Friday, July 30, 2010

Federal Investigation and Activist Responses to Police Violence

Family members of Raymond Robair, a man who was killed by police in the Treme neighborhood just a few months before Hurricane Katrina, finally received some vindication for their efforts to receive justice. On Thursday, two New Orleans police officers were indicted on federal civil rights charges in the case. As the federal investigations of New Orleans police continue, it has become nearly impossible to argue for any solution that is not systemic - it is clear that this department is rotten to the core.

Activists are continuing to pressure for systemic change. Community United for Change has issued a call for young people who have experienced police harassment to come to a meeting next week in the Treme neighborhood. According to the invitation:
Young people, more than any other age group, are on the receiving end of police harassment, brutality and murder. If you or your friends have been jacked up by the NOPD terrorists without cause, we need you to come forward. Your testimony will help to end NOPD profiling and falsely arresting young people. Let’s make some noise ‘til we get it right.
The public hearing will be Thursday, August 5, from 6:00pm to 9:00pm at the Treme Community Center, 900 N. Villere St. (corner of Dumaine St., near Armstrong Park). Door prizes and edutainment by Sess 4-5 and other positive artists. For information, contact Community United for Change at 504-251-2201.

Community United for Change member and longtime activist against police brutality Malcolm Suber will also be part of an interesting panel discussion and film screening next week at Community Book Center. He will be joined by activist and hip-hop artist Sess 4-5 and lawyer and activist King Downing, who has organized nationally against racial profiling and police brutality and was one of the first organizers to work on the Jena Six case. They will be speaking in conjunction with a screening of the video Black and Blue: Legends of the Hip-Hop Cop, a documentary about a special unit of the New York City Police Department formed just to target hip-hop artists.

The event will be Tuesday, August 3, at Community Book Center, 2523 Bayou Road, from 6:00pm to 9:00pm. For info call 9311-7614 or 948-7323. The event is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and Community Book Center.

In a sign of how far our entire criminal justice system needs to go, this week, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that "two New Orleans men who have waited in jail for nearly nine years without coming close to trial on a 2001 murder haven't had their rights violated by the delay." Clearly, we are a long way from the basic human rights we need.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fourteen Examples of Systemic Racism in the US Criminal Justice System

By Bill Quigley
The biggest crime in the US criminal justice system is that it is a race-based institution where African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much more aggressive way than white people.

Saying the US criminal system is racist may be politically controversial in some circles. But the facts are overwhelming. No real debate about that. Below I set out numerous examples of these facts.

The question is – are these facts the mistakes of an otherwise good system, or are they evidence that the racist criminal justice system is working exactly as intended? Is the US criminal justice system operated to marginalize and control millions of African Americans?

Information on race is available for each step of the criminal justice system – from the use of drugs, police stops, arrests, getting out on bail, legal representation, jury selection, trial, sentencing, prison, parole and freedom. Look what these facts show.

One. The US has seen a surge in arrests and putting people in jail over the last four decades. Most of the reason is the war on drugs. Yet whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sales, at roughly comparable rates – according to a report on race and drug enforcement published by Human Rights Watch in May 2008. While African Americans comprise 13% of the US population and 14% of monthly drug users they are 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses – according to 2009 Congressional testimony by Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.

Two. The police stop blacks and Latinos at rates that are much higher than whites. In New York City, where people of color make up about half of the population, 80% of the NYPD stops were of blacks and Latinos. When whites were stopped, only 8% were frisked. When blacks and Latinos are stopped 85% were frisked according to information provided by the NYPD. The same is true most other places as well. In a California study, the ACLU found blacks are three times more likely to be stopped than whites.

Three. Since 1970, drug arrests have skyrocketed rising from 320,000 to close to 1.6 million according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice. African Americans are arrested for drug offenses at rates 2 to 11 times higher than the rate for whites – according to a May 2009 report on disparity in drug arrests by Human Rights Watch.

Four. Once arrested, blacks are more likely to remain in prison awaiting trial than whites. For example, the New York state division of criminal justice did a 1995 review of disparities in processing felony arrests and found that in some parts of New York blacks are 33% more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than whites facing felony trials.

Five. Once arrested, 80% of the people in the criminal justice system get a public defender for their lawyer. Race plays a big role here as well. Stop in any urban courtroom and look a the color of the people who are waiting for public defenders. Despite often heroic efforts by public defenders the system gives them much more work and much less money than the prosecution. The American Bar Association, not a radical bunch, reviewed the US public defender system in 2004 and concluded “All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring…The fundamental right to a lawyer that America assumes applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the US.”

Six. African Americans are frequently illegally excluded from criminal jury service according to a June 2010 study released by the Equal Justice Initiative. For example in Houston County, Alabama, 8 out of 10 African Americans qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors from serving on death penalty cases.

Seven. Trials are rare. Only 3 to 5 percent of criminal cases go to trial – the rest are plea bargained. Most African Americans defendants never get a trial. Most plea bargains consist of promise of a longer sentence if a person exercises their constitutional right to trial. As a result, people caught up in the system, as the American Bar Association points out, plead guilty even when innocent. Why? As one young man told me recently, “Who wouldn’t rather do three years for a crime they didn’t commit than risk twenty-five years for a crime they didn’t do?”

Eight. The US Sentencing Commission reported in March 2010 that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crimes. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project reports African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20% more like to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.

Nine. The longer the sentence, the more likely it is that non-white people will be the ones getting it. A July 2009 report by the Sentencing Project found that two-thirds of the people in the US with life sentences are non-white. In New York, it is 83%.

Ten. As a result, African Americans, who are 13% of the population and 14% of drug users, are not only 37% of the people arrested for drugs but 56% of the people in state prisons for drug offenses. Marc Mauer May 2009 Congressional Testimony for The Sentencing Project.

Eleven. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics concludes that the chance of a black male born in 2001 of going to jail is 32% or 1 in three. Latino males have a 17% chance and white males have a 6% chance. Thus black boys are five times and Latino boys nearly three times as likely as white boys to go to jail.

Twelve. So, while African American juvenile youth is but 16% of the population, they are 28% of juvenile arrests, 37% of the youth in juvenile jails and 58% of the youth sent to adult prisons. 2009 Criminal Justice Primer, The Sentencing Project.

Thirteen. Remember that the US leads the world in putting our own people into jail and prison. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the US has five percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners, over 2.3 million people behind bars, dwarfing other nations. The US rate of incarceration is five to eight times higher than other highly developed countries and black males are the largest percentage of inmates according to ABC News.

Even when released from prison, race continues to dominate. A study by Professor Devah Pager of the University of Wisconsin found that 17% of white job applicants with criminal records received call backs from employers while only 5% of black job applicants with criminal records received call backs. Race is so prominent in that study that whites with criminal records actually received better treatment than blacks without criminal records!

So, what conclusions do these facts lead to? The criminal justice system, from start to finish, is seriously racist.

Professor Michelle Alexander concludes that it is no coincidence that the criminal justice system ramped up its processing of African Americans just as the Jim Crow laws enforced since the age of slavery ended. Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness sees these facts as evidence of the new way the US has decided to control African Americans – a racialized system of social control. The stigma of criminality functions in much the same way as Jim Crow – creating legal boundaries between them and us, allowing legal discrimination against them, removing the right to vote from millions, and essentially warehousing a disposable population of unwanted people. She calls it a new caste system.

Poor whites and people of other ethnicity are also subjected to this system of social control. Because if poor whites or others get out of line, they will be given the worst possible treatment, they will be treated just like poor blacks.

Other critics like Professor Dylan Rodriguez see the criminal justice system as a key part of what he calls the domestic war on the marginalized. Because of globalization, he argues in his book Forced Passages, there is an excess of people in the US and elsewhere. “These people”, whether they are in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib or US jails and prisons, are not productive, are not needed, are not wanted and are not really entitled to the same human rights as the productive ones. They must be controlled and dominated for the safety of the productive. They must be intimidated into accepting their inferiority or they must be removed from the society of the productive.

This domestic war relies on the same technology that the US uses internationally. More and more we see the militarization of this country’s police. Likewise, the goals of the US justice system are the same as the US war on terror - domination and control by capture, immobilization, punishment and liquidation.

What to do?

Martin Luther King Jr., said we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. A radical approach to the US criminal justice system means we must go to the root of the problem. Not reform. Not better beds in better prisons. We are not called to only trim the leaves or prune the branches, but rip up this unjust system by its roots.

We are all entitled to safety. That is a human right everyone has a right to expect. But do we really think that continuing with a deeply racist system leading the world in incarcerating our children is making us safer?

It is time for every person interested in justice and safety to join in and dismantle this racist system. Should the US decriminalize drugs like marijuana? Should prisons be abolished? Should we expand the use of restorative justice? Can we create fair educational, medical and employment systems? All these questions and many more have to be seriously explored. Join a group like INCITE, Critical Resistance, the Center for Community Alternatives, Thousand Kites, or the California Prison Moratorium and work on it. As Professor Alexander says “Nothing short of a major social movement can dismantle this new caste system.”

Bill is Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at

Image above by former US political prisoner Laura Whitehorn.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Report on Employment in Louisiana's Coastal Communities

Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC), always a crucial resource for information about our region, has released an important new report on the state of jobs on Louisiana's southern coast before BP's Drilling Disaster. According to the folks at GNOCDC:
"Measure. Measure. Measure.” That’s what our new friends from Prince William Sound have counseled their Gulf Coast colleagues. And we take their experience-based counsel quite seriously.

Today we’re releasing a brief on the number of jobs and workers living in coastal parishes prior to the oil disaster. This data is meant to serve as a baseline against which the impact of the oil spill can eventually be measured.

In addition, it provides much needed information on residential patterns along the coast, many months before the Census 2010 headcounts are to be released. This data can be useful for nonprofits and state agencies planning services for coastal populations.
The GNOCDC report provides the following background:

Millions of barrels of oil have idled commercial and sport fishing operations throughout southeastern Louisiana coastal waters since the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster of April 20, 2010. Businesses that serve the fishing industry, or buy their harvests, have similarly been affected. Among them are tackle shops, net makers, gas stations, restaurants, truckers, and seafood processors and distributors. Such is also the case for the travel and tourism sector, particularly in places such as Grand Isle which depends on summertime recreationists, although clean–up–related travel may partially offset such losses.

A moratorium on deepwater oil drilling will likely have an even greater economic impact throughout coastal Louisiana. Rig workers and oil–service operations will see fewer and smaller paychecks, and thus will inject less money into coastal economies. It is safe to say that nearly every business in coastal southeastern Louisiana will feel some effect of the oil disaster.

What impact will the oil disaster have on coastal Louisiana’s jobs? It is too soon to answer that question. We can, however, investigate the geography and nature of coastal employment prior to 2010 to create a baseline against which this unfurling situation and its eventual impacts on jobs may be compared.

This brief examines where jobs were located prior to the oil disaster in 2008 (the most recent available data) and what economic sectors they represented throughout the coastal region. While some maps cover from the Texas border all the way to Alabama, the brief primarily focuses on the coastal southeastern Louisiana parishes closest to the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil well.

Among the findings from the report:

*High concentrations of jobs appeared in many coastal areas prior to the oil disaster. In fact, the coastal periphery was second only to urban areas as employment nodes.
*Plaquemines Parish was home to 11,687 jobs but only 6,950 resident workers in 2008, indicating that people in neighboring parishes rely on this especially vulnerable parish for their livelihood. Oil-related impacts on the economy of Plaquemines parish, therefore, could reverberate region-wide.
*In Lafourche Parish, worker residences were more clustered in northern and central areas, while jobs tended to locate at the southern end—namely Port Fourchon, a key node in the regional petroleum and offshore economy.
*Among southeast Louisiana parishes, Terrebonne had the highest absolute number (6,089) and percent (11.5) of jobs in the oil and gas industry, far more than even the urbanized New Orleans metro parishes with much-larger populations. These jobs were particularly concentrated in two Houma zip codes that together are home to over 5,500 such jobs—more than double the number of oil and gas jobs in downtown New Orleans.

This report "Is based on 2008 Census Bureau data from company payrolls. As such it does not capture the thousands of self-employed fishermen not included in company payroll data—indicating that coastal Louisiana is even more important to job creation than our numbers suggest."

See the full report at the GNOCDC website.

LJI Injustice Index: The State of Criminal Justice in New Orleans:

July 2010: Oppression and Repression for All
“We are dedicated to maintaining the highest moral and ethical standards, through the principles of pride, honesty, trust and courage.”
-NOPD Mission Statement

Maintaining the Highest Moral and Ethical Standards:
• New Orleans is ranked 2nd in the nation for police misconduct.
• NOPD receives an average of 555 citizen complaints of misconduct per year.
• On average, 162 NOPD officers are disciplined per year for misconduct
• In 2010 alone, 16 New Orleans Police Department Officers have been either convicted or federally indicted for violent crimes against New Orleans residents.

A Waste of Resources:
• While the total number of arrests has been reduced by 7%, traffic arrests increased by 45% from 6,874 to 9,985 over a one-year period.
• Only 13% or 7,945 of the 59,974 Orleans Parish arrests were felony arrests, and 6% of arrests resulted in a violent felony conviction.

Criminalizing Non-Criminals – A Booming Business:
• 86% of all arrests were for misdemeanors, municipal, traffic violations, and other arrests
• Over 3,400 (or 77%) of traffic arrests were for license violations such as driving with a suspended or invalid license.
• NOPD Averages about 6,000 traffic stops per week.
• New Orleans Police Officers make an average of two stops per each of the 118,464 resident commuters each year.
• The odds of those traffic stops resulting in a citation: 1:3
• The odds of those traffic stops resulting in arrest: 1:31

Is Everybody Really Breaking the Law?
• According to an audit of the Orleans Parish Traffic Court’s processing system, 30% of all cases processed by court personnel had the potential for processing errors. Of the 90,000+ traffic citations processed by the court annually, 27,000 were possibly erroneously processed, resulting in the issuance of illegal arrest warrants, license suspensions, and illegally impounded vehicles.
• With the average traffic citation of $110.00, the City of New Orleans can make up to $3,000,000 per year in fraudulent fines and fees.

Photo from April, 2010 Community United for Change demonstration, New Orleans, LA.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gulf Coast and National Organizations Come Together in Support of Legislation to Protect Victims of BP's Gulf Gusher

More than twenty organizations, ranging from national civil rights groups to local grass roots community organizations, have signed on to support the proposed Gulf Coast Oil Spill Legal Liabilities and Claims Act of 2010, which would protect the legal rights of parties who have suffered financial losses or economic hardship as a result of the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon and the massive oil spill that has followed.

Introduced by Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), and co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL), the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Legal Liabilities and Claims Act of 2010 would:

*Preclude any legal releases and agreements from extinguishing or limiting tort liability for harm arising from the oil spill if the legal release or agreement was entered into under coercion or duress or was entered into in exchange for any benefit other than a settlement of pending claims;
*Preserve the Gulf Coast States' right to sue BP and other responsible parties in state court rather than risk the removal of cases to federal court, as current law provides,
*Amend the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) and preserve the Gulf States' right to sue BP and other liable parties under state law.

"None of the people who have been harmed should be denied their right to compensation because they were pressured to sign a release form when they had no way of knowing their legal rights or how much they had been harmed. Furthermore, the parties responsible for this disaster should not be able to avoid liability by coercing people into giving up their rights after they have lost their livelihoods," the letter in support of the legislation states.

"We appreciate the continuing support of Congresswoman Waters, who has been a tireless champion of the interests of Gulf Coast residents since Katrina," said Trupania W. Bonner, Executive Director, Moving Forward Gulf Coast, Inc.

Click here to read the letter and see the list of organizations that have signed on.

New Orleans Public School Students Release Recommendations for Improved Schools

Last week, the young people of Kids ReThink New Orleans Schools released their recommendations for New Orleans' public schools. The ReThinkers are a group of more than 120 students that meet via school clubs and a citywide group that meets during the summer and on weekends - mostly Middle School students, with some older students, and some younger "PRe-Thinkers." The project began in June of 2006 from the principle that students deserve a voice in the changes happening in New Orleans' schools, and that youth participation in these decisions is also both a learning experience and empowering.

ReThink has held five major news conferences, and they take credit for several reforms, mostly related to school food policies. These changes include convincing school officials to repair 350 substandard bathrooms; eliminate "sporks" in favor of spoons, knives and forks; install hand washing sinks in all new school cafeterias; add garden plots to all future school designs; and serve significantly more fresh food.

School officials have been less receptive to some of their other suggestions, such as last year's proposals for alternatives to metal detectors.

At this year's press conference, which was held at Langston Hughes Academy, students made twelve policy recommendations that fell under three categories: peace in our schools; fresh, tasty, local food prepared in fully equipped kitchens; and oil-free schools.

The initiatives the students recommended for peace in the schools centered around a restorative justice program that has been used successfully in other states, most notably Colorado. The basic idea of restorative justice - where the solution is seen in repairing the harm done, rather than finding punishment or revenge - would be a radical and vital improvement to the system currently in place. Langston Hughes and Walter L Cohen have initiated restorative justice programs, making them first elementary school and high school in the state with these projects in place. ReThinkers also displayed a photo collage representing their vision for an outdoor reconciliation circle at Langston Hughes.

The students unveiled report cards they had prepared, rating the school lunches at six schools, with grades ranging from an "F" for Craig Elementary to a "B-" (the highest score given) for Arthur Ashe and Langston Hughes. The reports gave concrete advice for improvements, many of them centered around providing fresh, healthy, locally-grown food.

Recovery School District Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas was invited to respond to the recommendations, but arrived moments before he was invited to speak, and apparently had not heard the students' proposals. While he gave general praise to the the ReThink project, and offered to help their project expand to more schools, it remains to be seen what concrete steps he will take. Sarah Newell Usdin, the Americorps veteran who is CEO of New Schools For New Orleans, was in attendance for the presentation and also spoke in response. Usdin added to Vallas' promises of support, praising the student's specific proposals around Restorative Justice and oil-free schools.

Letter in Support of Legislation to Protect Victims of BP's Gulf Gusher

We, the undersigned Gulf Coast advocates, support the efforts by Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) in sponsoring legislation to ensure the victims of the devastating BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill are afforded every opportunity to pursue their claims. This legislation will preclude any legal releases and agreements from extinguishing or limiting tort liability for harm arising from the oil spill if the legal release or agreement was entered into under coercion or duress or entered into in exchange for any benefit other than a settlement of pending claims. Further, this legislation will preserve the Gulf Coast States’ right to sue BP and other responsible parties in state court rather than risk cases to federal court, as current law provides. Finally, this legislation will amend the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) and preserve the Gulf States’ right to sue BP and other liable parties under state law.

Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, BP officials reportedly offered struggling fishermen an instant $5,000 cash settlement in exchange for signing a waiver prohibiting them from suing the company for additional damages. BP officials also included legal waivers in its contracts with volunteer fishermen they hired to lay down boom in the Gulf waters in efforts to contain the oil spill and prevent it from reaching shore. BP has indicated the waiver requests were unintentional and have been withdrawn. Nevertheless, BP should never have taken advantage of these distressed fishermen and victims. BP was clearly attempting to exploit the situation, as many of these individuals could have been easily tempted to accept the settlement in order to pay monthly expenses. Congress must make certain that such waivers will not release BP or other responsible parties from liability.

None of the people who have been harmed should be denied their right to compensation because they were pressured to sign a release form when they had no way of knowing their legal rights or how much they had been harmed. Furthermore, the parties responsible for this disaster should not be able to avoid liability by coercing people into giving up their rights after they have lost their livelihoods.

No less important, the Class Action Fairness Act was designed to facilitate the removal of class actions from state to federal court. However, some courts have interpreted CAFA to limit the rights of States to bring actions in State courts on behalf of their own citizens. Mississippi, one of the coastal States most impacted by the Deepwater Horizon incident, has expressed concern about the effect of CAFA on their ability to expeditiously pursue State law claims in State courts, which have more experience with State law. This legislation will ensure CAFA does not apply to such actions.

We know much more needs to be done to ensure the communities affected by the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill will be adequately and equitably compensated for their losses. This legislation sponsored by Representative Waters is a tremendous first start, however, and we applaud and support this effort.

National Urban League
The United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
Zion Travelers Cooperative Center - Phoenix, Louisiana
The North Gulfport Community Land Trust - Gulfport, Mississippi
Davida Finger, Esq., Loyola University New Orleans College of Law - New Orleans, Louisiana
David Underhill - Mobile, Alabama
Portersville Revival Group - Coden, Alabama
V.O.T.E. (Voice of the Ex-Offender) - New Orleans, Louisiana
Equity and Inclusion Campaign - Baton Rouge, Louisiana
NAACP - Biloxi, Mississippi Branch - Biloxi, Mississippi
Deep South Center for Environmental Justice - New Orleans, Louisiana
Mayday NOLA - New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Inc. - Barataria, Louisiana
Restaurant Opportunities Center - New Orleans, Louisiana
Clarence Roby, Jr., Esq. - New Orleans, Louisiana
Alliance Institute - New Orleans, Louisiana
Interfaith Worker Justice - New Orleans, Louisiana
Gulf Coast Coalition for Social & Economic Justice - New Orleans, Louisiana
Louisiana Oyster Association - Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana
Urban League of Greater New Orleans - New Orleans, Louisiana
Total Community Action - New Orleans, Louisiana
The Praxis Project/Katrina Information Network - Washington, DC
Women's Health & Justice Initiative - New Orleans, Louisiana
Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative - New Orleans, Louisiana
Mennonite Central Committee--New Orleans, Louisiana
Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund - Gulfport, Mississippi
Moving Forward Gulf Coast, Inc. - Slidell, Louisiana
Mississippi Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities - Jackson, Mississippi
Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement - New Orleans, Louisiana
Center for Environmental and Economic Justice --Biloxi, Mississippi
Safe Streets-Strong Communities - New Orleans, Louisiana
OneStop Business Institute, Inc. - Mobile, Alabama
Louisiana Justice Institute - New Orleans, Louisiana

Monday, July 19, 2010

Protest Tomorrow on Three Month Anniversary of BP Drilling Disaster

Gulf Restoration Network is calling for a protest tomorrow, Tuesday, July 20th, from Noon to 1:00pm at the Hale Boggs Federal Building, 500 Poydras Street. The protest is directed at US Senator Mary Landrieu. According to Gulf Restoration Network, they will be demanding:

"That Senator Mary Landrieu be a champion for the Gulf and Louisiana's coast, not oil companies. As one of the largest recipients of oil and gas industry contributions, it's clear she's got oil on her hands. BP must clean up its mess, and the entire oil and gas industry must pay its fair share for restoring Louisiana's coast. We need a champion in Congress to make this happen."

Co-sponsors of the protest include Greenpeace, Louisiana Environmental Action Network, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, and Sierra Club.

Full details of the event:

Rally in New Orleans: Congress Has Oil On Its Hands
Protest to Mark Three Months of BP's Disaster and Decades of Oil Industry Influence
Tues, July 20th
Noon - 1:00pm
In front of the Federal Building, 500 Poydras Street,

Gulf Restoration Network also invites you to "Bring a handwritten letter to deliver after the event," and promises "Speakers, posters, and dye to turn your hands black."

Day in Court Tomorrow for Public Housing Activist

From our friends at Survivors Village:

Sharon Jasper, a public housing activist from the former St. Bernard development, is facing a court hearing tomorrow, Tuesday July 20, at 3 pm in Municipal Court Section D, 727 S. Broad Street, near Tulane Avenue.

Sharon Jasper, member of Survivors Village and Mayday New Orleans, was arrested by New Orleans police, who brought in a SWAT team for the arrest of this elder and community leader.

Ms. Sharon is being charged with assaulting a rental agent during a May action, organized by Survivors Village and MayDay New Orleans as part of the Take Back the Land Movement May 2010 Month of Action. On Friday, May 28th, a group entered the Columbia Parc rental office and held a sit-in demanding the right of former St. Bernard Housing Project residents to return to their homes.

Columbia Parc replaced the St. Bernard Housing Development after the City of New Orleans voted to demolish the 1,500 units of public housing and replace them with so-called "mixed-income" market housing. To date, almost none of the former residents of St Bernard have been provided with replacement housing in the new development.

The protest was part of the Right to Return Weekend in New Orleans. The Right of Return Weekend was organized in conjunction with the May month of actions called by Take Back the Land Movement (TBLM). TBLM is a network of autonomous organizations affiliated with the US Human Rights Network (USHRN) dedicated to realizing the human right to adequate housing and community control over land.

Police say Ms. Sharon assaulted a Columbia Parc rental agent during her entrance into the building as part of the May action. The rental agent did not complain about an assault and continued to work in the office the entire time of the occupation, including when police arrived. While there, police made no mention of an assault when explaining to the group why they should end their protest.

In a statement released today, Survivors Village has said, "We are hoping that she will receive wide support from those who believe in social justice and community activism. Sharon was not arrested because she broke any laws, but because she has been a tireless and uncompromising fighter for the right of poor people to return to their communities after being displaced by the government negligence which led to the city of New Orleans being flooded."

"Further, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and HUD are now trying to make an example out of Sharon by taking her voucher away. With rent three times as high as it was before the evacuation, this is basically an attempt to make her one of the thousands of homeless people that already exist in the city of New Orleans. If we allow these people to be successful in their efforts to silence Sharon, no resident will be safe to express themselves or fight back through protest and community actions."

"Survivors Village met on last Saturday with many individuals and organizations to plot a long term strategy for this fight, and we will win! More information will be forthcoming soon, but the first step in the battle is to support Sharon in court tomorrow!"

We hope to see you there.

Photo of Sharon Jasper by Mavis Yorks, New Orleans, 2007.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

This Crime Was a Symptom of a Wider Sickness in the Police

By Tracie Washington, originally published in The Independent newspaper.

These charges have been a long time coming. I was in New Orleans throughout the floods and in the days after, and I still remember the sense that something had gone amiss when we first heard of the incident on Danziger Bridge, the way our anger grew.

Since that terrible day back in September 2005, the community – and most particularly the African American community – has been petitioning, marching, following lawsuits, begging, and pleading for justice to be done over these premeditated, murderous acts.

The community has known, through its own investigation and its own work, what happened that day. But the Bush administration did nothing. The local justice department did nothing. It wasn't until finally the administration changed and we got a new attorney general in Eric Holder that we saw any movement towards the investigation and prosecution that were so desperately needed.

But the charges alone will not make a difference. This was not a unique incident. No one had a crystal ball, but there was a clear sense that the police were not trusted. The summer before, there was a huge effort to bring the police and African American communities together – but that effort was derailed. The truth is that there is a cancer in the New Orleans Police Department that has been allowed to fester, and until the diseased tissue is removed, the cells will continue to grow.

There have been some extraordinary efforts to force the NOPD to change, trying to make them agree that any reforms should have the force of law – but there's always been a distrust of the NOPD here, and it's only grown over the years. After Hurricane Katrina the black community has just taken insult after insult, and it's been death by a thousand cuts: little by little, we've come to the sense that there will be no justice through the police – that whoever you complain to, nothing will get done.

That feeling runs through the whole community. Since our new mayor has been elected, we've had 35 murders in three months. This has gone almost unremarked in our local media, and in our community I hear people asking why this isn't being covered, why there's nothing being done about it. There's a sense of disconnection. I have a 17-year-old son, and he makes his own curfew, because he's scared of the police. Imagine that: a 17-year-old black male with his own car, and he's telling his mother that he's scared to go out.

I would love to be optimistic. But what may be hard to understand from so far away is the historic injustice against the African American community here. This is an incredibly poor community, with a history of oppression. There's that saying of Ronald Reagan's, trust but verify: we would love to trust, but we can't until we can verify that there is a real effort towards change.

Tracie Washington is a civil rights attorney and managing co-director of the Louisiana Justice Institute.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Reform of Louisiana Crime Against Nature Law Creates Little Actual Change

This week, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed Senate Bill 381. The law, by Sen. J.P. Morrell of New Orleans, signals an effort to change Louisiana's "Crime Against Nature" law, which has been used as a tool to further stigmatize and victimize indigent sex workers. However, advocates say that the changes are mostly cosmetic.

The Crime Against Nature statute, which dates back to 1805, criminalizes "unnatural copulation" -- a term New Orleans police and the district attorney's office have interpreted to mean soliciting for anal or oral sex. Those who are convicted under this law are issued longer jail sentences and forced to register as sex offenders. They must also carry a driver's license with the label "sex offender" printed on it.

As of last December, of the 861 sex offenders currently registered in New Orleans, 483 were convicted of a crime against nature. And of those convicted of a crime against nature, 78 percent are Black and almost all are women.

A local coalition convened by the organization Women With A Vision has been working to change this law, as well as to support the women who have felt its effects.

According to the Times-Picayune, Senator Morrell's bill "Puts the penalty for a first conviction for soliciting a crime against nature on the same footing as soliciting for prostitution: up to six months in jail, a maximum fine of $500 or both. It changes the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor. But a second offense for soliciting a crime against nature would be a felony punishable by up to five years in jail, a maximum fine of $2,000 or both. If the initial conviction is solicitation of a youth under 17, the harsher penalties will apply. The offender must register with police as a sex offender if he or she has been convicted of soliciting a minor on a first offense or after a second conviction of soliciting a crime against nature of an adult. The new law takes effect Aug. 15."

According Deon Haywood, director of Women With A Vision, this reform does little to address the problems created by the original statute. "It does nothing for the people we know have been charged," she says. In fact, "now it makes them a bigger target, because after the first arrest the police think they got away with something and then they will go after these women even more."

Aside from the fact that the law still treats sex workers like child molesters (just on the second arrest instead of the first offense), it does nothing to address the several hundred women who are already forced to register as sex offenders, and the way this has further isolated them. The law also fails to address the fundamental unfairness of the city policy of putting resources into the isolation and criminalization of already vulnerable communities like indigent sex workers.

"Think about all the people who have been affected by this," explains Haywood. "How does this law help? Is there any program to help women who are facing addiction or living on the street? This city does nothing for women in this situation."

Photo by Abdul Aziz.

St. Tammany Sheriff Confining Suicidal Inmates in "Squirrel Cages" and Forcing Prisoners to Wear "Daisy Duke" Shorts

From our friends at the ACLU of Louisiana:

After extensive investigation into conditions at the St. Tammany Parish jail, today the ACLU of Louisiana sent a letter to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain and Parish President Kevin Davis, demanding an end to the practice of caging suicidal prisoners in “squirrel cages.” After the jail determines a prisoner is suicidal, the prisoner is stripped half-naked and placed in a 3’ x 3’ metal cage with no shoes, bed, blanket or toilet, according to numerous interviews conducted with current and former prisoners. Prisoners report they must curl up on the floor to sleep because the cages are too small to let them lie down. Guards frequently ignore repeated requests to use the bathroom, forcing some desperate people to urinate in discarded containers. The cages are in a main part of the jail, allowing other prisoners to gawk at those confined in these cages. People have been reportedly held in these cages for days, weeks, and months.

Sheriff Jack Strain has been quoted saying that prisoners “need to be caged like animals." Tragically, Sheriff Strain treats his most vulnerable prisoners worse than the minimum legal standards for dogs. According to St. Tammany Parish Code 4-121.10, dogs must be kept in cages at least 6’ wide x 6’ feet deep, with “sufficient space […] to lie down.” “This really should go without saying, but in America we should not treat any person worse than animals.” said Barry Gerharz, Prison Litigation Fellow at the ACLU of Louisiana.

Marjorie Esman, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director, said “This is what can happen when you have law enforcement treating the mentally ill. If the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment means anything, it means that people shouldn’t be treated like this. Jails across this country typically have housing for suicidal prisoners and don’t resort to such barbarity. The squirrel cages belong in the history books.”

Several witnesses report suicidal prisoners forced to wear orange short shorts (“Daisy Duke” style). Prisoners also report being forced to wear Daisy Duke shorts with “Hot Stuff” written on the rear end. People who have been placed in the cages describe acute physical and psychological after-effects, including clinical depression, nightmares and crying fits after they were released from jail. Prisoners report that they are hesitant to inform guards when they feel suicidal, out of fear that they will be placed in the cages. This increases the likelihood that a prisoner will commit suicide, as happened last fall.

The Sheriff is scheduled to receive millions of dollars for upgrades to the jail. In this morning's letter to Parish President Kevin Davis and the Sheriff, the ACLU of LA demands that some of this money be used to create humane housing for people on suicide watch at the jail.

"We appreciate that mentally ill prisoners pose a challenge for the jail, but Sheriff Strain has a legal and moral obligation to care for sick people in a humane way. Caging them for prolonged periods of time is an unacceptable solution, both from a legal perspective and from a human rights perspective. We hope that the sheriff will use this opportunity to build a more humane facility, so that we can avoid litigating this issue," said Katie Schwartzmann, legal director for the ACLU.

A copy of the open letter can be found here.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How Much Oil Has Leaked Into the Gulf of Mexico?

New Report Shines a Light on LGBT Youth in the Louisiana Juvenile Justice System

By Wesley Ware, Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana

Visiting incarcerated youth in Louisiana, I am used to hearing bleak stories about young people who struggle daily with isolation, despair, and a lack of support. They come from every corner of the state and are housed together in all-male secure facilities. Intended to "rehabilitate" troubled young men, sometimes these placements do little more than warehouse them.

On my way home from a prison visit, I can usually shake the horrors these young people tell me and use their stories and the inspiration I receive from them to push for larger juvenile justice reform. However, there are some youth whose experiences are harder for me to leave behind, and haunt me long after I have left the prison walls.

Sitting in a youth prison across from a young man I've known for over three years, he finally tells me he often struggles with feelings for other young men. He tells me he thinks there's a word for it, "Bisexual?" He says he hears that there are places in the world where gender and sexuality aren't policed with violence; where people are able to be themselves and that it's ok if you feel this way. But having been housed in a youth prison for the past several years where he witnessed violence, abuse, and even the death of another young man inside the facility, he is unable to imagine such a place where looking at another man wouldn't result in a broken bone.

A new report released by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), Locked Up & Out, shares the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth confined in youth prisons across Louisiana. One youth tells the story of being raped in a youth prison, attempting suicide, and having to fight every day for his safety. Another transgender youth says that she is subjected to constant verbal abuse and harassment from staff.

Recent studies show that an alarming 15% of youth held in juvenile detention centers across the country are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Multiple factors lead these kids into the juvenile justice system, from family rejection or school harassment to homelessness and substance abuse. Further, 80% of youth in juvenile prisons in Louisiana are African American, showing another alarming disparity.

Once inside the walls of the juvenile justice system, LGBT youth often face extreme physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and harassment as well as additional barriers to their release.

Louisiana, a state that previously housed one of the most brutal youth prisons in the country, is known now for its progress transforming the juvenile system into one that rehabilitates youth and seeks to hold them in community-based alternatives to incarceration. However, there is still a long way to go and LGBT youth in the system, often invisible, have been left behind to bear the brunt of a system still in repair.

A 2009 survey of LGBT youth across the country (conducted by the New York organization FIERCE) showed that youth ranked issues that are known feeders into the juvenile justice system as higher priorities than other issues facing them, such as marriage equality. Among the highest ranked issues facing LGBT youth were homelessness, mental health, access to social support services, school safety issues, and police harassment and abuse. While the survey included youth from Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina, it was conducted with little representation from Deep South states (such as Louisiana or Mississippi) as there are virtually no LGBT youth-specific organizations in these areas for surveyors to poll.

However, we can assume that youth in the Deep South region share the same concerns as other youth, possibly even magnified in rural areas where youth have little to no access to LGBT advocacy organizations, peer support groups, or social services competent and equipped to handle the unique issues often faced by LGBT youth. This may be an additional reason that LGBT youth in Louisiana appear to be making up such a disproportionate percentage of youth in juvenile prison.

As LGBT advocates fight for marriage equality, military inclusion, and other issues, we can't forget the plight of LGBT youth who are being funneled into the deep end of the juvenile justice system. While Locked Up & Out focuses on steps Louisiana can take to reform the juvenile justice system for LGBT youth, there are many things LGBT organizations and individuals can do nationwide.

LGBT advocacy organizations should consider expanding their issue base to include tackling those systems which have had a disproportionately negative affect on LGBT youth. LGBT organizations should consider not only engaging with other progressive or social justice organizations (such as those doing juvenile justice reform) to improve conditions in secure facilities that house youth, but also consider ways to engage "at-risk" LGBT young people before they are funneled into the system. In fact, it could be argued that one of the most crucial things LGBT organizations could do as a movement is fight for justice for those at the very bottom, incarcerated LGBT youth in Louisiana, a state known for its legacy of racism as well as discrimination against LGBT people.

Back at the youth prison, the young man across from me tells me he'd really like someone to talk to about all of the confusing, mixed feelings he has. And as a young man who is confined in a secure facility that is supposed to provide him with counseling and programming for his rehabilitation, why shouldn't he be able to talk to someone about this normal part of adolescent development, too?

I ask him if he plans on telling anyone else that he's bisexual. Looking down at the floor, he tells me that while he's tired of hiding, he's afraid someone would kill him if they ever found out; but he'd commit suicide before that could happen anyway. He looks up at me with a desperate face that reminds me, despite all of his struggles, he's still just a kid. He says, "Death before dishonor, ya know?"

The report Locked Up & Out can be downloaded from the JJPL website.

Wesley Ware has been advocating for the rights of incarcerated youth and the creation of community-based alternatives to incarceration since he came to the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) in 2007. He also serves on the Advisory Committee for the Equity Project, a national initiative to ensure that LGBT youth in juvenile delinquency courts are treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.

This report originally appeared on

Photo by Abdul Aziz.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Double Standard: BP and Bhopal

By Bill Quigley and Alex Tuscano.

When President Barak Obama went after BP and demanded a $20 billion dollar fund be set up for victims of the Gulf oil spill, the people of India were furious. They saw a US double standard. The US demonstrated it values human life within the US more than the lives of the people of India.

BP should pay $20 billion in compensation, probably even more. The people of India agree with that.

But people are angry because the US is treating the oil spill, called the worst environmental disaster in US history, in a radically different way than the US treated the explosion of a US-owned pesticide plant in Bhopal India, which some call the worst industrial disaster in history.

The 1984 Bhopal explosion released tons of toxic chemicals into the air, claimed the lives of between 15,000 and 20,000 people within two weeks, and disabled hundreds of thousands of others – many still suffering from physical damage and genetic defects.

The plant that exploded was operated by Union Carbide India Limited, a corporation owned by Union Carbide of the United States.

The disaster occurred in a thickly populated area close to the central railway station in Bhopal, an urban area of 1.5 million in the heart of India. Most people in the area lived in shanty

Thousands of dead humans and animals filled the streets of Bhopal. Survivors complain of genetic damage which has caused widespread birth defects in children and even grandchildren of those exposed.

The soil and water of Bhopal remain toxic with heavy pesticide residue and toxic metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and chromium.

While President Obama displayed outrage at BP officials over the 11 deaths from the US oil spill, the US has refused to extradite Warren Anderson, the chair of Union Carbide, to face charges for his role in the Bhopal disaster.

Recall too that Obama advisor Larry Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, stated in an infamous 1971 memo. “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the world Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the Less Developed Countries?... I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted…”

Obsolete and hazardous industries have been systematically transferred to the third world countries to not only exploit the cheap labor but also to avoid disastrous impact of these industries on the advanced countries.

Union Carbide put profit for the corporation above the lives and health of millions of people. Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide, is attempting to distance itself from all responsibility.

In India there were two Bhopal developments this month. The Indian government announced a compensation package of $280 million for Bhopal victims, about $22,000 for each of the families of the deceased according to the BBC, and seven former Indian managers of the Bhopal plant were given two year jail sentences for their part in the explosion. These legal developments are a mockery of justice for one of the world’s greatest disasters.

We call on the people of the US and the people of India to join together to demand our governments respect the human rights of all people, no matter where they live.

Together we must bring about change in corporate development. We have to emphasize social production for the needs of people and improved social relations.

If we continue to value some lives more than others, and to allow corporations to spoil some areas with impunity, our world will not last.

Unless we respect the human rights of all people and demand corporations do that as well, we will be damned to live out the Cree Indian prophecy “Only when the last tree from this earth has been cut down, only when the last river has been poisoned, only when the last fish has been caught, only then will humankind learn that money cannot be eaten.”

Bill is the Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach Bill at Alex directs Praxis, a human rights organization in Banglore India. You can reach Alex at