The Biggest Stories of 2015, In Photos

Pausing to reflect on the most newsworthy U.S. events of 2015 was an interesting exercise. First, we made a list: What did we write about the most? How many mobile alerts did we get about the pope? How many times did we sit down to discuss the Baltimore riots? Then, we tried to whittle that list down. We asked ourselves not only about the events that spent the most time in the headlines, but also about the moments in this past year that most inspired our readers and, accordingly, meant the most to us.

In 2015, we were — and continue to be — concerned with the injustices facing women and minorities in the United States and all over the world. We’re so proud to be women, and so proud of the achievements and successes of this year. Just look at the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team, or the amazing same-sex couples who finally get to make their marriages official in every state. At the same time, that we’re still explaining just why our reproductive health is so important to us, and that women of color still wake up feeling less safe than other Americans really pisses us off. The successes of this year shouldn't distract anyone from the work still being done.

Join us for a look back on 2015.
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Photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
December 2: Unlike the other mass shootings of 2015, the one in San Bernardino, CA on December 2 was declared a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The alleged shooters, a couple named Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, entered the Inland Regional Center and opened fire, killing 14 people and wounding at least 17. After an investigation, the FBI determined that the couple had radicalized before their 2014 marriage and had planned to carry out an attack for some time. Authorities are still looking for connections to international terrorist groups.

After the shooting, Democrats and those in favor of gun reform advocated for tighter regulations. Opponents to gun-violence prevention have continued to dismiss the suggestion that restricting access to guns might help prevent tragedies like San Bernardino and called for stricter scrutiny for visitors to the United States. Presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested we ban all Muslims from entering the country.

Tragically, this was only one of the multiple mass shootings we've seen in 2015. The recently revealed fact that the shooters apparently bought their guns legally has prompted more intense discussion of the United States' lax gun laws. The Washington Post reported that this Black Friday, more people than ever underwent background checks — which are not even required for some firearm purchases — in order to buy guns.

Police place a marker along E. San Bernardino Ave. where a shootout occurred December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, CA. Multiple fatalities and injuries were reported as police search for suspects still at large.
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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
April 12: In mid-April, police violently arrested a 25-year-old Black Baltimore man named Freddie Gray. Gray subsequently went into a coma and died on April 19. His suspicious death sparked a series of demonstrations against police brutality nationwide. On December 4, a state medical examiner testified that Gray most likely suffocated from trauma inflicted on his spinal cord while in police custody. Of the six officers present at the time, one has been charged with murder and manslaughter, three with manslaughter, and two with assault.

Though the Baltimore grand jury’s decision to indict the police officers was unusual, accusations of police brutality and deaths in other communities kept Gray's name in the news throughout the rest of the year. Communities are calling to prevent repeated incidents by working to hold police forces as accountable for their actions as citizens are. The ACLU has published a Community Action Manual on fighting police brutality, which you can check out here.

A woman faces down a line of Baltimore police officers in riot gear during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, 2015. Gray, 25, was arrested for possessing a switchblade knife April 12 outside the Gilmor Homes housing project on Baltimore's West Side. According to his attorney, Gray died a week later in the hospital from a severe spinal cord injury he received while in police custody.
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Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images
June 26: Love won when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of marriage equality for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. The landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges, was the culmination of a series of six subsidiary cases in which same-sex couples appealed to the courts to have their marriages recognized by the state. People all over the country celebrated in the streets and couples flocked to government offices to officially claim their right to live happily.

Some conservatives pushed back, going so far as to refuse to follow the new federal law. In Kentucky, a county clerk named Kim Davis gained notoriety and a jail stint when she openly denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples that asked for them.

Achieving marriage equality was a critical benchmark in the larger push for LGBT rights But there's still plenty of work to be done to support the community, particularly for LGBT youth who suffer a severely increased risk of getting bullied in school. (Federal harassment laws don’t cover sexual orientation.)

Supporters of same-sex marriage rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court awaiting a ruling to legalize gay marriage nationwide, on June, 25, 2015 in Washington, DC. From left are Keith Naylor, Bonnie Casillas, Jonathan Contreras, and Hannah Stabler holding balloons that spell the word "love."
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Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images
October 23: This month, two more women joined the ranks of more than 50 others accusing comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault and rape. Cosby’s victims began speaking out in 2002, but it took until this year for the public to take the claims seriously. In 2015, dozens of women came forward, documenting a pattern of assaults by Cosby stretching back for over four decades. In July, 35 of the victims sat for a New York magazine cover. The women's testimony contained in the issue was disturbingly similar across time and circumstance.

The White House has yet to rescind Cosby’s Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award 9 (officials say there is no protocol to do so). A number of universities, including Fordham in New York and Drexel in Philadelphia have rescinded Cosby’s honorary degrees, and his talent agency, CAA, dropped him from its client list.

Unfortunately, the statute of limitations has worn out on many of Cosby’s alleged crimes. Some of his victims are suing him for defamation, claiming that Cosby broke the law and defamed them by calling them liars when they attempted to report their alleged assaults. While the suits are ongoing, the prospect that he’ll never pay for what he is accused of doing looms.

A photo of Bill Cosby and writer Sammie Mays, one of his alleged victims, is shown during a press conference at The Friars Club on May 1, 2015 in New York City. More than 30 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault.
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Photo: Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images
June 17: During a bible-study meeting in Charleston, SC, a young man entered and shot nine Black churchgoers. Senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pickney was among the dead. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, was an avowed white supremacist who supported causes that include South African and Rhodesian apartheid and posed with the Confederate flag in photos he posted to Facebook.

The revelation of Roof's views prompted renewed controversy around the prevalence of Confederate iconography in American culture. South Carolina, where the shooting took place, drew heavy criticism for continuing to fly the Confederate battle flag in the aftermath of the deaths. Ten days after the shooting, activist Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina state courthouse and cut down the Confederate flag that flew there, an act of defiance that resulted in her arrest. Public pressure finally persuaded authorities to remove the flag the following month, but there are still five states whose official state flags incorporate Confederate iconography.

A parishioner looks toward police vehicles and shooting victims cars outside Emanuel AME Church June 20, 2015 in Charleston, SC. Thousands of mourners clutching red and white roses attended a vigil in the stunned city of Charleston Friday to remember nine African-American men and women shot dead by a suspected white supremacist.
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Photo: by Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images
July 13: Sandra Bland was one of the many Black Americans to die in police custody this year. But her case stands out for the mystery that surrounds it, despite the existence of disturbing video footage of her arrest. Bland was found dead in a police cell after being arrested in Texas following a routine traffic violation. Officials ruled her death a suicide, but friends and family found it suspicious and called for a second autopsy.

In the aftermath of her death, the internet exploded with a movement to memorialize the Black women who are victims of violence under the hashtag #SayHerName. Activists confronted public narratives that discuss the risks young Black men face in society and gave voice to the experiences of Black women. The hashtag joined modern protest symbols like Trayvon Martin's hoodie sweatshirt and Eric Garner's final words, "I can't breathe," in the movement for racial justice.

Daija Belcher, 5, holds a sign in front of the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church during the funeral service for Sandra Bland on July 25, 2015 in Lisle, IL. Bland's death roused suspicion nationwide after the 28-year-old was found hanging from a plastic bag three days after she was pulled over by a Texas state trooper for a traffic violation.
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Photo: by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Changing Climate: More than 6,000 wildfires broke out across California in 2015, killing two firefighters and one elderly woman, and destroying thousands of homes and millions of acres of land.

The fires also swept other areas: Seven states from Washington to Arizona suffered major incidents. Research from organizations including the U.S. Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named climate change (and the humans behind it) as the force behind the rising temperatures and water shortages. The Forest Service reported that since 1970, 78 days have been added to what is considered "fire season," and July 2015 was been the hottest on record.

Conservatives and corporate-energy companies continue to deny that global warming exists, despite significant and conclusive evidence from scientists worldwide. Even Pope Francis thinks humans need to get a handle on their impact on the planet. In some places, such as Miami and New Orleans, we’re already at a point of no return. In early December, world leaders met in Paris to discuss climate change and actions to limit global temperature increase.

A firefighter douses flames from a backfire while crews continue battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, CA on September 12. According to state fire agency CAL FIRE, the inferno has burned more than 65,000 acres and 86 homes.
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Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images
Donald Trump: When Donald Trump declared his candidacy for President on June 16, most observers thought his run would be short-lived. How wrong they were. Well into the presidential debate cycle and only weeks until the first primary elections, Trump is still leading in the polls. The real-estate tycoon and self-reported billionaire is running on a platform of mass deportation, loose gun regulations, and lowered taxes for the rich. In the first Republican debate, Trump stunned viewers by insulting Rosie O’Donnell, haranguing Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and validating his own extreme sexism.

Despite the Donald’s disturbing antics, he is still a major contender for the Republican nomination, leading the polls at 36%. Fellow members of the GOP are so worried about Trump's rise that they're already trying to find ways to undermine him at the convention.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets supporters after his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on August 21 in Mobile, AL. The Trump campaign moved tonight's rally to a larger stadium to accommodate demand.
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Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Hillary Clinton: Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton joined the presidential race on June 13. This is her second stab at the White House — she lost to Barack Obama in 2008. “Everyday Americans need a champion; I want to be that champion,” she told supporters. Since June, she’s led the polls, with only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on her heels. She’s also put a lot of effort into social media, launching vigorous Instagram, Pinterest, and, of course, Facebook campaigns. In September, she sat down to talk with us about some of the most important issues facing women today.

Clinton is running a campaign that puts women at the forefront, and she's already responded to criticism from Sanders supporters and adopted more progressive policy positions. The primaries will determine whether she makes it to the big fight of the presidential race. If the United States elects her, Clinton will be the first woman in the White House — an enormous step for gender equality.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launches her campaign officially at a rally at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, New York City, June 13.
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Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week
May 10: This spring, The New York Times published journalist Sarah Maslin Nir’s exposé on nail salons in New York City. Nir spent over a year interviewing over 150 workers and owners in some of New York’s 17,000 salons. There, she found rampant workplace abuse: Without lunch breaks or benefits or clean air, undocumented manicurists worked for long hours for illegally low wages. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reacted by introducing state legislation that would weed out unlicensed salons and make the licensed ones meet higher health and employment standards. Savvy consumers asked what they could do to help, too. The initiative #handlewithcare was launched on the platform that one woman — like a consumer — showing compassion to another — like a technician — can make all the difference.

Many industries in New York and beyond practice abusive practices, but unsafe workplaces can be particularly dangerous for women and minorities. Most at risk are immigrant communities, whose hours and wages may be off the books and thus not subject to government standards. As we participate in a marketplace, we can hold it accountable by asking questions, considering hidden costs (like those to employees and the environment) and practicing kindness every day.

Nail detail of models preparing backstage at the Deola Sagoe / Clan fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2015 at The Salon at Lincoln Center on September 10, 2014 in New York City.
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Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
December 3: In a historic move, 222,000 military jobs previously out of reach from women because of their gender were opened to them this winter. “There will be no exceptions,” Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter said. Military women and men will henceforth be given equal opportunity to qualify for any and all jobs in the armed forces, including the combat roles that are frequently the means to promotion and career advancement. Though women have never been allowed to assume combat roles, they’re permitted in combat zones, meaning that, effectively, they’ve been fighting there, doing the same work that men are doing, all along. Congress has 30 days to review Carter’s decision.

The initiative is only part of Carter’s larger goal of modernizing the military. In July, he announced a study to determine the implications of allowing transgender individuals to serve openly. But our biggest hurdle is in changing perceptions: Senior military officials need to believe that inclusive forces will be just as effective as the old, exclusive ones.

Female Marine recruits fire on the rifle range during boot camp February 25, 2013, at MCRD Parris Island, SC. All female enlisted Marines and male Marines who were living east of the Mississippi River when they were recruited attend boot camp at Parris Island. About 6% of enlisted Marines are female.
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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
March 7: In 1965, 600 mostly black civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama, began a peaceful march to demand their right to vote. Alabama police officers stopped them forcefully and the day became known as Bloody Sunday. Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march along the same route, was confronted by the police, and stood down. The movement gained traction, and succeeded on its third attempt, when nearly 8,000 people showed up to march. This year, people all over the country — and the world — celebrated the 50th anniversary of those who set out for justice, met bigotry and hate, and worked together to overcome them. Commemorations of Selma’s 50th anniversary included a visit from the First Family and multiple reenactments of the march, and the debut of an eponymous Oscar-winning winning film from superstar director Ava Duvernay.

But more than 50 years after Selma, barriers to the voting booths persist. The ACLU reports that between 2011 and 2015, 19 states took official steps to make voting harder for its citizens, and especially for minorities who are less likely to have transportation to the polls, government-issued identification, and civic education programs to educate them on their rights.

Thousands of people walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march on March 8, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Tens of thousands of people gathered in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.
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Photo: Erich Schlegel/For The Washington Post.
November 13: In mid-November, terrorists carried out a series of attacks devastating the city of Paris that left 129 people dead. The effects of the attacks resonated around the world, and in the United States the association of one of the attackers with what turned out to be a forged Syrian passport caused a furor. Multiple politicians expressed fear over the potential connection between Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in their home country and terrorists who intended to cause violence. One after the other, more than two dozen state governors and other political figures made statements refusing to accept Syrian refugees, despite the fact that all the Paris attackers proved to be European nationals.

Refinery29 covered the misconceptions and falsehoods surrounding the refugees at the time, including the main allegation that refugees admitted to the U.S. were not thoroughly screened. Despite all evidence to the contrary, politicians have persisted in their false beliefs, turning away refugees to other states and continuing to make Islamophobic statements. In early December, Donald Trump said that the United States should ban all Muslims from entering national borders, which earned him censure from his own party.

This Syrian refugee man (who does not wish to make his identity public) holds the flag of Syria in this Dallas apartment complex where he lives with his family and is helped through Catholic Charities of Dallas. Friday December 20 , 2013. He is one of a very few number of Syrians given asylum in the United States.
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Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
July 5: This summer, the United States women’s soccer team became world champions for the third time. The women's team beat Japan —whom they lost to four years ago — 5-2 in a thrilling match that included a hat trick from star midfielder Carli Lloyd as well as veteran Abby Wambach’s final Cup appearance. When the team returned to the United States, New York decided to throw it one of its signature ticker-tape parades. Crowds began assembling early the morning of July 10 to watch the women proceed down the Canyon of Heroes (a celebratory name for Manhattan’s lower stretch of Broadway) and shower them in paper confetti resembling the kind the stock market used to print quotes back in the day.

The parade was the first one held for any women’s team in the history of the tradition, and Refinery29 covered it live! Unfortunately, women's teams still don't receive the same sort of coverage as the boys. Fans had to petition for the U.S. women's team to get a parade at all, and NWSL salaries are still embarrassingly low. Professional women athletes have to turn to other employment opportunities out of season, while the better-paid (and less successful) men can train consistently all year round.

Abby Wambach (20) and Christie Rampone (3) of the United States of America hold the World Cup trophy after their 5-2 win over Japan in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final at BC Place Stadium on July 5 in Vancouver, Canada.
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Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
Immigration: Immigration is always a hot-button issue, particularly for conservative candidates. Donald Trump made headlines for implying that Mexicans are rapists, and Chris Christie proposed a system to “track” immigrants on visas.

Prison Policy Initiative estimates that at the end of 2015, there will be more than 30,000 people locked up in immigration detention centers run by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, with an additional 19,000 in federal prisons on charges of violating immigration law. We Belong Together estimates that several hundred of those are children under the age of 18 — which is against federal law.

Activists have working hard to publicize the conditions at immigrant detention centers. Inmates at the infamous Adelanto Detention Facility in California launched a hunger strike in early November to bring awareness to conditions at the jail, asking for better medical care, better food, and respectful treatment by employees. Several families have filed lawsuits against the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, who run the centers, over the practice of keeping children incarcerated. The ACLU claims that many of the immigrants are being wrongfully imprisoned, without the chance to prove their cases.

Immigration reform activists, including family members of detained undocumented immigrants, protest in front of the York County Detention Center on September 15, 2015 in York, PA. One hundred women kicked off a weeklong 100-mile march from the detention center to Washington, DC, ahead of the visit of Pope Francis. The march is part of the We Belong Together campaign to stop immigrant detentions nationwide.
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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
September 22: Pope Francis’ highly anticipated first visit to the United States began in Washington D.C, where President Obama welcomed the pontiff as he descended from a helicopter on the White House Lawn. On September 24, the pope gave a landmark address to Congress in which he called to attention issues ranging from immigration reform to extreme poverty, and highlighted Americans who inspired him. That evening, he departed for New York City, where he spoke at the United Nations and called for the world to take part in the battle to thwart climate change. On his last stop in Philadelphia, he celebrated a Sunday Mass attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Throughout the visit, people all over the world lauded the Pope for his unprecedented display of liberal — though not that liberal — viewpoints, and even attempted to glean hidden meaning about women’s rights and homosexuality from between the lines of his speeches.

Pope Francis remains an important and persuasive world leader, appealing to the secular was well as the religious with forcefully expressed opinions on climate change, world poverty, and giving shelter to our world’s refugees. As his papacy continues, the religious leader nicknamed the "Cool Pope" will continue to appear at pivotal international events, both as representation for the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide and as an advocate for peace all over the globe.

Pope Francis is escorted by President Barack Obama as he greets him and other political and Catholic church leaders after arriving from Cuba September 22, 2015 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Francis will be visiting Washington, New York City, and Philadelphia during his first trip to the United States as pontiff.