Monday, April 30, 2012

New Orleans Workers’ Center Calls on Janet Napolitano to Stop Deporting Labor Organizers and Civil Rights Defenders in the South

From our friends at the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice:
Hundreds at Local Rally Will Call for ICE to Grant Legal Status to Southern 32 for Standing Up to Abusive Employers and Law Enforcement

On Tuesday, May 1, hundreds will gather at New Orleans City Hall to join the New Orleans Workers’ Center in launching Stand Up 2012, a new campaign to demand that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano follow her agency’s own directive, and stop deporting those who stand up to defend their civil, labor, and human rights.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is now undergoing a review of the over 3,000 deportation cases from the southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee currently pending in the regional New Orleans immigration court. Among the caseload are thirty-two leaders from the Congress of Day Laborers, all of whom are facing deportation because they had the courage to demand their most basic rights -- to be paid for the work they did, to end discrimination in the worksite, to be released from illegal jailing without cause. The New Orleans Workers’ Center demands that ICE use its prosecutorial discretion to grant dignity, stability, and economic security to the Southern 32. This must include a permanent end to their deportation cases, and end to all ICE monitoring, and permission to work so they can go on with their lives and provide for their families.

The Obama Administration has deported a record number of immigrants in its first three years in office. Facing an unprecedented outcry from the immigrant community, the Administration announced a more moderate deportation policy last year. The policy rightly states that people “pursuing legitimate civil rights complaints” should not be targeted for deportation in order “to avoid deterring individuals from “pursuing actions to protect their civil rights.”

Unfortunately, Janet Napolitano has not ensured the policy reaches the streets and workplaces of the South—where immigrants regularly face exploitation and abuse of power by employers and law enforcement and a fear of deportation blocks enforcement of federal civil, labor, and human rights laws.

With Stand Up 2012, leaders of Congress of Day Laborers and the New Orleans Workers’ Center demand justice for the Southern 32 and leaders will describe what is next for this growing movement in the South to put an end to Napolitano’s practice of jailing and deporting labor organizers and civil rights defenders for having the courage to speak out.

Among the speakers will be Jose Monterubio, a day laborer who ICE is trying to deport to block a civil rights complaint after he shed light on abuse and violations of the constitution; and Delmy Palencia, a mother who faced imprisonment by ICE after she challenged the unconstitutional actions of the local sherriff.

The demonstration will begin Tuesday, May 1, at 12:00pm at 901 North Rampart St. At 2:00pm, protesters will rally at the steps of City Hall, 1300 Perdido St.

The New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice defends the bedrock constitutional, civil, and labor rights of immigrant workers and their families the Gulf Coast. The Center represents workers in federal court and in government investigations.

The Congress of Day Laborers is a grassroots membership organization of immigrant workers and their families, many of whom helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Members of the Congress are grassroots labor leaders and civil rights defenders who are shining a light on abuse.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Conviction of Black Mayor Overturned by US Court of Appeals in Case Closely Watched by Civil Rights Activists

In a 2-1 ruling today, the Second Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the conviction of former Waterproof mayor Bobby Higginbotham, and vacated his sentence. The case had attracted the attention of civil rights activists around the US, as well as Color of Change, a national racial justice activism group, who had gathered 50,000 signatures appealing for freedom for the former mayor.

The ruling gives ammunition to defenders of Higginbotham, who said he was an innocent man being prosecuted for standing up against the white power structure of Tensas Parish and convicted in an unfair trial. However, the ruling by the court of appeals did not address the substance of the charges against Higginbotham, but focused on irregularities in the trial. The main reason cited was missing transcripts from the trial, caused by apparent problems with a sound recorder used by the court reporter. According to Higginbotham attorney Rachel Conner, there is no transcript at all for at least two witness' testimonies.

The former mayor was released from jail in December because of good behavior, but today's judgement means he is no longer on parole and no longer owes restitution. The DA has the option to appeal this ruling to a higher court.

Below is more background, from our previous reporting on the case:
Waterproof, Louisiana is a rural town near the Mississippi border best known for holding an immigration detention center. The town -- population approximately 800 -- sits in Tensas Parish, a mostly agrarian region of the state. Community members say the civil rights movement came late to Tensas -- it was the last parish in the state where Black residents were able to register to vote, and the Klan was active until late in the 20th century.

The current troubles began in September of 2006, when Higginbotham was elected mayor of Waterproof. Soon after, he appointed his associate Miles Jenkins as chief of police. Jenkins, who served in the U.S. military for 30 years and earned a master's degree in public administration from Troy University in Alabama, immediately began the work of professionalizing a small town police department that had previously been mostly inactive. While both Jenkins and Higginbotham are from Waterproof, the men had also spent much of their adult lives working in other places, and brought a professional background to their new positions. Allies of Higginbotham and Jenkins say this threatened Parish Sheriff Ricky Jones and DA James Paxton. Annie Watson, a school board member and former volunteer for the mayor, says officers working for Jones told her, "As soon as you people learn that the sheriff controls Tensas Parish, the better off you'll be."

The charges and counter charges are difficult to untangle. At the center of the case is a state audit of Waterproof that found irregularities in the town's record keeping. The Parish District Attorney says the audit shows mayoral corruption. The mayor says the problems pre-date his term, and he had taken steps to correct the issues. The mayor's opponents claim he stole from the town by illegally increasing his salary. His supporters say he received a raise that was voted on by the town aldermen. The mayor initially faced 44 charges; all but two were dropped before the trial began. Those charges -- malfeasance in office and felony theft -- were related to the disputed raise and use of the town's credit card. Miles Jenkins, the police chief, faced charges related to his enforcement of traffic tickets.

The mayor was quickly convicted of both charges but lawyers have raised challenges to the convictions, bringing a number of legal complaints. For example: in a town that is 55% African-American, Mayor Higginbotham had only one Black juror. Higginbotham's counsel was disqualified by the DA, and the public defender had a conflict of interest, leaving the mayor with no lawyer. Two days before the trial began, the DA gave Higginbotham 10 boxes of files related to his case. Higginbotham's request for an extension to get an attorney and to examine the files was denied.

There's more: during jury selection, when Higginbotham -- forced to act as his own lawyer -- tried to strike one juror who had relationships with several of the witnesses, he was told he could not, even though he had challenges remaining. There was also a problem with a sound recorder that the court reporter was using, and as a result there is no transcript at all for at least two witness' testimonies. Finally, during deliberation, the judge gave the jury polling slips that had "guilty" pre-selected, and then later hid the slips.

When Higginbotham was convicted, the judge refused to set bail in any amount. Although a possible sentence for the crime was probation, and despite the former mayor's obvious ties to the community, Higginbotham has spent the last ten months in jail while his lawyers have worked on his appeal. "He's not a flight risk," says Rachel Conner, Higginbotham's lawyer. "He's tied to Waterproof and he's got a vested interest in clearing his name."

Statement in Response to the First Criminal Indictment from the BP Drilling Disaster

From a statement by our friends at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade:
Today a former BP employee has been indicted. We believe that there are more criminal indictments of oil companies possible, if only the Department of Justice would look. The Department should look into ongoing actions by managers at the ExxonMobil, Citgo, Chalmette Refining, Calumet and Motiva refineries here in Louisiana.

Why do we think there is criminal behavior? Because the oil industry tells us so. Their own reports to the state and federal government about their accidents detail a harrowing story of explosions and spills. Refinery neighbors and industry employees tell us something is drastically wrong. But the managers ignore the concerns and keep the refineries and the rigs running full steam ahead.

BP engineer Kurt Mix has been indicted for destroying evidence. This was wrong. What was also wrong were BP’s consistent efforts to hide the facts about the flow rate from the public. We now know that BP told the public that 5,000 barrels of oil were flowing per day, even as their own engineers estimated the amount to be 15,000 barrels. In fact, 50,000 barrels of oil were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Where is the prosecution for misleading the public?

Oil companies – including BP - should be investigated for knowingly making false statements to the public. “There is no danger,” we are told after every refinery accident or oil spill. “There is no off site impact.” Such false statements happened during the BP Disaster and happen on a regular basis from oil industry spokesmen around the state.

There is a danger that Kurt Mix as an individual will be demonized. What he did was wrong, but the renegade culture of the Louisiana oil industry spawned his behavior. Kurt Mix’s moral measuring stick reflects the oil industry, coming up short long before he deleted those text messages.

The Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency wrote in December of 2011 that Louisiana has a culture of protecting the oil industry rather than regulating it. It is this culture that allowed the BP Disaster to happen, and this culture (and more disasters) that will continue unless criminal prosecutions of oil industry executives commence.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade is an environmental health and justice organization supporting neighborhoods’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable communities free from industrial pollution.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Two years on, anger and frustration on the Gulf Coast

A shorter version of this article appeared today in newspapers around the world through Agence France Presse, the newswire service.
Two years after the worst maritime oil spill in history, fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists up and down the US Gulf Coast warn that the disaster may be far from over. Dead dolphins keep washing up on shore in unprecedented numbers. Oil-coated corals reefs are dying in the deepwater. Eyeless shrimp are showing up in relatively empty fishing nets. Killifish, a minnow-like fish that is at the base of the food chain here, show signs of chemical poisoning.

Critics say offshore drilling safety and oversight remains woefully lacking. "Politics continues to triumph over common sense. It's outrageous that so little progress has been made to make offshore drilling safer," said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director at the environmental group Oceana. "It's not a matter of whether there will be another oil spill, but when."

The April 20, 2010 explosion on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers, blackened beaches in five US states and devastated the Gulf Coast's tourism and fishing industries. It took 87 days to cap BP's runaway well 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface which spewed some 4.9 million barrels (206 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the aftermath of the spill, BP flooded the Gulf with nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants. While BP says these chemicals broke up the oil, some scientists have said this just made it less visible, and sent the poisons deeper into the food chain.

Everyone here agrees that environmental problems on the coast date back to long before the well blew open. Decades of oil exploration had already sullied Gulf waters and shipping channels cut through wetlands hastened coastal erosion. Meanwhile, pollution from treatment plants has poisoned communities across the coast - especially in "cancer alley," the corridor of industrial facilities along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge. “BP is legally obligated to fix what they screwed up,” says Aaron Viles, deputy director of Gulf Restoration Network, a leading environmental organization active in the region. “But if you’re only obligated to put the ecosystem back to where it was April 19, 2010, why would we?”

“The Gulf is a robust ecosystem and it's been dying the death of a thousand cuts for a long time,” adds Viles. While it's too early to assess the long-term environmental impact, a host of recent studies published by the National Academy of Sciences and other respected institutions have shown troubling results, Viles said. "If you add them all up, it’s clear the oil is still in the ecosystem, it’s still having an effect.”

Wilma Subra, a chemist and Macarthur fellow who travels widely across the Gulf meeting with fishers and testing seafood and sediment samples for contamination, told AFP that we may be just at the beginning of this disaster. Subra says that in every community she visits, fishers show her shrimp born without eyes, fish with lesions, and crabs with holes in their shells. She says tarballs are still washing up on beaches across the region. “The oil is still subsurface in the gulf,” Subra says. “The oil is still present in the wetlands and estuaries and on the beaches. People are continuing to get exposed.”

Subra says that the reality she is seeing on the ground contrasts sharply with the image painted by BP. “There are potential new impacts that we haven’t even seen yet, but just based on the impacts we have seen it’s going to be a long time before recovery sets in,” says Subra, adding that the effects of the spill could continue for “generations.”

Theresa Dardar is among those who lives have been changed by the drilling disaster. She lives in Bayou Pointe-au-Chien, a Native American fishing community on Louisiana's Gulf Coast where her family has lived for 300 years. Dardar and her neighbors have seen their land disappear from under their feet within their lifetimes due to canals built by the oil companies to access wells. The canals brought salt water into freshwater marshes, helping cause the coastal erosion that sees Louisiana lose a football field of land every 45 minutes. The main street that runs through the community now disappears into the swamps, with telephone poles sticking out of the water.

Now, in addition to worries about disappearing land and increasing risk of hurricanes, she fears that her family’s livelihood is gone for good. Her husband used to pull in about $30,000 a year fishing the rich Gulf waters. Last year he only earned $5,000, Theresa said. She's afraid this year will be worse. “The first day of shrimp season, usually you catch a thousand pounds or more,” Dardar explained. “But he caught just 20 pounds. Usually you do really good the first day. We’ve never had a season like this.”

Statistics from the state of Louisiana indicated that white shrimp season, which started in August, was much lower than usual, although scientists say this could also be partially blamed on Mississippi flooding that happened last year. Oysters saw an even steeper dropoff, reporting the lowest harvest in at least 40 years. “I was angry, but now I just want things to get back to the way it was,” says Dardar. “But I know it’s not going to be over for years.”

BP has vowed to make residents of the Gulf "whole" and reimburse them for any "legitimate" economic damages. On Wednesday, it finalized a $7.8 billion settlement deal to settle thousands of claims from fishermen and others and has already paid out $6.3 billion to people and businesses who chose to sidestep the court process. It has also pledged $1 billion to early restoration projects and will likely be required to spend more once a lengthy environmental impact study is concluded.

"From the beginning, BP stepped up to meet our obligations to the communities in the Gulf Coast region, and we've worked hard to deliver on that commitment for nearly two years,” BP chief Bob Dudley said in a statement. "The proposed settlement represents significant progress toward resolving issues from the Deepwater Horizon accident and contributing further to economic and environmental restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast."

Dardar says money can't cure the deep emotional and social scars of potentially losing a beloved way of life. “How are you going to make us whole if we lose our fishing industry?" she told AFP. "I don’t think they can answer me."

That complaint is echoed in coastal communities across the five states affected by the BP spill. “We were the first to get hit, and we’re the worst to get hit,” said George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman’s Association, a group that supports Gulf Coast fishers.

Fishing is a huge part of the economy for the Gulf Coast. Around 40% of the seafood caught in the continental US comes from here. Many area fishermen were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina when the spill closed a third of Gulf waters to fishing for months.

Despite billions of dollars paid out by BP already, Barisich said that many fishers he knew had received only small payments of a few thousand dollars, and were now in danger of losing their homes. He said that production is down, and that also fears of contamination had reduced demand for Gulf Coast seafood, which had in turn brought down prices. “Production is down at least 70 percent,” compared to the year before the spill, he says. “And prices are still depressed thirty, forty, sixty percent.”

A third generation fisherman from St Bernard Parish south of New Orleans, Barisich employed eight people and pulled in annual profits of up to $100,000 in the years leading up to the spill. Last year he had two employees, and he lost $40,000. “You promised to make it right,” he says, referring to BP. “It was your mistake. And we’re suffering.”

Photo above: Cleanup workers attempt to scrub oil off of bird during June 2010 cleanup efforts.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Another Victory Against Louisiana's Crime Against Nature Statute: Judge Orders Plaintiffs Removed from Sex Offender Registry

A judge's order yesterday took another step towards ending the harsh legacy of Louisiana's Crime Against Nature Law. Below is a press release on the issue from Center for Constitutional Rights.
Louisiana must “cease and desist” from placing any individuals convicted of Crime Against Nature by Solicitation on Sex Offender Registry

Yesterday, a federal judge declared that requiring individuals convicted under Louisiana’s “Crime Against Nature by Solicitation” (CANS) law to register as sex offenders is unconstitutional. He ordered defendants to cease and desist from placing any individuals convicted of CANS on the registry and to remove the plaintiffs from the registry within 30 days. Defendants have agreed not to appeal the judge’s order.

In a March 30th ruling, Judge Martin L. C. Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued an opinion concluding that the sex offender registration requirement under CANS violated the Equal Protection Clause. The State, wrote Judge Feldman, could not “credibly serve up even one unique legitimating governmental interest [to] rationally explain” why those convicted under the CANS statute were singled out for sex offender registration, while individuals convicted of identical conduct under Louisiana’s prostitution statute were not required to register.

“We are pleased that the court has granted full relief to our clients and found the registration requirement unconstitutional across the board, creating a path to justice for everyone who is still required to register based on a Crime Against Nature by Solicitation conviction,” said Alexis Agathocleous, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents the plaintiffs. “We hope that the state will move with all deliberate speed to apply this ruling to individuals who are still affected by this unconstitutional and discriminatory requirement.”

Previously, people accused of soliciting sex for a fee in Louisiana could be criminally charged in two ways: either under the prostitution statute or under the solicitation provision of the Crime Against Nature statute. A CANS conviction carried harsher penalties than a prostitution conviction, including the sex offender registration requirement. Police and prosecutors had unfettered discretion in choosing which to charge.

“Judge Feldman’s order is a huge step towards righting an egregious wrong,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of Women With A Vision, a community-based organization in New Orleans that has led advocacy efforts around this issue. “For far too long, CANS has unfairly attached a stigma to individuals whom police and prosecutors decided should be punished more harshly than others. Judge Feldman’s order brings this practice to an end.”

Many of the plaintiffs in the case had been unable to secure work or housing as a result of their registration as sex offenders. Several had been barred from homeless shelters, one had been physically threatened by a neighbor, and another had been refused residential substance abuse treatment because providers will not accept registered sex offenders at their facilities.

“Yesterday’s judgment represents a significant victory for women and LGBTQ people of color who have long labored under the discriminatory policing and prosecution of CANS,” said Andrea J. Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney who is co-counsel on the case. “We sincerely hope that the state will proceed swiftly and efficiently to stop the continuing violations of the rights of people convicted of CANS still on the registry and immediately remove them.”

Individuals who are on the registry solely as a result of CANS convictions prior to August 15, 2011 should send their contact info to

Plaintiffs are represented by CCR, police misconduct attorney Andrea J. Ritchie, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic & Center for Social Justice, and pro bono counsel Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. Visit and follow @theCCR.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Isabella's Story: A Transgender Person's Story of Survival Inside Louisiana's Prisons

The letter below came to us from our friends at BreakOUT!. This Thursday night at 9:00pm, the Allways Lounge will host a benefit for BreakOUT! featuring a range of performances; circus, burlesque, drag, bounce, and more.
"This is a short story of my life. Please type it and print it and send it to anybody who it might help."

My name is Isabella. I'm 22 years old and I'm a transgender woman. I was born and raised in New Orleans, LA. I'm currently serving a 13 1/2 year sentence in prison.

I'm writing this in hopes that I will touch the lives of other LGBTQ people or anybody else who listens. This is my story. I'm basically going to talk about my transition into society as a transgender woman, including my time spent in group homes, juvenile institutions, and adult institutions. I hope that you enjoy my story and pass it on.

I first realized I had an attraction to boys when I was about 12-13 years old. I've always been feminine and was fascinated by girls and wanted to be one. They used to tease me in school saying "You talk like a girl," "You act like a girl," or "You're gay."

I was like in 2nd grade, I didn't even know what "gay" was. I tried to hide it at first because I was scared and I wanted to be accepted. This did not work out at all. I turned to drugs at the age of 13. I used drugs to numb the pain and feel happy. I used all types of drugs. Once I got caught up in the juvenile system, I could not stay out. I kept coming back and forth from group home to jail. My family was very worried about me, they kept placing me in different programs trying to help me but I rebelled against them. The judge got tired of me and send me to a juvenile prison.

The juvenile system was very hard for me. I used to fight a lot trying to defend my sexual orientation and gender identity. I used to get mistreated by staff and other youth. I was treated differently and discriminated against for who I am. There weren't good substance abuse programs or other treatment services in there. After serving time in the juvenile prison, I went home and started doing drugs again. This caused me to be sent back to juvenile prison again. Every time I would get out I would go back to the same people and I always ended up in jail. I would make decisions and not think about the consequences - I was living for the moment.

When I was about 15 years old, I made the decision that I'm gonna be who I am. I was tired of hiding who I truly was. Every since I made this decision I've been at peace with myself. That's why I believe that I was truly born this way.

Despite my acceptance of myself, I still didn't have anywhere to go and others rejected me. I would still get involved with some guy and I would always get hurt because I was looking for love in all the wrong places. When you're involved with drugs and negative activities, the people who are around you will use and abuse you. They will tell you everything you want to hear and some. I fell for these types of people plenty of times. I had no positive peer support and no place to go.

When I got out of juvenile prison the second time, I was considered an adult. Any crime I committed now, I would go to adult jail...

At this time, I started dressing in women's clothes and taking estrogen and living my life as a full-time transgender woman. But I still didn't kick my drug habit. I kept using drugs to numb the pain I felt. I also used to believe that I could "buy" love and friends. Which is the worst thing I could have done. This left me feeling hurt, miserable, not wanted, and alone because people were always using me for their own personal gain and I was too blind to see it. I just wanted to be loved and accepted.

This lifestyle led me to adult jail, Orleans Parish Prison, to be exact. Orleans Parish Prison is a place of violence where LGBTQ people, especially transgender women, get mistreated on a daily basis. During my time there I was sexually assaulted by inmates and staff also physically assaulted me. The prison offers no protection or assistance to people who look for it. Therefore, I had to survive on my own.

During my time there I was given a break and was sent to work release. This was a much better environment, but I still didn't receive any substance abuse treatment.I got involved with this guy. I thought he was one of the best things that ever happened to me- I truly believed I found true love. We got out around the same time and once again, I was free. I was 21 years old and madly in love, but you can never have a happy relationship when there are drugs involved - never.

Well as you already know, there was no help or support for LGBTQ youth like myself and so I eventually got caught up again and ended up back in jail. I got blessed with a good a lawyer but I still got a lot of time. I finally came to a point in my life where I had to make a choice. Either I was gonna start loving myself or continue with this ignorant and destructive lifestyle.

I have been in jail one year and also have been clean one year- and that's by choice because they have a lot of drugs in jail, believe me. I'm just tired of the same old thing. So I'm losing out on years of my life behind this. I regret a lot of my decisions in the past but when I get out I'll still have a chance to live a happy life. I could go into so many more details about my past but I choose not to because that's not my main focus. My main focus is getting through to somebody so we can help them.

Well now I'm adjusting to prison life as a transgender woman. It's not easy - it's much different from the juvenile justice system. For example, a gay or transgender person in prison can't stand up and urinate- we must always sit down. We must face the wall in the shower, too. That is just some of the "jailhouse rules." A lot of it is a bunch of foolishness if you ask me. But you have to respect others and yourself in here so you won't have too many problems.

I'm missing on the best years of my life because of bad choices and a juvenile system that didn't help me. And if I can reach out and just help one person, I will be satisfied. I'm blessed to have family and friends sticking by my side during my incarceration- but I'm still lonely in prison. Because it's a lonely place.

I love my LGBTQ people to death because we are people and we need to be treated equally. Self-love comes first and then other things fall in place. I still have so much to learn in life. I'm fighting everyday to achieve my dreams. I recommend the Lady Gaga song "Born This Way" to anybody who is reading my story. The words in that song are great. We all are superstars no matter gay, straight, bisexual, lesbian or transgender. We're people who desire to be happy. We're just different and unique and the creator made us this way. No matter what I did I could never change my sexual orientation or gender identity, because this is who I am and it's not wrong. It's okay to be gay or transgender. But there are LGBTQ people who are mistreated all around the world everyday. But there are so many positive things for us, too.

I'm trying to start a group in prison now for LGBTQ people so we can come together and help each other. Society sends out so many negative things about LGBTQ people. It's terrible. I'm only 22 years old but I've been through a lot and my experiences can help other people who are having problems. If you read my story, I hope you enjoyed it. It's very short and in the future I plan on doing a lot more.

I would like to thank BreakOUT! for sticking by my side. Their staff has been at my side since 2007; since before BreakOUT! was created. They have inspired me to be positive in life and help other people.

Photo above: BreakOUT members at organizing meeting.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Danziger Sentences Bring Closure, With Controversy, By Jordan Flaherty

This article originally appeared on the New Orleans Tribune/TribuneTalk website.

On Wednesday, five officers were sentenced for firing on unarmed civilians on Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, and conspiring to cover-up their crime. The sentences bring some degree of closure to a case that has transformed the official narrative of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But Judge Engelhardt, who presided over the trial, brought more controversy in a lengthy speech that lambasted the Justice Department’s handling of the case.

Nearly seven years ago, officers killed 17-year-old James Brisette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison and wounded four others in a hail of gunfire on Danziger Bridge. Minutes later, they arrested two of the victims and charged them with firing at officers.

It almost worked. For years, as supervising officers conspired to plant evidence, invent witnesses, and rewrite the reports of what happened that day on the bridge, the truth was hidden. It was not until early 2009, when the Justice Department took an active role in the case, that new evidence was uncovered, witnesses were interviewed, and the conspiracy came apart. Five officers agreed to testify for the state in exchange for the opportunity to plead to lesser charges. Last summer, a jury found the five remaining officers guilty on all 25 counts (on two counts, the jury found the men guilty but with partial disagreements on the nature of the crime).

One other accused conspirator, Sergeant Gerard Dugue, was given a separate trial, which ended in a mistrial in January. Prosecutors have said they intend to retry him.

Before sentencing, the judge heard statements from family members of the victims, including Lance Madison, Ronald's brother, and Sherrel Johnson, the mother of James Brisette. Lawyers for Jose Holmes and Lesha Bartholomew, who were also wounded on the bridge, read their statements for them.

Federal public defender Robin Schulberg, who was not involved in the trial, spoke on behalf of Sergeant Kenneth Bowen, telling the judge that the officers were victims in this situation. "These people are the expendables," she said, referring to the Danziger officers. "A big institution chewed them up and spit them out."

The judge also heard from a number of family members, friends, and coworkers of the officers, and indicated that he had carefully read the large number of other written statements he had received on their behalf. The judge and defense attorneys listed the names of those who had sent statements, and among them were a large number of current and former officers. Among the notable names were Captains Harry Mendoza and Joseph Waguespack, each of whom have figured in previous NOPD controversies.

As a packed courtroom waited to hear his sentencing decision, Judge Engelhardt, who had frequently and forcefully challenged DOJ prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein during the trial, expressed frustration with the government’s handling of the case. Over the next two hours, the judge voiced his opinions at length.

The judge spoke of the 1973 killing of NOPD officers by Mark Essex from the roof of the downtown Howard Johnson as a defining moment in his life that taught him the dangers police officers faced. He read at length from a letter written by Anthony Villavaso, Sr, the father of one of the convicted officers, saying it was “one of finest letters I’ve ever received on behalf of a defendant.”

While praising the job of officers, the judge had little to say about the victims of police violence. He referred to Ronald Madison as the “most sympathetic” person involved, while James Brisette and the others went mostly unmentioned.

Engelhardt’s main complaint was the lenient sentences given to the officers who agreed to testify for the government. “Using liars lying is no way to pursue justice,” he declared. In contrast, he pointed to the mandatory minimums the convicted officers faced, which the judge said had robbed him of his judicial discretion. To drive the point home, the Judge spent nearly an hour reading verbatim from a sentencing commission report critical of mandatory minimum sentences.

Engelhardt singled out each of the officers who testified for the prosecution, saying they should have received longer sentences. Officer Michael Hunter, who fired the first shots on the bridge and as a cooperating witness was sentenced to 8 years in prison, represented “the sparks in the tinderbox without which this incident may not have happened.” Former Lieutenant Lohman “was the ringleader…the buck started and stopped with him.” When the DOJ gave Lohman a charge that sent him to jail for 4 years, they “rewarded so generously the one person in command who could have stopped this.”

Officer Robert Barrios, said Engelhardt, was “the biggest winner of the plea bargain sweepstakes.” Engelhardt said that Barrios had killed James Brisette, a conclusion that varies sharply from the case presented by prosecution, which points towards Faulcon as the one who fired the fatal shots. The jury, in finding the other officers guilty in Brisette’s killing, apparently agreed with prosecutors.

In closing Engelhardt said that he was constrained by the mandatory minimums, but he indicated that otherwise he would have given the officers much more reduced sentences. “The government’s plea bargaining in this case has already undercut any message” that harsher sentences would send, said Engelhardt.

Officers Bowen, Gisevius, and Villavaso, who all faced mandatory minimums of 35 years, received sentences totaling 38 to 40 years, far less than prosecutors had asked for. Officer Faulcon, received 65 years, the mandatory minimum he faced. Officer Kaufman, convicted of masterminding the cover-up, was the only officer not facing mandatory minimums. He received 6 years, a fraction of the 20 years prosecutors had recommended. Unlike the other officers, Kaufmann has been free for the entire trial, and remains free. The judge ordered that he turn himself in to begin his sentence on May 23.

Family members of the victims, and DOJ representatives, expressed their disagreement with the judge’s assessment.

“We were able to transform a case that was a cold case, to put it charitably,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General, in a press conference after the sentencing. “We didn’t have a case back in 2008 when we inherited it.” Perez and US Attorney Letten said that they could not have won convictions without the testimony of other officers, which came because of the plea bargains. “I don’t know how you make a case if you don’t have some ability to bargain,” agreed Mary Howell, an attorney for the Madison family.

“We respectfully disagree with some of the comments made in court today,” said Romell Madison, brother of Ronald Madison. “But at least we got to the truth.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Victim Impact Statement of Lance Madison

The following statement was read by Lance Madison during the sentencing of the officers involved in the killings on Danziger Bridge
Good Morning. My name is Lance Madison. I am here today on behalf of myself, my mother, my brothers and sisters and especially my brother Ronald.

On September 4, 2005 my brother Ronald was gunned down and killed, without mercy, on the Danziger Bridge. I was arrested and falsely charged with 8 counts of attempted murder of police officers.

What has become known as the massacre on the Danziger bridge has left my family and me with a deep sorrow and a void that can never be filled. It has also left me with permanent physical and emotional scars. As I stand here today, I still struggle with depression, anxiety and pain. The stress of the past six and a half years on my family has been enormous. My mother has suffered a heart attack. My sister had a life-threatening brain aneurysm. My brother is dead. On September 4, 2005, I had worked for Federal Express for almost 25 years. I was in good physical condition. I used to work out regularly and loved physical competition. But I think I ran faster that day than ever before. I still think of that run as the biggest race of my life. And I know that God must have put a shield around me during that run, protecting me from the shots these officers fired. There is no other way to explain how I escaped getting hit as NOPD officers fired multiple bullets on that bridge and at Ronald and me. It felt like we were in a horror movie, but when I saw the blood from Ronald’s shoulder, I knew it was real.

Although Ronald had the mental capacity of a six-year old child, he knew that he was badly wounded. I had to leave Ronald to go for help. If I had known that Officer Faulcon was going to come after him and shoot him again, in the back, I would never have left him alone. To my dying day I will regret that I didn’t stay with Ronald even though I know that I would have also been killed if I had stayed. I can only think that God wanted me to live so that I could testify and tell the truth about what happened. Other than that, I truly do not know why I am alive today or why I was not seriously wounded myself.

Ronald was like my own child. We were more than just brothers. He loved me and I loved him back. I was his role-model and mentor. We were also each others friend.

Ronald was basically a home-body, but he always wanted to go places with me. I would take Ronald to the park and riding around in my R.V. We would go shopping. We rode bikes together. I would take him to the video store. Ronald loved Michael Jackson. He would play Michael Jackson videos and CDs over and over, dancing to the music.

Ronald always wanted to help me do chores like washing the car and cutting the grass. The minute I would walk in the door at my mother’s house, Ronald would have a big smile on his face and announce that he was the man of the house. He would have my mail in his hand, waiting to greet me. He was always trying to help me, offering me things to eat, asking me if I needed anything. In a funny kind of way, as much as I took care of Ronald, he always took care of me too.

Ronald loved life, loved his family, and we loved him. He was a happy person and brought joy and laughter to all of us who were blessed to know him. He had a long and happy life ahead of him until that terrible day.

These officers shot Ronald down like an animal, and I had to make the awful decision to leave my injured brother’s side to try to find help. When I finally found who I thought was the National Guard, can you imagine how it felt to hear voices shout to arrest me? Can you imagine how it felt when I finally realized that the people who were trying to kill us were in fact police officers?

People all over the world have gotten some perspective into how I felt at that moment, because of the photograph that has come to represent this case. That photo of me, handcuffed and on my knees, surrounded by officers, has been republished hundreds of times. That photo still makes me sick, forcing me to remember the worst day of my life. The officers who I was accused of shooting at, knew that I was innocent. They were the ones who had fired at innocent people. That photograph shows a world turned upside-down.

I was afraid for my life the whole time I was in the custody of these officers. I didn’t know if Ronald, who was shot and bleeding, was still alive. These officers should have been doing everything in their power to make sure their victims received help and to figure out what went wrong on the bridge. Instead, they were busy framing me and covering up their crimes.

The 25 days I spent at Hunt’s prison felt like years. I was sick every day, filled with anxiety. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in prison. I couldn’t breathe, and was certain I’d lose my mind. The only thing that kept me strong was prayer, and the thought that I might be reunited with my family, and especially with Ronald. I still relive those days I spent in prison. I still feel like I’m in prison, because I am still here, with these same officers, still struggling daily to put this nightmare behind me.

Kenneth Bowen, Robert Gisevius, Robert Faulcon, Anthony Villavaso and Arthur Kaufman. You are each responsible for this nightmare that has devastated my family. Instead of immediately acknowledging your wrongdoing, you lied for years, continuing to cover up your crimes and trying to paint your victims...including Ronald and criminals. Because of your years of lying, my family, the Bartholomew family and the families of James Brissette and Jose Holmes, as well as your own families, have suffered and continue to suffer.

Mr. Bowen, to this day, I am still stunned by your cowardly acts of shooting innocent, unarmed people. You shot down a whole family and I will always believe that you kicked my brother as he lay dying on the ground. In the years since you devastated my family and so many others, I wonder if you have ever thought about how you would feel if someone committed these same crimes against your own family. I hope you have asked yourself how you could have done these terrible acts, and I hope you will someday find a way to be honest about what you have done.

Mr. Gisevius, You and the rest of these officers are the reason that I can no longer trust law enforcement. I cannot call the police when I fear for my safety, or for the safety of people around me. I hope you will reflect on your actions, and that someday you will take responsibility for the heartbreak and trauma you have caused.

Mr. Faulcon, when I look at you my pain becomes unbearable. It feels like I have been stabbed in my heart. When you shot down my brother, Ronald, you took the life of an angel and basically ripped my heart out. I still have nightmares about my brother being killed and myself running to get help, to no avail. If you had one ounce of compassion or a heart, you would not have fired that fatal shot that killed my brother Ronald. You treated us like animals and showed no mercy and no regrets.

Can you put yourself in my family’s shoes for just one moment? Have you ever tried to imagine the suffering you caused my family? Have you ever tried to imagine how you would feel if your own brother was shot down, and you were unable to save him? I truly do not understand how you were able to sleep at night for all these years while you continued to lie about what happened. I hope someday you will come to understand the devastation you have brought upon me and my family.

Mr. Villavaso, I am especially disappointed that you never came forward to tell the truth. That’s all you had to do. Tell the truth. Instead of protecting and serving my brother and me and the other victims on the bridge, you, along with the other officers, conspired together to protect only yourselves. You lied and you continued to lie for years. You should have told the truth from day one. You could have been honest, and you would have been in a better situation than you are today. You were given every opportunity to do the right thing. Instead, you decided to keep company with some of the worst role models you could have found in the department. I hope that in the years ahead, you will reflect on the bad choices you’ve made, and that you will someday find a way to be honest about your actions.

Mr. Kaufman, I have to be frank and say that when I think of you, what I feel is disgust. While you weren’t there during the shootings, none of these lies and the cover-up could have happened without you. You helped create the lies and did so in a cold and despicable way. You tried to frame me, a man who you knew was innocent, and send me to prison for the rest of my life. You tried to protect these officers, who you knew had shot and killed innocent people.

I will never forget when you took the witness stand in state court and lied and told the judge that I had a gun on the bridge. I can barely explain what my feelings were at that moment. Even today I remain horrified at your actions. I was in shock that a high-ranking supervisor with the NOPD would go into court and lie so openly.

When people talk about the bad reputation of the NOPD, you come immediately to mind. As a supervisor you had power and influence and you used it for evil purposes. How can you live with yourself? And you have still never been to jail for what you did. I have not seen a single sign of remorse or regret from you during all these long years. I sincerely don’t know that there is any hope for you or that you will ever fully realize the horrors that you created.

I am trying every day to find it in my heart to forgive all of you for what you have done. You took two lives, and destroyed many others. I hope that one day I can let go of my bitterness and hurt, and think of you all with genuine forgiveness in my heart. But that forgiveness will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, as long as you all continue to lie . You all have been lying for so long, I wonder if you even know the truth anymore. Until you become honest and tell the truth, how can we forgive you?

This has been a long and painful six and a half years. Without the federal government, the truth of what happened to us would have never been known. I am truly grateful for the love of God, and for my family, who have stood by my side with unconditional love and support. If not for my belief in a higher power and for my family, I would not have survived.

The people of New Orleans and my family are ready for justice. We are asking this Court to impose the maximum sentences on these defendants and to send a strong message that the terrible crimes committed by these police officers will not be tolerated or excused.

Thank you.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Jena Six activists and other local organizers among targets of NYPD spying

This article was originally published in the April 2, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

In 2008, officers from the New York City Police Department took a trip to New Orleans to spy on the people of this city. The occasion was the People’s Summit, a grassroots response to a New Orleans meeting between the presidents of the U.S., Mexico and Canada to expand “security cooperation” as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Activists from across the hemisphere came together to present an alternative vision of globalization, one that empowered communities rather than corporations. Among the local organizations that participated were the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, and the local chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.

The gathering consisted mostly of panels, workshops and discussions. There was street theatre from local day laborers, testimony from Mexican and Canadian workers, and links drawn between corporate profiteering after Hurricane Katrina and the corporate exploitation that was encouraged by NAFTA. Local antiracist activists led story circles – a method for communities to come together through their stories that was developed during the civil rights movement by participants in the Free Southern Theatre.

Although there were some street protests, there were no arrests, not even of the symbolic kind. There was certainly no physical threat to anyone in power – other than the threat of ideas.

And yet, in this time that we are told that municipalities must cut back, that there is no funding for public sector workers and teachers’ unions are under attack, the city of New York sent spies to New Orleans to observe this gathering and write it up in a report. Among the local organizations specifically mentioned in the report are members of the local chapter of Critical Resistance, and what the report calls the “Jena Coalition,” referring to activists who had organized around the Jena Six case.

This is far from the first time the NYPD has been caught spying far outside of New York. In a recent series of reports, the Associated Press has documented a wide array of excesses the department has engaged in under the guise of safety. An undercover officer took a whitewater rafting trip with Muslim college students and the department aggressively monitored and infiltrated mosques and Muslim businesses. The NYPD operates in at least 9 foreign countries, and apparently has no hesitation about traveling anywhere in the world they may find useful information.

Recent revelations about NYPD abuses go beyond spying. The notorious stop-and-frisk program, which has led to the criminalization of virtually an entire generation of young men of color in the city, is one example. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that more than four million stops and interrogations from 2004 through 2011 led to no evidence of any wrongdoing – about 90 percent of all stops. Other recent revelations about NYPD abuses have included arrest quotas, sexual assaults, and the harassment and arrest of an officer who had turned whistleblower.

Here in New Orleans, public outrage has been mounting over the abuses carried out by our own city’s police department. The recent killings of Wendell Allen and Justin Sipp have produced sustained outrage. Allen’s killer remains free, just as Trayvon Martin’s killer has not been charged.

The racist treatment of the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the charges against the Jena Six, the execution of Troy Davis, and now the shooting of Trayvon Martin. All of these cases have created public outrage, a promise of a national conversation on race, and a desire for systemic change. Revelations of NYPD spying and the daily harassment known as Stop-and-Frisk show that police show a daily disrespect for the rights of the public.

Among the most recent discoveries, we have learned that one of the officers who participated in the killing of Justin Sipp wrote racist comments about Trayvon Martin on a news website.

The US Department of Justice is more engaged in oversight of local departments than they have been in at least a generation. But, at least here in New Orleans, the presence of DOJ investigators seems to have not changed the department. The question becomes: what will it take to bring real change in the nation’s criminal justice system?

Image above: From protests as part of the 2008 People's Summit.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

New Orleans Communities Come Together in Youth Summit

From our friends at Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana:
On Saturday, March 24th 2012, youth from around the city of New Orleans came together for the first ever Power of a Million Minds (POMM) Youth Summit at Dillard University.

POMM is a youth led, youth organized, and youth run collaborative comprised of five youth serving organizations in the city of New Orleans. The youth come from all over the city including the African American, Latino, and Vietnamese American communities. Our five groups include Fyre Youth Squad (FYS), The LatiNola Youth Leadership Council (LYLC), Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools (Rethink), Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans (VAYLA), and Young Adults Striving for Success (YASS).

These five youth groups have been working together for over three years to build cross-cultural relationships and increase diversity in dialogue on critical issues that our young people are facing in New Orleans including issues of equity in education, employment, juvenile justice, and advocating for more youth voices and community involvement.

The goals of the collaborative are to problem solve issues that impact youth in our community, improve the quality of the educational system in New Orleans, create and sustain local youth organizers, and create positive working relationships between organizations and residents.

At POMM's first Youth Summit for middle school youth to college age participants, over 100 youth came together for a full day of consensus building, workshops, and live entertainment. The goal of the summit’s theme, “YOUTH(NITED) WE STAND!” was to allow dialogue between the different communities of youth, identify the key issues that are plaguing our city, and identify the possible solutions to these issues. The general assembly provided a space for youth to identify the problems they face and the solutions to those problems. Youth participated in “harvesting the genius from within themselves.”

Common problems identified included the need for better schools, more big sister/big brother programs, drug dealers in neighborhoods, lack of access to text books, lack of practical sex education classes, the need for better teachers, additional youth programs, innocent children being killed, boys don’t have anywhere to go for recreation and socializing, a lack of role models, the need for more playgrounds, recreational centers need to be repaired, the lack of vocational programs, trash in the neighborhoods, no jobs for the youth, low wages for youth, not enough community centers, existing community centers need to be repaired, the lack of community-based drug rehabilitation programs, increased parent involvement, and community sports teams.

Common solutions identified included building playgrounds, building recreational centers, cleaning up the parks, bringing concerns to the city council, using social media to communicate POMM’s message, hands on neighborhoods, planning city wide clean up days, decreasing the crime rate by providing education and employment, creating community service programs, taking care of our playgrounds, putting recreational centers in many diverse communities and not in one location or neighborhood, investing and creating neighborhood community businesses, creating personal treatment programs for youth, student peer education programs, helping stop the drug use, and identifying and cultivating relationships with adult mentors.

After the general assembly, break-out sessions were held on a variety of topics. The Youth Summit held workshops including the “School to Prison Pipeline,” “Know Your Rights,” “Equity in Education,” “How Haterism towards Youth Hurts the Future of New Orleans,” “Theater of the Oppressed,” “Knowing Our Real History,” and a digital media workshop. Youth participated as student teachers as each workshop was interactive and designed to tap into the knowledge base of the youth and increase upon it.

After the workshops and lunch, DJ AKT RIGHT kicked off over three hours of live entertainment that showcased local talent such as TEAM SNO, Michael Jackson of NOLA, K Levy, Keedie Black, NO Meezy, and featured socially conscious local rapper Dee-1. All performers stressed the importance of coming together to solve our own problems and that we can work united towards our common goals.

The goal of the event was to move more young people to become engaged in problem solving issues in their communities while allowing for a platform that addresses the needs of youth today. The summit will be used as the catalyst to start a citywide youth movement in New Orleans.