Category Archives: Longform

9 Feature Stories You Can’t Miss This Week: Winners, Warnings, And Wax

This week for BuzzFeed News, Amanda Chicago Lewis uncovers the controversies and risks of the budding hash oil industry. Read that and these other great stories from BuzzFeed News and around the web.

Wax is Weed’s Next Big Thing and No One Knows if It’s Safe — BuzzFeed News

Wax is Weed’s Next Big Thing and No One Knows if It’s Safe — BuzzFeed News

California dispensaries say butane hash oil, or “wax,” now accounts for 40% of sales — despite potential health risks and home lab explosions on the rise. With no regulation and a lack of good information, stoners turn to self-appointed, and self-interested, “experts” like Matt Rize — but at what cost? Read it at BuzzFeed News.

Photograph by Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News

Courtesy of Barbara Floyd for The Baltimore Sun

Courtesy of Barbara Floyd for The Baltimore Sun


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BHO Is Weed’s Next Big Thing And No One Knows If It’s Safe

Django Broomfield wasn’t even supposed to go to the pot shop that day. It was his wife’s birthday, back in January 2013, and he should have been spending the day with her, but one of the Northern California dispensaries where the longtime marijuana grower sold his seeds had called that morning, asking for a re-up.

So Broomfield headed over, completely unaware of the fact that he was about to bump into Matt Rize.

The last time they’d seen each other, nine months earlier, Rize had accused Broomfield of selling an unsafe product and gotten him fired from managing another dispensary. In the intervening time, Rize sent out hundreds of messages warning people in the cannabis industry to avoid Broomfield.

He’s a dangerous guy, Rize told anyone who would listen. And the hash oil that he’s selling will make you sick.

Broomfield had done his best to ignore the smear campaign, blocking Rize on Facebook and Instagram, but now Rize was here, in person, calmly buying edibles with his girlfriend.

“Hello, Matt,” Broomfield said, visibly flustered.

“Hi, Django. Nice to see you.”

Broomfield turned around, walked out to his car, took something out of his trunk, and waited. After months of Rize trashing Broomfield and his product online, seeing Rize in person, smug and acting like nothing had happened, was infuriating.

The dispensary, Peace in Medicine, stands at the northwest corner of a Sebastopol strip mall that looks like a frontier-town train depot, populated by barnlike buildings in sage-green clapboard siding, with rust-red accents, engraved wooden signs, and corrugated metal roofs.

When Rize and his girlfriend walked outside, they saw Broomfield standing next to Rize’s Prius. It wasn’t until they were almost at the car, however, that they noticed Broomfield was holding a 18-inch-long metal bar. Rize swiveled and took off running, with Broomfield close behind.

“I was going to beat the crap out of him,” Broomfield told BuzzFeed News.

He chased Rize around the plaza and threatened to hit his girlfriend, but when Rize called the police — the last thing anyone in the drug business is supposed to do — Broomfield jumped in his car and took off.

This is how product safety disputes sometimes get settled in the barely regulated marijuana market. In the past five years, no product has perplexed, mesmerized, and divided the cannabis world quite like the increasingly popular and incredibly potent form of concentrated marijuana known as butane hash oil, or BHO. Demand for the intense high BHO delivers has birthed a massive underground industry, with federal and state governments at a loss for how to regulate it and potheads and entrepreneurs accidentally incinerating themselves trying to make it. Several pot-shop owners in California, where selling BHO is legal but making it is not, told BuzzFeed News that it now accounts for about 40% of sales. But while many stoners take BHO’s presence on dispensary shelves as a sign that it is just as safe as weed itself, others find the noxious goop inherently suspicious, and the people who are making, selling, and regulating hash oil admit they know very little about the product.

As the cowboy entrepreneurs who built the cannabis industry step out of the shadows, no one is quite sure which companies, practices, and products will survive the transition to legitimacy.

There is hardly any peer-reviewed research on cannabis, and absolutely nothing on BHO. Marijuana is undergoing an awkward transition between an illegal drug and a mainstream pharmaceutical product held accountable for quality and side effects. In the absence of trustworthy information, unbiased experts, and an effective regulatory scheme, stoners are left with self-appointed whistleblowers like 33-year-old Matt Rize, whose concern for public health conveniently coincides with his bottom line. Over the past few years, this frenetic and sarcastic know-it-all has become famous in marijuana circles as butane hash oil’s most vocal critic, the one person warning consumers about its potential risks — except for when it comes to the butane hash oil that he himself is now making.

That stuff, he says, is perfectly safe.

Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News

For as long as humans have been aware of the psychoactive powers of cannabis, we have been trying to create more efficient ways to get stoned. The marijuana of today has been bred for THC content, and regularly tests at potency levels of 15–20%. And yet as recently as the 1970s, most pot was less than 5% THC, which meant that turning weed into hash was one of the only ways to guarantee a long-lasting buzz.

Unlike sieved hash, records of which date back as far as the 13th century, or black blocks of pressed hash, which turned up around the 16th century, hash oil seems to have been a 20th-century invention. In 1970, after American hippies had been smuggling hash home from abroad for almost a decade, a group called The Brotherhood of Eternal Love set up hash oil factories in California and Afghanistan. But by the end of the decade, mass production had ceased.

In his 1998 book Hashish!, marijuana historian Robert Connell Clarke described hash oil as causing health problems, saying, “Knowledgeable Cannabis users feel that making hashish oil is overkill, and simply a method for passing low-quality Cannabis products off on unsuspecting and uninformed consumers.”

Rize first tried hash oil in Milwaukee in the late '90s, when he was a rebellious, tie-dye-wearing high school student named Matthew Ritz. He was already growing pot in his closet and using the silk screens he’d found in his grandmother’s garage to sift out a more traditional form of marijuana concentrate, now known as “kief” or “dry-sift.”

Then a friend found instructions on Overgrow.com, an early marijuana web forum, about how to use butane to spin their schwag, or low-grade weed, into gold.

All they had to do, the Overgrow thread explained, was release a canister of lighter fluid over a pipe stuffed with marijuana, and they would chemically wring every drop of psychotropic and palliative compounds out of the plant. Throw the snotlike result in a Pyrex dish on top of some boiling water on the stove to purge out the residual butane, and voilà! A product that's over 60% THC.

“It tasted terrible, and it was the strongest thing I had ever smoked in my life,” Rize said. “I was like, I hope nobody finds out about it, because it’s fucking strong and we made it from garbage.”

As a junior in the chemistry department at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College, armed with a master key to the lab, Rize decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experiment with hash oil extraction on professional equipment. He started coming in late at night, when no one else was there.

“I thought it was butane that was the problem,” he said, “[so] I kept trying to do it with different solvents.” He poured or released whatever was lying around — hexane, ethanol, ether, isopropyl alcohol — on his cannabis, just to see what would happen. Most of it was gross, and he still preferred his private stash of sieved hash to hash oil.

Rize didn’t see or smoke other people’s hash oil until 2009, when he moved to Northern California and started working at the Peace in Medicine dispensary.

“All the employees smoked BHO, and they treated it like crack,” Rize said. “No one would talk about how they made it, and they were all like, ‘Don't tell the patients about it. It’s too powerful. Only sell to the patients if they bring it up.’”

The quasi-legal medical marijuana market in California had been booming since 2003, when the state passed a law allowing dispensaries to distribute weed to anyone with a doctor’s prescription. With more cannabis being sold, it was only a matter of time before the farmers figured out that BHO was the best way to profit off of their trim — the leaves and stems that are too weak to smoke.

In the early aughts, when hash oil was still an obscure fad among those who worked with pot, those caught making BHO in California were given the minor charge of marijuana processing. Then, in August 2008, an appeals court decided butane extraction is so prone to causing an explosion that it should be prosecuted under a statute written for methamphetamine and PCP labs. Anyone caught extracting could now be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

The change did little to stop BHO from spreading. After all, lighter fluid is cheap, and in Northern California, trim is plentiful. And once pipe makers began mass-producing the new equipment and tools necessary to vaporize hash oil, around 2009, the drug began to get popular outside of the insular world of those who had turned cannabis into a profession.

Soon, instead of throwing trim away or cooking it into butter for edibles, more cultivators were selling it to whichever BHO chemist could pay the most. To conceal the use of butane and legitimize the drug’s variety of textures and colors, dispensaries came up with names for every possible consistency, ranging from the sheet of brittle, translucent amber known as “shatter” to the golden sap known as “honey oil” to the soft green fudge known as “budder.” Many people, however, refer to all BHO as “wax.”

Hash oil also began serving as a form of crop insurance, as growers found they could recoup their losses on any moldy, mite-infested, or unattractive cannabis by making it into hash oil.

“Moldy weed does not become moldy shatter,” said David Babtkis, who makes BHO under the brand StuckUp Extracts. “The majority of growers that come to me come to me when they fuck up their crop.”

But because hash oil manufacturing remains illegal almost everywhere, the majority of self-styled “extraction artists” make their own as unsafely as Rize did in high school: dripping out of an open-ended tube in a steady stream that Babtkis compared to the sound of someone peeing, and allowing invisible, flammable butane gas to escape into the air.

During the year he worked at Peace in Medicine, Rize said he started to hear rumors about how easily this process, called “open blasting,” could cause an explosion. However, firefighters weren’t yet trained to recognize the signs of a hash oil lab, so few were reported that way. Rize said he even heard that one of Peace in Medicine’s suppliers had had a fire at his home (Peace in Medicine denied this in an email).

With thousands of BHO tutorials now posted online, every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana is arguing internally over how and whether to stop people from making hash oil at home. Plant extraction is a complicated process understood best by chemists with advanced degrees, but nearly all of the people making hash oil have no chemistry background whatsoever, and therefore very little understanding of what they are actually doing.

Even in Washington and Colorado, which began regulating hash oil and offering licenses to extract in 2014, weed is so widely available and BHO so simple to make that many people choose to make their own. Though there are now a handful of licensed extraction labs in Washington and a few hundred in Colorado, including popular brands like TC Labs and Mahatma, butane explosions in both states are on the rise. Nationwide, hundreds of BHO-related fires occurred in 2014, up from dozens in 2013. According to Special Agent Gary Hill, who led a handful of raids on BHO labs in San Diego last summer, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has no idea how to disincentivize people from doing something so easy and so cheap.

When home meth lab explosions became a problem a few decades ago, the DEA made it almost impossible to access precursor chemicals like methylamine, which is what Walter White and Jesse Pinkman siphon out of a freight-train tanker on Breaking Bad.

“But a pipe? Butane gas? I mean, that’s virtually impossible to regulate,” Hill said. “We wish we could.”

Even though he himself had studied chemistry for only three years in college, Rize said he grew more and more alarmed about the idea of people with no scientific background doing advanced analytical chemistry in their houses. This should be done in a proper laboratory, he thought. And why would anyone release lighter fluid over weed to extract the THC, he said, when there were more natural ways to separate the THC-rich resin glands from marijuana?

Though sieving and pressing hash had long since fallen out of fashion, in the 1990s hash makers began vigorously stirring marijuana in ice water to loosen the resin from the buds and then pouring the mixture into several layers of nested mesh bags. Eventually this created a dust that was even more potent than sieved hash and could be smoked on its own or sprinkled on top of a pipeful of pot for an enhanced high.

Rize began devoting all of his time to making water hash after being fired from Peace in Medicine in the middle of 2010. It frustrated him to no end that hash oil, which he saw as a nasty, inferior product, was making more money than hash. So he decided to figure out how to make ice-water hash that had the same look, feel, and cost as BHO.

Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News

Maybe you've seen people at concerts or bars discreetly taking hits of hash oil in vaporizer pens, but serious stoners consume BHO by doing “dabs” — dropping globs of hash oil onto a surface that’s been heated electronically or with a propane torch, and then inhaling the resultant vapor through a bonglike device called a rig. Even a small dab packs the same punch as smoking a fat joint by yourself in 10 seconds flat, and the process looks more like smoking crack than what smoking cannabis has long looked like to most Americans. Back before vape pens became popular, Rize thought the act of dabbing itself was part of hash oil’s appeal.

“It instantly vaporizes, it gets you higher than you've ever been, and it feels like fucking drugs,” he said. These days, hundreds of accounts on Instagram, the weed world’s social media platform of choice, are devoted to young men and women dabbing and provocatively exhaling for the camera.

Rize spent months in the middle of 2010 tinkering with existing water-hash technology and ultimately created one of the first forms of water hash that could be dabbed. He achieved this effect by collecting the granules in a folded piece of parchment paper and pressing them together into a dab with a hair straightener or a hot knife. And while most water hash at this point was black or brown, Rize figured out how to make his into a light golden color, just like high-quality hash oil.

He called his water hash “ice wax,” and brought a jarful to Peace in Medicine, hoping to charge more than he had before.

“Unless you make a brand, and have a following, and deliver these prepackaged and labeled, I can’t pay you more,” he said the buyer told him.

It was then that Matthew Ritz decided he needed to create a new persona for himself, one that proved he was smarter and better than everyone else in the cannabis industry. He began posting online under the name “Professor Matt Rize” as a way to highlight his chemistry background and the fact that he taught a few classes at an outpost of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland-based school for marijuana cultivation, business, law, and science.

At first, he came off as earnest and friendly, putting ice-wax tutorials on YouTube and every cannabis website he could find. He felt he had invented something new and special with this dab-able water hash, and everyone in pot should sit up and take notice.

But in the brusque world of anonymous internet forums, where members of the cannabis community had been comparing notes and talking shit for many years, his naked self-promotion didn’t last long. It was like a home brewer was trying to post photos of his latest batch on the internet and claim his beer was better anything sold by a well-known craft brewery.

“He was trying to write himself into history. People would tell him to go fuck himself,” said Marcus “Bubbleman” Richardson, a Canadian hash maker who became famous in the 1990s as one of the first to mass-produce the mesh bags necessary for water hash. High Times published a handful of fawning profiles and photo spreads illustrating the high-quality water hash Bubbleman’s bags could produce, and to this day some people still call water hash “bubble hash,” in honor of Richardson.

So Rize turned to scare tactics. Instead of trying to claim his innovations were just as good as that of established hash makers like Bubbleman, he compared himself to the backyard chemists making BHO. In the context of the centuries-long history of hash, Rize was still a nobody. But when he positioned himself as an activist and compared his water hash to hash oil, the stuff he was making looked a lot safer, and his following grew. He called anyone who open-blasted a “BHOtard,” and said that the homemade hash oil on dispensary shelves had a lot more residual butane in it than anyone realized.

Instagram celebrities like @DabulousChandler gain followers with photos and videos of themselves dabbing BHO. (She boasts nearly 37,000.)

Hash Oil Is Weed’s Next Big Thing And No One Knows If It’s Safe

Django Broomfield wasn’t even supposed to go to the pot shop that day. It was his wife’s birthday, back in January 2013, and he should have been spending the day with her, but one of the Northern California dispensaries where the longtime marijuana grower sold his seeds had called that morning, asking for a re-up.

So Broomfield headed over, completely unaware of the fact that he was about to bump into Matt Rize.

The last time they’d seen each other, nine months earlier, Rize had accused Broomfield of selling an unsafe product and gotten him fired from managing another dispensary. In the intervening time, Rize sent out hundreds of messages warning people in the cannabis industry to avoid Broomfield.

He’s a dangerous guy, Rize told anyone who would listen. And the hash oil that he’s selling will make you sick.

Broomfield had done his best to ignore the smear campaign, blocking Rize on Facebook and Instagram, but now Rize was here, in person, calmly buying edibles with his girlfriend.

“Hello, Matt,” Broomfield said, visibly flustered.

“Hi, Django. Nice to see you.”

Broomfield turned around, walked out to his car, took something out of his trunk, and waited. After months of Rize trashing Broomfield and his product online, seeing Rize in person, smug and acting like nothing had happened, was infuriating.

The dispensary, Peace in Medicine, stands at the northwest corner of a Sebastopol strip mall that looks like a frontier-town train depot, populated by barnlike buildings in sage-green clapboard siding, with rust-red accents, engraved wooden signs, and corrugated metal roofs.

When Rize and his girlfriend walked outside, they saw Broomfield standing next to Rize’s Prius. It wasn’t until they were almost at the car, however, that they noticed Broomfield was holding a 18-inch-long metal bar. Rize swiveled and took off running, with Broomfield close behind.

“I was going to beat the crap out of him,” Broomfield told BuzzFeed News.

He chased Rize around the plaza and threatened to hit his girlfriend, but when Rize called the police — the last thing anyone in the drug business is supposed to do — Broomfield jumped in his car and took off.

This is how product safety disputes sometimes get settled in the barely regulated marijuana market. In the past five years, no product has perplexed, mesmerized, and divided the cannabis world quite like the increasingly popular and incredibly potent form of concentrated marijuana known as butane hash oil, or BHO. Demand for the intense high BHO delivers has birthed a massive underground industry, with federal and state governments at a loss for how to regulate it and potheads and entrepreneurs accidentally incinerating themselves trying to make it. Several pot-shop owners in California, where selling BHO is legal but making it is not, told BuzzFeed News that it now accounts for about 40% of sales. But while many stoners take BHO’s presence on dispensary shelves as a sign that it is just as safe as weed itself, others find the noxious goop inherently suspicious, and the people who are making, selling, and regulating hash oil admit they know very little about the product.

As the cowboy entrepreneurs who built the cannabis industry step out of the shadows, no one is quite sure which companies, practices, and products will survive the transition to legitimacy.

There is hardly any peer-reviewed research on cannabis, and absolutely nothing on BHO. Marijuana is undergoing an awkward transition between an illegal drug and a mainstream pharmaceutical product held accountable for quality and side effects. In the absence of trustworthy information, unbiased experts, and an effective regulatory scheme, stoners are left with self-appointed whistleblowers like 33-year-old Matt Rize, whose concern for public health conveniently coincides with his bottom line. Over the past few years, this frenetic and sarcastic know-it-all has become famous in marijuana circles as butane hash oil’s most vocal critic, the one person warning consumers about its potential risks — except for when it comes to the butane hash oil that he himself is now making.

That stuff, he says, is perfectly safe.

Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News

For as long as humans have been aware of the psychoactive powers of cannabis, we have been trying to create more efficient ways to get stoned. The marijuana of today has been bred for THC content, and regularly tests at potency levels of 15–20%. And yet as recently as the 1970s, most pot was less than 5% THC, which meant that turning weed into hash was one of the only ways to guarantee a long-lasting buzz.

Unlike sieved hash, records of which date back as far as the 13th century, or black blocks of pressed hash, which turned up around the 16th century, hash oil seems to have been a 20th-century invention. In 1970, after American hippies had been smuggling hash home from abroad for almost a decade, a group called The Brotherhood of Eternal Love set up hash oil factories in California and Afghanistan. But by the end of the decade, mass production had ceased.

In his 1998 book Hashish!, marijuana historian Robert Connell Clarke described hash oil as causing health problems, saying, “Knowledgeable Cannabis users feel that making hashish oil is overkill, and simply a method for passing low-quality Cannabis products off on unsuspecting and uninformed consumers.”

Rize first tried hash oil in Milwaukee in the late '90s, when he was a rebellious, tie-dye-wearing high school student named Matthew Ritz. He was already growing pot in his closet and using the silk screens he’d found in his grandmother’s garage to sift out a more traditional form of marijuana concentrate, now known as “kief” or “dry-sift.”

Then a friend found instructions on Overgrow.com, an early marijuana web forum, about how to use butane to spin their schwag, or low-grade weed, into gold.

All they had to do, the Overgrow thread explained, was release a canister of lighter fluid over a pipe stuffed with marijuana, and they would chemically wring every drop of psychotropic and palliative compounds out of the plant. Throw the snotlike result in a Pyrex dish on top of some boiling water on the stove to purge out the residual butane, and voilà! A product that's over 60% THC.

“It tasted terrible, and it was the strongest thing I had ever smoked in my life,” Rize said. “I was like, I hope nobody finds out about it, because it’s fucking strong and we made it from garbage.”

As a junior in the chemistry department at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College, armed with a master key to the lab, Rize decided he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experiment with hash oil extraction on professional equipment. He started coming in late at night, when no one else was there.

“I thought it was butane that was the problem,” he said, “[so] I kept trying to do it with different solvents.” He poured or released whatever was lying around — hexane, ethanol, ether, isopropyl alcohol — on his cannabis, just to see what would happen. Most of it was gross, and he still preferred his private stash of sieved hash to hash oil.

Rize didn’t see or smoke other people’s hash oil until 2009, when he moved to Northern California and started working at the Peace in Medicine dispensary.

“All the employees smoked BHO, and they treated it like crack,” Rize said. “No one would talk about how they made it, and they were all like, ‘Don't tell the patients about it. It’s too powerful. Only sell to the patients if they bring it up.’”

The quasi-legal medical marijuana market in California had been booming since 2003, when the state passed a law allowing dispensaries to distribute weed to anyone with a doctor’s prescription. With more cannabis being sold, it was only a matter of time before the farmers figured out that BHO was the best way to profit off of their trim — the leaves and stems that are too weak to smoke.

In the early aughts, when hash oil was still an obscure fad among those who worked with pot, those caught making BHO in California were given the minor charge of marijuana processing. Then, in August 2008, an appeals court decided butane extraction is so prone to causing an explosion that it should be prosecuted under a statute written for methamphetamine and PCP labs. Anyone caught extracting could now be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

The change did little to stop BHO from spreading. After all, lighter fluid is cheap, and in Northern California, trim is plentiful. And once pipe makers began mass-producing the new equipment and tools necessary to vaporize hash oil, around 2009, the drug began to get popular outside of the insular world of those who had turned cannabis into a profession.

Soon, instead of throwing trim away or cooking it into butter for edibles, more cultivators were selling it to whichever BHO chemist could pay the most. To conceal the use of butane and legitimize the drug’s variety of textures and colors, dispensaries came up with names for every possible consistency, ranging from the sheet of brittle, translucent amber known as “shatter” to the golden sap known as “honey oil” to the soft green fudge known as “budder.” Many people, however, refer to all BHO as “wax.”

Hash oil also began serving as a form of crop insurance, as growers found they could recoup their losses on any moldy, mite-infested, or unattractive cannabis by making it into hash oil.

“Moldy weed does not become moldy shatter,” said David Babtkis, who makes BHO under the brand StuckUp Extracts. “The majority of growers that come to me come to me when they fuck up their crop.”

But because hash oil manufacturing remains illegal almost everywhere, the majority of self-styled “extraction artists” make their own as unsafely as Rize did in high school: dripping out of an open-ended tube in a steady stream that Babtkis compared to the sound of someone peeing, and allowing invisible, flammable butane gas to escape into the air.

During the year he worked at Peace in Medicine, Rize said he started to hear rumors about how easily this process, called “open blasting,” could cause an explosion. However, firefighters weren’t yet trained to recognize the signs of a hash oil lab, so few were reported that way. Rize said he even heard that one of Peace in Medicine’s suppliers had had a fire at his home (Peace in Medicine denied this in an email).

With thousands of BHO tutorials now posted online, every state that has legalized or decriminalized marijuana is arguing internally over how and whether to stop people from making hash oil at home. Plant extraction is a complicated process understood best by chemists with advanced degrees, but nearly all of the people making hash oil have no chemistry background whatsoever, and therefore very little understanding of what they are actually doing.

Even in Washington and Colorado, which began regulating hash oil and offering licenses to extract in 2014, weed is so widely available and BHO so simple to make that many people choose to make their own. Though there are now a handful of licensed extraction labs in Washington and a few hundred in Colorado, including popular brands like TC Labs and Mahatma, butane explosions in both states are on the rise. Nationwide, hundreds of BHO-related fires occurred in 2014, up from dozens in 2013. According to Special Agent Gary Hill, who led a handful of raids on BHO labs in San Diego last summer, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has no idea how to disincentivize people from doing something so easy and so cheap.

When home meth lab explosions became a problem a few decades ago, the DEA made it almost impossible to access precursor chemicals like methylamine, which is what Walter White and Jesse Pinkman siphon out of a freight-train tanker on Breaking Bad.

“But a pipe? Butane gas? I mean, that’s virtually impossible to regulate,” Hill said. “We wish we could.”

Even though he himself had studied chemistry for only three years in college, Rize said he grew more and more alarmed about the idea of people with no scientific background doing advanced analytical chemistry in their houses. This should be done in a proper laboratory, he thought. And why would anyone release lighter fluid over weed to extract the THC, he said, when there were more natural ways to separate the THC-rich resin glands from marijuana?

Though sieving and pressing hash had long since fallen out of fashion, in the 1990s hash makers began vigorously stirring marijuana in ice water to loosen the resin from the buds and then pouring the mixture into several layers of nested mesh bags. Eventually this created a dust that was even more potent than sieved hash and could be smoked on its own or sprinkled on top of a pipeful of pot for an enhanced high.

Rize began devoting all of his time to making water hash after being fired from Peace in Medicine in the middle of 2010. It frustrated him to no end that hash oil, which he saw as a nasty, inferior product, was making more money than hash. So he decided to figure out how to make ice-water hash that had the same look, feel, and cost as BHO.

Macey J. Foronda for BuzzFeed News

Maybe you've seen people at concerts or bars discreetly taking hits of hash oil in vaporizer pens, but serious stoners consume BHO by doing “dabs” — dropping globs of hash oil onto a surface that’s been heated electronically or with a propane torch, and then inhaling the resultant vapor through a bonglike device called a rig. Even a small dab packs the same punch as smoking a fat joint by yourself in 10 seconds flat, and the process looks more like smoking crack than what smoking cannabis has long looked like to most Americans. Back before vape pens became popular, Rize thought the act of dabbing itself was part of hash oil’s appeal.

“It instantly vaporizes, it gets you higher than you've ever been, and it feels like fucking drugs,” he said. These days, hundreds of accounts on Instagram, the weed world’s social media platform of choice, are devoted to young men and women dabbing and provocatively exhaling for the camera.

Rize spent months in the middle of 2010 tinkering with existing water-hash technology and ultimately created one of the first forms of water hash that could be dabbed. He achieved this effect by collecting the granules in a folded piece of parchment paper and pressing them together into a dab with a hair straightener or a hot knife. And while most water hash at this point was black or brown, Rize figured out how to make his into a light golden color, just like high-quality hash oil.

He called his water hash “ice wax,” and brought a jarful to Peace in Medicine, hoping to charge more than he had before.

“Unless you make a brand, and have a following, and deliver these prepackaged and labeled, I can’t pay you more,” he said the buyer told him.

It was then that Matthew Ritz decided he needed to create a new persona for himself, one that proved he was smarter and better than everyone else in the cannabis industry. He began posting online under the name “Professor Matt Rize” as a way to highlight his chemistry background and the fact that he taught a few classes at an outpost of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland-based school for marijuana cultivation, business, law, and science.

At first, he came off as earnest and friendly, putting ice-wax tutorials on YouTube and every cannabis website he could find. He felt he had invented something new and special with this dab-able water hash, and everyone in pot should sit up and take notice.

But in the brusque world of anonymous internet forums, where members of the cannabis community had been comparing notes and talking shit for many years, his naked self-promotion didn’t last long. It was like a home brewer was trying to post photos of his latest batch on the internet and claim his beer was better anything sold by a well-known craft brewery.

“He was trying to write himself into history. People would tell him to go fuck himself,” said Marcus “Bubbleman” Richardson, a Canadian hash maker who became famous in the 1990s as one of the first to mass-produce the mesh bags necessary for water hash. High Times published a handful of fawning profiles and photo spreads illustrating the high-quality water hash Bubbleman’s bags could produce, and to this day some people still call water hash “bubble hash,” in honor of Richardson.

So Rize turned to scare tactics. Instead of trying to claim his innovations were just as good as that of established hash makers like Bubbleman, he compared himself to the backyard chemists making BHO. In the context of the centuries-long history of hash, Rize was still a nobody. But when he positioned himself as an activist and compared his water hash to hash oil, the stuff he was making looked a lot safer, and his following grew. He called anyone who open-blasted a “BHOtard,” and said that the homemade hash oil on dispensary shelves had a lot more residual butane in it than anyone realized.

Instagram celebrities like @DabulousChandler gain followers with photos and videos of themselves dabbing BHO. (She boasts nearly 37,000.)

9 Feature Stories You Can’t Miss This Week: Heroes, Hubris, And High Rollers

This week for BuzzFeed News, Gregory D. Johnsen chronicles the rise and resolve of CIA Director John Brennan. Read that and these other great stories from BuzzFeed News and around the web.

The Untouchable John Brennan — BuzzFeed News

The Untouchable John Brennan — BuzzFeed News

How did Barack Obama, the candidate of hope and change, turn into the president of secret kill lists and immunity for torturers? The answer may lie in his relationship with CIA Director John Brennan, a career bureaucrat turned quiet architect of a morally murky national security policy who isn’t going to let a little thing like getting caught spying on the Senate bring him down. Read it at BuzzFeed News.

Jason Reed / Reuters

She Skipped School and Couldn’t Pay Her Fines — So Texas Sent Her to Jail — BuzzFeed News

She Skipped School and Couldn't Pay Her Fines — So Texas Sent Her to Jail — BuzzFeed News

Kendall Taggart and Alex Campbell report from Texas, where more than a thousand teenagers have been ordered to lockup on charges that stem from missing school, often because they have unpaid court fines. The costs to their education are high. Some, like Serena Vela, never go back. Read it at BuzzFeed News.

Dylan Hollingsworth for BuzzFeed News

“Have You Ever Thought About Killing Someone”Matter

"Have You Ever Thought About Killing Someone" — Matter

A disturbing and twisted tale of fantasy, murder, and perversion by Rachel Monroe that will leave you with far more questions than answers. How could someone be turned on by the idea of being brutally killed — and what type of person would be willing to do it for them? Read it at Matter.

Illustration by Steve Kim for Matter

After 20 Years, “Friday” Is (Still) the Most Important Film Ever Made About the Hood — BuzzFeed News

After 20 Years, “Friday” Is (Still) the Most Important Film Ever Made About the Hood — BuzzFeed News

The stars and the director of this genre-busting sleeper hit — which returned to theaters for one day to celebrate its 20th anniversary — talk to Kelley L. Carter about why it still resonates. “I know you don’t smoke weed. I know this. But I’m gonna get you high today. ‘Cuz it’s Friday, you ain’t got no job, and you ain’t got shit to do!” Read it at BuzzFeed News.


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How CIA Director John Brennan Became America’s Spy And Obama’s Conscience

Shortly before 9 a.m. on March 11, 2014, Dianne Feinstein, the 80-year-old chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, walked into the Senate chamber with a thick stack of papers and a glass of water. The Senate had just finished a rare all-night session a few minutes earlier, and only a handful of staffers were left in the room. Feinstein had given thousands of speeches over her career, but none quite like this.

“Let me say up front that I come to the Senate floor reluctantly,” she said, as she poked at the corners of her notes. The last two months had been an exhausting mix of meetings and legal wrangling, all in an attempt to avoid this exact moment. But none of it had worked. And now Feinstein was ready to go public and tell the country what she knew: The CIA had broken the law and violated the Constitution. It had spied on the Senate.

“This is a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence community,” Feinstein said nearly 40 minutes later, as she drew to a close. This will show whether the Senate “can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities, or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.”

Two hours later and a few miles away at a Council on Foreign Relations event near downtown Washington, the CIA responded. “As far as the allegations of, you know, CIA hacking into Senate computers,” CIA Director John Brennan told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, shaking his head and rolling his eyes to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the charges, “nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we wouldn’t do that.”

Brennan was 58, but that morning he looked much older. He’d hobbled into the room on a cane following yet another hip fracture, and after some brief remarks he eased himself into a chair with obvious discomfort. Two years earlier in a commencement address at Fordham University, his alma mater, Brennan had rattled off a litany of injuries and ailments: In addition to his hip problems, he’d also had major knee, back, and shoulder surgeries as well as “a bout of cancer.” Years of desk work had resulted in extra weight and the sort of bureaucrat’s body that caused his suits to slope down and out toward his belt. “I referred the matter myself to the CIA inspector general to make sure that he was able to look honestly and objectively at what the CIA did there,” Brennan said. “And, you know, when the facts come out on this, I think a lot of people who are claiming that there has been this tremendous sort of spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong.”

Mitchell, who had already asked him two questions about the allegations, pressed again. “If it is proved that the CIA did do this, would you feel that you had to step down?”

Brennan chuckled and stuttered as he tried to form an answer. Two weeks earlier, he had told a dinner at the University of Oklahoma that “intelligence work had gotten in my blood.” The CIA wasn’t just what he did; it was his “identity.” He had worked too hard to become director to give up without a fight. “If I did something wrong,” Brennan eventually told Mitchell, “I will go to the president, and I will explain to him exactly what I did, and what the findings were. And he is the one who can ask me to stay or to go.”

But Obama was never going to ask for his resignation. Not then, and not months later when the CIA inspector general’s report came back, showing that the agency had done what Feinstein claimed. Brennan was Obama's man. His conscience on national security, and the CIA director he’d wanted from the very beginning. Not even a chorus of pleas from Democratic senators, members of Obama’s own party, made any difference. John Brennan would stay, the untouchable head of America’s most powerful intelligence agency.

Brennan has been many things: a CIA official, a CEO, and even, briefly, a television pundit. He was a top official at the CIA during the torture years of the Bush administration, and the architect of Obama’s shadowy, controversial drone program. But for all that, he remains largely unknown, the gray heart of United States national security policy. Of the dozens of former and current government officials I reached out to, men and women from both the Bush and the Obama administrations, few seemed to have a handle on him. Some saw him as strong and principled, a warrior-priest who could do no wrong. Others saw him as a yes-man who sucked up to power and got lucky.

Several former colleagues, particularly in the CIA, refused to talk about him. He is vindictive, one explained through an intermediary: “He’ll come after me.” Another initially agreed to chat and then emailed me back a few days later, writing, “Unfortunately, I learned today that, because of my active security clearances and continuing work with the intelligence community, it would be best for me to decline your offer of an interview.”

Brennan himself was of little help. Through a spokesperson, he declined multiple interview requests over a series of months. Two years earlier, I’d argued that he was the wrong man for the CIA based on his counterterrorism approach in Yemen. But now I wanted to get a fuller sense of him, both as a person and as a director, and look at his entire career rather than just a single country. Brennan wasn’t interested. Even relatives were off-limits. At one point I sent his older sister a three-line email, explaining who I was and asking if she “might have some time to answer some questions about him and what he was like as a kid.” She never wrote back. But the next day I received an email from the CIA’s head of public affairs warning me against “harassing the director’s family.”

And yet in almost every public speech he’s given over the past 10 years, Brennan opens with a smattering of personal anecdotes, little crumbs of biographical detail that, along with everything else, form an almost kaleidoscopic portrait of the man and the country he serves. It all depends on the angle, the subtle shift in emphasis that changes everything: inside government or outside, friend or foe, enhanced interrogation techniques or torture, signature strikes or crowd killing, patriot or criminal.

This is Brennan’s story, his life and his career. But it's also ours. The excesses and mistakes of more than a decade of war, what we tolerate and what we don’t. What we’re willing to forgive and what we won’t. Politicians who don’t deliver on their promises, and well-intentioned individuals who bring about great harm. It’s about the man he is, and the country we’ve become. The institutionalization of a post-9/11 national security state, and the unending compromises of a country always at war.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

The origin story Brennan prefers, the one he tells reporters, goes something like this: One day in the spring of 1977, during his senior year at Fordham, he was riding the bus to class when he came across a CIA recruitment ad in the New York Times. Brennan was intrigued. He liked history and he liked to travel. Back from a year abroad in Cairo, Brennan had already applied to graduate school, but even he seemed to know he wasn’t cut out for academia. “He never struck me as someone who would go on and get a Ph.D.,” John Entelis, one of his professors, told me last fall. “He just didn’t fit the mold.”

On a campus filled with what another of his former teachers described as “well-groomed hippies,” Brennan fit right in with long hair and an earring. He blended in within the classroom as well, rarely raising his hand or trying to make a point. To his professors, Brennan still carried himself like the jock he had been in high school, like someone who hung out near the back of the room and didn’t appear comfortable speaking in public. “He wasn’t intellectually aggressive,” Entelis said.

But that year in Egypt had given him a case of what Brennan would later call “wanderlust.” And that is why in the spring of his senior year, weeks away from graduating, he was so intrigued by the ad. Even his birthday, Brennan often explains in interviews, seemed to fit. Nathan Hale, often considered America’s first spy, was hanged on Sept. 22, the same date Brennan was born.

Hale was 21 the day the British executed him in what is now upper Manhattan, less than eight miles from Fordham’s campus. Brennan was the same age that spring. Completing the circle was the fact that Hale was born in 1755, Brennan in 1955. For an undergraduate with a romantic sense of history, the parallels must have been powerful. In many ways, this appears to be how Brennan views himself: Hale’s successor and heir — patriotic, idealistic, and willing to do whatever it takes to serve his country.

Three years after that day on the bus, following a graduate degree in government from the University of Texas and wedding the woman he took to his college graduation, Brennan walked into the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as a career trainee making just over $17,000 a year (a “GS-9″ on the government's “general schedule” pay scale). Two of the CIA's four directorates, the Directorate of Intelligence and what was then called the Directorate of Operations, got most of the attention. These were, respectively, the analysts who stayed home and the case officers who worked abroad, or in rough agency slang: the nerds and the jocks. Brennan had little doubt. He was a jock.

That lasted around a year. In 1981, Brennan switched to the intelligence side. Of the people who eventually agreed to speak with me, several had theories for the move. Like their views of Brennan himself, some were dark and others more innocuous. But none of them knew for certain. Brennan didn’t talk about it and they didn’t ask. “It was unusual,” one of them told me. “But not unprecedented.” The recruit who had once dreamed of operating abroad was now a deskbound analyst, a nerd.

The CIA did, however, send him to Saudi Arabia for a couple of years as part of a joint program with the State Department. But that wasn’t quite the same. Instead of a covert program with the CIA using the State Department as cover, this was an open one: CIA analysts working as foreign service officers. The State Department, which never had enough people to go around, got a free body, and the CIA got some time abroad for its analysts, who often spent most of their careers in Langley.

BuzzFeed News

None of this, however, stopped Brennan from later suggesting to co-workers that this had been a full-fledged agency position. It was one of those habits powerful men often acquire, revising and editing their stories as they go, shaping everything to fit their audience of the moment. Bosses who had never championed Brennan in life were transformed into mentors in death, and small exchanges took on the flavor of intimate conversations. People who didn’t know Arabic were convinced he spoke the language fluently; Republicans he worked with thought he was one of them, while Democrats left the conversation thinking he was theirs.

By the time Brennan got back to Langley in 1984, the agency was undergoing a culture change. “Loyalty to individuals assumed a much greater role,” wrote former CIA analyst John A. Gentry in a biting critique published years later (and removed from the internet soon after Gentry declined an interview for this story). “Those who adapted to the new rules,” Gentry continued, “experienced often meteoric rises.” Brennan adjusted quickly, finding mentors and winning promotions.

“To get ahead in the Directorate of Intelligence you had to do three things,” Judith Yaphe, who worked in the same office as Brennan, told me. “You had to write well, brief well, and get along with others well. And John knew how to do all three.” Other co-workers noticed a similar set of skills. “John’s got a very good political sense of what people want,” said one former CIA official who worked with Brennan and requested anonymity to talk about a former colleague. “John is very good at managing up.”

For the next few years, Brennan did exactly that, as he worked his way up the agency ranks. The older men who ran the division liked him. Brennan seemed to remind them of a younger version of themselves, and they rewarded him for it with promotions and plum assignments. They saw him as a “rising star, an up-and-comer,” the former CIA official said.

Brennan came into the agency in 1980 as a Middle East specialist in what would turn out to be the final decade of the Cold War, the CIA’s main focus since its founding. Once inside, Brennan started spending time on counterterrorism, a new subfield that few really understood. The CIA established its first counterterrorism center in 1986. Within four years, Brennan was running terrorism analysis for the center. A decade later, the Middle East and counterterrorism, Brennan’s two specialties, would be at the center of a revamped CIA. And, in time, so would he.

AP Photo

Our 9 Favorite Feature Stories This Week: A Fallen Reformer And Bandit Brothers

In the latest BuzzFeed feature story, Chris Faraone spends a season with the Boston Bandits, the semi-pro football team that Odin Lloyd — allegedly slain by Aaron Hernandez — played for. Read that and these other great stories from BuzzFeed and around the web.

Bandit Brothers — BuzzFeed News

Bandit Brothers — BuzzFeed News

The Boston Bandits were unknown in their own sports-crazed city until one of their players was allegedly murdered by ex-Patriots star Aaron Hernandez. Ever since, Odin Lloyd’s teammates have been using this tragedy — the team’s fourth death in the past few years — as motivation to band together and win a ring in his memory, all while shining a light on a gritty, pay-to-play semi-pro league that has existed for decades on the outer fringes of organized sports. Read it at BuzzFeed News.

Photograph by Dominick Reuter for BuzzFeed

How Miriam Carey's U-Turn at the White House Led To Her DeathThe Washington Post

How Miriam Carey's U-Turn at the White House Led To Her Death — The Washington Post

On Oct. 3, 2013, a single mother than Miriam Carey led authorities on a brief car chase from the White House to the Capitol, where she was fatally shot by police — and her 13 month old daughter, in the backseat, survived. Was she mentally ill? Or simply scared? David Montgomery investigates. Read it at the Washington Post.

Photograph by Linda Davidson for the Washington Post

The Rise and Fall of Mississippi's Top Prison Reformer — BuzzFeed News

The Rise and Fall of Mississippi's Top Prison Reformer — BuzzFeed News

Chris Epps wanted to reform Mississippi’s harsh, decrepit prison system. Now, Albert Samaha reports, he’s facing three centuries in the slammer. Read it at BuzzFeed News.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

In Conversation with Chris RockNew York

In Conversation with Chris Rock — New York

An illuminating, provocative interview between the comedian and Frank Rich: “It’s a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.” Read it at New York.

Photograph by Martin Schoeller for New York


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A Season With The Toughest Football Team You’ve Never Heard Of

June 29, 2013

Reporters and photographers fill the stands behind the Boston Bandits bench. They're playing the Bay State Bucs in a semipro preseason game that had been planned in memoriam of Danroy “DJ” Henry, a Pace University football player and Massachusetts native who was killed by a cop in a New York City suburb in 2010. The media today isn't here for the Henry family, but rather because Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old Bandits linebacker, was found shot to death and abandoned in a dirt lot south of Boston two weeks ago.

Pallbearers carry the casket of Odin Lloyd following a funeral ceremony at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Boston, Saturday, June 29, 2013.

Michael Dwyer / AP Photo

After prosecutors pegged then–New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez as a suspect in the Lloyd case, the Bandits landed in the national spotlight. This morning, as outlets from the Boston Globe to ESPN would cover, three of Lloyd’s teammates carried his casket while sporting the same kind of crisp Kangols their friend always wore. With journalists and satellite trucks circling, a swarm of other Bandits, past and present players alike, accompanied them in black slacks and shimmering blue game jerseys. A few fought tears behind dark sunglasses.

The Bandits have faced tragedy before, though never so publicly. In the past decade, they also lost one player in a fire, another in a car crash, a lineman from diabetes, and a rookie who was stabbed in a street fight. For this game, players on both teams wear honorary bracelets, pins, and T-shirts with Lloyd's number, 53. After trailing the Bucs for the whole game, though, a fourth-quarter rally by Boston is only enough for a 13–13 tie.

The rest of 2013 brought further disappointment, with a few exceptions. In one highlight, the league honored Lloyd and his relatives in a sideline ceremony before a midseason home game in which star Boston receiver Daryl Hodge, one of Lloyd’s pallbearers who also played with Lloyd in high school, scored the winning touchdown. No taller than 5 feet, 10 inches from his helmet to the bottom of his spikes, Hodge went on to become last season’s offensive MVP for the league.

Any hopes to channel their pain into a title, however, ran out after a charter bus the Bandits rented broke down twice en route to a championship game in Maine. After arriving only 30 minutes before kickoff and falling behind at the half, Boston lost their 2013 conference final by a touchdown.

Aaron Hernandez

Ted Fitzgerald / Boston Herald / AP Photo

There has been scant attention paid to the Bandits since June 2013, but with Hernandez going on trial next month, Lloyd’s name is back in the local news on a daily basis, almost always preceded by the words “semipro football player.” On one hand, the label illustrates the unsettling insult of an NFL millionaire killing an acquaintance who paid annual dues of $75 to play in an amateur league. At the same time, the vague description — “semipro” — begs more questions than it answers.

With football at all levels under increasing scrutiny and pressure, why would any sane adult — and there are players on the Bandits pushing 50 — endure such thankless hurt over the course of mandatory weekly practices starting in April, and Saturday games from July through early November? Unlike high school football standings, scores in the New England Football League aren’t even printed in the local papers.

UNTIL LLOYD'S DEATH, HIS TEAM WAS BARELY A FOOTNOTE IN THE STORY OF BOSTON'S PROFOUND SPORTS ALLEGIANCES.

Until Lloyd's death, his team was barely a footnote in the story of Boston’s profound sports allegiances. Now, having become a symbol of a besieged pastime stripped of its trappings, the squad stands to represent much more — all while striving for the championship that evaded them last season. With the Hernandez murder trial in January, the Bandits continue to serve as a reminder that football can still be nothing more or less than an exhilarating game in leagues that are, as Hodge calls the NEFL, the equivalent of a “grown-man Pop Warner.”

Bandits players attend the funeral of Odin Lloyd at the Holy Spirit Church in Mattapan, Massachusetts.

John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

April 12, 2014

It’s the first practice of the season, a serene urban Saturday, and players start arriving early to hang around. One has a Marine Corps sticker in his window. Another steps out of a pickup marked for a construction company, hops onto his tailgate, and begins taping his ankle. As they emerge and start walking around, players gossip, joke with one another, and begin to change out of their street clothes and into practice gear. I get innocuous yet curious looks from a few guys, but then I realize: While this is technically a public park, it is also the Bandits' locker room.

The field where they meet during preseason is in the far reaches of Hyde Park between an industrial lot and a greasy brook, more than half an hour in light traffic from the Freedom Trail or Faneuil Hall. An occasional commuter rail screams by on rusted tracks, heading south toward Rhode Island or returning downtown, but otherwise this is as quaint a spot as can be found in city limits. Despite the lack of amenities, the Bandits make due with the resources they have; last year, the all-volunteer staff figured out how to record practice footage by fashioning a crow's nest for a camera from a painter's pole and a tripod. Players bring their own Gatorade, and piss in the woods.

The NFL is alone among major American pro sports in lacking an official farm league. While there’s recently been talk of need for more player development in the future, for now the NFL almost exclusively scouts college athletes. Meanwhile, the NEFL and other leagues like it thrive on the sweat of persistent jocks who pay to play. For the Bandits, that’s about $120 for uniform and equipment costs on top of the $75 in dues.

Mike Branch

Photograph by Dominick Reuter for BuzzFeed

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Move! Move! Move!” Defensive coordinator and general manager Mike Branch is chummy with his players, but with his arms across his puffed chest and his baseball cap curled snugly around stylish rectangular frames, his piercing bark overpowers the occasional passing trains. He commands a dizzying array of drills for more than three hours, at the end of which Branch orders the entire group to do synchronized push-ups. He turns to his coaching staff, still speaking so the players can all hear him. “Isn’t it funny how some of them think we can’t tell who was working out in the off-season, and who was sitting around doing nothing?”

Among those who comprise the rosters of the 40 NEFL teams and the small orbit around them, the Bandits have a reputation as pit bulls with a penchant for accumulating penalties. In the words of one veteran foe from a rival team, “You don’t make plans for Sunday if you’re going up against the Bandits Saturday.”

In roughing young guys up during practice drills, most of the tenured players aggressively stare down the cubs like they’re testing their toughness. Co-captain Alvin Edwards, though, follows up collisions with encouraging words: “Now that’s what it is. That’s what the hell I’m talkin’ about!”

“I didn't know what [semipro] was,” Edwards says after practice. In 2005, he searched the internet for local football teams and found that the Bandits practiced close to Dorchester, the neighborhood where he grew up with several other Boston players, including Lloyd. The 29-year-old Edwards is the lone older Bandit helping rookies carry pads from the field to the parking lot; he acknowledges it isn’t very glamorous, but says he “always just loved playing football.”

Alvin Edwards

Photograph by Dominick Reuter for BuzzFeed

After graduating high school in 2005, Edwards took a security job at one of Boston’s convention centers, but still had the football bug, and found the Bandits online. After winning back-to-back championship titles with Boston in his first two seasons, Edwards left for a short time to play Division III ball at UMass Dartmouth. In that first year he stood among the leaders in his state NCAA conference in interceptions, but having already started work back home, he found the overall college experience underwhelming. In 2009, Edwards returned to Boston, where he now has a career as a youth services case manager. His college story is familiar: Before Lloyd came to the Bandits, he matriculated to Delaware State, but had to drop out after his financial aid fell through.

Moving cones out of the end zone, Edwards says while the team has been through the ringer, the anguish helps keep them together. “When you lose someone it hurts,” he says. “I think about a lot of the players who passed away. You think about them being on the field. I'll see something go down and I'll go, ‘Damn, Odin would have killed this dude. He would have come off the edge and killed him.’”

Photograph by Dominick Reuter for BuzzFeed

May 27, 2014

Branch, or “Coach Mike,” as the Bandits call him, is waiting for his team under the lights at O’Bryant High School in Roxbury. It’s their first midweek practice, held Tuesday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. Everyone is required to show if they expect to see the field on Saturdays, and Branch appears pissed that fewer than half the 70-odd players on the active roster are on time. “And what excuse do you have?” he says, only half joking, to one latecomer. “Aren’t you a teacher? Didn’t you get out of work four hours ago?”

Branch has been waiting on some of these players for more than a decade, having previously coached several current Bandits on this same turf as teenagers, when they were O'Bryant Tigers. Besides coordinating plays, he is also the general manager, which in the NEFL essentially means he runs the team and handles logistics. He’s also a mentor and father figure. Branch had been trying to get Lloyd, who'd been laid off by the power company and was working as a landscaper, to take the city firefighter’s test before he was killed. He stood up for his longtime player after he sensed that defense attorneys for Hernandez and the media were soiling his reputation.

Odin Lloyd

Courtesy of the Lloyd Family via the Boston Bandits

“He used to drive his bike to practice,” Branch told the Globe after Lloyd's body was discovered and the search for a motive had begun. “If he was a self-made drug dealer extortioner, he was doing a good job covering it up.” Branch should know. In addition to hailing from the notorious Bowdoin-Geneva neck of Dorchester, where the 42-year-old grew up during the deadliest years of the crack era, by day he serves as the chief probation officer in Brockton, a turbulent post-industrial city just outside of Boston, and has counseled criminal offenders in Eastern Massachusetts since the ‘90s. He was close to Lloyd; besides hailing from the same neighborhood, at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, Lloyd was Branch’s younger physical doppelgänger.

At a glance, the O’Bryant practice fields are an urban oasis, a sprawling emerald shelf of AstroTurf on a plateau that reveals a spectacular downtown skyline beyond an ocean of cold brick housing projects. Groups of teenagers are playing pickup soccer and football under the lights, and bony college students from nearby Northeastern University are circling a freshly painted track. Look, though, between the cracks underneath the battered benches, and there's a scattered mess of broken bottles, empty nickel bags, and hypodermic needles.

Coach Olivier Bustin

Dominick Reuter for BuzzFeed

Complementing Branch in management is head coach Olivier Bustin, whom the players call “Coach O.” They’re comparable in their commitment to the sport, and both say they feed directly off the enthusiasm and energy of the players, but the similarities seem to end there. While Branch can be heard from one end zone to the other, Bustin, a couple inches shorter than Branch and with curls poking out from under his beaten Bandits hat, is inaudible to everyone besides the players he’s communicating with at any given moment. Passivity, he swears, is key in coaching semipro.

“We found that players respond better to former players than to someone from the outside,” Bustin tells me before practice. He’s leaning on the bumper of his Honda CR-V, which is full of plastic bins holding assorted gear, and checking off names to figure out who still owes money for uniforms. Bustin, a supervisor for the state Department of Children and Families, volunteered to help Branch, an old friend, formulate a defense back in 1996. Three years later, after the players became frustrated with and forced out their first head coach, Branch convinced him to take charge of the entire staff, and to this day he handles everything from watching game tapes and devising strategies to renting buses for away games.

“This isn't high school,” Bustin says. “This is grown-men football. There's a big difference between getting hit by a high school player and getting hit by a police officer who had a bad day at work and is taking it out on you.” Having lost not just Lloyd but more than 10 others who moved, quit, or retired since last season, Bustin gives a cautiously optimistic preview of what’s ahead: “It's a new team, a lot of new faces, a new system. It's just a matter of getting everyone on the same page.”

Like Bustin, every player on the Bandits has a story about how Branch hooked them. For Greg Benoit, a former O'Bryant Tiger with Lloyd and four-year Bandit who relocated to New York last year, the coach’s force is strong enough to bring him back to Boston for Saturday games.

“Mike Branch [has] got me out of trouble [and] done a lot of big-brotherly type of things to get me on the right path,” says Benoit, a public high school teacher. Benoit started in the NEFL with a team close to the Central Massachusetts college where he played as an undergrad, but he says Branch couldn’t stand watching him play elsewhere and coaxed him into becoming a Bandit. “I wasn't going to play this year with the move, but I was here for the summertime, played one or two games, and I couldn't give it up,” he says. “It's too important.”

Photograph by Dominick Reuter for BuzzFeed

Mississippi’s Top Prison Reformer Is Facing 368 Years Behind Bars

To prison reformers, Christopher Epps was a savior. Mississippi’s notorious prison system was overcrowded and inhumane when Epps took over as corrections commissioner in 2002. He reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders, shrunk the prison population, and took hundreds of inmates out of indefinite solitary confinement. Prison reformers called it the “Mississippi Miracle.”

By the time he turned 53, Epps was America’s longest-serving prison commissioner, the first in Mississippi’s history to be appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors. His peers thought so highly of him that he was elected president of two prison administrator professional associations: the American Corrections Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

In short, Chris Epps knew prisons. He’d spent four decades working in the system. Starting as a guard in Mississippi’s oldest prison in 1982, he worked his way to the top of Mississippi’s Department of Corrections in just two decades. Over the next 12 years he became a star.

Prisoner’s rights advocates liked him. Correctional officers liked him. Defense lawyers liked him. Prosecutors liked him. Reporters liked him. Politicians liked him. There might not have been a more universally respected and admired public official in all of Mississippi than Chris Epps.

Then on Nov. 5, he quit his job abruptly, without saying why.

The next day the news broke: allegations of kickbacks for nearly $1 billion worth of private prison contracts. More than $1 million in bribes. A federal investigation, a federal indictment, “a major blow to the systemic and evasive corruption in our state government,” U.S. Attorney Harold Britain said on the steps of the federal courthouse.

Chris Epps knew prisons. Now he faces up to 368 years in one.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

For most of the 20th century Mississippi had one state prison. Mississippi State Penitentiary opened in 1901. It stretched across 18,000 acres in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Most of those acres were cotton fields, and Mississippi quickly learned that prisons could turn a profit. The land was once a plantation that had belonged to the Parchman family, and after the state bought the land and built the prison, the governor appointed Jim Parchman warden. The state needed a warden who knew how to run a plantation.

The prisoners picked cotton and the state collected the money. Most of the prisoners were black; all the guards were white. The facility was so understaffed that the warden picked a group of obedient inmates to work as “trusty-shooters.” These men wore vertical stripes and carried rifles, and if an inmate in the field tried to run off, the trusty-shooter was supposed to shoot him.

The prison, with its constant supply of almost-free labor, was a lucrative venture for the state. During its first full year of operation, the prison generated around $185,000 (nearly $5 million in 2014 dollars). Within a decade the prison was earning the state $1 million a year. By then most people called it Parchman Farm. “The closest thing to slavery to survive the Civil War,” wrote David Oshinsky in Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

It was a brutal place to serve time. The cells reached up to 120 degrees in the summer and were infested with insects. In 1915 the state conducted medical experiments on inmates. Guards punished prisoners by whipping them with a leather strap called “Black Annie,” or locking them naked in a 6-foot-by-6-foot windowless, bathroomless room for three days, or handcuffing them to a fence, or zapping them with a cattle prod, or force-feeding them laxatives, or starving them with no more than one meal a day. A character in William Faulkner’s The Mansion called Parchman “Destination doom.”

It went on this way for decades. Then the 1960s arrived, and with it the prisoners' rights movement.

In 1971 a group of inmates and lawyers sued Mississippi over the conditions at Parchman. A year later, federal judge William Keady ruled that the treatment of inmates there was unconstitutional. “Of such severity to offend the modern concepts of human dignity,” he wrote. He barred corporal punishment, trusty-shooters, extended isolation, and the racially segregated housing system. Gov. William Waller formed a committee to reform Parchman. The committee recommended that the state abandon the for-profit farming system, and that Parchman be run by a prison expert instead of a plantation expert.

At this time two-thirds of Parchman’s inmates were black. Two of its guards were black. Keady had ordered the state to hire more black guards, and so the state did, and in 1982 Chris Epps took a job on the graveyard shift.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Epps grew up in Tchula, Mississippi, a small town in the heart of the Delta, halfway between Parchman and Jackson. In 1960 less than 900 people lived in Tchula, almost all of them black. Tchula was the poorest town in a poor state. It had produced great blues singers like Jimmy Dawkins and Lester Davenport, but most locals were farmers who worked on the fertile farms owned by the rich folks who lived in the towns just outside Tchula.

“Some of the best farmland in America, some of the most successful plantations were in that area,” said Sid Salter, a longtime newspaper columnist in Mississippi. “You had this terrible pocket of poverty in Tchula that was surrounded by this gentile Delta society. So for a poor kid growing up in Tchula there would’ve been a whole lot of sense of being on the outside looking into the dime store.”

Epps’ parents were not farmers but educators, and Epps followed their path at first. He graduated from Mississippi Valley State University with a degree in elementary education. He was teaching fifth grade science and math when the state’s corrections department called him with the job offer. He had filled out an application during a college job fair a couple of years earlier.

He accepted the new job but didn’t leave his old one. Epps taught during the day then worked as a guard at Parchman from 4 p.m. to midnight. After three years he quit teaching because he realized he could make more money in corrections, he once explained in an industry newsletter. (Through his lawyers, Epps declined an interview request for this story.)

He was a skilled prison guard. Salter met him in 1983 when he went to Parchman to interview an inmate on death row. “He had a calming effect on the prisoners,” said Salter. “I found him to be very personable, but also kind of a no-nonsense officer.”

Willie Simmons, who later became a state senator, worked at Parchman’s job training program in the 1980s, and remembers Epps as quiet and focused during work hours. “Low-key,” Simmons said. “Not as outgoing as some of the other young guys. Wasn’t one of those social, party-types.”

“Watching him,” Simmons added, “you could tell he was one of those people who wasn’t satisfied with being a security officer. He had aspirations to grow in the system.”

The timing was perfect. In the mid-1970s, state officials had decided to restructure the corrections system. The prison board merged with the probation and parole board and the state built new low-security facilities for minor offenders over the next few years. In 1986 the correction department opened a new penitentiary for the first time since Parchman. Another opened in 1989. The new prisons meant new jobs to fill, and mid-level administrators got promoted to high-level positions at the new facilities, and so the mid-level jobs opened up, and so on.

Epps was well-positioned to make the jump to the administrative side. Those positions required a college degree. Epps had that. Many of his white fellow guards did not.

“The majority of black employees working in security had actually gone to college, while most of the white employees working in security had not gone to college,” said Simmons. “So it was the black employees who were first in line to be elevated for promotion to all of these professional positions. You saw a lot of blacks becoming captains and lieutenants and majors, department heads and supervisors. That was a good feeling for those of us who went into the system not knowing that the window ceiling was going to be open.”

Epps impressed superiors at every stage with his grasp of the system and his energy for the job. “He was always eager to do more than what was asked of him,” said Willie Bozeman, a lobbyist for prisoners' rights groups and a former state representative. “He was always aggressive with learning what he wasn’t required to learn.”

In 1988, Epps was named Parchman’s deputy superintendent, which put him in charge of the prison’s day-to-day operations. A few years later, he was promoted to deputy commissioner of community relations, which put him in charge of the state’s probation and parole system. Then in 2000, newly appointed corrections commissioner Robert Johnson named Epps his deputy. “He was very knowledgeable about corrections, and particularly the Mississippi corrections process,” said Johnson. “He was enthusiastic, really wanting to please both the people he worked for and the people he worked with.”

Epps now oversaw every penitentiary in Mississippi. The system looked a lot different from the one he entered in 1982. In 1982 there were around 5,000 inmates in Mississippi state facilities. In 2002, there were more than 20,000. Tough-on-crime policies of the ’80s and ’90s fueled the explosion: mandatory minimums, Three Strikes penalties, truth-in-sentencing laws that reduced probation and parole eligibility, the War on Drugs.

By the early ’90s state officials realized swelling prisons were straining state budgets. To save money, the state turned to the private prison industry.

In 1993 the Mississippi legislature passed a bill to build a series of facilities that the state would hand over to private prison companies. The law required that a contract was at least 10% cheaper than what it would have cost the state to house the inmates in a public prison. In 1982, there was one state penitentiary in Mississippi, and zero private prisons anywhere in America. By 2002, there were five private prisons and three state prisons in Mississippi, as well as a steadily rising inmate population.

One of those state prisons was in bad shape. Parchman had deteriorated and turned increasingly violent.

“You walk in there, I tell you what, you could just feel the bad vibes,” said Robert Burdge, Parchman’s chaplain from 1996 to 2005.

Inmates at Parchman’s death row unit complained of inhumane conditions. It was far from the quasi-plantation of the past, but it also way behind modern standards. The facility had no fans or air conditioners and inmates said the cells were like ovens in the summer. The sewer system was broken and toilets often backed up. Inmates could go outside, into a steel cage, no more than three times a week. Some inmates went on a hunger strike in protest.

“Conditions there were unbelievably atrocious,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. In July 2002 the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

The next month, Robert Johnson resigned and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed Epps corrections commissioner.

Photo Courtesy of ACLU. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Austin Thinks It Can Save Poor Kids By Separating Boys And Girls

“Hello,” the seventh-grader said with a vigorous handshake. “I'm a Gus Garcia man.”

The tomato sauce stain on his silver tie didn’t detract from his professional demeanor, which was impressive for a middle schooler on a Monday morning.

Around half of the 400 or so students at Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy were waiting for their weekly “house” meeting to begin. The system is reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts: Kids are divided into houses and receive points and prizes for good behavior every six weeks. Blazers and ties — purple for sixth-graders, silver for seventh, purple-silver for eighth, gold for students who go above and beyond — are provided free of charge but not required. (“We want the uniforms to be to be a privilege, not a punishment,” one faculty member explained.) Most kids were wearing them.

Sterlin McGruder, the charismatic principal of Gus Garcia, which is only four months old, walked around the cafeteria energetically greeting teachers and students like a talk show host warming up a crowd. After a “fresh and clean” check, during which the boys were encouraged to say good morning to each other and fix one another's ties, McGruder introduced a PowerPoint presentation on “table manners for gentlemen.” Past Monday meeting topics include breast cancer awareness and “how to tie a tie.”

“What is etiquette?” McGruder asked, reading off the screen projector. “Etiquette is the fruit of manners and it deals directly with kindness, consideration, elegance, style, and swag.”

“Swag is the most important,” he said. “There are a couple of things we need to understand as men.”

One, for example, is that men should always trail behind women at formal dinners, since women often wear high heels at fancy events and thus risk falling over. “It's about being a gentleman,” McGruder said.

The boys nodded dutifully, and without slouching, as they had been instructed.

Photos Courtesy of AISD. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

For years, Garcia and its “sister” school, Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy, formerly known as James E. Pearce middle school, were considered some of the worst schools in Texas. Former teachers and the state education commissioner publicly criticized Pearce’s performance. During the 2013–2014 academic year, Pearce ranked worse than 98.5% of middle schools in Texas on state test performance, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Ask kids and teachers who attended or taught at both schools, and they’ll all say something had to be done. “It was a dirty school,” said 15-year-old Hamza, a former Pearce student now in ninth grade who said he felt uncomfortable and distracted there because of “all the fighting and sex stuff” that went on. “Kids were even having sex in the bathrooms. At one point, it got so bad that I really didn’t even want to go there anymore.”

In August 2014, after years of district debate, Pearce and Garcia reopened as two single-sex middle schools. Aside from the fancy new names, the schools now offer their predominantly low-income, minority students uniforms and an “inclusive atmosphere that is free of some of the social distractions that exist in mixed-gender classrooms,” according to the Austin Independent School District’s website.

More vague are the mysterious “gender-specific strategies” the district says it now employs. According to proponents, sex segregation will provide kids — nearly all of whom are economically disadvantaged students of color — with a fighting chance to get a college degree. Plus, the district says, students who choose to attend the schools “will learn respect, responsibility, and honor.” Many parents who opted to send their kids to the new schools say they’re already happy with the results.

“I love this school,” said Maria Ortega, whose 12-year-old daughter attends Bertha Sadler Means. “It teaches girls that they don’t just have to get married and stay home.”

Yet critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), say the single-sex schools are illegal.

On Monday, in response to what it said were “numerous inquiries” about the legality of single-sex classes, the Department of Education issued new clarifying guidelines for K–12 schools. Those that choose to offer single-sex classes must be clear about their goals (“improving academic achievement” counts), ensure that enrollment is completely voluntary, and conduct periodic evaluations every two years, among other mandates. Clearest of all: Schools must “avoid relying on gender stereotypes.”

The guidance “offers a long-awaited, much-needed course-correction for school districts across the country” and “makes clear that such programs violate [federal gender equity law] Title IX, because generalizations about boys' and girls' interests and learning styles cannot be used to justify the use of different teaching methods for male and female students.” the ACLU said in a statement.

The ACLU has filed lawsuits against many of these districts, in places where public schools and even youth detention centers have launched single-sex classes based on the premise of hardwired gender differences. There are currently complaints pending in Florida, Idaho, and Wisconsin; the ACLU has successfully settled complaints in Alabama, Louisiana, and West Virginia.

In September, the ACLU filed a complaint asking the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate the Austin Independent School District for unlawful sex and racial discrimination against students. The ACLU believes the district is so desperate to turn around failing schools that they’re experimenting based on little more than the assumption that boys and girls learn differently — with their young, low-income students as lab rats.

The complaint also argues that students were automatically assigned to the programs without a “meaningful opportunity” to opt out. The district disputes that claim — in September, it released a statement saying it had addressed the ACLU’s objections before the change was implemented.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, in order to prepare for the split, administrators attended training sessions with names like “Teaching the Male Brain” and “Sugar and Spice and EVERYTHING Nice? Classroom Strategies for All-Girls.” They were told that boys and girls have inherent developmental differences that impact their learning styles. For example, they learned that girls absorb information better in warmer classrooms and are better at hearing than boys, who need teachers to speak more loudly than they do in all-girl classes.

The complaint claims that administrators read books written by sex-differentiated teaching specialists who believe that boys are better at math because their bodies receive daily jolts of testosterone, while girls have equal skills only “a few days per month” when they experience “increased estrogen during the menstrual cycle.” Some of these so-called experts believe boys should be given Nerf baseball bats to release tension and assigned books with “strong male characters who take dramatic action to change the world” instead of “touchy-feely” books with “weak, disabled male characters.” On the other hand, teachers should allow girls to take their shoes off to decrease stress, and give them “concrete manipulatives to touch and otherwise sense, especially when science is being taught.”

Officials at the schools, composed of 97.4% and 94.1% Latino and black schoolchildren, respectively, learned that black boys in particular are more likely to be “aggressive” and “not as neat” — although it was unclear whom they were being compared with.

Photos Courtesy of AISD. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Some of the country’s top-performing schools are single-sex — but those are often storied private schools with hefty endowments, involved parents, and motivated teachers.

“What’s happening in the public school system looks nothing like single-sex education at private schools and colleges,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.

The Bush administration introduced broad regulations in 2006 that allowed public schools to expand single-sex schools and classes as long as enrollment is voluntary and classes are of “substantially equal” quality.

Since then, more and more struggling schools have turned to single-sex schooling. It’s estimated that thousands of U.S. public schools now offer single-sex academic classes; the National Association for Choice in Education (formerly the National Association for Single Sex Public Education) refused to disclose that data to BuzzFeed News.

Just like abstinence-only sex education — which Texas continues to pour money into despite having one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country — single-sex education is not backed up by science.

A recent comprehensive study of 1.6 million students in grades K–12 from 21 nations found no advantage to single-sex schooling. It also found that single-sex schooling reinforces negative stereotypes, as did an oft-cited 2011 report published in Science, “The Pseudoscience of Single Sex Schooling.” Any benefit from single-sex education, the authors say, are from variables like discipline policies or parent engagement.

Single-sex schooling “looks like a quick fix for low-income kids, but it’s all junk,” said Diane Halpern, Dean of Social Sciences at Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute and former president of the American Psychological Association, as well as the lead author of the 2011 study. “Data simply doesn’t support that this is a superior way to teach. Instead it says that boys and girls are fundamentally different based on gender stereotypes.”

The single-sex schools approach is based in large part on the work of Dr. Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Choice in Education and author of Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, and Why Gender Matters. He's known as the the “Al Gore of the gender crisis” to his fans. His critics say he has popularized the reinforcement of outdated stereotypes.

The ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” initiative has been “very profitable” for the organization, Sax told BuzzFeed News, without explaining how. (The ACLU is a nonprofit.) “It’s a good moneymaker.” In an email, he elaborated: “Many successful programs which were engaging and empowering students from low-income households have been shut down as a consequence of bullying from the ACLU and other organizations.”

Sax, a family physician who quit his medical practice in 2008 to focus on the push for single-sex public education options but returned to his practice full-time this year, said the goal should be to let parents choose the best format for their child’s education.

“A parent can usually tell you with great accuracy whether their son or daughter will do better [in a co-ed classroom],” he said. “It doesn’t cost the district anything. You can create a boys classroom and a girls classroom at zero cost and let parents have a choice.”

But administrators who create single-sex classes spend a significant amount of money on training and materials, the ACLU says; a recent complaint in Hillsborough, Florida, found that the school district paid over $100,000 to consultants, including Sax. (The Austin Independent School District says its costs were largely covered by private grants.)

Both faculty and students at the two new Austin schools are thrilled about the changes and confused about why the ACLU wants to put a halt to the progress they’ve already made. They don’t believe the changes are sexist or racist — most of the initiative’s strongest supporters are people of color. At Gus Garcia, there is intense focus on what it means to be a gentleman and a leader. At Bertha Sadler Means, students are encouraged to be risk-takers, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

“It’s not about boys learning this way and girls learning this way,” said Cheryl Bradley, a former Austin school district trustee who successfully fought to convert the two ailing middle schools into single-sex campuses. “What we did is we change the learning environment. Because it just wasn’t working the way it was. We cannot continue to do the same thing and fail at it and not try to do something new to be successful.”

Bradley, who is black, calls the ACLU’s lawsuit misguided. “Sometimes we need protecting from the people who are supposedly trying to protect us,” she said.

Photos Courtesy of AISD. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Gus Garcia’s airy, eco-friendly campus, which opened its doors just seven years ago, is plastered with posters of strapping young men in football uniforms next to the school’s motto: “Boys yesterday. Young Men Today. Leaders Tomorrow!” The leaders-to-be can straighten their ties between classes when they walk by a full-length mirror that reminds them, “This is what people see when they look at ‘You.’”

The school creed begins with “I am a young man / I am my brother’s keeper” and ends with “I will be a college man, a global citizen, and a life-long learner / I will be your friend / Your brother, and your leader / I look good / I feel good / I AM a GUS GARCIA MAN!” School assemblies involve a significant amount of synchronized fist-pumping.

At Bertha Sadler Means’ campus, founded in 1953, pale purple lockers are decorated with pastel paper chains that “promote unity and working together through tough social and emotional learning,” according to Principal Ivette Savina, prim in a polka-dotted blouse and pumps, an almost too-perfect contrast to McGruder’s buddy-buddy style. Girls read on cozy couches in the library and bounce on green exercise balls during math class, because, one teacher said, studies show the balls “improve brain engagement.”

Posters with sayings such as “Keep Calm and Organize Your Binder” and “You are valuable don’t let anyone make you believe differently” line the halls, along with a mural of a girl reading under a tree. Hearts, flowers, butterflies, and ballerinas fly out of her book.

Both Savina and McGruder display some of the books written by the purported single-sex experts decried in the ACLU’s lawsuit in their offices, but neither believes in the authors’ most audacious claims, such as the idea that testosterone makes boys better at math.

“There isn’t anything weird like that [here],” said Savina. “We just want to know the best conditions for our students, how to connect them with academics. We want it to be a safe environment for asking questions.”

McGruder said he didn’t think single-sex schools were best for all children but that “all students learn differently, and parents should have a choice.”

Before moving to Austin, McGruder was the principal of another all-boys school in Grand Prairie. His experience taught him to be inclusive of LGBTQ students and not to make “misogynist assumptions,” he said. But there are non-academic lessons he believes are easier to teach boys in an all-male environment, from personal hygiene to how to talk to police.

It’s particularly frustrating when critics call the schools racist and sexist, said McGruder, who is black. “The community itself knows what its students need,” he said, “and we are losing our young men. Especially our young men of color. A lot of times we have to play mother and father.”

He introduced me to an eighth-grader named Zachary who said he was a house leader, head of the yearbook committee, and a football player. “I’m basically that guy,” he said, without a hint of a smile. But last year, Zachary said, he was failing “because there were girls and I got off task, trying to flirt with them.” Now, he said, he’s on the honor roll.

Zachary also feels a lot of pride in his school. He’s excited to spend more time with girls in ninth grade, but also plans to “keep my head in the game and make sure I still do my work.”

Zachary might be “that guy,” but dozens of kids at both schools said they were happier since the switch. At their old schools, girls said, they were too afraid to raise their hands in math class or participate in P.E. Now they are free to dance around at lunchtime and laugh loudly without worrying what boys think.

“There are no boys to interrupt us now,” said a seventh-grader named Brianna. “There’s no drama.”

Most of the teachers at the schools are brand-new, but some who stuck around said the change was unbelievable, even this early in the year.

“I think the kids needed more structure,” said Stephanie Grizzle, a caseworker for Communities in Schools, a nonprofit housed inside Gus Garcia. “Last year kids cussed at teachers and basically ran the school. Now it’s night and day. The new teachers came in with authority and really put rules in place. Kids say they are less distracted. I don’t know how to explain it, but the whole environment just feels…lighter.”

Bradley, the former district trustee, doesn’t understand how anyone could argue against all that. “These schools were failing,” Bradley said. “They want to talk about racism? We had children of color in failing institutions. Education is a civil right.”

Photos Courtesy of AISD. Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed.

Our 9 Favorite Feature Stories This Week: Rape Culture, Cumberbitches, And Apocalypse Noir

This week for BuzzFeed News, Sandra Allen explains why when it comes to climate change and agriculture, fine wine is the canary in the coal mine. Read that and these other stories from BuzzFeed and around the web.

How Climate Change Will End Wine As We Know It — BuzzFeed News

How Climate Change Will End Wine As We Know It — BuzzFeed News

Hotter and less predictable temperatures mean that much of the world’s premium wine regions are now under threat and new ones are emerging. How the wine industry is — and isn’t — reacting says a lot about the future of agriculture. Read it at BuzzFeed News.

Photograph by Matthew Tucker for BuzzFeed

A Rape on CampusRolling Stone

A Rape on Campus — Rolling Stone

Sabrina Rubin Erdely delivers a shocking, must-read look at University of Virginia's sexual assault problem, and how the administration and culture of the campus itself have prevented justice for victims, or change. “From reading headlines today, one might think colleges have suddenly become hotbeds of protest by celebrated anti-rape activists. But like most colleges across America, genteel University of Virginia has no radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy.” Read it at Rolling Stone.

Illustration by John Ritter for Rolling Stone

The Accused — BuzzFeed News

The Accused — BuzzFeed News

Another important story about sexual assault on college campuses, by Katie J.M. Baker. Sexual assault survivors across the country say they were treated unfairly by their schools, as do an increasing number of men seeking legal action after being suspended for sexual misconduct. Read it at BuzzFeed News.

Wikimedia Commons

Benedict and the CumberbitchesNew York

Benedict and the Cumberbitches — New York

A fun profile by Jada Yuan: “'The Internet’s Boyfriend' is both an accurate descriptor of Cumberbatch’s current place in popular culture and the name of one of many Tumblrs dedicated to him, another of which is a name generator spitting out even more hilarious British-sounding names, like Tiddleywomp Vegemite and Wellington Comblyclomp.” Read it at New York.

Photograph by Art Streiber for New York


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