Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Backlash Mounts as the Louisiana Supreme Court Prepares to Seat First Black Chief Justice

From a press release sent out today:

Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, who has served as an Associate Justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court for nearly two decades, is poised to assume the office of Chief Justice in February 1, 2013, upon the retirement of the current chief justice.

She follows in an unjustly short line of African American jurists to serve on the state’s highest court: Justice Jesse Stone was appointed to briefly serve in 1979. Justice Revius Ortique was elected to a seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1992.

First elected to the state’s highest court in 1994, Justice Johnson is the second longest serving judge currently on the bench. In accordance with the Louisiana constitution, Justice Johnson is the justice next in line for the office of Chief Justice upon the retirement of the current Chief. Though the state constitution is clear, a controversy is being hatched where none should exist.

Catherine D. Kimball, the retiring Chief Justice, has called for a hearing to determine who will succeed her. She has also issued an order recusing Justice Johnson from sitting on the panel who will determine how the matter will be settled.

“I’m at a loss as to the basis of Justice Kimball’s order,” said Ron Wilson, one of the lawyers who successfully sued the state of Louisiana in 1986 for Voting Rights Act violations related to the state’s method of selecting Supreme Court justices. “The constitution says who the chief justice will be, not the state Supreme Court.”

"Any effort to deny Justice Johnson the right to serve as Chief Justice is clearly an affront to the Voting Rights Act,” said Marc H. Morial, executive director of the National Urban League and a plaintiff in the original law suit.

This issue has its roots in a consent decree that the state of Louisiana signed after losing Chisom v. Roemer in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. In that case, Ronald Chisom and other plaintiffs successfully argued that Louisiana’s system of electing Supreme Court judges effectively ensured that black voters would never be able to elect a black justice to the court.

Five of the state’s seven Supreme Court justices were elected from single-member districts. But New Orleans was combined with several surrounding parishes from which the two remaining justices were elected. Based on data from the 1980 census, expert demographer Cedric Floyd concluded that the population of New Orleans was large enough to justify that the city elect its own justice. Yet, by gerrymandering a large two-member district, the state diluted black voter strength and all but insured that the voters of New Orleans, a large majority of whom were black, would never be able to elect a state Supreme Court justice of their choosing.

“New Orleans by itself was the same size as the five single member districts. New Orleans could have constituted a district by itself,” Wilson said. “We argued that the way things were constructed, there was no way a minority person could ever get elected.”

“Black folks were a majority in Orleans Parish, but when you combined them with Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, they were only 30 percent, and that’s a dilution of black voter strength,” said Ernest Jones, a civil rights attorney familiar with the case. “So a lawsuit was filed in federal court saying that that method was unconstitutional and should therefore be done away with.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Chisom’s favor, the state and the plaintiffs entered into a consent decree that would provide the most expedient way to give New Orleans voters a chance to elect their own member of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Rather than wait six years until the term ended for one of the sitting justices elected from the multi-member district or change the state constitution, a long and arduous process, it was decided that New Orleans voters would elect a member to a newly-created seat on the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

It was clearly understood from the beginning that the judge would never sit on the 4th Circuit. Rather, as provided for in Louisiana Revised Statute 13:314.4, she or he would “be immediately assigned to the Louisiana Supreme Court.” Moreover, the statute states, “While assigned to the supreme court, the judge shall participate and share equally in the cases and duties of the justices of the supreme court during the period of the assignment. Further, the judge shall receive the same compensation, benefits, expenses, and emoluments of office as are now or as may hereafter be provided by law for justices of the Louisiana supreme court.”

Cedric Floyd, who now serves as a member of the Jefferson Parish School Board, said that the Louisiana Supreme Court itself has always treated Justice Johnson as if she were second in seniority only to Justice Kimball.

“When someone other than a Supreme Court justice sits on a case, that is noted in the record. But they don’t note that in any cases reported out of the Supreme Court when Justice Ortique or Justice Johnson sat from 1992 to 2000.”

This case has broad national implications. It was in Chisom v. Roemer that the U.S Supreme Court established the principle that the Voting Rights Act applied to the election of judges. A denial of Justice Johnson’s right to assume the helm of the Louisiana Supreme Court would have the effect of chipping away at the gains embodied in that Supreme Court decision.  Chisom v. Roemer has been discussed by legal scholars in more than 500 law review articles, journals, and magazines. It has been cited more than 250 times by the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts throughout the country.

"Generations struggled for equal voting rights in Louisiana and the rest of the US,” said Bill Quigley, an attorney who has been working on this case since the beginning. “African American voters elected Justice Johnson to sit on the Louisiana Supreme Court after the US Supreme Court ruled in this case that the Voting Rights Act applied to the Louisiana Supreme Court.  It took over 150 years for Louisiana to allow an African American Supreme Court Justice.  We have come too far to allow anyone to turn the clock back now."

“The consent decree gave us relief moving forward from 1992, but it did nothing about all of those cases that were decided in the decades before black voters had an effective voice,” said Lolis Edward Elie, a veteran civil rights lawyer. “We accepted that compromise.  For the court to now circumvent the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the consent decree undermines any sense of justice.”

Justice Johnson enjoys tremendous support in the New Orleans community where she is admired as a jurist and recognized for her fairness and concern. Before serving on the Louisiana Supreme Court, Justice Johnson, Justice Johnson was a Judge of Civil District Court for ten years. She is a graduate of Spelman College and was the first African American woman to graduate from the Law School at Louisiana State University. Earlier in her legal career Justice Johnson served as managing attorney of the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, where she represented the interests of over 3000 working poor and moderate income families in the New Orleans area.

“Justice Bernette Johnson isn’t a token judge; she’s a real judge,” said Ron Chisom, the name plaintiff in the original law suit and an active participant in the effort to ensure that Justice Johnson ascends to the Chief Justice seat. “I’m honored to play any role in fighting for her.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Structurally Unemployed Workers Deliver Juneteenth Proclamation to City of New Orleans

From our friends at the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice:
Stand with Dignity Commemorated Juneteenth by delivering a proclamation to New Orleans City Council and Mayor.

"The 20 people who arrived at City Hall today with Stand were there to deliver a message to our city that we are going to continue fighting for full and fair employment until we see the changes that we need to see in our communities."  Said Alfred Marshall, Organizer of Stand with Dignity.

Representatives of all City Councilpersons and the Mayors office accepted the proclamation which calls for real career ladders in the Post-Katrina Reconstruction.  The group challenged city officials:

"We challenge you to work with us to fundamentally shift New Orleans’ dependency on the penal system to a system of opportunities for our community which will prevent the driving forces behind crime.  We challenge you to use the mass reconstruction of New Orleans to finally shift from a system of slavery and oppression to a system which drives toward full and fair employment.  We will all be free when we can be safe to live in our communities- to us safety is not just freedom from physical violence, but freedom from the violence of homelessness, poverty, mass incarceration that divides families, and the freedom that comes when you know you are doing what is right for you, your family, and your community."

"We are here to make sure that our elected officials understand that when we are locked out of work that not only hurts us and our families but it hurts our communities.  I understand that the Mayor is trying to take steps to deal with violence in our community- my message to Mayor Landrieu is you should work with what you got, right now what you got is a lot of construction work here- don't throw good money after bad, just make sure you get the most out of what you have to work with." said Chase Smith who was there with his young daughter.

Newly Formed Observer Group to Monitor Today’s Oil Lease Auction

From our friends at Louisiana Bucket Brigade:
 Khaki Vests and Citizen Monitor Buttons Identify Oil Monitoring Group

Fifteen Citizen Monitors trained to engage oil industry and government representatives will be on hand at today’s oil lease auction. The goal of the newly formed Oil Monitoring Group is to remind those bidding that they have legal obligations to protect the Gulf of Mexico. “We are reminding them that the Gulf of Mexico belongs to all of us,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We want to make sure that both the oil industry – which has a terrible accident problem – and the government responsible for protecting us know that they are being watched.”

Today is the official launch of the newly formed Oil Monitoring Group, a coalition of civil society organizations and citizens trained to engage with oil industry representatives and remind them both of their legal obligations and the fact that the resources they are using are public ones. “Our mission is to prevent oil industry accidents,” said Kristen Evans, who is spearheading the group. The group will continue to monitor oil industry events after today’s auction.

Trained Citizen Monitors will initiate conversations with those in attendance today’s. The event is auctioning off 38 million acres. While other sales have happened since the BP Disaster, this is the first in the Central Planning Area of the Gulf of Mexico, which is off the coast of Louisiana. The Bureau of Ocean, Energy and Management is coordinating the auction.

Election observers, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are among the groups serving as a model for the newly formed group. “We realize that all too often civil society is not in the room when industry and government make decisions,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and participant in the group.

The monitors will wear khaki vests labeled Oil Monitoring Group on the back, with buttons on the front that say Citizen Monitor. They will provide brochures to those in attendance to remind them of the laws and that people are watching.

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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Celebrate Juneteenth

A Juneteenth Message from our friends at Critical Resistance:

Tuesday, June 19, marked Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of formalized slavery in the United States.  The date coincides with the last wave of notification of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, reaching enslaved people in Texas more than two years after the document was initially signed, and its prominence across the US is often connected to the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington, DC.  Recognizing Juneteenth provides us with an opportunity to reflect on Black people’s history in the United States, on forced labor and confinement, and on the deliberate disorganization, dispersal, and death of African peoples through the slave trade.  It also seems impossible to consider Juneteenth without reflecting on the rise of the prison industrial complex, as well as Black peoples’ undying resistance to oppression and fights for liberation.

From the emergence of modern policing from enforcement of slave laws and codes, to the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, to convict lease, to COINTELPRO, to the war on drugs, Black people have been the target of systemic exploitation, criminalization, dispossession, disenfranchisement, militarization, and brutalization in the US.  The lasting legacies of slavery are present in every aspect of our modern punishment system.  As recently as four years ago, reports indicated that one in 15 Black adults was in jail or prison.  The number soared to one in nine for Black men ages 20-34.  From Sean Bell to Oscar Grant, III, to Trayvon Martin, African Americans are consistently in the crosshairs of formal and informal policing apparatuses, understood as innately suspicious and dangerous. In charting centuries of this violence, it is not extreme to perceive a war on Black peoples in the United States.

While the legacies of slavery are still felt acutely, Juneteenth also provides us with an opportunity to remember that oppression breeds resistance.  We recall the Stono Rebellion or the St. John the Baptist Parish rebellion in Louisiana—during which enslaved people organized resistance and rose up to take their freedom.  We recall The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the National Negro Congress, the 1199 Health Care Workers' Union, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers—in which Black workers led dogged struggle against poor working conditions and racism in the workplace, and for the dignity of their labor and their right to organize.  We recall, the UNIA-ACL, SNCC, CORE, and other civil rights organizations—through which millions of Black people mobilized to expose the inhumanity of white supremacy and to fight for the most basic rights in the US.  We recall the Deacons for Defense, the Black Armed Guard, and the Monroe Chapter of the NAACP through which people armed themselves and protected their communities from racist attacks.  We recall the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and the Black Liberation Army through which the imaginations and legacies of militant self-determination in the US, were linked in spirit and practice to worldwide revolutionary struggles against imperialism.  We recall organizations from the National Association of Colored Women to the Combahee River Collective in which Black women and queer people built deeper understandings of oppression, and liberation.  We recall the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Black Arts Movement, and the Black Artists Guild in which the radical creativity of Black peoples blossomed and established new art forms and stretched our imaginations and hopes. These examples only scratch the surface of the vast landscape of organizations, rebellions, and communities that make up the collective struggles, histories, and traditions of Black freedom struggle that continue to push us forward.

For many people Juneteenth is also an occasion to reconnect with family—both given and made.  It is an occasion to share food and stories. For Critical Resistance, we also see it as an opportunity to imagine how we might continue to break the grip of the prison industrial complex through our work against the violence of policing, against the expansion of jails of imprisonment, against government attempts to neutralize our struggles for self-determination.  We celebrate Juneteenth as an opportunity to forge stronger alliances across movements and communities to eventually rid ourselves of all the vestiges of slavery—and the build the new world carried in the hearts of our predecessors into future generations.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Women With A Vision Opens at Temporary New Space, Launches Blog to Document Progress on Recovery After Arson

This message comes from our friends at Women With A Vision:

Dear friends and family, 

With the fire at Women With A Vision now two weeks behind us, I wanted to reach out to each of you to thank you for your support.  Your donations, your efforts to publicize the arson through your networks, your sassy fundraisers, and your concern have brought us through the immediate post-fire crisis and clean out.  We begin this week at our temporary office space at First Grace United Methodist Church truly humbled.  And our work continues...

To keep all of you updated on our rebuilding process and search for a new home, we have launched the WWAV After the Fire blog, which features a letter from our intern, Shaun King, on his first day with us – the day of the office clean out – and several updates, like the launch of our new micro-enterprise program for women in street-based economies.  We will also be disseminating future updates through our Facebook Page.  Add us if you haven't already!

In the coming weeks, we will be setting up a building fund to ensure that we find a new home and are fully operational by the end of 2012.  I will be in touch with more details on that soon.

Choice Of Weapons: A Commentary on Youth in New Orleans, by Maitefa Angaza

Sometimes Truth whispers conspiratorially; other times it gets naked in public. This was one of those times. On May 31, Truth painted an undeniably clear picture on the front page of section B of the Times Picayune. The article headlined “Frame by Frame” is a mini-feature on an event the day before at which four youth from the Gulf South Photography Project (GSPP), from 11 to 21 years of age, produced and delivered nearly 400 individual and family photographic portraits of the homeless at the Harry Tompson Rebuild Center on Gravier Street. The article is inspiring, showing young people making a meaningful impact and GSPP founder Jim Belfon immersed in his twin passions; photography and sharing his craft.

But the placement of the article is, in itself, intriguing. It’s framed on the top, left and right, by three news stories about homicides in which the victims and alleged assailants are young Black men. So the GSPP feature is framed in the context of what can happen to and for our youth. In other words, “Frame by Frame” is framed by its frame.

We get the picture: crime is rampant and hope is a luxury. But amidst the bad news, we find solutions in artful ways to empower young people and those who jump to the task. Jim Belfon is on a mission to give New Orleans youth a “Choice Of Weapons” (to quote the autobiography of his mentor, legendary photographer Gordon Parks). Belfon's Gulf South Photography Project arms youth with shooting skills and points them towards artistic fulfillment, as they identify careers within the communications industry as their primary targets.

To learn more about GSPP's programs and activities, as well as how to support their work, call Jim Belfon at 504 579 4346 or email:

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Black People, All People, Bleed Red, By Greta Gladney

On Tuesday, I returned home after ten days travel. I use my time away from the office and New Orleans to recharge, re-energize and refocus on my life and my work.

I called Cynthia Wiggins, CEO of Guste Homes Wednesday morning to confirm our first Friday of the month Mobile Market and learned of the shooting on Tuesday outside the building. The woman who died in the car, from two gunshots to the head, was the daughter of a Guste resident. She told me that a five-year old girl also died.

Last night we continued our African American Women: Breaking Silence series of speakers with Terry Mogilles, RN, a mental health provider and executive director of Positive Living Treatment Center. Terry’s co-presenter, Brandon Williams, was a young African American man, a first for our series. He presented on racial disparity while those of us in the room realized that he is an outlier, an African American male under 35, and holder of an advanced degree in public health who works in IT at Ochsner Hospital and volunteers at a mental health transitional housing facility.

During the question and answer period, our conversation turned to the recent shootings in Central City and the publication of photos in the Times Picayune, the one of a 5-year-old girl in particular.

I found a link to the photos online.

I believe that there is a psychological impact on every New Orleanian who watches the local news, sees these photos, witnesses violent death, and continues to live and breathe in this City. Black people, all people bleed red and everyone in this City is suffering.

I did not want to see the child lying on the ground as Vera Warren had described her last night. But I did. I was not prepared to see the photos of the car, including a close up of the auto interior; its driver’s side airbag covered with the blood of a woman I did not know who had just visited her mother, a resident whom I have yet to meet, from a community the Renaissance Project serves at Guste Homes.

I did not digest the news well or at all.

As an organization, are we supposed to stop providing our food pantry and fresh markets at Guste? Can we live, individually and collectively, in conscious fear of driving through the City and stop providing services to the poor? Is it time to throw in the towel and close shop?

I wanted to leave town again.

Last week our presenter Deon Haywood of Women With a Vision had her office burned the night of her presentation.

And the previous week our presenter and videographer Ashley Jones learned while setting up the projector that her home had been burglarized for the second time in less than ten days. Vera Warren, owner of Community Book Center, asked me to consider the potential connection between our Racial Healing presentations and recent acts of theft and arson. The incidents are correlated with and connected to the relationships we have established as participants in the Breaking Silence project. We know the intimate details of each others lives.

Residents, who simply like to socialize, will be restricted from congregating outside the building, a further disruption to our well-worn social fabric. Bulletproof glass will replace the office windows soon.

Everyone, across race, creed, and orientation, must respond to our call to action to alleviate poverty and reduce racial disparity in New Orleans. For our part, we will connect Positive Living and Pyramid Wellness to the Guste Community for mental health services to begin a process of healing. Our June presentations for African American Women: Breaking Silence to Heal Ourselves and Our Communities are under preparation as I speak. We will continue to provide food banking, fresh markets, SNAP, Medicaid, Medicare enrollment and racial healing story circles to low-income families in New Orleans.

Chanel Lafarge of George’s Produce delivered and we sold watermelons, bananas, oranges and strawberries to the residents today.

Greta Gladney is Executive Director of The Renaissance Project.