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Fire at homeless encampment prompted US Capitol lockdown, situation cleared

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Monday morning, the U.S. Capitol complex was forced to temporarily lock down due to an “external security threat,” Capitol Police (USCP) said, after reports of a fire a few blocks away from the Capitol at a homeless encampment under a bridge.

This scare comes as tension and fear grip Washington, D.C. following the January 6 attack on the Capitol by rioters and as the city is preparing for President-elect Joe Biden‘s Wednesday inauguration. The complex is currently under strict security protection by the National Guard, resembling a military zone.

MORE ON INAUGURATION: Up to 25,000 National Guard troops to be in D.C. on Inauguration Day

USCP has since lifted the shelter-in-place order, NBC News reported.

Shortly before 10:30 am (EST), an email alert from USCP was sent to lawmakers telling those indoors to “stay away from exterior windows and doors” and for those outdoors to “seek cover,” according to multiple outlets.

This lockdown occurred during a rehearsal of Biden’s inauguration, forcing individuals to leave the West Front and to seek refuge inside the Capitol for safety. In videos and pictures, smoke could be seen rising from behind the Capitol Building.

D.C. Fire and EMS announced just before 10:30 am that it “responded to an outside fire in the 100 block of H St SE that has been extinguished,” reporting no injuries.

The U.S. Secret Service announced at 10:50 am that “There is no threat to the public.”

Around 11 am, another USCP email alert was sent to lawmakers saying that “a small explosion occurred” under the bridge at First and F Streets SE but that “the incident has been contained,” according to multiple reports. Staff and personnel, however, “are directed to continue to avoid coming to the Capitol Complex area until further notice.”

Shortly after 11 am, D.C. Fire and EMS reported that the fire “involved a homeless tent beneath freeway” and that the tent’s occupant “indicated she was using propane.” This, the department noted, “may explain report of ‘explosion.'”

The department also reported that there was one person with a non-life threatening injury and no other injuries, saying that the same female occupant “declined transport to the hospital” and that they have asked the American Red Cross of the National Capital & Greater Chesapeake Region to “provide assistance.”

You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @Douglas_P_Braff.

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Minnesota farmer’s lawsuit prompts removal of race and sex-based grant program

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Five months after Minnesota farmer Lance Nistler filed a federal lawsuit with the help of the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), the state has removed race- and sex-based preferences from its Down Payment Assistance Grant Program. This significant policy change followed Nistler’s legal challenge, which highlighted the discriminatory nature of the program’s selection process.

Pacific Legal Foundation writes involvement in Nistler’s case drew attention and criticism from Minnesota progressives. Writing in the Minnesota Reformer, Sigrid Jewett accused PLF of using Nistler “as a pawn in a larger culture war game.” She questioned why a California-based legal firm with numerous Supreme Court victories would be interested in representing a small Minnesota farmer pro bono.

PLF opposes all race- and sex-based preferences in the law, and that’s the real reason the firm chose to represent Nistler. The foundation stands against discrimination in various domains, including government board selections, school admissions, government contracts, and grant distributions, such as in Nistler’s case.

Here are the facts: Minnesota’s Down Payment Assistance Grant Program offers up to $15,000 toward the purchase of farmland. Recipients are chosen through a lottery system. However, before the policy change, even if a recipient was among the first picked through the lottery—as Nistler was, being selected ninth—they could be bumped to the back of the line if they were not a racial minority, female, LGBTQIA+, or otherwise designated as an “emerging” farmer by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Despite being chosen ninth in the lottery, which awarded grants to 68 applicants, Nistler did not receive a grant. He was moved from ninth to 102nd on the waitlist because he is a white male.

Nistler grew up on his family farm, milking cows. “They would lose money every year,” he says of the family operation. After he left for school, his family sold the cows and switched to farming soybeans, oats, and wheat. Lance’s father and uncle now run the farm, but they’re getting older. Lance, who has a degree in electronic engineering and worked in HVAC, is interested in buying a 40-acre chunk of the family farm, becoming the fourth-generation farmer in his family.

The land isn’t just going to be given to Lance. This is a working farm, and the Nistlers aren’t a wealthy family that can transfer land from one generation to the next without consideration. “My dad and uncle, they don’t have 401(k)s or anything,” Lance says. “I mean, the land and the equipment, that’s their retirement. This stuff isn’t given away. I’m not just going to get it handed down to me and inherited. It has to be purchased, and it is not cheap.”

Despite being from a farming family, Lance considers himself a new farmer—he has never owned farmland before, and he has an electronics background. Buying these 40 acres would be a huge step for Lance, planting him firmly in the farming world, which is what Minnesota’s grant program aimed to do. The idea that he would have qualified as an emerging farmer if only his skin were a different color struck Lance as wrong.

“The country we live in, the idea is it’s equal opportunity for everyone,” he says. “And if that’s what it is, then well, why shouldn’t I have the same chances?”

When Lance filed his lawsuit in January, the complaint argued that the discriminatory process violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The complaint stated:

“Nistler brings this lawsuit to vindicate his constitutional right to equal protection of the law. He brings it to give all Minnesotans a fair chance at a difference-making grant program. He brings it in the hope that he will be able to own that small farm in the near future. He brings it because he is not giving up on his dream.”

In May, after Lance called attention to the unconstitutional policy, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed legislation removing the race and sex prioritization from the program. Now, Minnesota will treat farmers equally—as the Constitution promises.

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