Friday, April 29, 2011

Jazz Fest in New Orleans

Every year, Jazz Fest brings tens of thousands of visitors to New Orleans, and a nudge to the city's economy. As Katy Reckdahl writes in today's Times-Picayune, this year's festival presents an historic gathering of Haitian musicians. Jazz fest (and affiliated events around the city) present more music, arts and culture then we could ever discuss here, but we will highlight the list of authors appearing at the Jazz Fest Book Tent, which includes some friends of Louisiana Justice Institute:

Friday, April 29
12:00pm: Tom Jacobsen: Traditional New Orleans Jazz : Conversations With the Men Who Make the Music
1:00pm: Irvin Mayfield: Love Letter To New Orleans
3:00pm: Denise McConduit: DJ and the Debutante Ball
4:00pm: Diane De Las Casas: There's a Dragon in the Library

Saturday, April 30
12:00pm: John Swensen: New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For the Survival of New Orleans
2:00pm: Jason Berry:Earl Long In Purgatory & Up From the Cradle of Jazz
3:00pm: Troy Gilbert: Cafe Degas & Dinner With Tennessee
4:00pm: Freddi Williams Evans: Congo Square

Sunday, May 1
12:00pm: Yvonne Perret: Yat Wit
1:00pm: Eve Abrams: Preservation Hall
2:00pm: Cornell Landry: One Dat, Two Dat, Are You A Who Dat!, Happy Jazz Fest & Goodnight Nola
3:00pm: Moose Jackson: Loup Garou
5:00pm: Jordan Flaherty: Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six

Thursday, May 5
12:00pm: George Bishop: Letter to my Daughter
1:00pm: Earl Higgins: Metairie, Ames High & Joy of Y'at Catholicism
2:00pm: Cornell Landry: One Dat, Two Dat, Are You A Who Dat!, Happy Jazz Fest & Goodnight NOLA
3:00pm: Bud Faust: Great Moments in New Orleans – Volumes 1 & 2
4:00pm: Sean Yseult: I'm in the Band

Friday, May 6
12:00pm: Tom Jacobsen: Traditional New Orleans Jazz : Conversations With the Men Who Make the Music
2:00pm: Tristan Thomas, Ann Gileson, Catherine Burke: How to Rebuild A City
3:00pm: Denise McConduit: DJ and the Debutante Ball
4:00pm: Troy Gilbert: Cafe Degas & Dinner With Tennessee

Saturday, May 7
12:00pm: John Swensen: New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For the Survival of New Orleans
1:00pm: Dan Baum: Nine Lives
2:00pm: Stephanie Bruno: New Orleans Streets
3:00pm: Jessica Harris: High on the Hog
4:00pm: Ian McNulty: Louisiana Rambles
5:00pm: Richard Campanella: Lincoln In New Orleans

Sunday, May 8
1:00pm: Irvin Mayfield: Love Letter To New Orleans
2:00pm: Johnette Downing: The Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed Some Bugs
3:00pm: Eve Abrams: Preservation Hall
4:00pm: Jay Mazza and Reggie Scanlan: I’ve Got the Fish in the Head

Pictured above: Boukman Eksperyans.

Louisiana Man Pleads Guilty to Federal Charges Related to Hate Crime

From a US Department of Justice Press Release:
The Justice Department announced yesterday that Johnny Mathis, 47, of Lecompte, La., pleaded guilty to two federal crimes for shooting at the home of three Hispanic men living across the street from him because of the victims’ race and national origin.

Mathis pleaded guilty to criminal interference with the right to fair housing and using a firearm during a crime of violence. Mathis admitted that, on June 15, 2008, he shot at the victims’ home because the victims were Mexican. When the defendant began shooting at their home, the victims fled into the woods behind their residence. Mathis then entered the home with his firearm. All three victims survived the shooting unharmed.

“The defendant targeted his neighbors with violence because of their race and national origin,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Acts of violence like this one have no place in our country, and the department will vigorously prosecute those who engage in such conduct.”

“Everyone, regardless of race, national origin or religion, etc., has the right to feel secure in their homes and free from violence,” said U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana Stephanie A. Finley. “That’s pretty basic. Our office will protect that right for all people residing in this district and will continue to prosecute these types of crimes.”

Sentencing is scheduled for July 28, 2011. Mathis faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both, on the fair housing charge. He also faces a mandatory minimum term of 10 years in prison for the firearm charge, which must run consecutively to any term imposed on the fair housing charge.

The case was investigated by the FBI. It is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Mudrick of the Western District of Louisiana and by Nicole Lee Ndumele, a Trial Attorney in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fishers gather to Commemorate Anniversary

On the Anniversary of the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon that marked the beginning of the BP Drilling Disaster, fishers and advocates gathered in Plaquemines Parish to send the message that recovery for them and their communities is still a long way away.

Among those at the gathering were Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association; May Nguyen, Oil Spill Social Justice Strategist with the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation; George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association, and Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gulf Coast Activists And Yes Men Impersonate BP Executive and Government Official

From our friends at Louisiana Bucket Brigade:
Attendees of the “ Gulf Coast Leadership Summit” received a pleasant surprise this morning upon hearing a representative from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announce a ban on toxic dispersants -- as well as a free health care plan for spill and cleanup victims. Even more surprising: a BP co-presenter expressed regret for his company’s past actions, and said the oil giant would foot the bill for the new health care plan.

But the news was too good to be true. Surprise turned to confusion when an intensely irate BP representative barged into the room and interrupted the press conference. Comedy ensued as the two reps pointed fingers at each other, each claiming to be the real BP employee. Members of the press, confused, attempted to discover who was real and who wasn’t.

The answer was: except for the audience, everyone was a fake. The impostors Dr. Dean Winkeldom and Steve Wistwil, both Gulf Coast residents, collaborated with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an organization whose goal is to create sustainable communities free from industrial pollution. The organization decided to create a hoax to publicize what should be happening in response to the emerging health crisis.

“The process isn’t working. One year after the spill and there has still been no action on health care,” said Anne Rolfes, Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “BP is the culprit, but the state and federal government are not fulfilling their obligation to stand up for us and make BP do the right thing. This action was all about highlighting the fact that people are truly sick and the government and BP are just standing by.”

The phony “Action Plan for Gulf Coast Toxic Exposure” presented at today’s conference claimed to establish a $525-million network of 35 health clinics along the Gulf Coast -- all to be paid for by British Petroleum. Residents say health clinics are needed not only to treat for oil exposure and accidents, but also for their exposure to the toxic chemicals that were used to hide the oil slick. In the most graphic part of the announcement, the “BP representative” explained how dispersants are working in the environment:

“The oil has vanished from sight, but something else is becoming visible: respiratory infections, kidney damage, liver psoriasis, neurological damage, chemical pneumonitis, and defatting of the skin. Those effects are all due to the dispersant we used, Corexit, and are part of the reason Corexit is banned in the United Kingdom. Here in the U.S., it’s legal, and so we used it.... Am I proud of that? Of course not.”

This unlikely show of remorse by the “BP representative” was of course fake, but what he said about the health effects of dispersants is, sadly, true. Despite the gruesome litany of known and unknown health impacts and environmental effects, these toxic chemicals are still legal to use in the U.S. Investigations by a number of major news organizations have discovered a range of mysterious illnesses afflicting clean-up crew and fishermen in the Gulf. Oil industry accidents are frequent. In 2009 there were 2,500 accidents in the Gulf, and hundreds more onshore at refineries.

“Those responsible want to pretend this disaster is over so they can get back to business as usual,” said Rolfes. “But for these sick people, the world is falling down around them. This fake announcement was just an expression of what HHS and BP should be doing. Now it’s up the government and BP to make these sensible proposals a reality.”

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade action was supported by the Yes Lab, a project of The Yes Men that helps activist groups carry out media-getting creative actions on their own. Four years ago in New Orleans, The Yes Men impersonated an official from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to announce, among other things, that HUD would re-open public housing and make oil companies pay up for wetlands destruction.

“Four years on, we still need a government that actually serves the needs of the people instead of the corporate interests,” said Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men. “That’s what this action was all about.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

LJI Director Tracie Washington Among Stars of Film Premiering Tonight at PATOIS Film Festival

The eighth annual PATOIS Film Festival opens tonight with a short film made by the Al Jazeera international television news network that profiles the response of a number of New Orleans and Gulf Coast activists, organizers, and community leaders to the BP Drilling Disaster. The film, called In Deep Water: A Way of Life In Peril, also features Aaron Viles of Gulf Restoration Network, Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, Byron Encalade of the Louisiana Oystermen Association, Debra Ramirez of the Mossville Environmental Action Network, and many others. The film is showing with the Sundance hit Hot Coffee, a film about the legendary "McDonald's coffee case" and the ways in which propaganda about the case has been used to protect corporate interests.

The festival runs for five days and features 22 New Orleans premieres, plus live music, food, art, Q&A's with filmmakers from around the world, and discussions with special guests. Among other highlights are: Land of the Free, about the former New Orleans Black Panthers who became known as the Angola Three; Better This World, about the actions of Common Ground co-founder and FBI informant Brandon Darby; 40, a fiction film starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, who is best known to local audiences as the sous chef character on the tv show Treme; Egypt: Seeds of Change, about the behind the scenes planning that created the Egyptian revolution, and Black August, a film that blends stunning concert footage of some of our era's best conscious hip-hop artists with exclusive interviews with legendary activists like former Black Panthers Assata Shakur and Kathleen Cleaver. More information can be found at

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Louisiana Health Department Told Mother No Birth Certificate For Newborn Unless She Divulged Private Medical Information

From our friends at the ACLU of Louisiana:
ACLU Asks Louisiana To Clarify That New Mothers Do Not Need To Sacrifice Privacy To Obtain Birth Certificates

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana called on the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) today to clarify that new mothers do not have to disclose private medical information before birth certificates are issued for their newborns. Earlier this year, a Shreveport mother was told she would not be given a birth certificate for her newborn after she refused to answer intrusive questions about her private medical history, including alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, whether she had ever had an abortion and other medical information.

“Every single child born in this state is entitled to a birth certificate,” said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The state cannot leverage the child’s birth certificate to extract information from a mother. That kind of coercive conduct by health officials has no place in a free society.”

The mother – Laird Sapir – was told by DHH and staff of the Willis-Knighton Health System in Shreveport that her child would be denied a birth certificate unless she disclosed private information on a hospital form called “Birth Certificate Worksheet.” The worksheet, whose contents are dictated by DHH, is issued by the hospital to all expectant mothers. The hospital transmits mothers’ answers directly to state authorities.

“I was shocked when I saw those questions,” said Sapir. “They felt like an invasion of privacy. I couldn’t believe the state was threatening to deny my baby a birth certificate unless I gave up my privacy rights.”

Despite the threats by state and hospital authorities, Sapir printed “I refuse to answer” next to the intrusive questions. The ACLU launched an investigation and demanded that Sapir’s baby receive a birth certificate. The certificate was issued in March, six weeks after Sapir’s baby was born.

Birth certificates are basic vital documents necessary to prove a person’s United States citizenship, and they are the key to obtaining other important documents such as a passport, driver’s license and marriage certificate. Birth certificates can also be essential for school enrollment and the addition of a child to his or her parents’ health insurance plan.

In Louisiana and other states, authorities conduct statistical research through the birth registration process, but do not distinguish between data actually necessary for birth registration – such as the parents’ names and addresses – and the additional statistical information used for research. Often, both types of questions are included in the same form, and parents are erroneously told that they must answer all of the questions on the form.

“A lot of mothers just don’t know that they have the right to refuse to answer,” said Mie Lewis, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “They’re just handed a form by hospital staff and told to fill it out. State officials have no right to withhold a child’s birth certificate in order to extract private medical information from the child’s mother. The state should make it clear what information is required and what isn’t, and shouldn’t exploit new mothers to gain personal information.”

“The ACLU will continue to monitor the situation,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Legal Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The decision to become a mother should not require a woman to abandon her privacy and dignity. It is unacceptable for the state and hospitals to coerce mothers into divulging private medical information by threatening to withhold babies’ birth certificates.”

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Louisiana Road Home Program Continues

From our friends at the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center:
Joint Statement from Plaintiffs and Counsel on Recent Decision in Road Home Case:

Today a federal court of appeals issued a ruling explaining its decision to set aside preliminary injunctions previously granted against the State of Louisiana regarding its administration of the Road Home program. The preliminary injunctions were granted at the request of two fair housing groups and African American homeowners in New Orleans who filed suit on behalf of families displaced in the wake of hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

The plaintiffs have argued that the formula used to award grants under the Road Home program - under which African-Americans were more likely than whites to receive grants based on pre-storm home values rather than the cost of repair - was discriminatory. Therefore, we requested and received temporary relief from the court to prevent the discriminatory effects of the formula from harming more families. Today's decision states that we have not yet provided enough evidence to convince this court that we would ultimately prevail. However, the decision sends the case back to the lower court and gives plaintiffs the opportunity to seek additional evidence to prove their case. Thus, the case is not over and we will continue to pursue relief for the thousands of families affected. We are pleased to hear that state officials share our commitment to reaching a resolution that benefits families without the need for further litigation. And we pledge to continue working with state and federal officials toward that end.

The Road Home case, styled as Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center v. HUD, alleges that the formula used to allocate grants to homeowners has a discriminatory impact on African-American homeowners. Program data show that African-Americans are more likely than whites to have their Road Home grants based upon the pre-storm market value of their homes, rather than the estimated cost to repair damage.

The Plaintiffs in this case are five African-American homeowners in New Orleans representing a potential class of thousands of African-American homeowners and two fair housing organizations, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and the National Fair Housing Alliance. Plaintiffs are represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, the National Fair Housing Alliance and Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Defense Rests in Trial of Police Accused of Killing of Raymond Robair

Lawyers for the two officers accused in the beating death of Raymond Robair, a 48-year-old handyman from the Treme neighborhood, rested their case today. It's expected that on Monday jurors will hear two rebuttal witnesses called by prosecution, as well as closing arguments.

Although Robair's death happened a few months before Hurricane Katrina, the case is often discussed in the context of the post-Katrina killings of Henry Glover, Danny Brumfield, Sr, and the civilians shot on Danziger Bridge. It's likely that if the police violence that occurred in the aftermath of the hurricane had not attracted federal attention, federal investigators would not have re-opened the Robair case.

However, observers speculate that prosecutors may have a harder time with the Robair case than with the Glover or Danziger prosecutions. One major advantage for prosecutors in the other cases is the testimony of officers who have agreed to speak out in exchange for lesser charges. In the Robair case, it is the testimony of officer against civilian (including health care workers from Charity Hospital), and two pathologists working for the defense against one pathologist testifying for the state. In general, jurors are known to take the word of officers as more trustworthy than civilian eyewitnesses. While jurors in Orleans Parish have shown more skepticism towards police testimony, this is a federal case, meaning the jury is drawn largely from the surrounding Parishes, making it both whiter and likely more conservative.

In the courtroom, family members of Raymond Robair have sat in the front row, quietly absorbing the trial. They have been joined by activists from Safe Streets Strong Communities and other observers. Several community members in the courtroom have voiced complaints over the behavior of one of the officers, Melvin Williams, an 18-year veteran of the force who is known on the street as "Flat-Top." His longtime partner, who is known among neighborhood residents "ponytail," also gave a brief testimony at the trial. However, during the death of Robair, ponytail was on vacation, and Williams was paired with Dean Moore, a new officer.

Witnesses say Williams was one who beat Robair to death, while Moore, a former semi-professional hockey player from Canada, is accused of helping in the cover-up.

Jena, LA, Correction Officer Pleads Guilty to Criminal Sexual Activity

From a US Department of Justice Press Release:
The Justice Department announced today that Joseph Taunton, 31, from Jonesville, La., a former corrections officer at the LaSalle Parish Detention Center in Jena, La., pleaded guilty in federal court for engaging in a sexual act with a federal detainee.

During his guilty plea, Jackson admitted that on Dec. 16, 2010, while working as an officer at the detention center, he engaged in a sexual act with a federal detainee under his supervision.

“Those who are sworn to protect our citizens will be held accountable when they violate the public trust and abuse the rights of individuals in their custody,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.

“The defendant violated his oath; he crossed the line. This kind of behavior by prison employees can not and will not be tolerated, and we will continue to prosecute these types of cases,” said Stephanie Finley, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana.

Sentencing is scheduled for July 28, 2011. Taunton faces a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both.

Today’s plea resulted from the work of the Department of Homeland Security – Office of Inspection General. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Mudrick of the Western District of Louisiana and Trial Attorney Angie Cha of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Robin Hood in Reverse in US: Seven Examples

By Bill Quigley
The rich have been getting richer and the poor and middle have been getting poorer in the US recently. Here are seven examples that show how the US is going through Robin Hood in Reverse.

Between 1948 and 1979, the richest 10 percent of families in the US claimed 33 percent of average income growth. Between 2000 and 2007, the richest 10 percent claimed a full 100 percent of average income growth in the US, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Business taxes were cut from 46 to 34 percent 25 years ago, according to Pro Publica. But today 115 of the big 500 companies listed on Standard and Poor’s Stock Index paid federal and other taxes of less than 20 percent over the last 5 years according to David Leonhardt of the New York Times.

General Electric’s tax rate for last year was 7 percent according to Pro Publica.

The top 5 percent US households claim 63 percent of the entire country’s wealth. The bottom 80 percent hold just 13% of the growth, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Last year, John Paulson, a hedge fund manager “earned” $4.9 billion, according to the New York Times. Ten years ago it took 25 such managers to collectively earn that much. Last year the top 25 hedge fund managers pocketed (a much better word) a total of $22 billion. It would take over 440,000 people each earning $50,000 a year to match that amount.

A federal development program intended to help poor communities, the New Market Tax Credit, instead funnels up to ten billion taxpayer dollars to big corporations like JPMorgan Chase & Co, Goldman Sachs and Prudential to build luxury hotels, office buildings and a car museum. Bloomberg Markets Magazine pointed to the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago which was renovated for $116 million. Prudential got $15.6 million in tax credit from the US Treasury for helping fund the project because the hotel was in a census zone that included two colleges which housed a lot of lower income students.

According to the Financial Times, there are now more people living in poverty in the US than at any time in the last 50 years. Foreclosure filings were nearly 4 million in 2010, up 23 percent since 2008 according to RealtyTrac.

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New Orleans Black Men & Boys Initiative Hosts Town Hall

From our friends at Moving Forward Gulf Coast:
Please join the NOLA Black Men & Boys Initiative, Miller McCoy Academy and Washington/Koen Media in presenting the "Beyond the Bricks" film screening and Town Hall event on April 9th @ Miller McCoy Academy from 11am-3pm. The event is free. Refreshments and lunch will be served.

Beyond the Bricks is a documentary film project and national community engagement campaign created with the goal of promoting solutions for one of America’s critical problems in education: the consistently low performance of Black males in school. The film follows African-American students Shaquiel Ingram and Erick Graham as they struggle to stay on the track in the Newark, NJ public school system. Weaved into the boys’ stories is commentary from some of the country’s foremost leaders, experts and scholars focused on Black boys and their education including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Schott Foundation President Dr. John Jackson, among others. Though the film focuses primarily on students from Newark, NJ, the issues addressed there extend to urban enclaves throughout the nation.

While our national community engagement campaign centers on young Black males, our primary objective is to reach the influential members of these boys’ communities to stimulate deeper involvement in their lives. We will bring together educators,community leaders, policymakers, parents and students to promote positive communication, and to create solution-based action around the problems Black male students are facing.