Friday, February 25, 2011

Tom Joyner Doesn't Understand New Orleans Social Justice

2-Cent Entertainment is a remarkable New Orleans-based arts and activist collective who have built a national reputation for creating videos that are both informative and entertaining. They have received major national awards and rave reviews in the media. Their videos regularly get thousands of views, and the most popular have been seen millions of times.

Through all their success, their dedication to social justice has never wavered. They have a large local fan base who have been inspired by their commitment to building and supporting community. They have donated thousands of books to local students, and taught free classes to youth. Their videos address important issues and they lift up local voices.

So it was shocking and disappointing when Tom Joyner, host of one the most popular nationally syndicated urban radio programs in the US, used the platform of his show to launch an ill-informed attack on the group.

It started positive. "I'm always looking for creative ways to teach our children. Here's a guy in New Orleans who wants to take hip-hop music to teach kids to read," began Joyner. But the popular radio host soon turned negative. "He made a video parody of Lil' Wayne's Every Girl," said Joyner, dismissively (while also confusing the collective efforts of the group with one member, Brandan "B-Mike" Odums). After playing a clip of Every Girl, seemingly unaware that 2-Cent's video involved changing the words to the song, Tom Joyner mocked the efforts of 2-Cent, implying that his work was shallow for making use of Lil' Wayne. "Go back to DJ Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince. Parents Just Don't Understand. Start with that one," he said, ending with a condescending, "Go back in the lab, keep working on it."

The unwarranted attack brought so many angry calls and emails from 2-Cent's fans from across the US, the Tom Joyner Morning Show was forced to invite Odums on to respond. In a conversation on the show with Joyner and co-hosts Roland Martin and Sybil Wilkes, Brandan eloquently defended his positions.

"You guys have stirred a little bit of controversy," began Martin, who asked most of the questions on the segment. "What is the motive of taking these popular songs and trying to focus on literacy?" Throughout the interview, Odums brought wisdom to the hosts, explaining the ways in which 2-Cent uses popular art forms to reach young people with positive messages. "Our elders instilled in us a responsibility to make things better," said Odums. "By taking that inheritance that they gave to us, we sort of had to do things differently. We can't use the same tactics as the past, we need to find new ways to reach kids."

As a final lesson to Tom Joyner not to mess with New Orleans, 2-Cent have premiered their new video, Tom Just Don't Understand. They are also pushing Joyner's popular show to financially support community projects in New Orleans, like 2-Cent's upcoming Literacy and Arts Festival, called LISTEN! scheduled for May 21 at Community Book Center, 2523 Bayou Road. If you want to add your voice to those writing to Joyner to ask him to make amends, you can write to him at

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lawsuit Puts Hold on Closing of SUNO

Last week, advocates took legal action in an attempt to stop Governor Jindal's actions to dissolve SUNO. LJI has posted the legal documents on our NOLA Public Records website. Below is an excerpt from a summary of the status of the legal claims, from BayouBuzz News:

Seven Southern University System students filed a legal action against Governor Bobby Jindal and the Board of Regents seeking a Temporary Restraining Order, Preliminary Injunction, and Declaratory Judgment declaring that the Board is unconstitutionally composed, based on it’s current gender and racial make up. La. Const. Art. 8, Sec. 5(A)(B)(1) provides for the qualifications of the 15 members of the Board of Regents who are appointed by the Governor. This Constitutional Provision which was passed by both bodies of the Legislature and the majority of the people of this great state provides that “The board should be representative of the state's population by race and gender to ensure diversity” Governor Bobby Jindal, however ignored such constitutional requirements and removed all African-Americans and one woman replacing them with all white males.

According to the most recent gender based data available at the time of this suit, the 2000 Census, the state’s gender population is 51.6% female; However, females only represent 26% of woman on the board (4 out of 15 appointed members). Also, according to the most recent Census’ numbers, the 2010 Census the state’s population is made up of 37.44% racial minorities. However, there are currently no appointed racial minorities on this Board.

At this time, the Board of Regents is restrained from taking any further action concerning any merger of SUNO and UNO, conducting any study, or scheduling and holding any hearings and meetings on this issue. A hearing will take place on February 24, 2011 at 1:30 p.m. to determine if a Preliminary Injunction should issue pending the full disposition of the case. The Attorneys for the plaintiffs are Cleo Fields and Katrina Jackson.

Louisiana Unions Organize “We Stand with Wisconsin” Solidarity Rally Tomorrow in Baton Rouge

From a press release by SEIU Local 21LA:

“We Stand with Wisconsin,” a solidarity rally, will be held at 5:00pm on Wednesday outside of the Baton Rouge City Hall (the Governmental Building) located at 222 St. Louis Street.

The event is being organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 21LA along with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the state AFL-CIO, the Building and Construction Trades Unions, and other Louisiana unions to show local support for the Wisconsin nurses, firefighters, teachers and all the other public employees under fire by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on Wisconsin working families.

“We want to tell our Louisiana leaders that politicians like Governor Walker must stop scapegoating the working families of this country for the nation’s economic woes caused by the Wall Street greed that crashed our economy,” said Louis Reine, president of the Louisiana State Federation of Labor.

“Today Wisconsin … tomorrow Louisiana? We won’t allow it. More than a year after the financial crisis and bailout, working families are still reeling from the effects of a shattered economy. Politicians should be creating good jobs – not attacking nurses, teachers and firefighters.”

Charles Selders, a city-parish employee in Baton Rouge and SEIU Local 21LA leader, agrees. “We need our elected officials to create jobs, not wage attacks on middle class and working families to score political points with big donors,” Selders said. “The real bad guys are the rich CEOs and Wall Street bankers not the hardworking people who provide vital services to our communities.”

For more information about the “We Stand With Wisconsin” solidarity rally, please call Jewel Bush, SEIU Local 21LA Communications Specialist, at (504) 322-4243 or email Jewel.

Blind Human Rights Lawyer Beaten and Isolated in Chinese Crackdown

By Bill Quigley
Chen Guangcheng, a blind, 39 year old, self-taught, human rights lawyer in China who was recently released after years in prison has been put in home detention, isolated and beaten by authorities. Winner of numerous human rights awards, Mr. Chen was imprisoned for investigating violence and forced abortions against families in China. He is one of many Chinese human rights lawyers and advocates harassed, imprisoned and disappeared recently.

Since being released from prison in September 2010, Mr. Chen, his wife and his young daughter, have been cut off from phone, internet and personal contact. They are confined to their home which is surrounded by guards 24 hours a day.

China Aid posted a video on their website in which Mr. Chen describes being monitored around the clock by three shifts of 22 agents each.

After the video was posted, Mr. Chen and his wife were beaten. Journalists from CNN, Le Monde, and the New York Times who tried to visit him have been threatened and harassed. Two lawyers, Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong, were detained by police in Beijing after discussing Mr. Chen’s situation, according to TIME.

Mr. Chen, who has minimal formal legal training, began his legal career by challenging his own taxes. Later he helped an organization of farmers fight to close a paper mill polluting local water.

In 2002, Newsweek recognized Mr. Chen as part of a new generation of “barefoot lawyers” who were helping people assert their legal and human rights. (The idea of “barefoot lawyers” takes its name from the training of local Chinese in basic medical education who were then sent out into their communities as “barefoot doctors.”)

The International Federation for Human Rights reported Mr. Chen was arrested in March 2006 after investigating, putting together briefs, and campaigning against the use of government violence and forced abortions in the enforcement of the national population policies of one child birth quotas in Linyi, China. He spent over four years in prison after a two hour trial where his lawyer was not allowed inside the courtroom.

Now? “I have come out of a small jail and walked into a bigger jail,” said Mr. Chen, according to UPI, which recognized this as the understatement of the week.

Numerous other Chinese human rights advocates and lawyers have been arrested, disbarred or disappeared. Gao Zhisheng, the most prominent human rights lawyer in China who ran the Open Constitution Initiative from his home, once recognized as one of the top 10 lawyers in China, was hooded and dragged from his home by government agents in 2009 and has not been seen since. Guo Feixiong, another human rights lawyer, was imprisoned in 2007 after assisting villagers challenging corruption. Human rights lawyer Liu Shihui, recently denied a license to continue practicing law, was hooded, beaten and had his leg fractured outside his home on his way to a protest is support of the Jasmine Revolution. Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11 year prison sentence for helping draft Charter 08 calling for democratic freedoms; his family is under house arrest as well.

What can we in the US do to assist human rights defenders in China?

First, we must work to get our own house in order. Unfortunately, the US has given the world many examples of human rights violations, especially in the last 10 years. We must demand transparency and accountability for our own government’s human rights abuses. Without that, it is unlikely other countries will take the US seriously when it asks others to respect human rights.

Second, we can insist that the US government grow a spine and consistently apply international human rights standards when we deal with other countries. Most elected officials are concerned about human rights obligations only in the countries where they think US interests are at stake and then human rights are all too frequently just bargaining chips in the quest for economic and military advantage.

Third, we must take individual actions to strengthen human rights and to protect human rights defenders. The International Federation for Human Rights has a Human Rights Defender program which sends out alerts when human rights advocates are at risk. People can also write the People’s Republic of China, c/o Embassy for the People’s Republic of China, 2300 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20008.

Courageous people like Chen Guangcheng and others should inspire us all to work more diligently and take more risks for justice and human rights in China, in the US, and in all countries.

Bill is Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Contact Bill at

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Groups to Challenge Disparate Punishment Under Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature Law

From our friends at Women With A Vision and Center for Constitutional Rights:
Attorneys, Advocates Say Antiquated Law Unfairly Brands Poor Women and LGBT People with Scarlet Letter, Disproportionately Affects African Americans

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Andrea J. Ritchie, Esq., and the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Law Clinic will file a federal civil rights complaint in the United States District Court Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans on Wednesday, February 16, 2011 on behalf of nine anonymous plaintiffs. The case challenges the continuing use of Louisiana’s 200 year-old Crime Against Nature statute to brand people who solicit oral and anal sex – sex acts historically associated with homosexuality – as sex offenders, while a conviction under Louisiana’s prostitution statute triggers no such requirement. The groups will hold a press conference at the New Orleans federal courthouse,
500 Poydras St, at 10:00am CST.

Among those in attendance will be Bill Quigley, CCR Legal Director; Alexis Agathocleous, CCR Staff Attorney; Andrea J. Ritchie, Esq., private police misconduct attorney and co-author of Queer Injustice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States; Davida Finger, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Law Clinic; Deon Haywood, Women With a Vision Executive Director; Wes Ware, Lead Youth Advocate, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana; Shana Griffin, Women's Health and Justice Initiative.

Mississippi Activists Plan Rally Against Police Brutality

The announcement below is adapted from information from our friends at Justice For Billey Joe Johnson, Jr., and Color Of Change:

This weekend, activists in George County, Mississippi, will be hosting two days of action to demand justice for Billey Joe Johnson, Jr. and all other victims of police brutality in George County. Solidarity delegations will be traveling from New Orleans (leaving on Saturday) and other nearby cities to support this struggle.

Schedule of Events:

Friday, February 25

Triumph Baptist Church
4:00pm: Know Your Rights Training
6:00pm: Memorial for Billey Joe

Saturday, February 26
1:00pm: Rally at Courthouse
4:30pm: Vigil at the dirt pit where it is believed Billey Joe was killed

For more details or to get involved, call Immaculate Heart CDC (601.945.2986) or Ms. Lucy Wilson (601.508.4142). For info on rides from New Orleans, contact Robert Goodman of Safe Streets Strong Communities at

On December 8th, 2008, 17-year-old Billey Joe Johnson, Jr., a star athlete with his pick of college football scholarships, died from a gunshot wound to the head. Police claim he killed himself with a shotgun after being stopped for a simple traffic violation in Lucedale, Mississippi. Several things seem to cast doubt on the official story, including an independent investigation that concluded it would have been impossible for the shot that killed Johnson to have been self-inflicted.

Many on the ground smell a murder and a cover-up. We don't have all the answers, but it's clear that in the racially divided town of Lucedale, all the ingredients exist for a miscarriage of justice.

From the beginning, the District Attorney has treated the investigation of Billey Joe's death as a suicide or the result of an accidental self-inflicted injury. Based on his public statements and interactions with Billey Joe's family, it appears that the District Attorney hasn't looked into whether Billey Joe was killed by an officer or someone else. Again, we don't have all the answers, but here's what we do know:
* Billey Joe was at his former girlfriend's house minutes before the killing. He never entered the house, but police were called to respond to an attempted burglary there. This fact was not a part of the original story given by the police.

* Billey Joe's family says that his ex-girlfriend had been staying at her father's house because her mother threw her out for dating Billey Joe (she is White and Billey Joe was Black). They said Billey Joe knew to only go to the house when the girl's father was not present, that the two of them were on good terms even after he had broken up with her, and that the breakup was largely because of pressure from her father. The family also claims that there is a relationship between the officer present at the scene of Billey Joe's death and the girl's father.

* A witness heard two shots, not one, at the scene where Billey Joe died, according to an independent investigation launched by the Mississippi NAACP. The pathologist in that investigation has indicated that it would be impossible for a bullet from a self-inflicted shot to enter in the manner that it did. He also said that given the length of Billey Joe's arms and the length of the shotgun, it would have been impossible for him to hold the weapon and fire it at himself.

* Billey Joe was a star athlete with scholarship offers from more than half a dozen schools. No one--including family, friends, and coaches--could think of a reason that Billey Joe would want to end his life.
A true investigation would sort out fact from rumor. But we can't be sure that Johnson's family will get the investigation it deserves. In the case of the Jena 6 we saw a District Attorney and a judge incapable of carrying out justice in a racially charged environment. In the recent case of the murder of Oscar Grant by police (and many like it), we see how unlikely it is for District Attorneys to do their job when the suspect is an officer of the law. But in both these cases, public pressure has made all the difference by shining a spotlight on local authorities.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Critics Say Times-Picayune Website Amplifies Discourse of Violence and Hate

New Orleans-based writer and attorney Billy Sothern started a blog last month called NO Comment that highlights the often offensive comments found on, the online home of the Times-Picayune. NO Comment's mission says,

This is a blog to highlight and discuss offensive, irresponsible, and inappropriate comments on's Times Picayune website. The blog is not an exhaustive daily monitor of offensive content on but instead the few comments posted and discussed here are exemplary of thousands of similar comments posted on the website.
For anyone who has ever read the Picayune online, much of this will come as nothing new. But Sothern makes some important points, asking why comments on the society page seem to be forbidden, while also pointing out the more aggressive moderation policies of other websites. He also points out that - unlike many sites - comments are given equal weight with the news articles.

One of my concerns with the lack of moderation of's comments is that I know, from personal experience, that the people involved in news stories, including crime victims, read the comments, which appear immediately after the story and get almost equal footing with the journalist's work.
As Sothern points out on his blog, he's not the first person to raise this issue. Sothern quotes a piece from blogger Deborah Cotton, which lays out the problem in detail:

Discriminatory practices exist that demonstrate a racial bias at the Times. The monitoring of the comments section is a prime example. The TP’s website has a notorious reputation for allowing racially charged comments that malign Black residents to fester without restraint, as in the case of the two college students who were kidnapped in ’09 and later found murdered. On the day that these kidnappings hit the press, a colleague of mine and I spent the better part of the day emailing and calling the office, pleading with them to either monitor the escalating hate speech or close the comment section altogether out of respect for the devastated families of the missing students. They all but ignored our requests - you can read the story and comments for yourself here. Meanwhile, Nell Nolan’s society column which chronicles high brow fetes of the White elite in New Orleans doesn’t endure such hostile defamation of its subjects because the comments section in the column are, as a rule, always closed (see here). This double standard creates an environment where the paper de facto condones readers attacking Blacks but goes great lengths to protect the wealthy White community from the same loathsome violations.
Kevin Allman at the Gambit has also written powerful commentary on the subject.

You've got to feel sorry for the T-P writers and editors who bust their asses to produce good work, only to see it undermined, hour after hour, day after day, by blithering racist knuckledraggers who can only see anything through the prism of race (even when it doesn't have any application to the story involved) and who, in a righteous world, would be tossed off the most insane, fringe moonbat radio call-in shows. Or maybe it's all a clever plan designed to staunch the bleeding in the print media, a way to get eyeballs off the Internet and back on the printed page. Whatever it is, it's bull, I'm tired of it, I've given up wondering if will ever take an interest in getting a handle on it, and I'm embarrassed to send out-of-town friends to the online Times-Picayune to read a story for fear they'll think we're an entire city of troglodytes.
Sothern's blog also quotes coverage of an exchange at a panel on the media sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, where Louisiana Justice Institute co-directors Tracie Washington and Jacques Morial offered criticism of the comments. Jacques Morial is quoted as asking, “Has there ever been a discussion about the ethics of profiteering off racial strife and bigotry, especially given that the Times-Picayune does promote the most commented story, so that people click through, and it rings their cash register?”

In the same discussion, former Picayune city editor Jed Horne adds to the critique.

“The commentary that trails news articles, in many ways is deeply repugnant, much of it racist in pretty overt ways,” Horne said. “I’m left to wonder if it hasn’t besmirched the whole enterprise.”
Sothern does quote a staffer who says (via twitter) that they have gotten better at deleting offensive comment. However, since Sothern continues to find racist and offensive comments - including several posted in the past 24-hours - the remedy clearly hasn't worked. Even when the comments are removed, Sothern calls it an "insufficient remedy," saying,

Removing offensive content may limit the number of people exposed to it but it does little for people who read it - like family members of victims of crime or tragedy - before it was taken down.
Somehow countless other news sites have managed to solve this problem, whether through allowing commentators on their site less anonymity, taking commenting privileges away from those who are consistently offensive, or through moderating comments before they appear. Times-Picayune readers - and journalists on staff, who are forced to have this hate-speech attached to their work - have a right to ask why does not to the same.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Activists Harassed During Vigil at OPP

From our friends at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice:
Community Condemns Intimidation of Community Leaders During Prayer Vigil
Demand to Gusman: Guarantee Sheriff’s officers will not retaliate against Day Laborers Exercising their First Amendment Rights.

Today, members of the Congress of Day Laborers strongly condemned retaliation by Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s officers against a community leader during a 24 hour prayer vigil. The prayer vigil, staged in front of Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office was aimed at ending racial profiling and race-based deportation through Gusman’s Orleans Parish Prison (OPP).

Early Thursday morning, Feb. 3, after 17 hours at the prayer vigil, Congress of Day Laborers’ leader Ezequiel Falcon was pulling out of the driveway of the Sheriff’s office when a sheriff’s officer trailed him and pulled him over. A second sheriff’s officer joined the scene. The officers informed Ezequiel that the vigil had been surveilled, identified him as a leader, asked for his documents, demanded to know his home address, and threatened to arrest him.

“The sheriff was trying to send all of us a message,” Falcon said after his harrowing interaction with Gusman’s officers. “But we shall not be moved.” Lead organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers, Jacinta Gonzalez said, “We are deeply disappointed the Sheriff Gusman’s Offices would see fit to intimidate and threaten Day Laborer Leaders taking moral action.”

The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (of which the Congress of Day Laborers is a project) wrote to Sherriff Gusman on Feb. 7 demanding a public pledge that there would be no further retaliation against community and civil rights leaders.

“[W]e and many criminal justice, faith, and labor leaders as well as City Council Members are deeply concerned about the actions of your staff against Mr. Falcon which violated his fundamental civil and constitutional rights,” the letter read in part. “We ask that you issue public assurances that no OPSO official will engage in retaliatory conduct against members of this community for exercising their civil and constitutional rights.”

The Congress of Day Laborers is demanding that Gusman reverse his policy of submitting to voluntary hold requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which effectively funnel immigrant workers into deportation on the mere suspicion that they may be non-citizens.

Sheriff Gusman’s officers’ intimidation tactics targeting Mr. Falcon come on the heels of a major federal lawsuit filed by members of the Congress of Day Laborers against Gusman last week.

This major civil rights lawsuit, brought by members of the Congress of Day Laborers and litigated by the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), exposes fundamental violations of law brought on by the Sheriff’s decision to submit to hold requests from ICE. These hold requests are often based on mere suspicion a person is a noncitizen- suspicion often based on racial profiling. “Sheriff Gusman’s policy leads to detention of community members – fathers, students, and reconstruction workers – on standards of proof far below what is constitutional and conscionable,” lead counsel Jennifer Rosenbaum, Legal Director for NOWCRJ, said to a packed City Council meeting on the day of the filing.

The Congress of Day Laborers is a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Plaintiffs are represented in the litigation by the New Orleans Workers’ Center Legal Department and the National Immigration Law Center, a national legal advocacy organization that defends and promotes the rights of low-income immigrants and their family members.

An Open Letter to Louisiana's LGBt Organization, Forum for Equality, by Wesley Ware

Reposted from the Bilerico Blog:

Dear Forum for Equality,

I was greatly saddened today to read an op-ed in the Baton Rouge paper, The Advocate, called "Not Enough, But a Start."

The article referenced a proposed resolution that would "promote tolerance in the social and economic life of Louisiana's capital city."

You say "not enough" because Baton Rouge "has much more to do to promote itself as a welcoming community than a nonbinding resolution of good intentions."

I say "not enough" because the resolution purposefully omits transgender people (and many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and even heterosexual gender non-conforming individuals) by not including gender identity or expression.

I say "not enough" because I know that advocates were fighting to include gender identity in the resolution and you turned your back.

I say "not enough" because I know that in New York City, it was 16 years before the LGB community came back for those they deliberately left behind and that many other states and cities never came back for their transgender brothers and sisters at all.

I say "not enough" because I know that city ordinances and resolutions pass all of the time that include gender identity and expression- and that in fact, there are now more city ordinances and resolutions that do include protections for transgender people than don't.

I say "not enough" because I know it was a transgender woman who threw the first brick that sparked the Stonewall Riots and kicked off the gay rights movement in 1969.

I say "not enough" because we know the names of over 160 transgender people who were murdered last year alone and that we've had over 15 murdered since.

And although a non-binding city resolution really won't affect change in the everyday lives of lesbian and gay individuals in Baton Rouge, I say "not enough" because I can't help but to think that while you say you are fighting for the end to employment and housing discrimination, I know that it's transgender people (and in particular, transgender people of color), who are standing in welfare lines and filling our prison cells because they can't get a job or find a place to sleep at night.

So Forum for Equality, please let the rest of Louisiana know when you have decided that it's worth it to fight for everyone.

Then, and only then, will your "statewide civil rights organization" speak for me.

Wesley Ware has been fighting for the rights of LGBT individuals from Atlanta, GA and New Orleans, LA for over ten years. He now works as an advocate for incarcerated youth in Louisiana, including LGBT youth, at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana; his comments here are his personal beliefs and do not represent any organization.

Editor's: Note: Although this open letter originally appeared on the Bilerico blog last year, we are reposting now because of its continued relevance.

Swiss Miss Bush – GWB Ducks Geneva Criminal Torture Charges

By Bill Quigley
Justice for George W’s torture violations jumped much closer this weekend. Ex-President George W Bush was supposed to fly to Switzerland to speak in Geneva February 15. But his speech was cancelled over the weekend because of concerns about protests and efforts by human rights organizations asking Swiss prosecutors to charge Bush with torture and serve him with an arrest warrant.

Two things made this possible. Switzerland allows the prosecution of human rights violators from other countries if the violator is on Swiss soil and George W admitted he authorized water boarding detainees in his recent memoir. Torture is internationally banned by the Convention Against Torture.

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, the International Federation for Human Rights, and the US-based Center for Constitutional Rights prepared criminal complaints with more than 2500 pages of supporting material to submit to the Swiss prosecutor. These criminal complaints were signed by more than 60 human rights organizations world wide and by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers, and Nobel Peace Prize recipients Shirin Ebadi and Perez Esquivel.

Amnesty International, which has repeatedly called for criminal investigation of torture by GWB, sent Swiss prosecutors a detailed legal and factual analysis of President Bush’s criminal responsibility for torture.

While some traditionalists in the human rights community scoff at the notion that GWB and others will ever be held accountable for their violations, experts disagree.

"Nobody – from those who administered the practices to those at the top of the chain of command – is under a shield of absolute immunity for the practices of secret detention, extraordinary rendition and torture," Martin Scheinin, UN special rapporteur on human rights and professor of public international law at the European University Institute told The Guardian. "Legally this case is quite clear. Bush does not enjoy immunity as a former head of state, and he has command responsibility for the decisions that were taken."

Similar efforts to prosecute former President Bush, former Bush lawyers Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Federal Appeals Court Judge Jay Bybee, John Yoo, William J. Haynes II, David Addington, and Douglas J Feith are proceeding in Spain.

All of these international efforts to seek justice for the human rights violations committed by the Bush administration are possible only because the US has refused to prosecute – another disappointment by the Obama administration.

Ironically, February 7 is the ninth anniversary of the date when GWB unilaterally decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to enemy combatants. GWB denied, as most facing criminal charges do, that the possibility of prosecution was involved at all in the decision to cancel his trip.

The human rights community promised to pursue Bush and the other human rights violators whenever they leave the US. Katherine Gallagher and Claire Tixiere, the lead lawyers authoring the 2500 page criminal case in Geneva stated: “The reach of the Convention Against Torture is wide – this case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next. Torturers – even if they are former presidents of the United States – must be held to account and
prosecuted. Impunity for Bush must end.”

Bill is Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. For more on the Bush Torture Indictment see this link. You can reach Bill Quigley at

Friday, February 4, 2011

LJI Co-Director Tracie Washington Named 2011 History-Maker

The Grio website, an African-American-oriented news and opinion website owned by NBC news, has just named Louisiana Justice Institute co-director Tracie Washington as one of 2011's "100 History Makers in the Making."

Among those honored are leaders in the fields of politics, science, education, health, and culture, with recipients ranging from rapper Nicki Minaj and actor Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from The Wire television show) to Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison and Haitian author Edwidge Danticat.

New Orleans was well-represented on this national list, with other honorees including Advocates for Environmental Human Rights co-director Monique Harden; Congressman Cedric Richmond; musician Troy Andrews (aka Trombone Shorty); and former Times-Picayune columnist, and current Treme writer, Lolis Elie.

"Tracie Washington is making history," according to the profile, "assessing the impact of the BP oil spill on African-American fishing communities in the bayou. LJI dispenses facts and figures to these communities, informing fishers on the extent of the destruction, and working with these newly-informed populations to appeal for compensation the U.S. government promised -- up to half a year of lost earnings."

The Grio profile highlights Washington's legal work on behalf of public housing residents, victims of the BP Drilling Disaster, and in support of health care access, noting, "in her efforts to protect the interests of Louisiana's less fortunate, this activist-attorney understands how to leverage the law." In an interview with The Grio, Washington responds, "I'm not sure I'm making history as much as waves."

In Louisiana, Odds of a Death Sentence 97% Higher If Victim is White

Reprinted from the Federal Criminal Defense Investigator blog:

A recent study conducted by Professors Glenn Pierce and Michael Radelet published in the Lousiana Law Review showed that the odds of a death sentence in parts of Louisiana were 2.6 times higher for those charged with killing a white victim than for those charged with killing a black victim. The study examined 191 homicides in East Baton Rouge Parish between 1990 and 2008 involving a charge of first-degree murder.

Even after considering other variables such as the number of aggravating circumstances, the number of concurrent felonies and the number of homicide victims, the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black.

The authors of the study suggested that one reason why the victim’s race was an important factor was because “prosecutors’ offices, jurors, judges, investigating police officers, and others involved in constructing a death penalty case are (consciously or unconsciously) not as outraged or energized, on average, when a black is murdered as when a white is murdered.”

The authors said “death penalty cases are expensive, and choices need to be made on how often the death penalty can be sought and in which cases”and that “the social status of the victim and the family of the victim, including his or her race, increases [a case's] importance.”

New Paralegal Training Provides Ray of Hope for Formerly Incarcerated People in New Orleans, By Rosana Cruz

From our friends at Bridge The Gulf:
Drive down this short stretch of St. Bernard Avenue, and you will see signs of a struggling neighborhood in despair. Bars, blighted homes, metal-grated storefronts, and the still-shuttered Circle Food Store tell the story of this strip. Here in New Orleans’ 7th ward, hope and sustenance have been drained by Katrina’s floodwaters, and by decades of racism’s insidious trend of sapping vital resources from a community.

But there is vitality too. Fresh vegetables are sold on the sidewalk outside Circle Foods. A few new, small businesses are slowly gaining a foothold. The surviving barrooms, central institutions to the music and culture of New Orleans for generations, are gathering places for local politicians, community advocates and neighbors from diverse class backgrounds.

This ironic mix of vitality and despair isn’t unique in New Orleans, but the small beacon of hope in the middle of the 1200 block is. Within the walls of a small storefront, The RAE House (pronounced “ray”) hosts an innovative new class that’s beginning to resurrect hope.

 Resurrection After Exoneration’s (RAE’s) brother organization, VOTE (Voice of the Ex-offender) holds its Paralegal Training Class here twice a week. The class is unique in that it trains Formerly Incarcerated Persons (FIPs) and their loved ones about the law and legal system. The hope is to create a new team of paralegals, legal secretaries and community legal advocates, made up of the people most impacted by Louisiana’s failing criminal justice system. The charter class began in November.

Seeds for legal training planted in Angola

The vision for the Paralegal Training Class began more than 20 years ago in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as Angola). Two men serving life sentences, Norris Henderson and Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston, became legal scholars in the prison’s law library, logging long hours studying rows and rows of case law and reviewing the individual cases of their fellow prisoners. It was through the knowledge they gained by reading, exploring, and working on other prisoners’ cases that they were able to eventually win their own freedom through the courts.

Their knowledge and experience helped make them respected leaders in the prison. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Johnston became inmate counsels, representing prisoners who went up before the disciplinary board. They then founded the Angola Special Civics Project, to activate a politically engaged block among the prisoners. This block was able to change prison policy and lobby legislators. Ultimately they even changed laws. Their efforts helped passed the so-called “old timer’s act.” Also know as the 20-45 law, this law created parole eligibility for prisoners sentenced to life for heroin distribution who were over 45 and had served 20 years or more. Middle-aged men who had gone into prison as mere youth were now gaining freedom, thanks to the advocacy and knowledge of the law of these “jailhouse lawyers.”

Now, Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), the organization founded by Mr. Henderson years after he left Angola, is trying to accomplish the same thing on the outside. The Paralegal Training Class equips Formerly Incarcerated Persons and their loved ones with enough legal knowledge to serve their broader community. Students attend the free classes two evenings per week, three hours per class. They are instructed by Mr. Henderson, Mr. Johnston and Calvin Duncan, who was exonerated recently from serving over 28 years for a crime he did not commit. Together these three have over 60 years of legal studies and practice. They teach constitutional law, criminal procedure, legal research and basic analytical skills to the eager students, who deftly apply the lessons to their own lives and experiences.

Lessons hit students close to home

Vernon went to prison when he was 17 years old. Laverne's husband spent 18 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, 14 of those years on death row. Ms. Betty's son has been in prison for over 20 years. Mr. Chopin volunteers as a Muslim Chaplin to hundreds of inmates and detainees in Orleans Parish Prison. Their motivation to study law and participate in the training programs stems not only from their personal experience, but also from the countless people that they know are in need of support. “I know that with what I learn in this class, I might be able to do something meaningful for all the people I left back there [in Angola],” says Eugene Dean, a student and long time member of VOTE.

Ms. Elois Reed takes an even broader view. “The class is energetic. We love to be in class, we love to learn all this. It is like this because it is bottled up inside the people…. Things are hard, people are struggling. They have our backs up against the wall. But this knowledge can make a difference…. I really believe we are a sleeping giant. And this class, this knowledge, this is what it is taking to wake us up.”

The intense interest from the students has already had an impact: the class is being extended from the originally envisioned 10 weeks to 14. A new term for incoming students is projected to begin this summer. The current students are beginning to discuss next steps. Some want to pursue careers as paralegals, to work on their loved ones’ cases, and to become legal resources to community members who can scarce afford access to most legal advice. But they also want to do more. The long term vision is to create a policy think tank that can study, change and make policy, with the ultimate goal of creating a public safety system that works and that focuses on the root causes of crime.

This is the beacon of hope shining across the dim stretch of St. Bernard Avenue. Every week, it gets a little bit brighter.

Rosana Cruz is Associate Director of VOTE (Voice Of The Ex-offender). Previously Rosana worked with Safe Streets/Strong Communities and the National Immigration Law Center. Prior to joining NILC, she worked with SEIU1991 in Miami, after having been displaced from New Orleans by Katrina. Before the storm, Rosana worked for a diverse range of community organizations, including the Latin American Library, Hispanic Apostolate, the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans, and People's Youth Freedom School. Rosana came to New Orleans through her work with the Southern Regional Office of Amnesty International in Atlanta.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

One Big Slap: Now Let's Do Something By Tracie Washington

After Hurricane Katrina, they fired public school teachers in New Orleans, and I didn't speak up because I'm not a teacher.

Then they excluded residents who wanted to work on reconstruction while exploiting migrant and immigrant workers, and I didn't speak up because I'm not a construction worker.

Then they closed down Charity Hospital, and I didn't speak up because I have health insurance.

Then they discriminated against African American residents in need of home repair grants, and I didn't speak up because I didn't need the grant.

Then they locked up and later tore down public housing, and I didn't speak up because I own my home.

Then they restricted public education for African American children, and I didn't speak up because my child is enrolled in private school.

When they come for you and me who will be left to speak up?

-Monique Harden, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights

For the longest time, I couldn’t remember when I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Last summer, my son Jacob made me delve into my jumbled memory when he announced that he, too, wants to be an attorney, and asked how I knew this would be my career.

So here’s where I date myself. It was 1977 when I was first introduced by television to Patricia Roberts Harris. I was blown away. Now I had the good fortune of being raised in a family of highly educated Black women. But Patricia Roberts Harris was different. She encompassed all that was in my family history, and this promise of what could be. I wanted to grown up to be just like her, to study as hard as she had, to work as hard and as long as she had, and to gain the success and the recognition she had. I even made everyone in my family call me by all three names, just for practice.

Friends, while our role models may be different, I am sure each of you had that Patricia Roberts Harris moment. And I know our paths and our family histories, in some cases shared and in others simply interwoven in Louisiana’s rich African-American tapestry, are nearly identical. So I share with you the personal insult I felt … the Slap in the Face ... when I learned Senator Mary Landrieu could not would not nominate for appointment more than one African-American lawyer to fill four judicial vacancies in Louisiana.[1]

There is one obvious choice for at least one seat on the federal district court bench. She is Magistrate Karen Wells Roby. The Honorable Karen Wells Roby was appointed to serve as a United States magistrate judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana on Oct. 16, 1998, and since 1999 she has presided over civil jury and non-jury matters in the areas of Title VII, personal injury and §1983 matters upon the consent of the parties. She is also responsible for the review of social security cases and habeas corpus matters challenging the constitutionality of criminal tria1s conducted in the state courts. She is renowned for her adroitness as a mediator in cases pending before the District Court, having successfully resolved cases in the area of Title VII, Jones Act, admiralty, personal injury, contractual disputes and limitations. Magistrate Roby will lead the Federal Magistrate Judges Association as its President-elect next year, and as president in in the following year. This honor was bestowed by her peers nationally in recognition of her outstanding accomplishments as a jurist.

Beyond the bench, Karen Wells Roby is active in community service. She volunteers to serve food at Ozanam Inn. A lifelong education equity advocate, and recognizing the critical state of our public education system, Judge Roby had devoted her time to assisting the education system in New Orleans, as an officer in a parent-teacher organization, designing websites for schools, writing grants, and by serving on the boards of the New Orleans Bar Association and the Louisiana Center for Law & Civic Education. She tutors African-American law students who have experienced difficulty passing the bar exam, and she serves as a mentor for minority young lawyers and students regarding professional career choices and encourages them to volunteer in community activities. She has served on the boards of the Louisiana Bar Foundation, the New Orleans Bar Association and the Louisiana Center for Law & Civic Education.

She is a life-long resident of New Orleans, married to Attorney Clarence Roby, and mother of two outstanding sons. Karen Wells Roby is one of us. She shares our history. She lives those values to which we subscribe: integrity, hard work, commitment to the community.

Of course there are other highly qualified African-American attorneys Senator Landrieu could have appointed. But my line of demarcation is drawn at Magistrate Roby. Why? By not fighting for this nomination, we acquiesce to the resurging legacy of our city’s racist past, allowing certain Sinisters to impugn the integrity of one of our best and brightest with unfounded, nasty vitriol. If not Magistrate Roby, then who? Who else amongst us will ever be deemed qualified to take the bench? Senator Landrieu delivered that answer us on Monday with One Big Slap. No one.

I want my son, and your children to have their Patricia Roberts Harris moment. But it has to mean something, their hard work now must not be in vain and, therefore, we cannot let this injustice stand. We must fight together. Join me and take action by sending a letter to Deputy White House Counsel Susan Davies ( [2], who is responsible for day to day operations for judicial appointments, and promoting President Obama’s call for diversity in the federal courts. We must notify the president of this continuing injustice … this civil rights violation … in Louisiana’s appointment process by Senator Landrieu’s actions. We can make this right.
[1] Filling seats for U.S. District Court judges Stanwood Duval, Mary Ann Vial Lemmon, and G. Thomas Porteus, and U.S. Court of Appeals judge Jacques Weiner.

[2]Susan Davies, Deputy White House Counsel, The White House Office, Office of White House Counsel, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500.

Photo above: Judge Karen Wells Roby.

Reconstruction Workers Conclude 24 Hour Vigil at Sheriff's Office

Beginning yesterday at 1:00pm, on one of the coldest days of the year, members of New Orleans' Congress of Day Laborers and their allies began a 24-hour vigil outside the office of Sheriff Marlin Gusman to demand an end to his office's racial profiling and race-based deportation of immigrants held in Orleans Parish Prison. The vigil was timed to begin at the same time that a lawsuit was filed on behalf of two workers who had been held in the prison for 90 days and 160 days.

"Sheriff Gusman violated their rights and violated the constitution," said organizer Denis Soriano. "We see what is happening every day inside of Sheriff Gusman's jail. We have tried to meet with Sheriff Gusman and tried to explain to him, but hes not valuing us as a community. We are holding this prayer vigil to say to Sheriff Gusman, just like he's a human being and wants his rights respected, we also want our rights respected."

According to organizers,
The prayer vigil follows Gusman’s refusal to comply with an Open Records Act requests from the Congress of Day Laborers, as well as his repeated cancellation of meetings to launch a real community dialogue on the issue, even after he publicly committed to do so in front of TV cameras on the steps of the New Orleans federal courthouse on Nov. 15, 2011 after a federal judge ordered the release of one immigrant workers from the Sheriff’s illegal custody.
The vigil opened yesterday with statements from reconstruction workers and their allies. Ezequiel Falcon, a member of the Congress of Day Laborers, described the reason they had gathered.

We're claiming our rights...The majority of us came after Hurricane Katriana to rebuild this city. But now we're seeeing our neighbors, our friends, and our family disappearing from our streets. We want the right to be a permanent and stable community, where taking my daughter to school every day can be a normal act and not an act of extreme bravery. We want our freedom.

Freddy Lopez, another reconstruction worker, described his experience of being arrested and turned over to Homeland Security, and how that experience taught him how important it is to fight back.
We are here not only for the people that have been disappeared but for the people they want to disappear in the future. I have lived, in my own skin, how they try to violate your rights. (Last year) I came from celebrating mothers day with my wife and my child, and a police officer stopped me. I don't know if it's because i am Latino, but he asked me for my documentation. I showed him all of my paperwork and he told me i was going to be arrested for not having a valid license. I was supposed to go to court the next day but instead of taking me to court i was taken to immigration. I was there for two or three months and saw how if people don't speak English they're left there for long periods of time because they can't defend themselves. And that's why we're here on this day: to demand that we get respected (by the police) in the same way we respect them.
Overnight, workers received solidarity visits from activists, church groups, musicians and others, bringing food, hot drinks, and entertainment, including a performance from conscious hip-hop artist Truth Universal and a 3:00am screening of the film Machete projected on the outside wall of Sheriff Gusman's office. Workers left the vigil this afternoon, and marched to the city council, where they have gathered to support a city council resolution calling for a smaller city jail.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New Revelations of Problems With Major City Contractor

Since the loss of many of its manufacturing jobs since the 1960s, New Orleans has become synonymous with low-wage work in the service industry.

It wasn't always this way. New Orleans is a city with a long history of labor activism, including some of the nation's first multiracial labor unions. Much of the city's culture - like the Po' Boy sandwich, which was birthed during a strike of streetcar workers - comes from this history of working-class resistance.

But as rents and other expenses have risen post-Katrina, the city's low wages have remained stagnant while public services (like mass transit) have been cut, and it has become even harder to pay your bills from a full days' work in this city.

In this context, New Orleans is a key battleground in the national struggle for fair wages. And in that struggle the giant international food service provider Sodexo has become a symbol of corporate profiteering at the expense of local workers.

Sodexo is a major contractor in Louisiana, with accounts at both public and private institutions including Tulane University, Loyola University, Southern University of New Orleans, and the Recovery School District.

For almost two years, Sodexo workers and students at Tulane and Loyola University have been fighting for better workplace conditions and have faced retaliation and intimidation. The cafeteria workers earn as little as $8 an hour and many lack access to affordable health insurance. While the workers experience unfair working conditions, Sodexo continues to profit, posting more than $1 billion profits in 2009.

Sodexo also recently eliminated 33 custodial positions, and reduced dozens of full-time jobs to 20 or 30 hours a week, forcing many full-time workers further into poverty. Employees say this forced them to choose between working extra hours for free, or leaving the school they work at in unacceptable condition.

Despite the company’s stated commitment to rebuilding New Orleans, recent evidence suggests that Sodexo has illegally overcharged its clients, the cost of which is ultimately borne by the community. The New York Attorney General recently settled a $20 million law suit in which Sodexo was accused of illegally overcharging public schools and universities by failing to acknowledge or pass on volume discounts obtained on their clients' behalf. The Attorney General’s investigation found that in New York, Sodexo promised to provide goods at cost but failed to acknowledge rebates from suppliers, resulting in illegal overcharges.

As our city is faced with ever-increasing financial insecurity, it is more important than ever that we make sure contractors are held accountable for their behavior.

Cutting waste, fraud and abuse by contractors – and capturing every dollar due to local workers – may help prevent at least some of the budget cuts to vital public programs. Standing up to Sodexo and forcing them to pay living wages - or giving the work to local companies with both better pay and without Sodexo's history of fraud - would be an important step towards a real recovery for our region.

Press Release: Indian Guestworkers Ask Federal Court To Certify Largest Human Trafficking Civil Suit In US History As Class Action

Workers Lured To US After Hurricane Katrina And Subjected To Abusive Conditions Seek Class Certification
Lawyers for Indian guestworkers who are suing Signal International, LLC along with its co-conspirators and other entities for human trafficking and racketeering, filed for class certification yesterday to include hundreds of additional Indian guestworkers in the lawsuit. If class status is granted, the lawsuit could be the largest human trafficking case in US history.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI) and the law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP filed the original proposed class action lawsuit on behalf of the seven individuals, who seek to represent a class of approximately 500 former guestworkers lured to work in the US after Hurricane Katrina and subjected to racial and national origin discrimination, forced labor and other abuse by Signal and its agents and co-Defendants, including labor recruiters Sachin Dewan and Michael Pol and immigration attorney Malvern Burnett. Yesterday's filing urges the court to certify the class.

Signal, a marine and fabrication company with shipyards in Mississippi, Texas and Alabama, is a subcontractor for several major multinational companies. After Hurricane Katrina scattered its workforce, Signal retained its co-defendants who used the US government's guestworker program to import employees to work as welders and pipefitters. Between 2004 and 2006, hundreds of Indian men paid the defendants as much as $20,000 each for travel, visa, recruitment and other fees after they were told it would lead to good jobs and permanent US residency for themselves and their families.

However, when the men arrived at Signal in late 2006 and early 2007, they discovered that they wouldn't receive the green cards as promised, but rather 10-month guestworker visas. Signal also forced them to pay $1,050 a month to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a trailer with only two toilets. When the guestworkers tried to find their own housing, Signal officials told them they would still have the rent deducted from their paychecks. Visitors were not allowed into the camps, which were enclosed by fences. Company employees who stood guard at the camps regularly searched the workers' belongings. Workers who complained about the conditions they faced were threatened with deportation.


Kurian David, a class representative in the lawsuit: "We hope the court will give us all a chance to make our voices heard and to right the wrongs that were done against us. Signal and the other defendants should be held accountable for what they did to so many Indian guestworkers who worked for them, so that others won't have to go through the same terrible things."

Murugan Kandhasamy, a class representative in the lawsuit: "I speak on behalf of hundreds of Indian guestworkers subjected to abuse by Signal and its co-conspirators. We came to America for good jobs and opportunity, which we were denied, and now we are asking for justice."

Daniel Werner, SPLC Deputy Legal Director: "This case illustrates in shocking detail the abuse occurring within the nation's guestworker program. These workers only wanted the American dream but instead were bound to an abusive employer and forced to endure horrific conditions."

Chandra Bhatnagar, ACLU Human Rights Program staff attorney: "These courageous men who have been victimized by systemic deficiencies in the US guestworker program and subjected to trafficking and racketeering at the hands of the defendants are seeking to assert their fundamental human rights. We hope the court will certify the class and enable several hundred of their fellow Indian guestworkers to have their day in court."

Alan Howard of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which has been jointly litigating the case on a pro bono basis: "Class certification is warranted because that is precisely how Defendants treated Plaintiffs, as a class – albeit second-class – group of workers who could be exploited for higher profits."

Ivy Suriyopas, AALDEF staff attorney: "After being treated as disposable workers, these Indian guestworkers are entitled to seek justice for their wholesale mistreatment. They toiled under a climate of fear and coercion and deserve their day in court."

The guestworkers' attorneys filed the class action human trafficking and racketeering lawsuit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in March 2008.

The class action complaint is available online here.

The most recent, February 1 filing, is available online here.