibok in December, Hauwa’s uncles connected with a Christian charity that took her away to a different town and is working to send her abroad to study. She’d changed her phone number, and her family asked me not to reveal her location, so no one can pressure her to return. (I tried multiple times to reach her directly.)

Yakubu Nkeki, the chair of the parents’ association, told me he was torn between the grievances of the parents and the rights of their daughters, who may have been teenagers when they were kidnapped but are now grown women. “Our culture in Chibok, even a 50-year-old woman, you are still under the control of your parents” until you marry, Nkeki said. “But by the constitution of Nigeria, when you are 18 years, you can think on your own.”

What these women really think remains a mystery, at least to me. When I left the house in Maiduguri that Sunday, a security guard was shouting at the women, warning them not to wander too close to the gates. Seeing these women who had been through so much scurrying to obey left me simmering. Was this the liberation Nigeria had promised them?

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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The Truth About Organic Milk

Photographs by Justin Maxon for The Atlantic

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This winter, I attended a livestock auction on California’s remote northern coast. Ranchers sat on plywood bleachers warming their hands as the auctioneer mumble-chanted and handlers flushed cows into a viewing paddock one by one. Most of the cows were hale animals, careering in and cantering out. But one little brown cow moved tentatively, rheum slicking her left eye and a denim patch covering her right.

That night, I went to take a closer look at her along with a pair of animal-welfare investigators and some of the traders who had participated in the auction. Cow 13039, as her ear tag identified her, was segregated with other sick or injured cattle in a pen near the viewing paddock. A farmhand led her into a squeeze chute, so that I could see her udders and feel her bony sides and scratch her head.

The denim patch had been glued straight onto her right orbital rim. I helped work up the patch’s edge; when a rancher finally ripped it off, her eyeball swelled from its socket, tethered to her skull by muscle and sinew and skin. Unable to focus, the eye rotated wildly. It had ruptured, its wet inner contents extruding from the broken membrane; blood and green pus suppurated from its edges, smelling of copper and must. The cow had “cancer eye,” the rancher who had purchased her guessed, the most common bovine cancer.

Cow 13039, the auction affidavit showed, came from one of the country’s preeminent dairy farms: Alexandre Family Farm, a nationwide supplier to stores including Whole Foods. Alexandre cows are pasture-raised, and the operation is validated by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Certified Humane, and the Regenerative Organic Alliance. Its owners, Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, won the Organic Farmer of the Year award a few years back and have been profiled by The New York Times. For $8, you can buy about a third of a gallon of its top-shelf milk.  

[Annie Lowrey: Radical vegans are trying to change your diet]

The Alexandres sold dozens of grievously ill and injured cows at auction over the past four years, according to a sprawling whistleblower report published by the nonprofit advocacy group Farm Forward. On the farm, the report charges, mismanagement led to “the extreme suffering of hundreds of cows.” One whistleblower contacted the local sheriff and the United States Department of Agriculture, among other organizations, to report animal-welfare violations, but without results. The report is based on hundreds of location- and date-tagged photographs and videos collected over a four-year period by people who worked either with or for Alexandre Family Farm, as well as on affidavits, veterinary reports, and interviews.

view of Alexandre farms
(Justin Maxon for The Atlantic)

Alexandre Family Farm really is a family farm, run by the Alexandres and staffed by some of their children, on multiple sites in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. Blake and Stephanie met while studying at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the early 1980s, and from there built a pasture-raised empire. Alexandre’s 4,500 cows, which give birth to 4,000 calves a year, make it one of the largest organic dairy farms in the country.

In March, I visited the farm to ask the Alexandres about the report. In that conversation, they questioned the motivations of the whistleblowers, speculating that they were disgruntled former employees and associates, and ventured that some of the photographs might have been staged or doctored. They described some of the depicted incidents as false, implausible, or exaggerated, while saying that others were tragedies or accidents to which they had responded with corrective action. “Stuff happens,” Blake told me, as we sat at his kitchen table. “Employees make mistakes. We make mistakes. We try to fix them when we become aware of them.”

Alexandre is not just any farm; it is esteemed by chefs, politicians, and advocates for humane agriculture, and consumers seek out its products. The report implicates not just the farm but also the certification programs that farms like it use to assure consumers that the food they are eating is ethically sourced and cruelty-free. And it implicates the government, which does little to protect the welfare of farm animals. Laws are lax and enforcement is even more lax, despite widespread public support for animal protection.

When I met Cow 13039, a dying animal sold to the highest bidder, I thought that the system had failed her. But in reporting this story, I found something far more disconcerting. No system had failed her, because there was no system to protect her in the first place.

one thing is not in dispute: Alexandre cows live a life far better than those on the mega-operations that produce most of the country’s milk. They eat grass and hay instead of pellets made from corn and soybeans. They have daily access to pasture and live in herds, rather than being isolated in stalls. (Cows are sociable animals—personality-wise, they’re a lot like dogs.)

The promise of happy, healthy cows has fueled the company’s success. The farm won an award from Whole Foods in 2020 and is one of only six Certified Humane bovine-dairy operations in the United States. The Alexandres have become outspoken advocates of back-to-the-earth farming; Blake was appointed to a state agricultural committee and is now on a California regenerative-farming commission.

But many Alexandre cows are neither happy nor healthy, the Farm Forward report concludes. “Most of the whistleblower or undercover investigations that are done on animal farm operations are a couple of videos … maybe one whistleblower coming forward,” Andrew deCoriolis, Farm Forward’s executive director, told me. “The thing that makes this unique is the totality of the evidence.”

[Annie Lowrey: What’s different about the Impossible Burger?]

The details in the report are horrifying: a cow with mastitis having her teat cut off with a knife. A cow sent to auction with a spinal-cord injury that had left her incontinent and partly paralyzed. A live, alert cow being dragged by a skid steer. A cow that could not walk being left in a field for two weeks before being euthanized. Cows sprayed with a caustic combination of mineral oil and diesel fuel to tamp down on a fly infestation (which, a whistleblower says in the report, they were told to lie about to an inspector).

At their farm, in a written response, and in a follow-up conversation, the Alexandres described such incidents as improbable, given the farm’s protocols. “Cutting teats off” has “never been a practice on our dairy farms,” they told me. They said that injured cows received medical treatment and when necessary were moved safely, without dragging. A farm worker had mixed red diesel into a fly spray, they told me, because that made it easier to see where the spray had been applied, and the farm stopped the practice when management learned about it.

Former employees said that sick cows were regularly denied antibiotics for mastitis and hoof infections, at least in part to maintain their milk as organic—a charge corroborated by an Alexandre farm worker not involved in the report. (Once a cow is given antibiotics, her milk must be sold as conventional for the duration of her life.) The farm has “natural” treatments that “allow us to not need synthetic antibiotics,” Vanessa Nunes, Blake and Stephanie’s daughter and a dairy manager at the operation, told me. “We don’t need to give an antibiotic for mastitis. We have a tincture that we’ll use.” (Mastitis can be debilitating when not treated with antibiotics.)

Whistleblowers also said cows with infections had their eyes packed with salt and had denim patches glued to their skulls. The farm responded that cows with pink eye were treated using a saline solution with cod-liver oil, and sometimes with apple cider vinegar. The farm said that the denim patch was a “gold standard” method to cure pink eye.

Jim Reynolds, a large-animal veterinarian, told me that salt would be “horrible” to use in any animal’s eye and that patches had no medical benefit, and could worsen an infection by trapping dirt and irritating the eye. “I don’t know that it’s been recommended since the 1980s,” he said. He told me that the farm’s treatment for eye infections was “nonsense.”   

Dairy cows generally have their horn buds destroyed with a caustic paste or a hot iron in the first weeks of life. But the report describes an incident in which Alexandre let hundreds of calves grow horns and then dehorned them as adults with a sawzall, a handheld construction tool. Horns are innervated, like fingers, not inert, like fingernails; the cows were not given anesthetic. The Alexandres said that the employees cut off only the tips of the cows’ horns, which are not sensitive, to prevent them from injuring people or other animals, and that it was a onetime event.

cow 13039 at an auction house
Left: The auction yard where Alexandre Family Farm cows are sold. Right: Cow 13039, with the denim patch over her eye. (Justin Maxon for The Atlantic; courtesy of the author)

Mismanagement at least once led to mass death, the report charges, when hay deliveries ran late. The whistleblowers said the animals were so famished by the time the feed truck arrived that they stampeded, and many were trampled to death or needed to be euthanized soon after. The Alexandres described this as a “tragic accident” involving 30 cows who were without food for only a few hours after an equipment breakdown; the farm said it had implemented new protocols to prevent anything similar from happening again.

The farm also contested the notion that it would send ailing cows to auction, rather than euthanizing them; the auction facility would not accept such animals, the Alexandres told me, something Leland Mora, the head of the auction house, confirmed. Still, on a random Wednesday, I went to that auction. And I met an Alexandre cow with what looked like metastatic cancer, her eyeball swelling out of her head.

Most American consumers abhor animal cruelty and support laws preventing it. In a recent ASPCA survey, three-quarters or more of respondents said they were concerned about farm-animal welfare and supported a ban on new factory farms. Yet cruelty, even egregious cruelty, against farm animals is often legal, provided that the suffering is “necessary” and “justifiable” by the need for farms to produce food, David Rosengard of the Animal Legal Defense Fund told me.

To determine what is “necessary” and “justifiable,” lawyers and juries often look at what farms are already doing, what agricultural schools are teaching, and what Big Ag publications recommend. In effect, I gathered, animal-welfare law is slanted toward the needs of farms much more than the experience of animals.

Even gratuitously abusive treatment often goes unpunished. Local authorities have jurisdiction over most animal-cruelty complaints. But cows, pigs, and chickens are not great at picking up the telephone to call those authorities. Animal-rights activists are able to perform investigations only sporadically, and at significant legal risk to themselves. Farm workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, rarely report violations.

[Peter Singer: The meat paradox]

Plus, as I learned from speaking with the Alexandres and interviewing the whistleblowers, agricultural communities are tight-knit. The people involved in this story have long, complicated histories with one another—personal grievances, financial entanglements, legal disputes. The whistleblowers declined to be quoted by name, fearing for their livelihoods, save for one, a rancher named Ray Christie, who has bought hundreds if not thousands of Alexandre cattle. In 2009, after a raid, he was put on two-year probation for possessing cockfighting instruments; in 2018, he was charged with felony animal cruelty himself over the state of his cows. (He recently accepted a plea bargain, agreeing to misdemeanor littering charges for improperly disposing of animal carcasses.) Given the personalities involved, I focused on the documentary evidence about the cows themselves.

The condition of some Alexandre cattle spurred one of the whistleblowers to try to get law enforcement involved. In January 2021, the whistleblower told Humboldt County Sheriff William F. Honsal that mistreated Alexandre cattle were being sold at auction, and sent him photos and videos of the cows. The sheriff responded, saying that he would send a deputy to the auction house; the sheriff’s office later referred the whistleblower to animal control. (The sheriff did not respond to requests for comment, and the Alexandres told me they had never been visited by a police officer.)

The whistleblower also attempted to involve a local state veterinarian, Meghan Mott. Mott is a mandated reporter of animal abuse, and frequently attended auctions at the facility I visited. Why hadn’t she intervened? I could not reach her for comment, but Steve Lyle, the director of public affairs at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told me that the head state veterinarian “tries to convey the idea of ‘if you see something, say something’ to staff.” But he explained that state veterinarians are functionally epidemiologists, checking for conditions like influenza. “If an animal is sick and the cause is not one of the emergency or regulated diseases requiring CDFA action,” care would be the responsibility of the animal’s owner, and negligence the responsibility of law enforcement.

Finally, the whistleblower went to the USDA. The agency has regulatory authority over American farms, but does not perform animal-welfare inspections. “There’s a regulatory system in place to make sure that if we eat a cheeseburger from McDonald’s, we’re not going to get E. coli,” Amanda Hitt, the founder of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project, told me. “That doesn’t happen in animal welfare.”

That said, the USDA does administer the National Organic Program, which mandates that animals have “sufficient nutrition,” are given “medicines to minimize pain, stress and suffering,” and are “fit for transport” when they are sent to slaughter. But the NOP is mainly aimed at environmental stewardship. Its humane standards are low, and sometimes counterproductive. The program’s restrictions on the use of antibiotics, for instance—intended to prevent farmers from providing the drugs prophylactically, which facilitates overcrowding and contributes to antibiotic resistance—leads farmers to withhold medicine from sick animals, too. That’s particularly cruel for newborns and recently delivered mothers, who are especially vulnerable to infection. (Other countries do things differently: The European Union allows organic dairy cows to get antibiotics up to three times a year.)  

Ag agencies don’t make great cops. The NOP does not audit farms directly, instead relying on third-party certifiers that farms themselves sometimes pick, accommodating widespread fraud. California Certified Organic Farmers performs surprise visits, tests for pesticide residue, does intensive paperwork audits, and sometimes stakes out farms to make sure animals are really living outside, April Vasquez, CCOF’s chief certification officer, told me. But it is also a trade group that promotes organic agriculture and financially supports at-risk farms; its board is made up of organic farmers. Stephanie Alexandre sat on it for years.

The USDA passed the whistleblower’s complaint to the CDFA, which sent a state special investigator to the Alexandre farm sites in May 2023. A USDA document obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the investigation found no wrongdoing. Talking about fraud in the organic program with a USDA officer, the whistleblower became incensed on behalf of the cows and the consumers shelling out for supposedly high-quality products. “You got these single-parent homes, the moms, the young couples, struggling with all the inflation going up,” the whistleblower said. “They’re going to the store, spending their money on this stuff, thinking it’s the best thing for their kids. And it’s all bullshit!”

Compost pile at Alexandre Farms
A compost pile with cow carcasses at Alexandre Family Farm (Justin Maxon for The Atlantic)

The regulatory void around animal welfare has been filled by dedicated nonprofits offering their own certifications for farms meeting high standards. The godparent of this private system is Adele Douglass Jolley, a former employee of the American Humane Association. In 2000, while touring pig farms in the U.K., Jolley learned about the animal-welfare verification program run by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She cashed out her 401(k) to set up a similar program stateside.

Now called Certified Humane, it gives its seal of approval to hundreds of operations caring for 417 million animals in 25 countries. Auditors ensure that farms are meeting its standards, which are set by an independent panel of experts. Farms pay a monthly fee, and they (or the companies packaging the food they produce) get to put the Certified Humane logo on their products—and charge consumers more. But the whistleblower report indicates that Alexandre was far out of compliance. Why hadn’t Certified Humane caught the cruelty?

Perhaps because Alexandre does meet the program’s general standards. Its cows live in herds on pasture; they eat grass and hay; they are not given preventive antibiotics. Perhaps because the private certification system is based on trust and support as much as verification and skepticism. Audits generally happen only once a year, in consultation with the farms in question. Farmers sometimes know their auditors. Producers found to be out of compliance are given a chance to correct the problems.

Certified Humane provided Alexandre with its stamp of approval in early 2021. (Some of the incidents in the whistleblower report predate the farm’s relationship with the nonprofit.) In 2022, Certified Humane received a complaint from one of the whistleblowers about cruelty on the farm. The complainant had taken photographs of two cows they said had eye injuries, Mimi Stein, the group’s executive director, told me in an interview. “These were some very strange pictures,” she told me. “They were not high quality.”

[Read: ‘Plant-based’ has lost all meaning]

When Stein called the Alexandres to ask what had happened, they were “upset” and “passionate,” she told me. They said one cow had had an eye damaged after sale and the other was “fine, as much as anybody could tell.” Stein’s sense was that the Alexandres “would have taken care of them and euthanized them on site” had they been severely injured or ill, as Certified Humane requires.  

The organization followed up with an in-person audit, which found no problems. Basically, Stein told me, “if animals were that damaged, chances are they wouldn’t sell them, because they wouldn’t have any value. It just wouldn’t make any sense.”  

Alexandre also touts its certification from the Regenerative Organic Alliance, which holds farms to even higher animal-welfare standards. Elizabeth Whitlow, its executive director, told me that the incidents and practices depicted in the report would represent gross violations of its rules. But I was surprised to learn that only a small share of Alexandre cows are actually certified by the group.

You couldn’t blame a consumer for being bewildered—about what is going on with Alexandre products or any others bearing a claim about the conditions in which the animals are raised. There are more than a dozen humane certifiers, some with rigorous standards, some that are just industry fronts. “It has this patina of a Yelp review: five stars for this processor!” Hitt, the founder of the Food Integrity Campaign, told me. “This is a certification to make you feel better about eating a certain product. But it has no basis in any kind of reality.”

In addition to certification logos, products feature wholesome-sounding but hard-to-parse terms: free-roaming, naturally grown, ethically raised. For some, such as free-range, the USDA sets a standard and asks companies for evidence of compliance. But enforcement is patchy, and the USDA has in the past accepted applications with little or no substantiation. For others, the USDA sets no standards at all. Food manufacturers know they can charge more for products that consumers think are ethical, Dena Jones, who directs the farmed-animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute, told me. So companies just “start slapping” words and logos on things.

The USDA, to its credit, is tightening up its rules and enforcement. Yet dairy will still “fall through the cracks,” Jones told me. The labels on milk and yogurt are the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, not the USDA. And the FDA holds that it has no role in validating animal-raising claims. As far as the federal government is concerned, when it comes to milk and the cows that produce it, anyone can claim almost anything.

cows at Alexandre Farms
(Justin Maxon for The Atlantic)

The Alexandre farm I toured with the family occupies a damp flat between the Pacific Ocean and an old-growth redwood forest. Hundreds of fat, calm cows chewed emerald grass and slept in the mist alongside a herd of wild elk. Heavily pregnant cows idled in a spacious barn, overseen 24 hours a day by a herdsman. Younger cows rushed up to meet me.

The farm appeared to provide as close to perfect conditions as possible, I thought. Yet dairy is hard—that was something I heard again and again while reporting this piece. On ranches, beef cattle live outdoors, mostly undisturbed, before being moved to feedlots; mothers and calves spend months together. In contrast, dairy cows are repeatedly inseminated or bred, calved, and separated from their babies. They are milked twice a day. And when their bodies begin to give out, they keep getting milked until they are euthanized or slaughtered.

Jorie Chadbourne, a retired brand inspector (a government official who verifies an animal’s ownership at the point of sale or slaughter), told me the Alexandre cows she had encountered over the years were no better or worse than those from other organic farms in the region. But, she added, at auction, organic cows were usually in worse shape than conventional cows, because of the program’s medication restrictions: “It is like an older person, at the end of their life, not having medicine to comfort them or make them well.” (She told me the antibiotic rules are why she raises her own animals conventionally.)

The best certifiers, like Certified Humane, are great at validating farms’ general conditions. But, as Mimi Stein noted, the program certifies the farm—not the animal. Cows get sold off. Cruel incidents happen. And many other certifiers are less rigorous.

[Read: The evidence for a vegan diet]

What is a consumer who wants to support a gentle, green system of agriculture to do? DeCoriolis of Farm Forward had a blunt answer: Give up dairy. “As a consumer, you’re just playing roulette,” he told me. Yet the overwhelming majority of American consumers are unwilling to give up milk or cheese for ethical reasons. What they are willing to do is support stricter rules for agricultural producers and pay more for milk and cheese from farms that treat their animals well. The country is failing to provide those consumers with a reliable and navigable system. That’s a policy problem, and a solvable one.

At a minimum, the USDA should require third-party certification of animal-welfare and animal-raising claims, and apply strict regulations to certifiers: preventing conflicts of interest, requiring surprise inspections, and cracking down on rubber-stamping of industry norms. To meet American consumers’ more ambitious demands, Congress should create a farmed-animal welfare standard and an agency separate from the USDA to enforce it, akin to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Such changes would improve the welfare of billions of animals in our food system. Yet any changes would be too late for one. In the end, nobody stepped in to aid Cow 13039—not law enforcement, not the state veterinarians, not the auction employees. Alexandre Family Farm gave her vitamins and an eye patch, Nunes told me. They should have sold her sooner, she said. Cow 13039 was ailing. And ailing cows are not worth much.

They are worth something, though. At auction, Cow 13039 got 10 cents a pound. For $119, less auction fees, she spent the final moments of her life not grazing on pasture with her herd but isolated, hungry, terrified, and in pain. Ray Christie’s brother, also a rancher, had purchased her. But she was too sick to have her eye excised. At the slaughterhouse, her carcass would have been condemned.

The morning after I met her, a farmhand shot her between her blighted eyes.

Gisela Salim-Peyer contributed reporting to this story.

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Six Cult Classics You Have to Read

A book that earns the title of “cult classic” is one that combines two seemingly contradictory qualities: It has a passionate following of people who swear it’s the best thing they’ve ever read, but also, outside this intense fan base, it’s largely unknown. As word of mouth about such a book spreads, and the title’s partisans become evangelists, it begins to spark with a distinct kind of electricity. Even if the book never goes mainstream, its reputation can be buoyed for years or decades by devotees.

But is there a specific kind of book that most often finds itself in this category? I’d argue that these titles are also frequently subversive, strange, and experimental—and that something about this eccentric quality resonates for members of a subculture, especially one that, willingly or not, remains unseen by the mainstream.

Of the six books below, one was assigned to me by a writing teacher; another I discovered while researching lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s; yet another I read for a paper on Weimar-era Germany. Each is considered special by a very particular subset of readers. Each is also outstanding, so I am virtually thrusting them into your hands in hopes that I’ll finally have someone to talk to about them.


Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany

This massive novel by the science-fiction luminary Delany was a commercial success when it came out in 1975, and even though it has sold more than 1 million copies in the nearly five decades since, it’s the sort of book that people may own for years without reading. The narrative shifts between first and third person, and Delany’s ecstatic love of language’s many sounds, contours, and combinations can make the experience intimidating—but once you allow the rhythm to wash over you, it is so worth your dedicated time. Its protagonist, The Kid (also known as Kid or Kidd), is a bisexual man of indeterminate age who arrives alone at the fictional midwestern city of Bellona and tries to make a life there. The city was once densely inhabited, but after an undisclosed cataclysmic event that cut it off from the rest of the world, most of its population fled. This unique, uncanny setting serves as a kind of second protagonist; Bellona’s streets occasionally reconfigure themselves, steam and smoke arise from unknown sources, and a second moon appears in the sky. The Kid finds lust, love, and intellectual fulfillment, but also witnesses and participates in violence, madness, and chaos—and Bellona encourages all of it.

[Read: The cult classic that captures the stress of social alienation]

Women's Barracks
Feminist Press

Women’s Barracks, by Tereska Torrès

Considered not only the first lesbian pulp novel but the first paperback-original best seller in the United States, Women’s Barracks, like Robinson Crusoe and Pamela, bills itself as a true account but is actually fictional. Based on the author’s experiences serving in the U.K.-based Corps of French Female Volunteers during World War II, the story depicts the lives of a group of women living together in their assigned barracks in London during the Blitz. Torrès’s narrator acts primarily as an observer, describing the various dramas, personality clashes, and intra-corps romances taking place around her. While few of the women consider themselves lesbians or bisexuals, and the book does not seem to have been widely read among contemporary queer women, it is a foundational text within the genre of lesbian pulp fiction. Still, the novel is thoroughly enjoyable even without knowing its historical context. Its cast of characters is fascinating: The women come from all classes and life circumstances. Some are patriotic volunteers; others are just trying to survive. Though they take their jobs as secretaries, telephone operators, and typists seriously, they also find ways to relieve the stress of life during wartime. They throw parties and share their escapades with one another. Despite the narrator’s occasional moralizing (added in at the insistence of the book’s original publisher, the author has explained), the novel’s relationships feel true to the complexity of both its characters and its era.

Blood and Guts in High School

Blood and Guts in High School, by Kathy Acker

I confess—when I first started reading Blood and Guts, I was nearly certain I wouldn’t finish it, because I was disturbed beyond measure. The opening pages depict a 10-year-old girl named Janey begging her father for love, affection, and sex. Even with this alarming premise, Acker’s novel is widely beloved by artists, counterculture devotees, and avant-gardists; the author Lidia Yuknavitch has said that it saved her life, and notes that despite her early powerlessness, Janey “had more agency and voice than any girl I’d ever read or would read in my entire life.” Questions of power, propriety, and respectability permeate the novel, and I began to consider Janey’s relationship with her father as allegorical to some extent, Acker’s way of—shockingly, yes—providing commentary on the sexual dynamics between men and women. The plot, such as it is, follows Janey through further trials and tribulations, and is interrupted by poems, illustrations, digressions into sexual fantasies and critiques of the U.S. government, unexplained drawings of genitalia, and sudden descriptions of places and scenes that have nothing to do with Janey or any of the characters she comes into contact with. It feels like a fever dream, maybe even a nightmare, but it’s one you want to stick with.

[Read: One of the best fantasy novels ever is nothing like ]The Lord of the Rings

Multiple Choice
Penguin Books

Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell

If you’ve ever taken a standardized test in your life, you’ll recognize the format of the Chilean writer Zambra’s book immediately. The author grew up under the Pinochet dictatorship, and in this work, based on the structure of the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, he uses multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blanks, and long sample texts to confront the authoritarian instincts that underlay his own education and that continue in many rigid, exam-based educational systems today. Its many questions begin to create a creeping sense of dread and nihilism, and that mood comes to a head in the last section, which is made up of three short stories and a series of questions about each. Yet even with these dark undertones, the book is both a quick read and hilarious. You may have thought that you never wanted to encounter fill-in-the-bubble-type tests again, but rest assured, Multiple Choice does all the work for you; it’s brilliant, and well worth your time.

Little Man, What Now?
Melville House

Little Man, What Now?, by Hans Fallada, translated by Susan Bennett

A product of Weimar Germany, Fallada’s social realist novel focuses on a young couple, Johannes Pinneberg and Emma “Bunny” Mörschel, who decide to marry when they learn that Bunny is pregnant. Although it starts about a year after the 1929 financial crash, Johannes and Bunny might as well be young Millennials struggling in a tanked economy: They move in and out of a series of apartments and their parents’ homes, trying to afford basic necessities while working dull, unfulfilling jobs at companies newly obsessed with optimization. (A store called Mandel’s even hires an “efficiency engineer” to help cut costs.) Depictions of Nazism in the book—published in 1932—feel painfully relevant as well; Fallada portrays Hitler’s followers as laughably jingoistic and uses them as punch lines, and that sort of mockery echoes early American reactions to Donald Trump’s resistance to a peaceful transfer of power or his conspiracy-mongering—before both proved to be deadly serious. Funny, heartbreaking, and somewhat Dickensian, Fallada’s novel is truly a pleasure, and deserves to be more widely read.

[Read: ]Nevada is the great bookseller novel

University of California Press

Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Dictee is a genre-bending work that in my experience seems to be relatively known among poets but otherwise somewhat obscure to everyone else. It has no linear narrative, no obvious main characters, and is made up of poetry and fragmented prose, quoted or uncited works of history, untitled images, multiple languages—French, English, and occasionally Chinese and Korean—and even printed reproductions of handwritten drafts. Much of its content dwells on language: how it may be taken away and made illegal in one nation, forced upon migrants in another, coupled with restrictive religious practices, used to shape official histories. The book also plays with the audience’s assumptions. Its epigraph is attributed to Sappho: “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve.” Most readers would expect to find this quote somewhere in that famed poet’s body of work. Yet Sappho apparently never wrote these lines; they were invented by Cha. You can take little for granted in a text like Dictee; no path through the book allows for complete comprehension.

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Tupperware Is in Trouble

For the first several decades of my life, most of the meals I ate involved at least one piece of Tupperware. My mom’s pieces were mostly the greens and yellows of a 1970s kitchen, purchased from co-workers or neighbors who circulated catalogs around the office or slipped them into mailboxes in our suburban subdivision. Many of her containers were acquired before my brother and I were born and remained in regular use well after I flew the nest for college in the mid-2000s. To this day, the birthday cake that my mom makes for my visits gets stored on her kitchen counter in a classic Tupperware cake saver—a flat gold base with a tall, milky-white lid made of semi-rigid plastic. Somewhere deep in her cabinets, the matching gold carrying strap is probably still hiding, in case a cake is on the go.

If you’re over 30 and were raised in the American suburbs, you can probably tell a similar story, though your mom’s color choices might have been a little different. As more and more middle-class women joined the workforce, new products that promised convenience in domestic work, which largely still fell to them, became indispensable tools of the homemaking trade. Reusable food-storage containers kept leftovers fresher for longer, made packing lunches easier, and, when combined with the ascendantly popular microwave, sped the process of getting last night’s dinner back onto the table. Tupperware became such a dominant domestic force that its brand name, like Band-Aid and Kleenex, is often still used as a stand-in for plastic food-storage containers of any type or brand.

In theory, Tupperware should be even more popular now than it was decades ago. The market for storage containers, on the whole, is thriving. Practices such as meal-prepping and buying in bulk have further centered reusable food containers in America’s eating habits. Obsessive kitchen organization is among social media’s favorite pastimes, and plastic storage containers in every conceivable size and shape play an outsize role in the super-popular videos depicting spotless, abundant refrigerators and pantries on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. But Tupperware has fallen on hard times. At the end of last month, for a second year in a row, the company warned financial regulators that it would be unable to file its annual report on time and raised doubts about its ability to continue as a business, citing a “challenging financial condition.” Sales are in decline. These should be boom times for Tupperware. What happened?

[Read: Home influencers will not rest until everything has been put in a clear plastic storage bin]

The Tupperware origin story is a near-perfect fable of 20th-century American ingenuity. Earl Tupper, the product’s namesake, was a serial inventor who used mid-century advances in plastics technology to develop the first range of airtight food containers affordable for middle-class households. Tupperware debuted in 1946, but it didn’t really take off until a few years later, when Brownie Wise, a divorced mom from Michigan, began selling the stuff to friends and neighbors she invited to her home. Her success caught the attention of Tupperware, and then of women across America who had gotten a taste of the working life during World War II but had been displaced from their wartime jobs by men returning from military service. Many of them began selling the food containers to their friends and neighbors in the living-room showcases that became Tupperware parties.

In the following decades, the range of plastic tubs, matte and mostly opaque, expanded in color, shape, and size—1960s pastels gave way to the citrus oranges, goldenrod yellows, and avocado greens of the ’70s and ’80s, and then to the rich reds and hunter greens of the ’90s. Modestly sized lidded bowls were joined by dry-goods canisters, pie keepers, pitchers, and measuring cups. A kitchen full of Tupperware products became a symbol of social and domestic success: Practical but a little pricey, the storage containers were trafficked through women’s community bonds, and owning them telegraphed a commitment to order, cleanliness, and sensible stewardship of the family’s time and food budget. Particularly stylish moms matched their Tupperware collections to their kitchen decor.

Tupperware did not respond to an interview request on the company’s current woes, but the problems it faces are not difficult to see. The first is that, in a lot of ways, its products are still those products. Much of Tupperware’s range still looks at least a little bit like it did decades ago—textured, pliant plastic that obscures what’s inside. Some of these products are a clear nostalgia play to tempt younger shoppers with the retro, rainbow-colored bowls and tubs their mom used, but many of the products just look dingy, clunky, old. And nostalgia is not necessarily something buyers want in plastic kitchenware. Since Tupperware’s heyday, what we know about the safety of plastics that were commonly used in food storage has changed, and the public’s buying preferences along with it. Like most older plastic containers, Tupperware made before 2010 contains a type of chemical called BPA, which is associated with a host of health problems including infertility, fetal abnormalities, and heart disease. Tupperware has since removed BPA from its products, but on a visual level, many of them still appear to be the bowls you might now wish your mom hadn’t microwaved so frequently when you were a kid.

Tupperware’s competitors have multiplied in recent decades, and most of them have been more adept at signaling newness and cleanliness to customers. OXO, Pyrex, and Rubbermaid, for example, all sell popular lines of containers that use crystal-clear hard plastic or glass and have mechanical latches or seals to prevent spills and keep food airtight. They look neat and orderly—even expensive—in the bright, cool-toned LED lighting of modern refrigerators. At $50 to $80 for a modestly sized set, they actually tend to cost less than their Tupperware equivalents, which can top $90 for a set of basic plastic bowls. For buyers more concerned about price than beauty, Ziploc and Glad make sets of cheap, thin plastic containers that can be bought for $10 or $12 at most grocery stores.

Where exactly one buys Tupperware has also become an issue over time. The bulk of the company’s dwindling sales volume still comes from women selling to their social circles, which is now more of a liability in the United States than it was a generation or two ago. This type of “direct sales” model has proliferated widely in the social-media era, with distant Facebook friends pestering people to buy things like essential oils and cheap leggings. It has prompted a significant backlash, creating a consumer base that’s tired of sales pitches from acquaintances and suspicious of products sold in that format. Tupperware parties still work for the brand in some parts of the world, but for mainly the same reason that they worked in mid-century America: In 2013, Indonesia became Tupperware’s biggest market, thanks in large part to a growing population of workforce-curious women who embraced the opportunity to make some extra cash for their family by doing business with other women in tight-knit social communities. Sales in North America have continued to decline, and they now make up only a little over a quarter of the company’s total volume, according to its most recent annual report.

Instead of changing with the times, Tupperware has clung to its old ways for decades longer than it probably should have. The company brought in a new CEO late last year, and she has said she will modernize both the products and the company’s sales structure. But those efforts now seem likely to be too little, too late. Other than a brief dalliance with what were then called SuperTarget stores in the early 2000s, the brand didn’t make a serious push into traditional retailing until 2022, and its products are now stocked alongside more modern-looking and frequently less expensive competitors at Target and Macy’s. You can also now buy Tupperware online directly from the brand, but when you arrive at its website, a bright-orange banner across the top alerts you that you’re not shopping with a representative, in case you should want to remedy that and give a co-worker or neighbor the credit for whatever you buy.

None of these issues takes a keen retail or product-development mind to detect. Tupperware’s woes don’t seem to be the result of unpredictable market changes or fickle consumers. Instead, like many once-prosperous 20th-century American companies, Tupperware’s downfall appears to land squarely at the feet of its management. As far back as the 1980s, according to The Wall Street Journal, it was clear to executives at Kraft, then the company’s owner, that high workforce participation among American women was making the direct-sales model less viable; if women had full-time jobs, they mostly didn’t need side hustles or want to go to buying parties, even if they still wanted storage containers and kitchen gadgets. At the same time, Tupperware’s patents began to expire, which created new competition for a brand that had long had very little. At that time, the company still had decades of goodwill in front of it, and it had a direct line to an army of women who could have helped guide the company’s development of newer, better products that people would have been excited to continue stocking their kitchens with. Instead, those products are now made by its competitors and available virtually anywhere that food or home goods are sold. Tupperware, meanwhile, is still waiting for the return of a glorious past that is never coming back.

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Trump Has Transformed the GOP All the Way Down

Salleigh Grubbs was in her office on Friday, November 20, 2020, when she got a phone call from a friend. Susan’s at Jim Miller Park—they’re shredding ballots! the friend said. Susan was Susan Knox, a woman Salleigh had met a week earlier when both were volunteering as election observers at Jim R. Miller Park, an event center in Cobb County, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, where the county government was now conducting a hand recount of the ballots in the presidential election. The recount had been ordered by Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, under pressure from President Donald Trump and his allies, who insisted that Trump hadn’t really lost Georgia by more than 11,000 votes. Salleigh didn’t believe the result either. Her own Cobb County had been the largest source of Republican votes in the state, and for decades it had formed the bedrock of the modern Georgia GOP, launching the careers of Newt Gingrich and others. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the county in 2016—a minor political earthquake.

Salleigh was a lifelong Republican, but politics had always been a side interest for her, as she explained to me in one of several interviews in recent years. At 55, she was the mother of two boys who’d grown up and moved out. Like many people of her generation, she’d started spending more time on Facebook. She called herself a “keyboard warrior” and became a more and more outspoken Trump supporter. Over the course of 2020, she started to believe that all the COVID-induced emergency changes to voting procedures were part of a plan to steal the election. Even so, the results on Election Night stunned her. Republicans lost seats up and down the ballot in Cobb County, including the county-commission chair, district attorney, and sheriff. Salleigh thought these were all races the GOP should have won.

Now, at her job as general manager of a company that sold liquid and powder coating equipment, she grabbed her keys and bolted out of work so fast, people thought someone in her family had died. She got in her silver Toyota Venza and practically flew the 15 miles to Jim Miller Park. She pulled her car around the back and saw a huge box truck. The name on the side, in green and blue, was A1 Shredding & Recycling Inc. SECURE ON‑SITE DESTRUCTION SERVICES, it read.

Salleigh parked her car sideways to block in the truck, like she’d seen them do on Starsky & Hutch. She stepped out of her car wearing flip-​flops, black leggings, a navy-​blue NRA T‑shirt with an American flag made up of rifles on the back, and frameless oval eyeglasses. She met up with Susan, who’d already taken a video on her phone of the driver wheeling trash bins over to the truck. He put the bins under a big chute on the side of the truck that sucked everything out and ripped it to shreds. Susan also had taken photos of the bins in the loading dock, stuffed with envelopes reading OFFICIAL ABSENTEE BALLOT. Next to the bins was a cardboard box with a crudely drawn diagram saying SHRED.

Salleigh later said that she tried talking to the driver—“Who called you? What’s the deal here?”—and he held up a piece of paper in the cab window to cover his face. Salleigh thought that was suspicious—what was he hiding? Susan had called 911, but 15 minutes passed without any officers, so now she dialed again.

[Richard W. Painter: Step aside, Fani Willis]

“It’s an emergency, and we need them here now!” Susan said, according to a recording of the call.

“Okay,” the operator said. “Our officers are aware. It looks like they’re busy in that area. Now, you said, it’s going to be referenced, a Black male with a white shredding machine?”

“Yep,” Susan confirmed.

“Okay. Does anybody have any weapons?”

“I don’t know. I’m not close enough … Would you please send an officer ASAP—”

“Ma’am, ma’am, hang on one second,” the operator said. “We’re gonna send our first available unit. The sergeant is already aware of the call. The units are busy in that area.”

“I would think that the presidential election would be pretty much as important as anything in our country for a policeman in Cobb County to get over to Jim Miller Park,” Susan said.

While Susan was still on the phone with the operator, the truck started to move, and she cried, “It’s pulling off. The truck is pulling off!”

The driver managed to maneuver around Salleigh’s car. So Salleigh jumped back in and took off after him. Susan followed.

Salleigh tailed the truck for about 10 miles, until she ran out of gas. She ditched her car at a RaceTrac station and hopped into Susan’s Mercedes.

“Get in, girl,” Susan said, as she and Salleigh later recounted to me. “I’ve got a full tank of gas, and I just had the car washed.”

The book cover

They were back in pursuit of the shredding truck. Susan had a TRUMP sign in the back seat. The Soul Town channel was playing on her XM radio. Salleigh thought they were like Thelma and Louise, or maybe Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy.

Salleigh knew her way around, but Susan wasn’t as familiar with this part of town. She started to worry. What if the driver called someone? They were just two women chasing a shredding truck. The driver stopped in the middle of a four-​lane road and put his flashers on, Susan later recalled. She and Salleigh were hiding behind a dumpy tire store, unsure of what to do next. That’s when Susan said, “We might not need to keep going.” Salleigh agreed.

They decided to go to the police station. The staff told them no one there would take a report and instead directed them to a wall-​mounted phone. Salleigh picked it up, and the operator on the line told her the police weren’t taking any election-​related complaints; she could call the secretary of state, the state official in charge of elections. Salleigh squinted as she listened, darting her eyes from side to side. “Do you know who made that determination?” she asked. “Do you have any idea who that was?”

Salleigh listened to the operator’s answer and repeated it back as Susan recorded a video on her cellphone. “You were just told that about 10 minutes ago? Wow. Okay. And what’s your name, please? Operator 3442,” Salleigh repeated, rolling her eyes. “Okay, perfect. Thank you so much. We appreciate what you guys do. Uh-huh, buh-bye.”

[Quinta Jurecic: Trump discovers that some things are actually illegal]

Salleigh twirled around to untangle herself from the phone cord and hung up the handset. She shot Susan a look: eyes wide with disbelief, jaw dropped. Salleigh kept thinking the FBI would show up in their blue-and-​yellow jackets to impound the shredding truck and seize the evidence. She struggled to understand why the officers at the police station didn’t seem to care about this apparent crime in progress. How far did the corruption go?

That same afternoon, Salleigh and Susan posted some of their photos and videos from Jim Miller Park online, and they quickly went viral. One of Trump’s own lawyers, Lin Wood, shared the images with his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. “Looks to me like they may be destroying election documents in Cobb County, GA,” Wood wrote. “What do you think? #FightBack Against Election Crimes.” It was just one in a torrent of rumors that Wood and other Trump allies were feverishly amplifying. People started calling the Cobb County police to report the shredded ballots they’d seen on the internet. The shredding-truck company was getting slammed with hundreds of calls. People showed up at the company’s office. The manager was scared for his drivers, a police report recorded. The company released a statement saying it had no knowledge of the contents of the materials it had been hired to shred. The county government, through its election director, put out its own official statement saying the document shredding was “routine” disposal of “non-​relevant materials.” The envelopes that said OFFICIAL ABSENTEE BALLOT were just empty envelopes. All the actual ballots had been saved and stored, as required by state law. Later, the FBI did investigate allegations of voter fraud in Georgia, and the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta testified that officials found no evidence of wrongdoing.

But Salleigh thought she would never know for sure. The evidence had been destroyed. To her, it was proof of what she already thought: There was no way Republicans could have lost the election. The experience galvanized her even more. Within five months, the woman who had never been active in local party politics would become her county’s GOP chair.

Salleigh was not an anomaly. She was part of a nationwide movement of Trump supporters who learned from their shortcomings in 2020 and organized to address them. In the version of history that took hold within the MAGA movement, the cause of Trump’s defeat that year was being narrowly thwarted at almost every step by fellow Republicans. The clerk in Antrim County, Michigan, who said the incorrect vote tallies reported on Election Night were just an honest mistake, quickly fixed, was a Republican. Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, who had refused Trump’s demand to “find 11,780 votes,” enough to reverse the outcome, was a Republican. The board of supervisors in Maricopa County, Arizona, that screened Trump’s calls and certified Joe Biden’s win was majority Republican. Trump failed to pressure every House Republican to object to the Electoral College votes on January 6, and he got only a handful of senators. Even Trump’s own vice president refused to help him block the official certification in Congress. As close as he got to keeping himself in power, Trump came up short only because of uncooperative members of his own party.

In response, many of his supporters decided they had to take over the party apparatus, working from the ground up, beginning with the smallest, lowliest units of political organizing—the precincts—and building from there to districts, counties, and states, all the way to the Republican National Committee. This plot, known as the “precinct strategy,” was developed by a little-known Arizona lawyer named Dan Schultz and popularized by Steve Bannon on his podcast, War Room.

[From the July/August 2022 issue: American Rasputin]

In the years since the 2020 election, the precinct strategy has driven thousands of new Republican activists like Salleigh to take over their local parties not just in Georgia, but in North and South Carolina, Florida and Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin. The strategy has proved effective, in that it forced out Republicans who were anything less than completely faithful to Trump and his election denial, smoothing his path back to the Republican nomination—and perhaps all the way to the White House.

A month after the shredding-truck chase, at the end of December 2020, Salleigh and Susan decided to go to the state capitol, in Atlanta, for a hearing on election irregularities. They hoped their eyewitness accounts would help persuade the state legislature to do what the president and his allies were demanding to change the outcome: call a special session, where lawmakers could reject the election results and award Georgia’s Electoral College votes to Trump.

The women waited in line for a chance to speak. Susan went first. She passed out printouts of the photos she’d taken of the trash bins at Jim Miller Park. One of the senators, Bill Heath, asked, “Do you have any photographs of actual ballots being shredded?”

“What do you think those were in that can that he was shredding?” Susan said. “It says an official ballot.”

“That appears to be the envelopes,” Heath replied, “that are the inner envelopes from—”

“If you look closely some of them look like they’ve never even been unsealed,” Susan said.

“I was just, I was trying to find ballots in the picture, and I don’t see ballots.”

Susan played him her video recording.

“Look,” Heath went on, “I’m not trying to discredit your testimony, I just don’t see ballots. I just see envelopes here.”

“Do you not see where it says B‑A‑L‑L‑O …”

Salleigh could not believe what she was hearing. Senator Heath was a Republican! How could he not see what they saw clearly in the video? When it was Salleigh’s turn at the podium, she started to calmly explain what she’d seen, but as she went on her voice got louder and higher. “We have seen the fraud. We have been lied to, we have been distracted, we’ve been held up, and we’re tired of it.” She was almost shouting now. Her voice started to quiver. “I am tired of people that we vote to put in office stabbing us in the back.”

She paused then to collect herself. “I’m passionate,” she said. “I’m not going to apologize for being passionate. And I’m not going to apologize for being a patriot either.”

Someone in the hearing room whooped and clapped. Salleigh gave a big phony smile. “Any questions?” she asked, though she could sense that the lawmakers were not interested.

[Peter Sagal: The end will come for the cult of MAGA]

The committee chair who was running the hearing laughed nervously. “No, ma’am,” he said sheepishly. “I think what you said is something that’s felt by many people across this state, hundreds of thousands of people.” He spoke gently, carefully, trying to ease the tension. “So thank you for doing what you’ve done and for being willing to stand up and tell about what you’ve seen.”

Trump had tweeted urging people to watch the hearing as it was being livestreamed online, and Salleigh got so many texts and calls from people all across the country who loved her testimony, strangers she didn’t even know. When people asked her who she was, she’d say, “I’m just nobody, really, but I’m somebody who loves my country,” as she put it in a Facebook Live video. In certain circles, she was becoming something of a legend: the woman who chased a shredding truck.

Salleigh was disappointed that her testimony did not persuade the state legislature to call a special session to throw Georgia’s electoral votes to Trump. Nor did Congress overturn the election results on January 6. Instead, Trump got impeached for incitement of insurrection. It was a confusing time. She told me she found comfort listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast, where she heard him interview Dan Schultz about the precinct strategy.

Susan encouraged Salleigh to run for a party position, and Salleigh set her aim higher than the precinct level. She decided to run for county chair. She would mobilize her friends and Facebook followers, who would flood the county’s precinct caucus, becoming qualified to vote for her. She proudly passed around the video of her testimony at the state-senate hearing. “I’m a dedicated woman,” she described herself at a forum in April 2021 with the other county-chair candidates. “I chased the shredding truck.” The audience laughed and cheered.

Party meetings to elect a new county chair were often not the most exhilarating, but that year, the party headquarters, in a Marietta strip mall, wasn’t big enough. The gathering, held later that same April, moved to a church across the street. When Salleigh saw all the new members show up, it reminded her of the scene in the movie Network when everyone shouts, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Even though it was a three-​way race, Salleigh won on the first ballot, with nearly a supermajority. Salleigh gave a few radio interviews, where the hosts held her up as a poster child for the precinct strategy in action.

The ground-up transformation of the Republican Party through people like Salleigh quietly helped shape the Republican field in the 2022 midterm elections, leading the party to nominate the most effusively MAGA candidates in battleground states. The strategy’s success almost instantly became its own undoing, as Democrats exploited Trump’s MAGA brand to portray Republican candidates as extreme and dangerous, alienating swing voters and even some Republicans.

But with the Republican Party organization now firmly in the control of election deniers, the GOP would not moderate. The fully empowered MAGA movement would not give up. The threat it posed to democracy would not pass. The movement resolved to try again this fall, in the 2024 presidential election. New party officials, including Salleigh, helped shape the nominating rules and delegations selection to favor Trump’s return in the Republican primary, and they will be on the front lines of turning out voters, monitoring the polls, and potentially challenging the results in November, in service of the man whose myth inspired them all in the first place.

[Read: Trumpism has found its leading lady]

A few days after her election as county chair, back in 2021, Salleigh was sitting in her first committee meeting at the county party headquarters in Marietta when she got a call from a blocked number, as she later recounted to me. She had a feeling who it might be.

“Hello, Salleigh,” a familiar voice said over the phone. “This is your favorite president.”

Salleigh was speechless. She pointed to her phone and mouthed, “It’s President Trump!”

She stepped outside so she could focus. The party secretary came out to see what was going on, and Salleigh put the phone on speaker for a second so she could hear. “Oh my gosh,” the secretary cried, “It’s really President Trump!”

Trump called a lot of people, usually rich friends and Republican politicians. His aides sometimes liked him to surprise unsuspecting supporters. But it was not every day he called a lowly county chair. He’d gotten Salleigh’s number from the Georgia state GOP chair, who’d wanted Trump to know her story, how he’d inspired regular people to join the party, so many of them becoming sentries of the cause like Salleigh. Trump told Salleigh she was a real winner. He said he was proud of her for her big victory, and it was great that she ran as an “America First” candidate. He was so polite and kind, Salleigh thought that if everyone could have a minute with him as she had, it might change a lot of his critics’ minds. It was, as she imagined Trump himself might say, “a perfect phone call.”

This article has been adapted from Arnsdorf’s new book, Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy.

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