Here’s our economics editor Larry Elliott on the jump in UK borrowing:
The government was forced to borrow a record £62bn to balance its books in April as the public finances felt the strain from a shutdown of the economy that saw high street spending plummet by an unprecedented 18%.
Figures from the office for national statistics highlighted the dramatic impact of the Covid-19 restrictions introduced in late March on activity – with public borrowing up by more than £50bn on the same month a year earlier and spending in clothes stores down by 50%.
The ONS said there had been a sharp drop in all the state’s main sources of revenue – income tax, national insurance, VAT and corporation tax coupled with a marked increase in spending. With the economy at a virtual standstill, the government borrowed as much last month as in the whole of the previous financial year.
Britain’s retailers are suffering from one of the most “profound shifts” in consumer behaviour in a century, says Lynda Petherick, managing director at Accenture.
April was always going to be the month when the full force of government lockdown measures would hit retailers. Clothing has continued to suffer, and though there are still some bright spots in grocery, “panic-buying” and online household goods orders subsided slightly as consumers continued to restrict their shopping trips.
Yes – these are hard times for the sector, however there are lessons to be learned if retailers are to come out the other side of the pandemic ready to respond. Online sales continue to reach new heights, suggesting that consumers have been quick to shift their buying habits – a trend which is only likely to continue. Retailers will need to act quickly and deliberately to improve their capabilities if they are to drive growth and profitability in an increasingly digital future.”
Lisa Hooker, consumer markets leader at PwC, hopes that the worst may be over though, after the 18% slump in April:
However bad April’s figures are, we believe that retail has reached a turning point in the Covid-19 crisis. In the short term, May has already seen a loosening of lockdown restrictions across all the home nations. Indeed, enterprising operators have begun to reopen cautiously, from garden centres to some furniture stores coming back for the bank holiday weekend.
Economist Rupert Seggins has shown the unprecedented scale of the drop in April:
As rumoured, the UK government has extended its mortgage payment holiday scheme by three months.
It’s also extended the ban on home repossessions until the end of October, in an attempt to prevent the pandemic leading to rising homelessness.
My colleague Mark Sweney explains:
More than 1.8 million homeowners have taken a three-month mortgage holiday since the scheme was announced in March to help borrowers in financial difficulty because of the coronavirus crisis, according to Treasury figures. It was due to expire at the end of June.
“We’re doing everything we can to help people with their finances at this difficult time and that includes making sure people get the support they need with their mortgages,” said John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury. “That’s why we’re working with the banks and lenders to extend payment holidays if people need them.”
Over in the City, shares are dropping as investors worry about the economic impact of Covid-19.
The FTSE 100 index of leading UK-listed shares dropped by 110 points, or 1.8%, in early trading to 5903. That wipes out most of this week’s gains. Nearly every share is down, led by financial services firms like Prudential (-9%), HSBC (-5.8%) and Standard Chartered (-4%).
The slump in retail sales, and the spike in borrowing, are a reminder of the economic cost of the pandemic. Recent hints from the Bank of England that it could impose negative interest rates in the UK are weighing on bank stocks too.
Shares are also down in Germany and France. Traders are worried that China has dropped its annual GDP target today – clearly growth this year is simply too bad [Beijing has an remarkable track record of achieving these targets…]
But there’s another reason for the sell-off: China’s ruling Communist Party has proposed a controversial national security law for Hong Kong to ban “treason, secession, sedition and subversion”.
The proposal, which could bypass Hong Kong’s lawmakers, would also allow the central government to set up “security organs” in the territory.
It’s likely to inflame tensions with pro-democracy supporters in the city state, and with the White House too, as Jim Reid of Deutsche Bank told clients:
This will likely draw a large amount of opposition given the pro-democracy protests in the country over the past year. This could be another wedge between China and the US, given how many US politicians on both sides of the aisle supported HK’s efforts last year.
Paul Dales of Capital Economics predicts Britain’s deficit could hit 17% of GDP this year. That’s an immense figure — exceeding the last financial crisis, when the deficit hit 10% of annual output.
With little prospect of a swift return this year towards pre-crisis levels of economic activity, we expect borrowing to total £340bn (17.5% of GDP) over 2020/21, which would be over £40bn more than the OBR’s forecast.
Overall, the small easing of the lockdown on 13th May probably means that retail sales started to edge higher in May and that the government might not have had to borrow quite as much as in April. But it’s very clear that the retail activity will remain worrying weak for some time yet and that the government will have to borrow a few hundred billion pounds this year.
Jeremy Thomson-Cook, chief economist at financial services group Equals, says we should welcome the jump in borrowing – the alternative is worse.
The UK’s budget deficit is at the highest level since records began in 1993. This is a good thing; if your house is on fire, you don’t ask the Fire Brigade to only use a certain amount of water.
The water will need to keep flowing and the deficit will continue to grow because the alternative – a deeply scarred economy – is far worse.”
Howard Archer of EY Item Club points out that falling tax receipts also hit the public finances:
Central government receipts fell 26.5% year-on-year in April, as they were impacted by a combination of sharply contracting economic activity, markedly rising unemployment and weaker earnings, and companies being allowed to delay tax payments.
“Income and capital gains tax receipts were down 36.0% year-on-year in April, as jobs were lost and pay hit. There was also a fall of 14.1% in corporation tax receipts while VAT receipts were down 43.6% year-on-year.
Introduction: Government borrowing hits £62bn in April
Good morning, and welcome to our rolling coverage of the world economy, the financial markets, the eurozone and business.
We start with some breaking news — UK government borrowing hit its highest level on record last month amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as retail sales across the country plunged at a record pace.
The Office for National Statistics has just reported that public borrowing in April is estimated to have surged to £62.1bn. That’s £51.1bn more than in April 2019, and the highest borrowing in any month since records began in January 1993.
Indeed, it’s almost as much as the UK borrowed in the whole of the last financial year:
This is an early sign of the massive cost of the government’s attempts to limit the damage of the Covid-19 crisis, including its jobs guarantee scheme. It’s also due to a sharp drop in tax takings.
But the ONS also cautions that “the effects of COVID-19 are not fully captured in this release”.
The ONS has also reported that retail sales across the UK slumped at an unprecedented rate in April.
Sales fell by over 18% compared with March, due to the widespread shutdown of non-essential shop, taking turnover down to its lowest level since 2005.
The ONS explains:
The volume of retail sales in April 2020 fell by a record 18.1%, following the strong monthly fall of 5.2% in March 2020.
All sectors saw a monthly decline in volume sales except for a record increase in sales for non-store retailing at 18.0% and a continued increase in sales for alcohol stores at 2.3%.
The volume of clothing sales in April 2020 plummeted by 50.2% when compared with March 2020, which had already fallen by 34.9% on the previous month.
This comes as fears over the UK hospitality industry grow, with many pubs, bars and restaurants warning they will close some outlets permanently.
Stock markets are also under pressure, after China abandoned its long-held practice of setting a GDP target – presumably because growth has been so badly hit by the pandemic.
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The Government is to launch a review into why people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds appear to be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.
Downing Street confirmed that the NHS and Public Health England will begin analysing the evidence, following pressure on ministers to launch an investigation.
While no date has been given on when the review will take place, the BBC has reported that Public Health England is to start recording coronavirus cases and deaths by ethnicity.
The latest figures released on Friday show that of 4,873 patients with Covid-19 in critical care, 1,681 were from the BAME community – accounting for 34.5 per cent of cases.
This is despite black and Asian people making up 10.8 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 UK census.
Addressing the matter at Saturday’s Downing Street press briefing, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said: “There does appear to be a disproportionate impact of the virus on those from BAME communities.
“For that reason, the chief medical officer commissioned work from Public Health England to better understand this issue.”
He said it was “right that we do thorough research swiftly” in order to “better understand it”.
Speaking alongside Mr Jenrick, Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said: “This is something that I am very concerned about, and I know that the chief medical officer is concerned about too.
“And I think it’s absolutely right that he’s asked Public Health England, who have the expertise … to look at this in detail and get a clear understanding of what might be accounting for increased risks and increased deaths in particular ethnic communities.
“In NHS England, obviously, we have a number of our staff … come from those ethnic groups, and we are actively also looking ahead of that work, of what we have to do to support, and, perhaps, protect them specifically.”
Of the 56 NHS workers confirmed to have died after contracting coronavirus, more than 30 were from BAME backgrounds.
However, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said ethnicity is “less clear” than three others factors in determining who is most at risk.
“This is something we are very keen to get extremely clear,” he told the Downing Street press conference.
“We’ve asked Public Health England to look at this in some detail and then what we really want is, if we see any signal at all, we want to then know what next we can do about it to minimise risk.”
He said over 90 per cent of people who have died with coronavirus in the UK had at least one other disease, while other factors included age and male sex.
The British Medical Association (BMA) welcomed the review but said must come up with quick solutions to address problems and be backed by “real-time data”.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA council, said: “If the review is to have any meaningful impact, it needs to be informed with real-time data to understand why and how this deadly virus can have such a tragic disproportionate toll on our BAME communities and healthcare workers.
“This must include daily updates on ethnicity, circumstance and all protected characteristics of all patients in hospital as well as levels of illness in the community, which is not currently recorded.
“The Government must take every necessary step to address this devastating disparity and protect all sectors of the population equally and now. That is why the Government must send a directive to every hospital telling them to record the ethnicity of patients who are admitted and succumb to COVID-19 immediately.
“It also means taking vital steps now to protect our BAME communities until we can develop a detailed understanding of the threats they face. This could include that those at greatest risk, including older and retired doctors, are not working in potentially infectious settings.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was a “really important” thing to understand.
He told ITV News: “We have seen both across the population as a whole, but also very much within those who work in the NHS who have died, a much higher proportion of people from minority ethnic backgrounds and that really worries me.
“I pay tribute to the work that they have done, including both those who were born here and those who have moved here, and given that service to the NHS. It’s a really, really important thing to make sure that we fully understand.”
Shadow equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova welcomed the review into the “disturbing impact” Covid-19 is having on BAME communities, but said it was “not yet clear whether it will be independent, when it will be concluded and who will be leading it”.
“The Government must ensure the review is robust and looks into the underlying structural economic and social inequalities that have affected BAME communities in this crisis,” she said.
“It must also urgently record data broken down by ethnicity on the number of people who have died as a result of Covid-19.
“The devastating effect of Covid-19 on BAME communities cannot be overstated. This review must be the first step in ensuring that all communities are equally protected from this virus.”
Before Leah Freeman’s body was found outside of her hometown of Coquille, Oregon, in 2000, her gym shoes, one of them bloody, were virtually the only physical clues police had to figure out what had happened to the missing 15-year-old.
Nearly 20 years later, one of those same shoes has played a key role in freeing from prison the only person who has ever been convicted of killing her: Freeman’s high school boyfriend Nick McGuffin.
To this day, no other arrests have been made in Freeman’s case.
“That’s the reason why I’m here…to keep Leah’s name in the light. To bring her name forward, to get somebody to come forward with the truth of what happened. To get resolution for myself, for her family,” said McGuffin, who is now 37.
“I’m an innocent person,” he added. “They found…vindicating DNA evidence that finally shows what I’ve been saying for nearly 20 years.”
Watch the full story on “20/20” Friday, Feb. 28, at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.
McGuffin was a high school senior when he and Freeman, a freshman, were dating.
“I asked Leah if she’d go to the prom with me,” he said. “She had a gorgeous white dress, she had her hair done perfectly… I’m glad we went and got the pictures that we did together.”
But Freeman’s mother, Cory Courtright, had concerns about their relationship. In a 2010 interview with “20/20,” she said she thought McGuffin “seemed like an OK kind of guy,” but she said their age difference bothered her.
“I found out that they were being sexually active, and that was disturbing to me,” Courtright said at the time. “It caused some conflict between Leah and I…because she wanted him to be her boyfriend and I didn’t.”
On the night of June 28, 2000, McGuffin dropped off Freeman at her friend Cherie Mitchell’s house with plans to pick her up a couple of hours later for a double date.
Mitchell said she and Freeman got into an argument about how much time Freeman was spending with McGuffin. She said that Freeman, who was upset, took off on foot after storming out of the house.
“I followed her out to the road and that’s when I told her, ‘It’s just, it’s not about you,’” Mitchell told “20/20” in a 2010 interview. “He was trying to take her away and take her away to do things that I wasn’t really welcome [to join].”
When McGuffin came to pick up Freeman at around 9 p.m., Mitchell told him that Freeman had already left. Freeman was last seen walking alone near her high school in downtown Coquille, according to witness testimony, but she never made it home.
McGuffin said he drove around for hours looking for her.
“I went back to Fast Mart probably five or six times,” he said. “There was different people there every time… They didn’t see Leah. I didn’t see Leah.”
McGuffin said he spoke to police officers on two separate occasions that night as he drove around in his 1967 Ford Mustang. The officers had pulled him over for having a broken headlight.
After the second time, McGuffin said he asked his friend at the time, Kristen Steinhoff whom he said he had run into earlier, to help him look for Freeman. He said he and Steinhoff drove around for about an hour or so in her car.
“I dropped Kristen off. … I think it was around 2:00 [in the morning], probably. I decided to go by Leah’s house one more time,” McGuffin said. “I saw a glare on her window, thought it was her TV. … It was 2000. It’s not like she could send me a text. She couldn’t call me on a cellphone. So I thought she was home, and I went home after that.”
The next day, when Freeman hadn’t turned up, her mother and McGuffin went to the police, who initially treated the 15-year-old’s disappearance as a runaway teen case.
“I knew something was wrong,” Courtright told “20/20” in 2010. “Again, this girl had no reason to run away.”
The night she went missing, a mechanic found and picked up one of her gym shoes by a cemetery near the high school. He believed it may have belonged to one of his kids – but days later, realized it may be connected to the missing girl and turned it into police. Her other shoe was found about a week later, outside of town – with blood on it.
About five weeks after she disappeared, on August 3, 2000, Freeman’s decomposing body was found on a steep wooded embankment, eight miles away through back roads from where the first shoe was found.
When he heard the news, McGuffin said, “It was like my world was over.”
“I broke down,” he continued. “That’s the saddest moment that I’ve ever gone through.”
McGuffin said he voluntarily went to the police to be interviewed and turned over his Mustang in hopes it would help with the investigation.
“[I] tried to give them any information that I knew that may be helpful,” he said.
After his initial meeting with police, McGuffin said he was called in again for questioning. He allowed officers to take photos of him, and later learned that they were checking for defensive wounds.
As time passed, the case went cold. McGuffin said he tried to move on with his life, but that he wasn’t able to grieve for Freeman while people suspected he was responsible. With public perception turned against him, he also said it was “hard to go out in public.”
“You’re basically looking over your shoulder to try to figure out who’s gonna come around the corner, who’s gonna start yelling at you,” he said.
Within two years after her death, McGuffin said he was hospitalized for anxiety and tried to end his life.
“It was just a buildup… It’s like when a tea kettle boils and it starts to make that hum, that’s what it was like, you just get an overload,” he said.
Eventually, McGuffin found a passion for cooking and graduated from culinary school, later becoming head banquet chef at The Mill Casino in North Bend, Oregon. After starting a new relationship, he had a daughter in 2007. He said she brought a sense of renewal into his life.
“I was very excited that I was gonna be a father,” he said. “My daughter helped me through a lot.”
As the years dragged on, police could not make any arrests in Freeman’s case, and the small community of Coquille — a town of about 4,000 residents — became more furious that her killer hadn’t been caught. Freeman’s mother, especially, was upset the case remained unsolved.
In 2008, the town got a new police chief, Mark Dannels, who pushed to have the case re-examined.
“When I arrived in Coquille…everybody was talking about the Leah Freeman case. And one of the expectations as a new police chief was, ‘What are you going to do about it, chief?’” Dannels said. “That’s pretty uncommon, number one, to have a 15-year-old teenager killed in a small community town like that. So you can see where the people were upset. Why hadn’t this been solved? And the more I looked into it, the more I felt I had to do something on this case.”
Dannels assembled a team from across the state to organize and consolidate all the old files and re-examine the case with fresh eyes.
They were surprised to discover how scattered the evidence was, with some of it even as far away as Scotland Yard in London, where it had been sent years ago for testing. Police also discovered rolls of undeveloped film from the original investigation, and spent months working overnight just to figure out what evidence they had to start to reinvestigate the case.
Coquille Police went back through the evidence, interviewing hundreds of witnesses, combing through old witness statements — including McGuffin’s — and retesting old evidence to re-examine it with assistance from the new team of forensic experts.
“When they reopened the investigation…I just figured the truth will come out and the real person or persons would be found. And so, yeah. I mean, I didn’t see any of this coming,” McGuffin said, referring to his eventual arrest.
During this round of investigating, police questioned Steinhoff, the friend who helped McGuffin look for Freeman on the night she disappeared.
Steinhoff told authorities that McGuffin had stopped by her house around midnight, they had done drugs, and when he then tried to have sex with her she says she told him to stop.
McGuffin admitted that he did smoke marijuana and kissed Steinhoff that night, but he said everything else she claimed wasn’t true.
“The things Kristen and I did that night, when we were kissing, was wrong. I accept that,” McGuffin told “20/20.” “It doesn’t mean just because I did that…that I didn’t care about [Leah]. It’s not an easy thing to deal with.”
After hearing from more than 100 witnesses, a grand jury returned an indictment against McGuffin. He was arrested on Aug. 23, 2010, and charged with murder.
At McGuffin’s trial in July 2011, a witness said he had seen McGuffin and Freeman together some time after she left Mitchell’s home. The prosecution argued that the couple quarreled and when it turned physically violent, McGuffin killed her.
McGuffin claims he never saw Freeman after he dropped her off at Mitchell’s home at 7 p.m. that night.
Ten of the 12 jurors voted to convict McGuffin on the lesser charge of manslaughter instead of murder. At the time, Oregon was only one of two states that allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal felony cases.
“My trial came down to people’s words,” McGuffin said. “My story has really never changed.”
McGuffin was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which he first spent at Snake River Correctional Institution before being sent to a labor camp in Oregon’s Tillamook State Forest due to good behavior.
Steinhoff died five years after McGuffin’s conviction.
In 2014, after McGuffin had been incarcerated for four years, attorney Janis Puracal decided to take up McGuffin’s case.
During her review, Puracal said bombshell evidence was revealed — an unidentified man’s DNA on Leah Freeman’s shoes — that eventually led to McGuffin’s conviction being overturned.
When Freeman’s shoes were first tested in 2000, the Oregon State Police crime lab discovered something that DNA technology 20 years ago could not conclusively characterize. They did not mention it in the official report.
“At the time, we used interpretation guidelines that didn’t necessarily discern or distinguish really low levels of DNA,” Chrystal Bell, Forensic Services Division director for the Oregon State Police, told ABC News. “As a result of that, the analysts at the time chose to be very conservative and chose not to actually call out that potential male DNA because she couldn’t decide what it was. So she made no conclusions or statements about that DNA because it was at a very, very low level.”
At the time, Bell said, it was entirely up to the analyst’s “discretion over what they were going to report.”
When McGuffin went to trial in 2011, the DNA technology had advanced enough that the sample could have been re-analyzed to determine that it was a man’s DNA. But no one connected to the case had asked for retesting because they had no idea the sample existed.
“Had they asked us to re-examine that evidence, we would have done so,” said Bell of the Oregon State Police crime lab. “We don’t always have an automatic trigger to go back and do re-examination every time we get additional evidence, whether it’s two years later or five years later or 10 years later.”
In 2017, however, Puracal made that request.
“Finding that exculpatory DNA on the shoes, that was a huge moment for our case,” Puracal told “20/20.” “That was a game-changer for us. We were looking for DNA that would tell us who actually committed this crime. And here, there was DNA of some other man on the victim’s bloodstained shoe … and never reported. That changed everything for us.”
“I was overly excited to find the DNA,” McGuffin added. “It didn’t match me. … I told my attorneys, I told Janis, ‘Let’s go find out what happened… Let’s solve this case once and for all. I mean, that was my push.”
Judge Patricia Sullivan agreed with Puracal that the revelation of this DNA was a game-changer. In December 2019, she ruled that there is a “reasonable probability” that McGuffin’s guilty verdict would have been different had the presence of the unidentified man’s DNA been disclosed to law enforcement, prosecutors and the defense.
“However, without the DNA evidence, Trial Counsel was reduced to showing that (Nick McGuffin) could not have committed the crime and was not able to produce any evidence of an alternative theory,” wrote Judge Sullivan.
The judge set aside McGuffin’s conviction and remanded it back to the trial court.
Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier told “20/20” he decided not to seek a retrial for McGuffin for several reasons, including the lab’s report, the fact that key witnesses had died and the jury had been split on the verdict, and Courtright’s wishes.
“She just flat told me, ‘I cannot take the strain of another trial. I can’t do it,’ and she asked me not to try the case again,” Frasier said of Courtright. “That was probably the biggest factor.”
“Nick’s already served, 97 percent of his sentence,” Dannels said. “So we go back, put this all back together, retry it. You put the family back through this again. For what? To say we were right?”
Nine years after he was convicted for a crime that he has always maintained he never committed, McGuffin was able to walk out of prison a free man.
“I just knew that we had to fight and we had to fight for what’s right,” McGuffin said.
However, Judge Sullivan also said in her ruling overturning the conviction this did not demonstrate his innocence.
“There have been cases in the United States where the evidence clearly shows, beyond any doubt, that the person in jail or prison didn’t do it, and that person needs to get out. That’s an exoneration, in my book,” Frasier said. “What happened here was [McGuffin] was ordered to [get] a new trial. I made the decision not to go forward for a new trial. I still stand behind the investigation of this case… There’s evidence in this record to find this defendant guilty. But we have decided, for a variety of reasons, not to go forward at this time. It’s not that I believe he’s not guilty or innocent, it’s I believe it is not appropriate to proceed.”
Puracal said it was “disappointing” that police and prosecution “continue to say that Nick is guilty in this case.”
“The Department of Justice could have appealed the post-conviction court’s ruling and they chose not to,” she said. “It’s important to recognize where the DNA was found. The DNA was found inside Leah’s shoe as well as outside Leah’s shoe. And it’s found in and around bloodstains on her left shoe. That’s important to know.”
In the weeks since his release, McGuffin has tried to piece his life back together.
“After my exoneration…I had an idea of what it was going to be like, and I was wrong. It’s not easy. It’s actually really hard,” he said.
“[The] D.A., law enforcement, a crime lab…should have some accountability for what they did,” he added. “All I’m asking is for accountability and for them to do their jobs properly.”
“There are not enough markers to put it into the database to see if we can identify somebody that way,” Frasier explained. “If we have a suspect, we can get a DNA sample from them send it in and have them compare it. And that’s what we did with the other potential suspects in the case. And they all came back as not being the donor of that DNA.”
The central problem is that even though authorities now definitively have a sample of male DNA, the sample is so small that it can only exclude matches, but it cannot be used to confirm there is a match with a suspect.
“[The sample] is not suitable to put into the FBI’s database for forensic samples and convicted offenders,” Bell added, “The quality of the DNA was not good enough in 2000, it was not good enough in 2010, and it is still not good enough.”
Today, McGuffin is doing his best to reclaim his life, getting accustomed to keyless cars and talk-to-text on a smartphone. He’s also working on re-establishing his relationship with his daughter, who is now 12.
“I look at her with the strength that she has at her age, I think that helps me,” McGuffin said.
Even though his conviction was overturned, McGuffin said finding a new job has been difficult, which has been hard on him because he said he was looking forward to resuming his career as a chef once he was released.
“It’s not an easy feat. The stigma, even now, trying to get a job. … I want to work. I’m passionate about my career,” McGuffin said. “I remain an innocent man. That’s not going to change.”
McGuffin said he still thinks about Freeman and the life she could have had.
“She should be, what, 35 now? … She would have had a family,” he said.
Now that he’s out, McGuffin said he is determined to fight for the truth for Freeman and get answers as to who killed her.
“I want people to come forward with the truth. I just want the truth. I want to know what happened,” he said. “[We] have a chance right now to clean the slate to make it right. I mean, I’m pretty sure a lot of people would want that. I know Leah would. I know her family wants that. I want the truth for them. What more can I ask for?”
MONTGOMERY, ALA. – It’s dusk and just outside the windows of Room 107 at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama, the final remnants of the band are leaving practice the same way they came: blaring and filling the now chilled crisp of the December air with the powerful and royal tones of brass.
Justin Heideman, better known as “Vanilla Funk” or “that boy John,” shifts his position in his chair and postures up from a slouch, clutching the ever so familiar mace drum majors wield. There is a calm intensity that covers him as if he is still in front of his band – as if he’s still in control.
That’s because he is.
Heideman raises his hand, as if to say, “Hold on one second,” reaches for his iPhone and dials the number of his band director Brandon Howard.
“Can you tell the guys outside to be quiet? They are interrupting what’s going on in here.”
He hangs up, slouches back, tilts his head toward the tiled ceiling and takes a breath before moving his fingers through his hair against the grain. Now, back in his position of comfort, Heideman focuses in; it’s time for another interview.
This is his life now, but he hasn’t changed a bit, despite the few who misunderstand who he is and what it took for him to be in the position he is in now.
This isn’t a game for Heideman. It never has been.
Music is his passion, and before he went viral in October, a white boy leading an all-black band, Heideman carried out his job as head drum major the same way he does now: with discipline, fervor, an intense desire to learn at all costs and a dedication to uphold the legacy of Jeff Davis drum majors who came before him.
But, Heideman’s existence is not and was not about clicks, laughs, followers or being invited to the proverbial “cookout.” It’s about being a Jefferson Davis “Intermission Magician” from his first breath to his last, and he’ll stand for that in the face of prejudice and those suggesting he’s a talentless token who doesn’t belong.
“They say it’s ‘white mediocrity,’” Heideman said. “I don’t care if I’m white, I don’t care if I’m Asian, Hispanic, black, whatever. I don’t care if I’m in the front, in the back, 5 miles behind … mediocrity is not the word.
“I don’t care if you call me white. You can call me white all day, you can call me a cracker, but as soon as you call me ‘mediocre,’ don’t come after my craft, because I have worked tirelessly to perfect this craft.”
Oct. 5, 2019, was the day Heideman’s life changed forever.
It was Saturday, the day after JD’s band conducted its annual homecoming parade around the school, when social media personality @PubbyLongway released a video commentary of Heideman leading the JD band.
It went viral.
“The first thing that I thought was, ‘This is hilarious! He’s talking about us!’” Heideman said, without realizing how popular @PubbyLongway was. “When I looked at his profile, he was really popular on social media. I was like, ‘He’s actually really famous on social media; this might go viral!’”
By the end of the weekend, the video had amassed hundreds of thousands of views on Instagram and Twitter, each.
Heideman’s fellow drum majors, Xavier “Cruise Control” Jackson, Dominic “D-Willy” Williams, and Jaylon “Freak Nasty” Jones, said they had the same reaction.
Jackson and Williams reached out to Heideman as soon as they saw the video picking up steam, but he played it cool, Jackson said.
“I saw the video, and I busted out laughing, that’s all I could do,” Jackson said. “Then I went to Justin and said ‘Justin, did you see this video? and he said ‘Yea, I been seen it.’ And I’m looking like, ‘How did you feel about it?’”
Heideman’s response: “I just busted out laughing, I can’t feel no way.” There was a collective feeling of disbelief, Jones said. The group didn’t expect it to “blow up” and when it did, it became “surreal.”
When the four got to school on Monday they were met with praises and the most popular lines of the video’s commentary, ‘Slideee, to the Sky!’ and ‘Where that boy John at?’ Williams said.
Heideman was a celebrity.
The viral nature of the video was exciting, but Howard, the band’s director of nine years, said he was afraid his band would be viewed as a joke, among other things. He was concerned about the image of the band and protecting his kids from the horrors of the comment section online – an intuition that became a reality.
“When I saw it, of course it was pretty funny,” Howard said. “But when I was watching the video I was like ‘Man, how are you all going to catch this video?’ This was probably the worst video that I wanted put out there of my group.”
There were a lot of variables to consider for Howard: His band wasn’t completely dressed, as it was a minor parade JD does every year for homecoming where they march from the school to the elementary school across the street and back; Heideman had a ponytail at the top of his head, put in by his girlfriend, Jenilyn Davis, as a joke, “that no one would notice,” according to Jackson; and the focus of the video was placed solely on Heideman.
“It’s funny to put them on display like that,” Howard said. “But I don’t want my band to turn into a joke. I don’t want him (Heideman) to turn into a joke.”
That wasn’t the intention of Pubby Longway’s post. He said he was impressed and that Heideman deserved the attention. However, Longway didn’t account for the seeds of hate that would sprout in response. No one really did.
Longway stumbled across the initial video of Heideman performing, while browsing on Facebook. He said he was thoroughly impressed because had never seen a white drum major lead an all-black band.
“I was just chilling, and I had videos just running,” Longway said. “Next thing you know I left the room, and I heard some band stuff playing, and I like band music, because I was in band myself. So, I said, ‘Let me go back and listen to that.’ I ran back to my room and I saw Justin. I was like ‘What!? It’s a white boy leading the pack.’”
That was enough for Longway to record one of his famous voice-overs, and the internet took care of the rest. Longway said he expected to get a little more views than he usually does, “50K maybe 100K,” he said, because of the unique nature of the content.
It blew up beyond expectations, and today the video sits at 4.4 million views.
Even with the praise and positive social engagement, hate, ignorance, and prejudice countered with a punch of its own.
I’m Sorry!!!.. The “Sonic Boom!” Is A Very!! Rich Black Legacy!!.. I’ve Been Gone Many!!, Many! Years But, To See How This White Kid Is All!! Up Front!!????.. He CAN’T!!! Do ANY!! Of The Moves Or, Steps Right! He’s Stiff!! ..It’s A Slap!!! In The Face!! To Black People!!! …The College That’s The Originator!! Gets Sometimes NO!! Hits Or, Very Few!!!… & Last!!.. It’s The Left!!! Side Whites!! In Government!!& Hollywood!!.. Ect… Pushing This Crap!!! NOT!!! The Right!!! & It’s Been Going On Ever Since Blacks Have Been BS! Played By The Left!!! It’s Been!!! Done In Hollywood!!! All The Time!!!… Put This Kid Back!!! In The Band WITH!! A HORN!!…The “White Bitin!??” Has To STOP!!!.. (Stephen Herron, YouTube)
A slice of the African American community saw Heideman’s lead as a crime. Comments poured in on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and other online forums incriminating Heideman of not being worthy to lead the band.
“They don’t know the full story behind that, you can’t just go off what you see,” Jackson said. “I feel like people are saying that because he’s the first person you see and then you got us behind him. No, it should all just be about that one band, because it’s one band.”
Others suggested there was something heinous about a group of black children following the lead of a white boy and expressed that Heideman took the attention away from the three other drum majors:
Ya’ll (sic) the reason we can’t get ahead as people!!! Do not share or praise this fellow ALL THE WHILE IGNORING THE BLACK DRUM MAJORS DOING JUST AS GOOD IF NOT BETTER! I have nothing against him personally but stop praising white mediocrity. (username: tsugraytiger, hbcusports.com forum)
“I saw all the slander,” Longway said. “I even got some slander off of that, because it’s a lot of people that are real pro-black now, and they were like ‘Yea, you’re just helping another white dude get on. He’s just on your back and he gonna ride ya.’ And I saw Justin was getting the lash of a white boy being in that position, while black people been doing it for so long and he’s getting recognition off of it like it’s just something brand new.”
However, “I don’t even think it phased him really,” Longway said.
That wasn’t the case, the words cut deeper than Heideman let off.
Howard said Heideman ultimately came to him considering quitting, all the while letting on that he was fine. Howard wasn’t having that. Thus, Heideman told Howard if quitting was “too far of a step,” then let’s shake up the formation. “Put Xavier in the front, Dom can take his spot, Jalen can take (Dom’s) spot, and I’ll sit in the back, since everybody wants to talk about how I don’t deserve to be in the front.”
The public backlash from a select group of people was an “eye-opener” for Heideman, Howard said. “He didn’t realize people would approach it that way. But a high school kid, really? This kid is 17 years old, he didn’t ask for this.”
Those commenting saw their words as a protection of the culture – a culture that African Americans fight to preserve daily. Yet many did not give Heideman the benefit of the doubt. Rather, he was viewed as an invader, someone that encroached on a piece of black culture that they weren’t willing to surrender as so many other things.
In many ways, the opposition that Heideman faced is an age-old story blacks have been up against for years when attempting to enter a space not everyone agreed they belonged in.
“I just feel like he’s in our shoes a little bit, like in a black person’s world,” Longway said. “You know how black people try to get into a sport or something new like hockey or something? Or anything like polo, you know you’re the first black to do something? In high school, I’ve never seen a white drum major do anything like that.”
What’s not understood by some onlookers is Heideman’s journey and the work he put in to achieve this status, as alluded to by Longway. Some have not taken a look beyond the viral nature of the video, or the idea of Justin as just another white person trying to be cool. But the ones closest to Heideman say it’s beyond that.
It’s about the band and functionality thereof. It’s about Heideman earning his spot just like every other drum major that came before.
“They just think he just gets out there and just dances,” Williams said. “It’s bigger than that.”
Race is not the whole story, they said though the viralization of Heideman’s existence made that his narrative.
“When you get to looking on the internet, everybody is slandering him,” Williams said. “Saying, ‘What is he doing as a white head drum major leading a black band?’ To me, (his race) really doesn’t faze me, but as to see people talk about him, it’s stupid. Justin, all the things he went through, all the trials and tribulations that he took to become the person he is, a lot of people don’t see that side of him, because they just see him on the internet.”
For starters, Heideman has been the head drum major at JD the past two years, and America is late to the party.
Furthermore, the process of becoming a drum major is a rigorous task. Howard takes those auditioning through a one- to two-month process of punctilious training before auditions start.
This process starts with about 15 individuals. Practices last hours and extend to the weekends, weeding out the unqualified. The number of participants dwindles with each week, and by audition time there are usually about four or five, “because everybody can’t really hang,” Howard said.
Once the audition gets underway, those remaining are graded on a 80-point scale by judges on stationary points (detailed body control and executing specific movements), conducting, facial and whistle commands and a small routine they must execute.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you pick your drum majors because they can dance,’” Howard said. “No, we pick them because they are meticulous in the way they do things.”
Of those 80 points, the year Heideman auditioned, he scored a 78 out of 80. The highest score.
Earning his keep: The birth of ‘Vanilla Funk’
Unlike most white children in Montgomery and the surrounding areas, Heideman attends one of the city’s traditional public schools, instead of one of its magnet or private schools.
Demographically, JD is roughly 91% black and 6% white, according to the Alabama Department of Education report card. So, Heideman was always going to stand out, but his parents didn’t think this was an issue.
“His mother and I both went to public school here in Montgomery,” Eric Heideman, Justin’s father said. “To this family, color is not an issue. We don’t look at race. We look at the quality of the person.”
Heideman was hesitant about many things his freshman year, which included joining the band. It all was foreign to him.
Heideman attended the first practice but didn’t return at the request of his parents who wanted him to spend the first semester of school focusing on his grades.
When he got his shot to join again in the spring, Heideman was still unsure.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Heideman said, “didn’t know anything about the SWAC or HBCU show style-bands.”
His hesitancy quickly turned into love, and Heideman made the decision to give all that he had to band: “back-breaking work,” he described it. Nonetheless, there were still some obstacles to be scaled and questions to be answered.
One of those questions was posed by fellow drum major Jackson and trombonist at the time: “Is he going to be able to keep up? Will he be able to do this how we do this? I wasn’t quick to judge, I gave him a shot,” Jackson said. “I just couldn’t seem to wrap my head around him.”
However, Jackson and others soon found the character ultimately unearthed was of an individual who wants to be the best, learn as much as he can, and yearns to lead. Heideman pursues those things unrelentingly, and he meticulously studies his craft.
“He might be one of the most passionate kids I’ve had here at Jeff Davis,” Howard said. “From the time he stepped foot in the door, he was excited about playing his (trumpet). He wanted to be the best player. Then he noticed the drum majors, and he wanted to be the best leader.”
By the summer of 2016 that’s what Heideman set his sights on.
“It was instinctively inside of me saying, ‘If you work hard maybe others will see it, and try to outdo you, and then you can try to outdo them. Iron sharpens iron. So, then I worked harder and harder, and I told myself, ‘I want to be drum major.’”
He’d only been with the band for a handful of months, but he wasn’t shy about declaring his interest in leading.
“He would come in here every day saying, ‘Mr. Howard, let me show you what I learned,’” Howard said. “Then he would show me a drum major routine that he tried to put together. Everything was kind of shaky, but you could tell he was really driven to get it done.”
Heideman spent hours in his room studying styles and marching sequences. He’d watch videos of HBCU drum majors from around the country, emulating what he saw. Everything was trial and error, he said.
He mixed styles together, tried moves that didn’t necessarily go with one another. He blazed his own path in the confines of his home and laid the groundwork for the day he’d get his shot. He visualized it and made it a reality for himself in advance.
Heideman remembers the first time he ever attempted to move like a show-style drum major. It was the summer of 2016, before his first band camp with JD. He walked outside into his backyard dressed for the occasion, shirt tucked into pants, the only thing missing was a whistle. “I wanted to dance like a drum major,” he said, “so, I marched like a drum major,” and he used his imagination to fill in the rest.
He could hear the music, he could see the crowd and the formation of the band he led. He felt his fellow drum majors behind him, and his backyard transformed into welcoming greens of a football field with a roaring sea of people cheering.
“Growing up I always had an imagination,” Heideman said. “I imagined that I was the head drum major alongside whoever was there, and I marched in, and the band started playing and I started throwing some random stand that wasn’t even an actual drum major stand.
“I thought it was actually good, and then I cut off and said, ‘Yeaaa, I’m a drum major.'”
He prepared for what he knew would come. He led the trumpet section, Howard said, and emerged as one of the best trumpet players in the band.
“(He) marched through the entire year headed toward that drum major goal that he had already set,” Howard said.
When the time for tryouts came around as he entered his third year, Heideman told people through the band that he was going to make head drum major.
They doubted him, not all but some, telling him flat out he couldn’t do it.
“A lot of people thought he wasn’t going to make it because of his color,” Howard said, “and that was definitely something that would be a hindrance for most, but that wasn’t for him.”
Entering the audition Heideman competed for the four spots against four other people, including Jones and Jackson. It was muscle memory for Heideman and, “he knocked it out of the water,” Howard said.
The decision was made.
Howard announced the names third to first, Heideman said, as they waited nervously.
“OK ,OK, good job,” Heideman said to himself.
“OK ,OK, good job. Either I didn’t make it or I’m head drum major,” Heideman said.
Jones said that when they announced Heideman’s name as the head drum major, Heideman was “calm and chill” about it. Jones said they all knew it was going to be him because of how strong he performed, but Heideman’s reaction, though he was excited and in disbelief, was that of a fulfilled expectation.
Now, it was time to lead.
The news of Heideman’s appointment spread across the band’s Facebook page and left many in shock, including Williams.
“When I saw that, I was like, ‘Wow,’” Williams said. “It was really shocking. It was not bad, I was just thinking of ‘How is it going to be now that we have a white head drum major,’ and how that was actually going to change things?”
Williams’ question represented what a majority of people were thinking: “Will he be able to do his role and play his part? Will people accept him as a drum major and respect him?”
There was an unspoken sense that Heideman had to prove himself, despite his accomplishment. So, he led with a heavy hand, the trio of Williams, Jackson and Jones said.
“Justin’s approach last year when he first made it was more so taking leadership,” Jones said, “because we all knew this was going to be a totally different squad, like a different group of drum majors, the band is going to try to run over him. So his thing was, ‘maybe if I come in with strong leadership, strong discipline, then they’ll follow me,'” but that was not the case at all.
There were some members in the band that did not respect Heideman, Williams said, and he struggled with it at first, but ultimately, “He found ways to overcome that.”
“It took a lot to gain respect,” Heideman said. “Even still I don’t think I’m done with gaining respect from people.”
Though Heideman still has to prove himself, leading this band has become second nature to him. He doesn’t take offense to some of the resistance he’s seen and doesn’t see race as being the factor. He said leading this band, “is just like leading any other band.”
“High school students are going to be high school students,” Heideman said. “Everybody has their own little personality, and the ones that aren’t really disciplined are going to stay undisciplined until you show them that you deserve respect. It’s only then, when they decide. ‘OK, I’ll listen.”
He’s been able to gain this respect through being a teacher, his peers said. If there is trouble or conflict he knows how to handle it now. If a band member is struggling with some of the music, he has a knack for explaining and breaking things down, bit by bit to them, his fellow drum majors said.
“He earned his spot. He earned the fame. He earned all of that,” Williams said. “He’s been working so long to earn his spot, and he honestly did.”
While some feel the black band experience is “for the culture” and protected by the culture, those close to Heideman insists he is not here to steal it. Rather, he has worked hard to be a part of it and lives to honor it. He’s an ally, not an invader.
“Justin came to be a part of this, not to overtake it,” Williams said.
Jackson further explained: “We (the black band) keep marching on. I say that because back in the day we used to march for our freedom,” Jackson said, “and now today we have that freedom, but we’re still marching on. We’re showing that ‘Hey, it’s about culture now,’ and bringing the nation together as one.”
That’s apropos since according to Heideman and Howard, Heideman is receiving interest from HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs): Jackson State, Auburn, Alabama State, Texas Southern, Kentucky State and Troy.
Though Heideman said he prefers the HBCU show-style, he remains undeclared and says that it’s his dream to introduce the two styles to one another.
“I’m just another person that happens to be a different race doing what other people have done,” Heideman said. “Yea, it’s viral because nobody expected somebody like me to actually care about what people a part of this culture do.”
Follow Montgomery Advertiser reporter Andre Toran on Twitter @AndreToran.
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RCMP in West Kelowna have reported a third case of potential child luring in the last week.
The RCMP is warning of “stranger danger” after a third youth in a week was approached by a male driver in West Kelowna and invited to get inside a vehicle.
But because the descriptions of the vehicles and drivers involved differs in each case, there is no evidence the cases are connected at this time, a police spokeswoman said.
“RCMP are reminding parents to reinforce the safety principles surrounding stranger danger with their children,” Const. Lesley Smith of the Mounties’ Kelowna detachment said.
“We’re approaching this case by case. Because of the different vehicles involved we do not feel they are connected at this time.”
The latest warning was issued after a 15-year-old male was asked by a male driver on Sunday evening if he wanted to get in the back of a red late-model mini van in a parking lot in the 1700-block of Ross Road in West Kelowna.
The teen declined and the man drove off. He is described as Caucasian, in his 30s with a full beard and no moustache. He was wearing a black baseball hat.
“West Kelowna RCMP would like to speak with this male in hopes to clarify what events transpired,” Smith said.
Officers at the West Kelowna detachment and with the General Investigation Section continue to investigate, she said. A sketch artist is drawing likenesses based on victim descriptions and the RCMP is looking at any video tape that may help them gain more information.
The first incident occurred on Nov. 29 at 3:50 p.m. when an 11-year-old girl who was walking along Cougar Road in West Kelowna was approached by a lone male in a blue, four-door sedan with rusted rims and squeaky brakes.
The driver pointed to the backseat, encouraging the girl to get inside the car, and she turned and ran home. He was described as tanned, possibly bald, mid-40s, heavy build, white bearded chin and wearing small, circular silver glasses.
The next incident occurred on Dec. 1 at 3:05 p.m. on Pritchard Drive near Barona Beach in West Kelowna.
A 10-year-old girl was offered a ride by a man in a silver or grey vehicle. She said no and ran up the street to where her older sister was waiting. The sister witnessed the vehicle drive away at a high speed.
That driver was described as being about 30, having dark skin with a possible South Asian accent, dark hair, bushy eyebrows, large nose, beard and moustache.
In light of the three incidents involving suspicious vehicles and possible child luring, Smith said the RCMP would like to remind parents and youth to be extremely cautious of their surroundings and stay alert.
Complaints about poor wireless, internet and TV service reached a record high this year as consumers expressed increasing frustration over issues such as billing and disconnection notice periods.
In its annual report released Thursday, the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS) disclosed that the number of accepted complaints jumped 35 per cent during the 12 months ended July 31, to 19,287 — the largest volume in the organization’s history.
Most of the complaints related to billing surprises and non-disclosure of contract terms, issues that have made up the majority of complaints to the CCTS since its inception.
“It’s concerning that the numbers are going up,” said Howard Maker, head of the Commission of Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS).
He said that some telecom service providers may be testing the limits of the Wireless Code as they develop new product offerings in a dynamic communications services market. But he expressed surprise nevertheless that providers continue to run afoul of rules in areas such as disconnection, where notice requirements are explicitly detailed.
The report shows that customers complained most often about their wireless service, followed by internet, TV and landline phone. Bell, Rogers, Telus, Virgin, Freedom and Cogeco were the primary targets.
Montreal’s Bell Canada accounted for by far the largest number of complaints, responsible for 30 per cent of the total with 5,879 accepted complaints. Bell’s confirmed breaches of the Wireless Code doubled to 29 per cent on a wireless customer base of 9,834,380, as of the end of its third quarter.
Toronto-based Rogers Communications, which had just under 10.8 million wireless subscribers at the end of the first quarter, came in second with 1,833 complaints.
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Both Bell and Rogers saw their share of overall complaints decline, with Bell dropping from a 33-per-cent share to 30 per cent, and Rogers dropping from 10 to 9 per cent.
The share for Vancouver-based Telus, however, increased by 1.5 per cent to 8 per cent, with the number of complaints jumping by 71 per cent to just over 1,600 — partly due to the company’s interpretation of the code regarding new contract terms when a customer changes wireless plans.
Overall, the CCTS saw a 42 per cent increase in the number of service provider violations of the Wireless Code, with the most common involving the failure to provide documentation to customers and to provide proper notice before disconnection of service.
Billing was again the predominant irritant for phone, internet and TV customers, with complaints typically arising after fees for monthly services were higher than expected, for example when a promised discount wasn’t honoured. Next common were complaints related to disclosure of information and a lack of clarity about service contracts, followed by service delivery and credit management issues. Just over 900 complaints came from small business customers.
Billing issues have increased by more than 144 per cent over the past five years to 20,000, with Bell accounting for more than 37 per cent, the report says. TV complaint issues were more than three times higher than in 2017-18 in part due to the fact that 2018-19 was the first full year of accepting TV complaints.
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Maker said the overall increase in complaints can likely be partly attributed to consumers being more aware of their rights.
“Now that you have rules and minimum standards, customers are better informed,” he said, media coverage of telecom sales practices may have made more consumers aware that they can file a complaint online any time for free at ccts-cprst.ca.
“Record numbers of complaints, rapid industry change, and our own desire for continuous improvement have motivated us to focus on our dispute resolution process, and we’re looking at ways to improve our service to make it more efficient, effective and transparent,” Maker said.
The volume of complaints has been ratcheting up following a decline with introduction in 2013 of the Wireless Code, leading the CCTS to add regulatory personnel and refine its dispute resolution process. The CCTS accepted 14,272 complaints in 2017-18, a 57-per-cent annual increase over the 9,097 total in 2016-17, although issues resolved have also risen, to 91 per cent in the latest period.
On Jan. 31 the CCTS will begin to administer a fourth code, the Internet Code, which was issued by the CRTC earlier this year. The new code will apply to large internet service providers and is intended to make it easier for customers to understand service contracts, plan prices and promotions.
Wireless, TV and internet service complaints reach an all-time high
Below are the telecommunications companies that received the most complaints, ranked by the number of complaints received.
Bell Canada: 5,879 accepted complaints, 30.5 per cent of total
Rogers: 1,833; 9.5 per cent
Telus: 1,610; 8.3 per cent
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Virgin Mobile: 1,253; 6.5 per cent
Freedom Mobile: 1,147; 5.9 per cent
Cogeco Connexion: 1,039; 5.4 per cent
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