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Biden, Harris Offering Solace to Grieving Asian Americans

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President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, March 19, 2021. Biden is en route to Georgia. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

ATLANTA (AP) — President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris offered solace to Asian Americans and a reeling nation on Friday as they visited Atlanta just days after a white gunman killed eight people, most of them Asian American women.

The visit, during a nationwide spike of anti-Asian violence, has added resonance with the presence of Harris, the first person of South Asian descent to hold national office. And it comes as Biden on Friday expressed support for the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill that would strengthen the government’s reporting and response to hate crimes and provide resources to Asian American communities.

Biden was meeting Friday with Asian American state legislators and other community leaders before he and Harris were to deliver remarks.

“We’re going to discuss the ongoing attacks against the community and how we move forward,” Biden tweeted. “It’s up to all of us to root out racism and give hate no safe harbor in America.”

White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said to expect Biden to “meet the moment that we are in.”

“He understands and knows that over the past year that the community has been vilified and been scapegoated and they’ve been attacked,” she said.

Their trip was planned before the shooting, as part of a victory lap aimed at selling the benefits of pandemic relief legislation. But Biden and Harris instead are spending much of their visit consoling a community whose growing voting power helped secure their victory in Georgia and beyond.

Activists have seen a rise of racist attacks. Nearly 3,800 incidents have been reported to Stop AAPI Hate, a California-based reporting center for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and its partner advocacy groups, since March 2020.

In his first primetime address to the nation as president last Thursday — five days before the Atlanta killings at three metro-area massage businesses — Biden called attacks on Asian Americans “un-American.”

Biden also used the visit to tour the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he received a briefing on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and delivered a pep talk to the agency’s scientists.

“We owe you a gigantic debt of gratitude and we will for a long, long, long time,” Biden said, adding that under his administration “science is back” driving policy to combat the virus.

Though the originally planned political event to tout the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill has been delayed, the White House confirmed that the president would still meet with Georgia voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, Democrats’ likely 2022 candidate for governor, as Republicans in the state legislature push several proposals to make it harder to vote in the state. He will also meet with newly minted Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

As the fastest-growing racial demographic in the U.S. electorate, Asian Americans are gaining political influence across the country. In California, two Korean American Republican women made history with their congressional victories. The Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, typically dominated by Democrats, has its largest roster ever, including Asian American and Pacific Islander members and others who represent significant numbers of Asian Americans.

“We’re becoming increasingly more visible and active in the political ecosystem,” said Georgia state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat who represents part of the growing, diversifying suburbs north of Atlanta. Yet, Au said, “What I’ve heard personally, and what I have felt, is that people sometimes don’t tend to listen to us.”

Au said a White House spotlight, especially amid tragedy, is welcomed by a community often overshadowed in national conversations about diversity. She notes President Donald Trump and other Republicans merely brushed off charges of racism when they dubbed the coronavirus the “China virus” because of its origins.

“To have them talk about it in this way, so publicly, and to say AAPI, or to note that our communities are going through difficult times, is huge,” Au said.

As he boarded Air Force One on Friday morning, Biden, who was wearing a mask, stumbled several times up the stairs to the aircraft, before saluting the military officer who greeted him on the tarmac. Jean-Pierre said Biden was “doing 100% fine.”

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Atlanta

Smollett Declines to Speak at Sentencing in Staged Attack

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Actor Jussie Smollett appears at his sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Chicago. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)/

CHICAGO (AP) — Actor Jussie Smollett declined to make a statement during his Thursday sentencing hearing for lying to police in a staged hate crime, saying he agreed with his attorney’s advice to remain quiet.

Smollett’s attorneys asked Cook County Judge James Linn to limit the sentence to community service, arguing that the former “Empire” actor has been punished by the criminal justice system and by the effect on his career.

Prosecutors have asked Linn to include incarceration and order $130,000 restitution in his sentence.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

The special prosecutor who brought the criminal case against Jussie Smollett that led to a guilty verdict against the actor asked a judge Thursday to include “an appropriate amount of prison time” when sentencing Smollett for his conviction of lying to police in a staged hate crime.

Dan Webb said during the sentencing hearing that he would not ask for a specific amount of time, leaving that to Cook County Judge James Linn’s discretion. He also asked that Smollett be ordered to pay $130,000 in restitution to the city of Chicago.

Smollett’s defense attorney Nenye Uche asked Linn to limit the sentence to community service. He said Smollett “has lost nearly everything” in his career and finances and asked that Linn give him time to make restitution if that is part of the sentence.

“Why are we jumping up and down as if this is a murder case?” Uche said. “It’s not.”

Witnesses for both the state and Smollett testified at Smollett’s sentencing at the Cook County Courthouse. Chicago Police Supt. David Brown, who was called by the state, submitted a statement that was read aloud by Samuel Mendenhall, a member of the special prosecution team.

In the statement, Brown, who became superintendent in April 2020 and wasn’t with the city at the time of Smollett’s police report, said Smollett’s false report of a hate crime harmed “actual victims” of such crimes. Brown asked that the city be compensated for its costs, saying the cost of investigating his claim could have been spent elsewhere in the city.

“The city is a victim of Mr. Smollett’s crime,” Brown said.

Jussie Smollett’s grandmother, testifying for the defense, asked Linn not to include prison time in his sentence for Smollett.

“I ask you, judge, not to send him to prison,” Molly Smollett, 92, told the court. She later added, “If you do, send me along with him, OK?”

Smollett’s brother, Joel Smollett, Jr., told the court that Smollett is “not a threat to the people of Illinois. In my humble opinion he is completely innocent.”

Smollett’s attorneys also read aloud letters from other supporters, including an organizer with Black Lives Matter, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and LaTanya and Samuel L. Jackson that asked Linn to consider the case’s effect on Smollett’s life and career and to avoid any confinement as part of his sentence.

Other supporters spoke about worries that Smollett would be at risk in prison, specifically mentioning his race, sexual orientation and his family’s Jewish heritage.

Smollett will eventually learn if a judge will order him locked up for his conviction of lying to police about a racist and homophobic attack that he orchestrated himself or allow him to remain free. Before the sentencing began, Linn rejected a motion from the defense to overturn the jury’s verdict on legal grounds. Judges rarely grant such motions.

“I do believe at the end of the day that Mr. Smollett received a fair trial,” Linn said.

Smollett, who is expected to continue to deny his role in the staged attack in January 2019, faces up to three years in prison for each of the five felony counts of disorderly conduct — the charge filed for lying to police — of which he was convicted. He was acquitted on a sixth count.

But because Smollett does not have an extensive criminal history and the conviction is for a low-level nonviolent crime, experts do not expect that he will be sent to prison. The actor could be ordered to serve up to a year in county jail or, if Linn chooses, be placed on probation and ordered to perform some kind of community service.

The sheer size and scope of the police investigation was a major part of the trial and is key in a $130,000 pending lawsuit that the city filed against Smollett to recover the cost of police overtime, so the judge also could order the actor to pay a hefty fine and restitution.

Thursday’s sentencing could be the final chapter in a criminal case, subject to appeal, that made international headlines when Smollett, who is Black and gay, reported to police that two men wearing ski masks beat him, and hurled racial and homophobic slurs at him on a dark Chicago street and ran off.

In December, Smollett was convicted in a trial that included the testimony of two brothers who told jurors Smollett paid them to carry out the attack, gave them money for the ski masks and rope, instructed them to fashion the rope into a noose. Prosecutors said he told them what racist and homophobic slurs to shout, and to yell that Smollett was in “MAGA Country,” a reference to the campaign slogan of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Smollett, who knew the men from his work on the television show “Empire” that filmed in Chicago, testified that he did not recognize them and did not know they were the men attacking him.

During the hearing, Smollett will be allowed to make a statement. He could repeat some of the things he told jurors during the trial about how he was simply a victim of a violent crime.

Unlike the trial, Linn has agreed to let photographers and a television camera inside court for the hearing — meaning the public will for the first time get to see and hear Smollett speak in court.

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Atlanta

‘Black Panther’ Director Mistaken for Bank Robber in Atlanta

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A police officer detains "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler at a Bank of America branch in Atlanta, in this January 2022 image made from Atlanta Police video. Coogler was mistaken for a bank robber at the bank. (Atlanta Police Department via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Movie director Ryan Coogler was briefly handcuffed by Atlanta police after a bank teller mistook him for a robber when he passed her a note while trying to withdraw a large amount of cash from his account, police said.

The “Black Panther” director, who is Black, walked into a Bank of America branch Jan. 7 and passed the teller a withdrawal slip with a note written on the back asking her to “be discreet when handing him the cash,” according to a police report.

He was trying to withdraw more than $10,000, and the teller “received an alert notification” on her computer and quickly alerted her manager that Coogler was trying to rob the bank, the report says. The bank employee is a Black woman, the report says.

Police responding to the bank branch in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood saw a black Lexus SUV parked out front with the engine running. An officer talked to the male driver who said he was waiting for Coogler, who was inside the bank. A female passenger gave police the same information.

A description of Coogler given by the driver matched the description of the man reported to have been trying to rob the bank, the report says. The officer detained both the driver and passenger in the back of a police vehicle but they were not placed in handcuffs.

Two other officers had gone inside the bank and led Coogler out in handcuffs.

Body camera video released by police shows officers approaching Coogler from behind as he stands at the counter wearing a light gray hooded sweatshirt, a black cap, sunglass and a white mask. As an officer pulls his gun and another tells him to put his hands behind his back, Coogler says, “Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?”

As he’s led from the bank, Coogler tells them he’s just trying to pull money out of his own account.

Police determined the whole thing was a mistake by the teller and Coogler “was never in the wrong,” the report says The handcuffs were immediately removed and the other two people were released from the back of the patrol vehicle.

Police can be seen on body camera video explaining to Coogler that they were responding to a call of a bank robbery and had to take appropriate precautions. Still sitting in the back of the police SUV, Coogler is seen on video looking down and shaking his head as the officer explains.

Coogler explained to the officers that a medical assistant who works for him prefers to be paid in cash. When he withdraws a large sum to pay her, he said, he passes the teller a note because he doesn’t want the cash run through a money counter right there because it attracts attention and makes him feel unsafe.

“I don’t know who made what call, who did what, but I just had guns drawn on me for taking money out of my own account,” Coogler told police.

The teller never indicated there was a problem and when she went to talk to her manager, other bank employees kept asking if he was being taken care of, he told officers. The next thing he knew, he heard guns being pulled from their holsters.

Another body camera video shows the teller explaining that Coogler gave her the withdrawal slip and after he inserted his debit card and asked to make a withdrawal, he pointed at the note instead of answering her questions. When she asked for his ID and he gave her a California ID, she said the transaction seemed odd and her “stomach started turning.”

When her computer notified her that it was a high-risk transaction, she went to speak to her manager. When she explained Coogler wanted $12,000 and the transaction made her feel uncomfortable, her manager suggested going to talk to him, she told officers. But she refused because she was pregnant and did not know if he had a gun, she said. She called 911.

“This situation should never have happened,” Coogler said in a statement to The New York Times, but he added that Bank of America “worked with me and addressed it to my satisfaction and we have moved on.”

A representative for Coogler did not respond to messages from The Associated Press.

“We deeply regret that this incident occurred. It should never have happened and we have apologized to Mr. Coogler,” a statement from Bank of America says.

Released in 2018, the Marvel superhero film “Black Panther” became the year’s biggest film release, earning more than a billion dollars worldwide and inspiring “Wakanda Forever” salutes everywhere. The film was nominated for best picture; Coogler shared in the honor as one of the film’s producers. Work on the sequel has been happening in Georgia. The film is scheduled for release in November 2022.

While the director is best known for “Black Panther,” he also co-wrote the “Rocky” spinoff “Creed.” His breakout movie was writing and directing “Fruitvale Station,” about the last day of Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by police in the Bay Area in 2009.

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Atlanta

Home Depot sales climb again, but DIY frenzy may be cooling

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Home Depot’s sales continue to surge, though same-store sales appeared to come back to earth after a year in which the home improvement chain outperformed expectations repeatedly.

For the three months ended August 1, sales climbed to $41.12 billion from $38.05 billion. Chairman and CEO Craig Menear said in a prepared statement Tuesday that this was the first time the chain surpassed quarterly sales of more than $40 billion.

Revenue also surpassed the $40.71 billion analysts were expecting, according to a survey by Zacks Investment Research.

However, sales at stores open at least a year, a key indicator of a retailer’s health, increased 4.5%, and 3.4% in the U.S. Wall Street had expected same-store sales of 5.4% according to FactSet.

And while the average receipt per ring-up at Home Depot registers was higher, customer traffic slowed compared with the period last year when the pandemic kicked off frenzied do-it-yourself projects at home.

Shares fell 5% at the opening bell.

Home improvement stores have filled during the pandemic as people working from home took on new projects. Many also moved to places with more room for the home office, and that too fueled sales.

Yet sales of new homes fell for a third straight month in June, dropping by 6.6% to the lowest level in more than a year.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, said in an emailed statement that most of last year’s sales growth was due to an increase in customers and a sharp rise in the volume of products bought thanks to the remodeling and decorating uptick that happened while people quarantined.

“These trends are now abating, albeit gradually, which is evident in the decline in the number of shoppers visiting Home Depot during the quarter,” he said.

Home Depot Inc. earned $4.81 billion, or $4.53 per share, in the quarter. That compares with $4.33 billion, or $4.02 per share, a year ago. This beat the $4.43 per share that Wall Street predicted.

The Atlanta company didn’t provide a full-year forecast.

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