Friday, July 29, 2011

Defense rests in Danziger Trial, insisting victims were armed

This article originally appeared on the New Orleans Tribune/Tribune Talk website:
After less than one full week and having presented the testimony of only one of the five defendants, the defense in the Danziger police violence trial rested their case on Thursday.

Much of the defense relied on the scenario that there were armed civilians on or near the bridge firing at officers, or that officers could reasonably have believed that was the case. Shawn Gasaway, a paramedic on the scene that day, testified that he saw people on the grass beside the bridge firing up at officers. The defense also read grand jury testimony from Heather Gore and Donald Haynes III, two officers on the scene who have not been charged in the killings or cover-up. Haynes testified that he saw two Black males “facing the officers with their hands extended.” Haynes admitted he didn’t actually see weapons in their hands, but he insisted the males must have had guns that they were firing at police. “Standing toe to toe with the officers like that I believed he was shooting,” said Haynes.

Gore, who was the last cop to exit the Budget rental truck that carried officers to the bridge, testified that she saw a “Black male with an assault rifle” pointing his weapon at officers and then running up the bridge. Gore said she only saw the man briefly and couldn’t say for sure he was not an officer; however, she insisted that he couldn’t have been with law enforcement because his gun had been pointed in the direction of police.

However, the prosecution repeatedly raised doubts about the credibility of defense witness accounts, pointing out that the various stories did not match up and accusing Haynes and Gore of lying to protect their fellow officers. Prosecutor Cindy Chung also said that the other paramedics traveling with Gasaway that day disputed his version of events and had said that gunfire had ended by the time they arrived on the scene.

Perhaps the most powerful testimony for the defense was a recording played in court of a conversation between officers Barrios and Villavaso. Barrios, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the prosecution, secretly recorded a conversation with Villavaso, his friend and former partner. On the tape, Barrios repeatedly tries to get Villavaso to admit that civilians on the bridge were unarmed, but Villavaso refuses to budge, insisting that the victims had guns.

The taped conversation also revealed that Villavaso and Barrios feel that the alleged cover-up crafted by Sergeant Kaufman and others unfairly directs the blame at them, as well as at Officer Faulcon. Some observers at the trial have speculated that the cover-up exonerated white cops at the expense of Black officers, although there are other factors aside from race that divide the officers, such as rank, place of work, and social circles.

This element of the story also unfolded earlier in the trial, during the testimony of Jeffrey Lehrmann, a former NOPD investigator and current government witness. Lehrmann admitted that the report he helped write noted that Villavaso fired an AK47, but failed to mention that Bowen also fired the same type of weapon.

The so-called “Danziger Seven” includes three white cops; Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, Sergeant Robert Gisevius, and Officer Michael Hunter; and four Black officers; Robert Barrios, Anthony Villvaso, Robert Faulcon and Ignatius Hills. Villavaso and Barrios were the only two officers not from the seventh district. Faulcon had been with the seventh, but left the force weeks after Katrina.

Hunter, Hills and Barrios have since pleaded guilty, while the four remaining officers are currently on trial along with Sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was not part of the shooting but is accused of leading the cover-up.

Officer Faulcon was the only defendant to take the stand. Speaking confidently, Faulcon testified to seeing armed men firing at him, saying that he returned fire “until the threat was neutralized.” During a contentious cross-examination by government prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein, Faulcon refused to admit to almost any laws or restrictions on police use of deadly force.

Asked repeatedly about situations when an officer may or may not fire or whether it was necessary to shout a warning first, Faulcon responded, “It’s hard to say yes and it’s hard to say no, that’s up to that individual.” When asked if an officer should follow guidelines on use of force he had been trained on in his years in the military and NOPD, he responded, “According to textbook, yes. According to reality, not necessarily.”

Bernstein also questioned Faulcon’s denial that he had collaborated with the other defendants in conspiring to change their stories. She listed several dates when Faulcon had apparently spoken on the phone with the other defendants, including several calls during the days in January of 2006 when officers gave their official statements for the NOPD internal investigation of the incident. When Faulcon claimed to not have the phone numbers of some of the other officers, Bernstein asked, “Can you sometimes talk to people on the phone even if you don’t have their phone number?”

While we wont know until the verdict comes down what the jury thought of Faulcon, his testimony may have damaged other officer’s cases, especially Kaufman’s. When asked by Bernstein if he agreed that there was a cover-up, Faulcon responded, “Based on what I learned now, yes.”

Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute Concludes With Free Performance

From our friends with Urban Bush Women:
On Saturday, July 30th at 3:00 and 7:00, Urban Bush Women (UBW) presents the culminating performance for its third New Orleans Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) at Lusher Charter School's Goldring Auditorium, 7315 Willow Street, (Jeanette Street Entrance). The performance will feature new works created by participants in the SLI and a guest appearance by Kermit Ruffins at the 3:00 performance.

Admission to the performance is free and donations will be accepted to support the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies' Women Leadership Program. UBW's SLI is supported by the Surdna Foundation, Open Society Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Newcomb Dance Program, Tulane University Dept. of Theatre and Dance, New Orleans Gulf South Center and Tulane University School of Liberal Arts.

The SLI is a 10-day intensive training workshop which brings together artists and community leaders from all over the city, state, country - and even the world - to learn about UBW's unique approach to utilizing the arts for civic engagement and social change. The schedule also includes teach-ins around specific political and social justice issues, undoing racism training, daily UBW dance technique classes, and a guided creative process culminating in a final creative performance based on this year's theme -- Soul Deep: Deepening Our Roots.

About Urban Bush Women: Founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women (UBW) seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance. We do this from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond. We do this by facilitating the use of art as a means of addressing issues of social justice and encouraging civic engagement. Based in Brooklyn, we aspire to ensure continuity by strengthening and expanding our international community via ongoing professional education, development of new audiences, nurturing young talent and presenting bold, life-affirming dance works in a variety of settings including at our annual Summer Leadership Institute.

Background on the Summer Leadership Institute: Urban Bush Women's SLI grew out of its earliest community engagement work, which took place in New Orleans from 1990-1992. The SLI began at Florida State University in Tallahassee Florida in 1997 and was moved to UBW's home of Brooklyn, New York, in 2004. For the past three years the SLI has been based in New Orleans to help support and strengthen the efforts New Orleans artists, organizers and stakeholders are making to sustain the cultural and artistic assets of this unique city. UBW's founder, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar explains, "New Orleans is such a creative and personal inspiration that it was important to me toreturn to support the community, particularly the community of artists, as this city was the place of UrbanBush Women's first community engagement project sponsored by Junebug and the Contemporary ArtsCenter. Here we made the leap from one-way outreach to an effective community engagement strategy. We want to be a part of the renewal process and hope our Summer Leadership Institute training can make a positive difference."

Since coming to New Orleans in 2009, Urban Bush Women has extended over 75 scholarships to New Orleans participants. The SLI is lead locally by Team NOLA, a local body of artists and SLI alumni, who co-create and co-plan the SLI in collaboration with UBW. 2nd Line Consulting and Moving Stories Inc, New Orleans-based arts-consulting firms, led by Stephanie McKee and Takema Robinson, also SLI alumni, facilitate Team NOLA's local planning efforts and goals which include connecting SLI to the greater New Orleans' arts and social justice community. UBW's New Orleans partners include Tulane University, which hosts the SLI each summer and People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, whose Undoing Racism workshop is a core element of the SLI training. Other local area partners include Lusher Charter School, the Institute for Women's Ethnic Studies (IWES), Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Junebug Productions, The McKenna Museum, Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective and Mondo Bizarro.

Urban Bush Women Third New Orleans Summer Leadership Institute culminating performance (with special guest appearance by Kermit Ruffins at 3:00pm show):
July 30, 2011
3:00pm & 7:00pm
Lusher Charter School Goldring Theater
7315 Willow Street/Jeanette Street Entrance
Open to the Public
Free & Donations Accepted to Support UBW's partner: The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies' Leadership Development Program.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Devastating Report Exposes Feinberg's Unequal Treatment of BP Illness Claims

Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) set up in the aftermath of the BP Drilling Disaster, has broken with his own past practices - as well as the evidence compiled by scientists and the experience of Gulf Coast residents - to deny all health claims filed by Gulf Coast residents.

In a devastating report released today, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR), a public interest law firm that has taken a leadership role in environmental justice struggles on the Gulf Coast, has documented the hypocrisy and injustice behind Feinberg's policies.

Up to this point, Feinberg has denied all damage claims for illnesses associated with exposure to the toxic BP crude oil and/or toxic chemical dispersants that were applied to the oil spill. In doing so, he has said that he requires medical proof of causation showing that the illnesses were caused by toxic exposures during the BP oil cleanup work. In their report, AEHR shows the problem with this position:
Feinberg’s requirement of medical proof of causation for BP illness claims is a break from his past practices in processing claims and pay-outs in the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund and the Agent Orange Settlement Fund. As the administrator of those funds, Feinberg did not require medical proof that a claimant’s illness or disability was caused by being exposed to toxic air pollution resulting from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or the toxic chemicals in Agent Orange sprayed during the Vietnam War. These disaster fund programs paid claimants based on a showing that they were in the vicinity where harmful chemicals were present and had a medically diagnosed illness or disability. The rationale for not requiring medical proof of causation in the Agent Orange Settlement Fund, which was replicated in the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, is “the inconclusive state of the scientific evidence” to demonstrate that a specific toxic exposure caused a specific physical harm.
By creating a significantly higher burden of proof standard for illness claims by people exposed to toxic chemicals during their cleanup of BP’s oil disaster, Feinberg effectively denies all damage claims for illnesses associated with exposure to the toxic BP crude oil and/or toxic chemical dispersants that were applied to the oil spill. Feinberg’s unprecedented standard implies that the sacrifices that cleanup workers and volunteers have made to protect the coastal communities, livelihoods, culture, marine species, and wildlife of the Gulf Region from the largest environmental disaster in the history of the United States are of lesser importance.

It also implies that people living in or visiting the Gulf Coast who were exposed to BP’s oil and/or chemical dispersants do not deserve the same level of protection afforded to the residents and visitors in the vicinity of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, who received financial compensation for toxic exposure-related illness without medical proof of causation.
As the chart below shows, this policy has led to radically different treatment for victims of the BP disaster as measure against those previous processes.

This is not the first time that AEHR has intervened for justice in the claims process. On June 11, 2010, less than two months after the BP oil drilling disaster, AEHR exposed the fact that BP contracted with a claims processing company that promoted its record of reducing lost dollar pay-outs for injuries and damage caused by its client companies. This company, ESIS, Inc., was administering the claims filed by people who suffered injuries and losses from the BP oil disaster.

A few weeks later, Kenneth Feinberg was appointed as the administrator to take over the BP claims process and he established the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. Clearly, the fight for justice for those affected by the BP disaster is not over.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Highlights in Local Activism Against the Prison Industrial Complex

Here on the Louisiana Justice Institute blog, we have been following developments in the Danziger Bridge investigation and other police violence and corruption cases, as well as activism against abuses at Orleans Parish Prison and other aspects of the Prison Industrial Complex, since early on the history of this blog. From protests to lawsuits and reports and criminal prosecutions, we have reported on resistance to the criminal justice system in this city and state. Below is a collection of some highlights from our reporting over the past few years.

2011 Danziger Bridge Trial:
-Did New Orleans Media Contribute to Police Violence After Hurricane Katrina?
-Danziger Trial Presents Opportunity for Systemic Change.
-Chilling Testimony in Opening Weeks of Danziger Trial.
-Danziger Bridge Police Trial Exposes NOPD Corruption... Again.
-Lawyers for Police in Danziger Shootings Offer Passionate Defense.
-Prosecution rests in Danziger trial.
-Defense rests in Danziger Trial, Insisting Victims were armed.

Additional 2011 Reporting:
-January 2011: Prisoner Abuse at Tangipahoa Parish Prison.
-January 2011: Baton Rouge further criminalizes sex workers.
-February 2011: In Louisiana, Odds of a Death Sentence 97% Higher If Victim is White.
-February 2011: Activists Harassed During Vigil at OPP.
-March 2011: NOPD attack Mardi Gras parade.
-March 2011: First National Conference of Formerly Incarcerated Persons Convenes In Alabama.
-March 2011: US DOJ report on NOPD.
-March 2011: Louisiana's Crime Against Nature law.
-April 2011: Raymond Robair trial.
-May 2011: The Waguespack family and the NOPD.
-June 2011: Will Judge Raymond Bigelow Face Investigation?
-June 2011: Jena Six activist sentenced to 15 years in prison.
-June 2011: NOPD continues to target sex workers.
-June 2011: Sex Offender Registration for Sex Workers Ends in Louisiana.

2010 Reporting:
-February 2010: Officers fight charges and reform.
-March 2010: Activist Parnell Herbert discusses police accountability.
-March 2010: Police harassment of Mardi Gras Indians caught on video.
-March 2010: Police harassment of "copwatch" activists challenged in court.
-March 2010: LJI calls for federal intervention in the NOPD.
-March 2010: Police Association of New Orleans Works to Protect Killer Cops.
-April 2010: Questions raised about search for new police chief.
-April 2010: Landrieu blasts critics in police chief search.
-April 2010: New coalition, Community United for Change, challenges NOPD.
-May 2010: M. Endesha Juakali discusses history of struggle against NOPD violence.
-June 2010: Community United for Change continues to challenge NOPD.
-June 2010: ACLU of Louisiana Releases Report on NOPD's Lack of Respect for First Amendment.
-June 2010: ACLU of LA challenges Gusman's plans for larger prison.
-June 2010: Guest commentary on juvenile justice.
-July 2010: Report on LGBT youth in juvenile justice system.
-July 2010: Torture in St. Tammany jail.
-September 2010: Activists march across Danziger Bridge.
-September 2010: Small successes at the Innocence Project.
-October 2010: Why New Orleans needs a smaller jail.
-October 2010: How the NOPD (mis)uses its citywide alert system.
-November 2010: Sex Worker Advocates Highlight New Orleans Human Rights Violations at United Nations.

2009 Reporting:
-October 2009: Investigations of Gretna police actions on Crescent City Connection after Katrina.
-November 2009: Local activist fights unfair charges.
-December 2009: Former New Orleans Black Panther and criminal justice activist passes on.

Prosecution Rests in Danziger Trial

The article below originally appeared on the New Orleans Tribune/Tribune Talk website
The prosecution rested its case this week in the Danziger Bridge police violence trial with one final witness testimony, perhaps the most moving.

Lesha Bartholomew, who was 17 at the time of the incident, broke into quiet tears as she described seeing her mother wounded, with her arm nearly shot off. “She was saying Lord help us,” said Lesha, describing how she tried to shield her mother from the gunfire as they both lay behind a concrete barricade. “I got closer,” she added, “So she wouldn’t get shot again.”

Bartholomew’s testimony punctuated the last days of the prosecution’s case that were spent mostly on the testimony of FBI Agent William Bezak, who has been in charge of the FBI investigation of the case since January 2009.

As a so-called “summary witness,” Bezak laid out the government’s view of the shootings on Danziger Bridge and cover-up from beginning to end. Over the past two years, Agent Bezak interviewed nearly all witnesses associated with the case – including 75 NOPD officers – and reviewed what he said were thousands of pages of documents. As part of his testimony, the government also played an extended video from a television news crew that had been stationed nearby, and audio from a three-hour conversation between officers Jeffrey Lehrmann and Robert Gisevius. Officer Lehrmann, who has pleaded guilty to aiding in the cover-up, secretly recorded the conversation as part of his cooperation deal with the government.

On the profanity-filled audiotape, Gisevius repeatedly says that he thinks none of the officers who were on the bridge that day will “break” or “sing.” Lehrmann, tasked by the feds to get Gisevius to admit guilt, continually presses Gisevius on who will talk or not.

When Lehrmann tells Gisevius that the government has shown him the TV news video, Gisevius asks if the tape shows him “shooting people on the ground.” In the taped conversation, Gisevius also expresses scorn for the government, calling prosecuting attorney Bobbi Bernstein a “Jew” and a vulgar word associated with female genitals. On another part of the tape, Gisevius tells Lehrmann that he shouldn’t worry, because Kaufman took a lead in writing the reports. “You were his note-writing bitch,” says Gisevius. Speaking of another officer who hasn’t been charged, he adds, “Waguespack could be in as much trouble as anybody. He signed off on that shit.”

In nearly two days of cross examination, defense attorneys questioned the government policy of not tape-recording interviews, expressing doubt about the testimony Agent Bezak had gathered, most of which were based on his hand-written notes, and questioned his interpretation of the evidence. They also asked questions that implied the prosecution had avoid calling some key witnesses whose testimony would not go along with the state version of events. Among the key witnesses not called were officer Robert Barrios, who has already pleaded guilty for his role in the shootings, and Leonard Bartholomew III, who was shot several times on the bridge.

Lawyers for the defense began calling witnesses on the afternoon of Thursday, July 21. The trial is expected to last at least three to four more weeks.

Photo above from 2010 Protest/Memorial on Danziger Bridge.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rethinkers Speak Out on Childhood Obesity and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

From our Friends at ReThink:
Candy Bars, Prison Bars How Schools Can Reverse the Major Youth Epidemics of Our Times

The unstoppable Rethinkers - school reformers, aged 8-18 - want to interrupt what they call "the two biggest youth epidemics of our time," childhood obesity and the school-to-prison pipeline. They're related!

At a July 21 new conference, the Rethinkers will deliver twelve recommendations to their superintendents, principals, charter school operators, and fellow students. The recommendations detail concrete changes schools can adopt to make kids healthy and keep them out of the criminal justice system. Along the way, the Rethinkers will explain the connections they see between childhood obesity and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The new Recovery School District Superintendent, John White, will respond to the Rethinkers on behalf of the RSD.

Date: Thursday, July 21 at 11:00am
Location: New Orleans Charter Science & Mathematics High School (Cafeteria), 5625 Loyola Avenue

The Rethink summer news conference has become a post-Katrina tradition in New Orleans - packed with school officials and community members who listen closely to these education experts, many of them pint-sized middle schoolers. Rethink news conferences are highly creative and visually rich - this year will be no exception. Look out First Lady Obama and Beyoncé - the Rethinkers have a flash mob performance about childhood obesity that can't be beat! Look for some surprise dancers in the crowd...

Last month, the Rethinkers received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Funders' Collaborative on Youth Organizing to conduct a youth-driven campaign to stem childhood obesity in the New Orleans schools. The July 21 news conference marks the official campaign launch.

"Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents." - former Surgeon General Richard Carmona

"When kids don't eat right, they act out. When they act out, they get in trouble. When they get in trouble, they get suspended. So they need to eat right!" - Edgar P. Harney Elementary School Rethink Club

Background on Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools and School Food Reform:

In 2010, the Rethinkers published their first book, a graphic novel called Feet to the Fire: The Rethinkers' Guide to Changing Your School. It's based on Rethink school food campaigns and is available at That same year, MIT Press brought out Food Justice, the first major U.S. book on the subject. It featured an opening chapter on Rethink, one of dozens of occasions in which Rethink has drawn national and international notice.

Food-related Reports written by the Rethinkers:
Sowing Seeds for Better Health: Students Grade New Orleans Public School Cafeterias (2011)
Time To Rethink School Lunch: Students Grade New Orleans School Food and Cafeterias (2010)
Kids Will Eat It: Fresh, Local Food and New Orleans Public Schools (2009)

For a complete list of articles about Rethink from 2006 - 2011, visit:

Monday, July 18, 2011

Moving Forward With the Status Quo

A Response to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s Veto of Senate Bill 67, by Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children:
When Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed State Senate Bill 67 (SB 67), he failed to protect the right to education for thousands of Louisiana school children. Each year more than 25% of Louisiana students are put out of school for “willful disobedience”, which includes suspensions of students in elementary grades for very minor “infractions”, like being out of uniform. In the 2009-2010 school year alone, there were more than 14,600 Louisiana students suspended for being habitually tardy or absent. (Source: Louisiana Department of Education, 2010. Discipline Actions and Ethnicity by Reason Code).

It was this alarming data that led students, parents, teachers and education advocates in Louisiana to come together to advocate for SB67 to demand that suspensions and expulsions be reduced and those positive approaches to school discipline be used that address student behavior while keeping kids in school. If we are to create an equitable and high quality public education system for Louisiana’s children, we must ensure that students are not hastily pushed out of school for minor infractions. Keeping our young people in school should be our number one priority.

Yet despite having bi-partisan support, majority floor votes, and being passed by both the Louisiana House of Representatives and Senate, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal vetoed SB 67 on July 1, 2011.

Senate Bill 67, if enacted, would have reduced suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions by encouraging schools and districts to use positive intervention tools and strategies such as restorative justice and peer mediation. Research from schools and districts across the country has shown that these positive approaches are more effective than suspensions and are proven to reduce disciplinary incidents and even decrease violent incidents in schools by up to 50%.

In Governor Bobby Jindal’s statement following his veto of the bill, he stated, “I have always supported a teacher’s right to use a variety of tools and strategies in his or her own classroom. Senate Bill No. 67 reduces those tools and strategies by placing restrictions on when and how they can be used.” Yet at the close of each legislative session Governor Bobby Jindal signs many bills from the Louisiana Legislature that limit the variety of tools and strategies that teachers can use, including the many budget cuts imposed on the education profession that the governor actively supported and that will have a significant impact on the accessibility and application of tools and strategies teachers can use in their classroom. Furthermore, Senate Bill 67 would not have taken away rights or restrict teachers from using any tools and strategies in their classroom. However, it would have required that classroom teachers allow students in grades kindergarten through 5th grade to stay in class when out of uniform or for being habitually absent or tardy.

In his statement Governor Jindal added, “nothing in current law prevents a school board from deciding to reduce the use of suspension or expulsion, speed up the expulsion hearing, or hold parent-teacher conferences in a timelier manner.” However, nothing in current law encourages them to do so, which is exactly why SB67 is so necessary since the school boards are in fact doing the opposite. Each and every year, approximately 300,000 Louisiana students spend several days out of school due to “disciplinary” reasons. (Source: Louisiana Department of Education, 2010. Discipline Actions and Ethnicity by Reason Code).

The state of Louisiana will never close the achievement gap or decrease the racial disparities among students who are pushed out of school in Louisiana for subjective minor “disciplinary” reasons. Currently, the Louisiana Revised Statute 17:416 (R.S. 17:416) allows local school boards to keep a student out of school indefinitely until an expulsion hearing takes place; it has been noted that on average students are kept out of school for more than 14 days awaiting an expulsion hearing.

At present, there is nothing in state law that protects the rights of children or prevents school boards from putting young students out of school for minor and subjective disciplinary reasons. SB 67 would have amended state law R.S. 17:416 to decrease the number of days a student could be suspended out of school for minor disciplinary infractions and require districts to create guidelines for reducing suspensions for “willful disobedience.” Furthermore, the bill would have made certain that students were not out of school for more than 10 days awaiting an expulsion hearing. Finally, SB 67 would have supported the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) in attaining the “9 Critical Goals” as adopted by the LDOE and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) in 2010.

The current practices of school boards across the state and the current state law related to suspensions and expulsions do not align with the goal of the Louisiana State Constitution which states:
“The goal of the public education system is to provide learning environments and experiences, at all stages of human development, that are humane, just, and designed to promote excellence in order that every individual may be afforded an equal opportunity to develop to his full potential.”
- Preamble to Article 8 of the Louisiana State Constitution
If we do not begin to make logical data-driven decisions to protect the educational rights of our children by amending the state’s disciplinary laws (specifically R.S. 17:416) to ensure that students are not being denied their right to an education, the state of Louisiana runs a high risk of a class action law suit for violating students’ constitutional rights to receive an education.

Power, authority and autonomy is heavily sought after within the education system in Louisiana; the teachers want power and control in their classroom by any means; the principals want power over their school by any means; the school boards wants power over the schools in their districts by any means; and in the mean time students are left powerless.

Given the existing data and bi-partisan support we can only conclude that Governor Jindal’s reason for vetoing Senate Bill No. 67 was not based on data, qualitative information, or concern for the constitution but rather on the governor’s subjective reasoning and uninformed advice. We recommend that Governor Jindal support the provisions proposed in Senate Bill 67 during the 2012 legislative session.

If we are to shift the current paradigm and change the status quo it is imperative that we continue to organize ourselves.

For more information contact

Danielle Metz, A Prisoner of the US Drug War

In 1993, at the age of 26, Danielle Metz was sentenced to serve three life sentences plus twenty years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. It was her first conviction. Evidence suggests that Danielle never knew that her husband, Glenn, was involved in drugs. When they married, he was 30 years old and she was 18.

A Cry for Freedom, by Barbara Mae Bernard, Danielle's mother

I will never forget the day I awoke and the DEA had kicked my door in at the home I lived in for over 26 years. I had never experienced such a traumatic and embarrassing moment. It was as devastating as I later discovered Hurricane Katrina to be 13 years later.

I am the mother of nine children. I grew up in New Orleans, LA. The farthest I had traveled from that city was to Montgomery, Alabama, when I was a little girl with my grandmother who would take two of her grandchildren to Alabama on the train each summer when school was out. We lived a pretty decent life and my parents and grandparents were a hardworking, close-knitted family as was our neighbors in the community.

Danielle is the youngest of my children. She wasn’t there on that awful day when the DEA arrived and how thankful was I, that she wasn’t. I didn’t have a clue that my daughter would be facing such a sentence, 3 life sentences plus 20 years. I have traveled for 18 years twice a year, in June her birthday month and December for Christmas, to visit her in Dublin CA. I haven’t been with my family for Christmas since Danielle’s incarceration. However, that is just one of the many sacrifices mothers make when their children are in prison.

Danielle is a wonderful daughter and a beautiful mother. She wasn’t a young girl that ran the streets and got into difficulties. She strived to do things that would please her dad and I. Of course, I always expressed my feelings about people I met and I can’t ever say I was happy about Danielle dating an older man 13 years her senior. She tried to convince me that he was a gentleman and would help provide for her and her baby boy, Carl.

This was an experience I wouldn’t wish upon any Mother. I endured family members that were trying to convince me that my youngest sister, Angela, would testify against my daughter. I loved my sister and I didn’t believe the rumors until the trial began and I witnessed her take the stand for the government. She had great influence on Danielle and I warned Danielle numerous of times to separate herself.

I was forced to retire after working at G.H. Leidenheimer Bakery for over 41 years after Hurricane Katrina. My home and all of my worldly possessions was destroyed. For the first time in my life I was displaced and living from one place and one daughter to the next one for approximately 3 years. God blessed me to move back into my home that was refurbished in November of 2009.

I have matured into my senior years and my only desire is to see my baby, Danielle, free and home to share a laugh or two with me and her children before the Lord call me home to Glory. I have kept the faith throughout this ordeal and I believe that God is going to grant me my wish. With your Help you can join us by contacting your State Senators, and representatives and asking them to eliminate the Mandatory Sentencing Guidelines that are gravely affecting the African American communities. My sincere cry is for the freedom of my daughter.

Stereotypes, Myths, & Criminalizing Policies: Regulating the Lives of Poor Women

An important statement from the New Orleans organization the Women's Health and Justice Initiative:
Since the beginning of the year, we have witnessed a surge of legislative attacks targeting poor communities through bills calling for mandatory drug testing as an eligibility requirement to receive federal aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in over two-dozen states. (TANF is a federally funded, state- administered aid program created when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996C (PRWORA), which abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). It is more widely known as the Welfare Reform Act.)

§ On January 25, 2011 U.S. Senator David Vitter, R-Louisiana, introduced The Drug Free Families Act of 2011, (S. 83), which would require all 50 states to drug test all TANF applicants and recipients.

§ On May 10, 2011, Missouri state legislature passed Senate Bill 607, which require welfare applicants and recipients to pass a drug test in order to receive public assistance, if ‘reasonable suspicion’ is raised by a social worker; and on July 12, 2011, Democratic Governor Jay Nixon signed the bill into law.

§ On May 31, 2011, Governor Rick Scott, R- Florida, signed legislation into law requiring adults applying for welfare assistance to undergo drug screenings.

§ And for the fourth consecutive year, Louisiana State Representative John LaBruzzo aggressively tried to get similar legislation passed before House Bill 7 died in the Senate on June 21, 2011 after winning approval in the House.

The targeting of welfare recipients – under the false pretense of “saving tax dollars from supporting someone’ s drug addiction” or by “helping drug addicts become productive citizens” – is nothing more than the continual use of stereotypes and myths to criminalize the lives of poor women and their families through invasive and unconstitutional regulatory policies of economic violence.

The Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI) condemns these coordinated federal and state assaults on recipients of public cash assistance. The legislative actions of Governor Scott, Senator Vitter, State Representative LaBruzzo, and others criminalize the poverty of welfare recipients, exploit low-income women’s economic vulnerability, and stereotype welfare recipients as illegal drug users by publicly presuming welfare recipients’ socio-economic status as linked to addiction.

Punitive, Criminalizing, & Discriminatory Attacks

Using the ‘Get Tough’ rhetoric of the War on Drugs; reproductive regulation; and neoliberal austerity measures to attack poor and marginalized women (who rely on government subsidies for financial support) irresponsibly exploits their economic vulnerability by falsely implying their assistance is the cause of the country’s financial woes. Although recipients of public assistance are no more likely to use illegal drugs than the general population, they are often disproportionately targeted by elected officials as social burdens in need of governmental regulation.

At both the federal and state levels, Senator Vitter and State Representative LaBruzzo have tried unsuccessfully for years to restrict public assistance eligibility through mandatory drug testing under the disguise of helping recipients with untreated drug addictions. Despite the fact such testing has been ruled unconstitutional by the Sixth Circuit in 2000, Vitter and LaBruzzo continue to promote dangerously punitive policies.

If passed, Senator Vitter’s Drug Free Families Act of 2011 would amend part A of The TANF Program and thereby require all states to drug test all TANF applicants and recipients. The bill will deny assistance to individuals who test positive for illegal drugs and those convicted of drug-related crimes. Not only will this Act further restrict the privacy and agency of women who are daily portrayed as deceitful, deviant, oversexed, and addicts—all because of racialized gender-based misconceptions of what it means to receive public assistance- it will also subject them to various forms of discrimination with regards to housing, employment, education, and their voting rights.

Additionally, Louisiana State Representative LaBruzzo’s House Bill 7 would have required twenty percent of TANF recipients to submit to drug tests as a condition to receive public assistance – a similar measure attempted by former State Representative and Klu Klux Klan member David Duke in 1989.

Under this year’s version of Representative LaBruzzo’s bill, a participant who wouldn’t sign a written form granting ‘consent’ to a drug test would not have been eligible to receive or to continue to receive cash assistance. Consenting to a drug test is an infringement of one’s constitutional right to privacy and equal protection, yet refusal is a denial of public benefits and a presumption of drug addiction. Clearly, this legislation was designed to both publicly demonize and undermine the agency of welfare recipients – because placing women in a position to “choose” between their right to privacy and the care of their family is not an exercise of “consent” but a blatant form of coercion. The use of coercive policies to compel welfare recipients to submit to drug testing ignores the complex structures of poverty and poor women’s daily battles for subsistence, as they often bear the brunt of income and housing related poverty, violence, and discrimination. By placing women in such positions, LaBruzzo and others are able to justify these systemic forms of coercion by dehumanizing the lives of poor women and their families.

Lastly, legislation signed into law by Governor Scott of Florida on May 31,2011 and by Governor Nixon of Missouri on July 12, 2011 both require adults applying for temporary cash assistance to undergo drug screenings. The Florida law took effect July 1st, which requires the Florida Department of Children and Family Services to drug test all adults applying for TANF assistance. Applicants are responsible for the cost of the screening and will be reimbursed by the state only if they pass the drug test. Those who fail can enter a drug rehabilitation program and reapply six months later or designate someone on their behalf to receive their child's benefits. Governor Scott claims, “we don't want to waste tax dollars...and we want to give people an incentive to not use drugs.” His statement equates public assistance with ‘waste’ and exploits the vulnerability of women’s economic status by violating their Fourth Amendment rights under the pretext of deficit reduction.

In Missouri, the recently signed law allows officials with the Department of Social Services to drug test recipients of public assistance if there is ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect illegal drug use. If an applicant tests positive, they must complete a substance abuse program. And if an applicant refuses to take a drug test or attend a substance abuse program, they won’t be eligible for assistance for three years. This law, like the others, stigmatizes welfare recipient’s economic status and equates their subsidy status with addiction.

The Truth Behind the Legislation

Not only is drug testing unconstitutional, it’s ineffective and costly. Drug testing does nothing but further marginalize and stigmatize TANF recipients. It implies that recipients are to blame for the nation’s current economic deficit, as opposed to the wasteful spending of public resources on the corporate welfare giants of Wall Street and the War on Drugs; militarism; and the over production of unnecessary commodities that negatively impact our environment. The aggressive use of punitive neoliberal policies like these rely on fear and racist stereotypes to falsely frame low-income families as economic burdens of the state, while ignoring the disastrous economic burdens of corporate welfare.

Stereotypes and stigmatizing labels associated with welfare are dramatically different in reality than what is often decried by elected officials. The racial and gendered subtext of prevailing welfare stereotypes of ‘laziness,’ ‘uncontrolled sexuality,’ and ‘drug addiction,’ implicitly informs the negative treatment of people on food stamps; landlords refusing to accept subsidized housing vouchers as rent; the general perception that welfare recipients only have children to receive a “welfare check;” the regulation of low-income women of color’s fertility; and the scapegoating of recipients as constantly burdening the government to take care of them. Despite the fact that the current TANF program carries a 5-year term limit, along with a variety of other requirements and restrictions, the false perception of low-income women of color having endless benefits to support drug habits persists.

Nationally, financial assistance to poor families represents approximately 0.7% of the federal budget. Here in Louisiana, the number of people receiving cash assistance through TANF has been declining since President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation; and since Hurricane Katrina, the numbers of families receiving assistance has decreased by 74 %.

Despite the claims of lawmakers like Rep. John LaBruzzo, cash assistance payments in Louisiana represents less than 1% of the state budget, with:

§ Less than .3% of the population receiving assistance through the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program or FITAP (13,237 people out a population of 4.5 million)

§ The average public assistance grant being only $189 a month for a family of three, and

§ 74% of receipts in the state being children (only 3,656 of the 13,237 recipients are adults)

The reality of welfare in Louisiana clearly illustrates drug testing has nothing to do with saving tax payers dollars and balancing state budgets, but much to do with who’s perceived as receiving benefits.

What We Need

These current actions represent yet another attempt by conservative legislators to pass criminalizing policies to restrict and police the sexuality and reproductive autonomy of subsidy-reliant women under the pretext of saving taxpayers’ dollars. The same women whose fertility and motherhood become routine targets of public debates, reproductive legislation, and policy mandates are the same women who are falsely accused of being economic burdens on the state and punished through government funded programs for being poor, thus becoming disproportionately subjected to racialized gender related poverty, violence, discrimination, and displacement.

We need legislators to take real leadership in addressing budget shortfalls not by weakening the capacity of women to care for their families, which will ultimately create more social and economic cost in the future, but by targeting inflated costs of corporations that pose dangerous risks to our communities. The efforts that have been employed to police the lives of poor women could be better used to:

§ Regulate dangerous industries and out-of-control military spending that threaten the social, economic, and environmental health of families and communities;

§ Increase the efficacy and availability of social programs designed to improve the living conditions of poor communities;

§ Support responsible, accessible, and affordable public services and resources that respect the reproductive and economic autonomy of women of color and low-income women;

§ Prioritize poor women’s economic and social needs to take care of their families in safe and healthy environments.

Legislation that is appropriately funded and provide for childcare resources, family treatment programs, mental health services, non-discriminatory employment opportunities, affordable and decent housing, and safe and non-coercive health care services is needed to assist low-income families not punitive, ineffective, and expensive drug testing initiatives that restrict the opportunities and life chances of low-income women and their families.

Formed in 2006 to address the hidden and persistent racialized gender-based forms of violence, neglect, and inequality laid bare and exacerbated by the disasters of 2005, the Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI) is a feminist of color organization based in New Orleans that engages in public education campaigns, research projects, and grassroots organizing activities to improve the social and economic health of women of color and our communities. WHJI advocates against punitive social policies, practices, and behaviors that restrict, exploit, regulate, and criminalize the bodies and lives of low-income and working class women of color most vulnerable to violence, poverty, and population control policies of blame, displacement, and social neglect. Our organizing challenges the social invisibility of the various forms of social exclusion, violence, marginality, and socio-economic vulnerability women color and poor women experience, contend with, and fight against —by staving off attempts to further undermine our human rights—while forging new opportunities to build the capacity of our communities to address the social justice implications of women’s economic and social needs to live in healthy and safe environments.

Photo Above: Staff of the New Orleans Women's Health Clinic, 2007.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Benefits to Support BreakOUT, Building the Power of LGBTQ Youth Most Impacted by the Criminal Justice System

From our friends at BreakOUT! and Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana:
On Sunday, June 12th the performers of Lucky Cheng's reunited for a spectacular show to benefit JJPL's project BreakOUT!, which fights the criminalization of LGBTQ youth in New Orleans.

Although the famed New Orleans Lucky Cheng's Drag Queen Cabaret Restaurant had closed many years ago, former bar manager and JJPL volunteer, Mary Horn, was constantly running into people that missed the unique campy glamour of Lucky Cheng's. Horn got in touch with performers Paloma, Bliss, Delicious, and Opal Van de Hurst, all of whom had worked at the New Orleans cabaret, and a reunion show to benefit a great cause was born.

In addition to the Lucky Cheng's alumni, BreakOUT! youth Kenisha, Jonathan, and Milan all gave impressive performances that garnered enthusiastic applause. The show, which was held at John Paul's bar, raised just shy of $3,000 for BreakOUT!, far exceeding the fundraiser's initial goal of $2,000.

Those who were unable to make the Lucky Cheng's event will have two other fun-filled chances this month to support BreakOUT!. New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling (NOLAW) is hosting a Steamy Summer Brawl tonight: Saturday, July 16th at 8 pm at the Rusty Nail, with proceeds to benefit BreakOUT!.

The following weekend, the Big Easy Roller Girls' bout featuring the All Stars vs. the Dixie Derby Girls will take place on Saturday, July 23rd at 7 pm at UNO's Human Performance Center; tickets range from $6 to $12 dollars, with a raffle to benefit BreakOUT!. We hope to see some of you out there for both a good time and support of a a good cause!

About BreakOUT!:
BreakOUT! builds the power of LGBTQ youth most impacted by the criminal justice system to affect concrete policy change regarding the criminalization of LGBTQ youth in New Orleans, LA.

Photo of JJPL Staff and Members of BreakOUT! by Ken Mizuhara

Friday, July 15, 2011

Lawyers for Police in Danziger Shootings Offer Passionate Defense

A version of this article was originally published on the New Orleans Tribune TribuneTalk website:
Whatever the verdict at the end of the Danziger Trial, lawyers for the accused have offered a passionate defense of their clients. The five officers on trial for killing Ronald Madison and James Brisette and wounding four others on September 5, 2005, are represented by six lawyers: Lindsay Larson and Paul Fleming, both representing officer Robert Faulcon; Eric Hessler, representing Sergeant Robert Gisevius; Stephen London, representing Sergeant Arthur Kaufman; Timothy Meche, representing officer Anthony Villavaso; and Frank DeSalvo, representing Sergeant Kenneth Bowen.

Defense attorneys have been aggressive in their questioning of prosecution witnesses, especially the former officers who have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in exchange for lighter sentences. They have occasionally displayed hostility towards attorneys for the government, who are prosecuting the case. In his opening arguments, attorney Timothy Meche mocked Bobbi Bernstein, the lead prosecutor in the case, for saying that officers should have “assessed” the situation on the bridge before they began shooting, saying that any hesitation could have cost the officers their lives. Meche said that the officers were part of a task force that took on the most dangerous assignments, and that they are “proactive and help people and recue people.” Kaufman attorney Stephen London derided the prosecution for even investigating his client, saying, “for the government to come here six years later and look over his shoulder is inexcusable.”

Former officer Jeffrey Lehrmann, who began his testimony on the morning of July 11, was the subject of a withering cross-examination by Kaufman attorney Stephen London. Much of the defense tactic in questioning officers who have testified for the prosecution involves going over past testimony and asking repeatedly about discrepancies. For example, in questioning Lehrmann, London asked repeatedly about the gun he said Kaufman had planted at the crime scene. In one telling of his story, Lehrmann had said Kaufman handed the gun to him. In other telling, he said Kaufman had handed the gun to officer Gisevius then him. “You’re nitpicking,” said Lehrmann, insisting that the differences were irrelevant and minor. “It is different. Big time different,” replied London.

Bowen attorney Frank DeSalvo also mocked prosecutors in his opening statements, perhaps hoping to appeal to anti-government sentiments on the jury. He said that the government’s case sounded like something out of a “Grisham novel” written by someone who knows a little bit of law. DeSalvo added that many of the government’s witnesses were liars, while others were deluded.

DeSalvo, who in his work with the Police Association of New Orleans has defended countless police officers over the years, has been involved in the Danziger case since the beginning. Questions have been raised about his involvement in the state case against the Danziger officers, which was dismissed by Judge Raymond Bigelow in 2008. DeSalvo’s daughter, Emily DeSalvo Blackburn, was a minute clerk for Judge Bigelow, and is the wife of one of DeSalvo's law partners.

One of the most strident defenders has been Paul Fleming, Jr, who appears to have taken a leadership role among the attorneys. Fleming was the first attorney to speak for the defense in opening arguments, and he began by forcefully declaring the words “These men are not guilty.” He has frequently been the first to question witnesses, and is often the first to object in court to the government’s line of questioning.

Unlike DeSalvo, Fleming is not known for defending police, but he does have a history that involves some notorious cases, mostly in Jefferson Parish, and often involving the death penalty. He is probably best known as the lawyer for Vince Marinello, the well-known local sportscaster who was convicted of killing his wife. Fleming was also the lawyer for Charles Atwood, a Metairie man who pleaded guilty in 2003 to killing and dismembering at least three women.

Photo from 2010 Protest/Memorial on Danziger Bridge.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against Louisiana Alleging Violations of the National Voter Registration Act

From a press release issued today by the US Department of Justice:
The Department of Justice announced today that it has filed a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana and a number of Louisiana state agencies and officials alleging that the state has violated its obligations under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

The complaint, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, alleges that Louisiana has violated the NVRA by failing to provide voter registration services at offices providing public assistance and serving persons with disabilities in Louisiana. Specifically, the complaint alleges that Louisiana officials have not routinely offered voter registration forms, assistance and services to the state’s eligible citizens who apply, recertify or provide a change address for public assistance or disability services, or benefits.

“The voting process begins with registration. Therefore, it is essential that all citizens have unfettered access to voter registration opportunities,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The department is committed to enforcing the National Voter Registration Act so that neither income nor disability status stands in the way of equal voter registration opportunities for all citizens.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the defendants have failed comply with the requirements of Section 7 of the NVRA, and requiring Louisiana to take all necessary steps to come into compliance with federal law. The suit seeks to require Louisiana to effectively publicize the required voter registration opportunities and provide the court with a remedial plan that will ensure future compliance.

Congress enacted the NVRA in 1993 in part to enhance citizen participation in elections by making voter registration opportunities readily available and accessible to the largest possible segment of the American public. In addition to requiring that voter registration be offered at motor vehicle offices and by mail, the NVRA also mandates that states offer voter registration through agencies that provide essential services to citizens with disabilities and low income citizens. Congress found that if it did not require states to offer voter registration at public assistance and disability services agencies, it would exclude a large segment of American citizens from having convenient opportunities to participate in our democracy.

More information about the NVRA and other federal voting laws is available on the Department of Justice website at this link. Complaints about discriminatory voting practices may be reported to the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at 1-800-253-3931.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Danziger Bridge Police Trial Exposes NOPD Corruption ... Again

This is an altered version of a story originally published on The Loop21 website:
In New Orleans’ federal courthouse, five police officers are currently facing charges of killing unarmed Black civilians on Danziger Bridge and conspiring for more than four years to cover-up their crime.

The New Orleans Police Department has developed a reputation as one of the most violent and corrupt in the nation, and the revelations in this case has stoked anger and outrage, especially in New Orleans’ African-American community. “This case shows the total dysfunction of the New Orleans Police Department,” says Malcolm Suber, a longtime activist against police brutality and project director with the New Orleans chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. “It shows they were just going wild after the storm.” Suber and other activists have called for the DOJ to launch a wide-ranging investigation into a pattern of abuse they say goes back decades.

A Department With A Troubled History

Like most southern police departments, NOPD was explicitly segregationist for much of the 20th century. The first Black New Orleans police officer was not hired until 1950 and it was several more years before Black officers were allowed to carry a gun or arrest whites. In comparison, Miami, Florida was one of the first southern cities to hire Black officers, starting in 1944, while Jackson Mississippi did not hire their first Black officer until 1963.

Even as Black officers came onto the force, suspicion from the Black community remained. In 1980, New Orleans was rocked by protests when Sherry Singleton, a 26-year old African-American mother, was shot by police while she was naked in a bathtub, in front of her four year old child. Police said she was armed, but a neighbor testified that she heard her pleading, “please don’t shoot, please don’t shoot.”

The issue of police violence continued to dominate in the 1990s. Revelations of corruption in the force inspired both mass protest and Department of Justice investigations. Federal involvement combined with aggressive actions on the part of a new mayor and police chief led to 110 police officers being arrested, while 600 officers were suspended, 117 were fired and 180 officers resigned while under investigation. Two NOPD officers received the death penalty for killing civilians. One of those officers, Len Davis, was caught on a federal wiretap ordering the assassination of a woman who had complained about police brutality. As officers were being fired and disciplined, the city’s murder and violent crime rates dropped dramatically, and the prosecution of corrupt officers was widely seen as having made the city safer.

Advocates say that the changes begun in the 90s were cut short when C. Ray Nagin became mayor, at around the same time that the Clinton presidency ended and the Bush administration begun. Both Bush and Nagin seemed uninterested in continuing to prosecute police, and New Orleans slipped back into having the nation’s highest murder rate, as well as reclaiming the title of the capital of police violence.

Renewed Outrage Brings Energy for Change

The revelations of post-Katrina police violence have given birth to a new era of outrage. Political and civic leaders, across boundaries of color and class, have called for systemic change in the NOPD. “The public has a right to know what really happened,” says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, which plays the role of an unofficial watchdog over the NOPD. “The police department failed in their mission,” adds Radosti, a 23-year veteran of the NOPD.

Ronal Serpas, who has hired by Mayor Landrieu to run the department in 2010, admits that the department has a long way to go. “Chief Serpas has always acknowledged that he inherited a fundamentally flawed department,” explains NOPD spokesperson Remi Braden. “He has done a lot, but there is much more to be done.”

Federal agents are looking into at least 9 cases of police killings from the past several years, but that is just one aspect of their involvement. In March, the DOJ released a 58-page report that describes a department facing problems that “are serious, systemic, wide-ranging, and deeply rooted.” The report highlighted a range of areas in which it found “patterns or practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law.”

The bad news keeps coming out of the NOPD. In just the past two weeks since the Danziger trial began, scandal has reached the very top of the department. The NOPD’s second in charge, Marlon Defillo, was found in an investigation overseen by the state police to have neglected his duty to investigate police violence, in effect helping to hinder official investigations. Three police commanders – the position under Defillo, and third in the overall NOPD hierarchy – have also been the subject of internal investigation. One commander was accused of directing officers to specifically target young Black men for questioning during the city’s Essence Festival, one of the nation’s largest Black tourism events. He resigned shortly after the investigation was announced.

Investigations are also ongoing into profiteering in the NOPD's "paid detail" system, in which officers make extra money - sometimes far more than their official salary - by doing outside work for hire. Among those under investigation are Police Commander Edwin Hosli, a close ally and friend of Chief Serpas, and officer Travis Ward, Serpas' son-in-law.

Criminal justice activists have demanded more federal investigations and a wider scope. “This represents a real opportunity for New Orleans to raise some fundamental questions about the nature of police and what they do,” says organizer Malcolm Suber. “But unless we talk about the entire system, this will repeat again.”

Photo above from 2010 Protest/Memorial on Danziger Bridge.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chilling Testimony in Opening Weeks of Danziger Trial

This article originally appeared on The New Orleans Tribune/TribuneTalk website:
Hours after police officers killed two unarmed civilians and wounded four on New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge, Lieutenant Michael Lohman reportedly told other officers, “We can’t have this look like a massacre.”

After two weeks of testimony from survivors of that terrifying day, the word massacre seems apt.

The jury in the Danziger trial has heard from officers on the scene who pleaded guilty and became witnesses for the government in hopes of having their sentences reduced, as well from the civilians who were shot, arrested, and beaten on that day. Lohman and other officers have described a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover-up the killings that began immediately after the shooting and continued for nearly four years.

In court on Wednesday, jurors saw a picture of Lance Madison’s dead body, and former officer Michael Hunter pointed out Sergeant Kenneth Bowen’s boot print on his shoulder, Hunter said Bowen had “a very malicious look in his eye,” as he stomped and kicked Madison, a 40-year-old man with the mental ability of an eight-year-old.

Hunter has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the shooting and cover-up.

According to witnesses, police came to that bridge looking for a shoot-out. Officer Ignatius Hills, who is Black, fired his gun at Leonard Bartholomew IV, who was 14 years old at the time, unarmed, and running away. Bartholomew was arrested that day, not knowing if his family – who he had last seen cowering under a hail of bullets – was still alive.

“I just tried to pop that little (N-Word),” Hill reportedly boasted to former NOPD officer Kevin Bryan, who testified at the trial. Bryan was on the scene that day and now works for the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“Shoot first and ask questions later,” said Department of Justice prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein in her opening arguments. “That’s how this whole case got started.”

Perhaps most chilling has been Hunter’s testimony about the behavior of other officers at all levels of the NOPD. Aside from detailing a wide-ranging conspiracy, Hunter told the court that he and other accused cops were treated “Pretty much like heroes,” by other officers. “Nobody thought we did anything wrong,” added Hunter. “They thought we were being persecuted.” Hunter says that his fellow officers involved in the shootings enjoyed the attention, saying that Officer Villavaso “was reveling in it.”

When Bernstein asked Hunter if he felt like a hero, he said, “There’s nothing heroic about shooting unarmed people while they’re running away.”

Hunter and the other officers should have come to that realization much earlier. “When they finally came forward,” said Bernstein on the opening day, “It was only because they were caught.”

The five officers on trial for the shootings and cover-up are Sergeants Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius and Arthur Kaufman, and Officers Anthony Villavaso and Robert Faulcon. They are facing sentences from 120 years to life. The trial is expected to last at least six weeks.

Photo from 2010 Protest/Memorial on Danziger Bridge.

Protest Planned for New Orleans Meeting of Powerful Right-Wing Think Tank

From our friends at the Student Labor Action Project LSU:
Stand up, and fight back in New Orleans! The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) will be hosting their annual summit at the Marriott in New Orleans from August 1-6th. We will meet them there to let them know they can’t pull the strings from the behind the curtain any more!

The ALEC Protest Team will be coordinating a day of protest against ALEC’s anti-social policies on August 5th. At 2:00pm, we will be holding a public demonstration at the Hale Boggs Federal Building on Poydras and Camp, followed by a march to the Marriott. A number of leaders active in the fight to protect the public interest in Louisiana and beyond will be speaking at the event.

What Is ALEC?

They meet in secret. They write our laws. And they want us silent.
ALEC is a conservative think-tank run by right-wing politicians and corporate and financial interests within the banking industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the big oil and gas industries, and others. They are aligned to many right-wing and conservative interests, including the election-manipulating Koch Industries.

In Arizona, the text for anti-immigrant SB 1070 came from ALEC model legislation. In the Midwest, the attack on public servants had the same source. In Wisconsin and Ohio, ALEC is promoting voter ID laws that will disproportionately disenfranchise students. And finally, in Indiana, ALEC provided the text for a state resolution calling for an end to much federal environmental regulation. In 2009 alone, ALEC was behind over 800 laws written for state governments. Scratch the surface of right-wing state legislation, and you’ll most likely find ALEC underneath.

On March 15th, University of Wisconsin Professor Bill Cronon posted a study guide on his blog on the history and actions of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). He asked: What is behind the “sudden and impressively well-organized” wave of right-wing legislation targeting workers, students, women, immigrants, and the environment in state legislatures? He found that all roads led to ALEC.

For offering his research to the public, Professor Cronon then immediately found his character, privacy, and livelihood under attack by the GOP.

What Are We Doing?

Hoping to carry on the movement begun by a wonderful group of Ohio activists, we here in Baton Rouge and New Orleans are working to put together an even bigger demonstration that lets them know that they can’t hide and we will fight them nation wide!

ALEC’s legislation seeks to solve “crises” by attacking the vulnerable – often in ways that do very little to address the problems at hand, and that ultimately function to transform power structures in favor of private interests. We want to use this day of resistance to do more than just express discontent. We want to convey the message that there are policy alternatives to ALEC’s legislation – alternatives which can only be pursued as a part of an independent political movement of the workers. It’s time the bosses are held accountable for the crisis they created, rather than the path of austerity and union busting!

What Can You Do?

First, we need you at the Hale Boggs Federal Building on Poydras Street and Camp on August 5 at 2:00pm!

Resistance means feet on the ground and people in the street. Hop on a bus, take a train, or car pool with friends. We are communicating to a breadth of organizations and individuals negatively impacted by ALEC’s agenda that the time to fight back and propose our own solutions has come.

Second, we are looking for representatives of the many movements that ALEC works against to speak before our March to the Marriott. ALEC is a shining example of the right-wing’s united front of corporate and political forces, and they can only be stopped by the strength of solidarity. We, the working class, are poor, Black, immigrants, LGBTQIA, women, and union members. The only way we can put a stop to the work ALEC is doing is to unite in an independent political movement that not only challenges ALEC and it’s members on the streets but also in the halls of government. We must show them that we can fix the problems we face without breaking the backs of the working class!

You can email us at or

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Settlement Reached in "Road Home" Racial Discrimination Lawsuit

From our friends at Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center:
Today, African-American homeowners and two civil rights organizations announced a settlement in a post-Hurricane Katrina housing discrimination lawsuit brought against the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the State of Louisiana regarding the "Road Home" program.

The suit alleged that the formula used to allocate grants to homeowners through the Road Home program - the single largest housing recovery program in US history - had a discriminatory impact on thousands of African-American homeowners. Road Home program data show that African-Americans were more likely than whites to have their Road Home grants based upon the much lower pre-storm market value of their homes, rather than the estimated cost to repair damage.

For example, one African-American plaintiff whose rebuilding grant was based upon pre-storm value received a $1,400 grant from the State to rebuild her home; but she would have received a grant of $150,000 had her rebuilding grant been based on the estimated cost of damage to the home. These types of shortfalls played a key role in slowing down the recovery effort. Under the terms of the settlement, HUD and the State of Louisiana will direct additional funds to individuals in heavily-affected parishes whose grants were based upon pre-storm value.

The lawsuit was brought by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and five African-American homeowners in New Orleans, representing a potential class of over 20,000 people. All plaintiffs are represented by co-lead counsel, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, as well as Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr. Including today's settlement agreement, the plaintiffs have achieved significant relief for homeowners in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana:
* In response to the plaintiffs' housing discrimination lawsuit, HUD and the State of Louisiana changed the Road Home program grant formula to provide full relief to more than 13,000 homeowners. All eligible low- and moderate-income homeowners received supplemental grant awards totaling $473 million based upon the estimated cost of damage to their homes, rather than the original grants based merely upon the much lower pre-storm market value of their homes.

* By virtue of the settlement agreement, HUD and the State of Louisiana have agreed to amend the Road Home program to offer additional large supplemental rebuilding grants at an estimated value of over $60 million to several thousand homeowners whose initial Road Home Option 1 grant awards were based on the pre-storm market value of their homes and who have been unable to rebuild their homes.

* In addition, the settlement agreement will provide thousands of homeowners additional time to rebuild their homes without the fear of penalty or foreclosure by the State of Louisiana. Under the agreement, Road Home Option 1 homeowners whose grant awards were based upon pre-storm market value can receive a one-year extension of the re-occupancy covenants attached to their Road Home grants.
"I am glad that by standing up against this flawed program we made a difference for so many other people," said Almarie Ford, one of the individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Shanna Smith, President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance said, "In addition to providing significant relief for individual homeowners, the Road Home lawsuit will serve as a warning to HUD and state officials nationwide to avoid the future use of pre-storm market value or similar market-driven criteria that have an obvious discriminatory impact on low-income and minority homeowners."

During the almost six years since the storm hit, countless homeowners struggled to rebuild. Many have not yet succeeded, particularly in Orleans Parish.

"Regrettably, the Road Home program became a road block for many." said James Perry, Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "This settlement is a step in the right direction toward getting more hurricane-affected homeowners back into their homes. HUD and Louisiana must keep America's promise to build a better New Orleans. And they must do so in a manner that is fair and equitable for all people regardless of their race."

John Payton, Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), said, "People who had similar homes and suffered the same type of damage should not have been treated differently simply because of the neighborhoods in which they live. All New Orleanians, and all Louisianans, deserve a fair chance at rebuilding their homes and communities."

The coalition of homeowners and organizations that brought the lawsuit has vowed to continue providing assistance to homeowners and working for a fair recovery for all.

For a timeline of the lawsuit click here.

Pictured Above: Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center Executive Director James Perry.

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) is a private, non-profit civil rights organization established in the summer of 1995 to eradicate housing discrimination throughout the greater New Orleans area. Through education, investigation, and enforcement activities, GNOFHAC promotes fair competition throughout the housing marketplace -- rental, sales, lending, and insurance. GNOFHAC is dedicated to fighting housing discrimination not only because it is illegal, but also because it is a divisive force that perpetuates poverty, segregation, ignorance, fear, and hatred.