Monday, January 30, 2012

Big Freedia And The Week New Orleans Took Over The World

Last week, New Orleans rapper Big Freedia made her national television debut on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. Freedia, who has been quickly taking the nation by storm, performed two songs "Excuse," and "Na Who Mad."

Although the network appearance was Freedia's national television debut, she showed no sign of nervousness. The breathtaking performance featured all the dance moves New Orleanians have come to expect from a Bounce show, and all the energy audiences everywhere have come to expect from Freedia.

Coming in the same week that New Orleans filmmakers won the top award at Sundance Film Festival, and soon after some long-deserved recognition for Mardi Gras Indians and local organizers, we hope this represents a resurgence for New Orleans, led by our brilliant artists and community activists.

Social Justice Quiz 2012: Thirteen Questions, By Bill Quigley and Sam Schmitt

Note: See below for quiz answers.
Question One. The combined pay of the 299 highest paid CEOs in the US is enough to support how many median salary jobs?

45,000? 83,000? 102,325?

Question Two
. The median net worth of black households in the US is $2,200. What is the median net worth of white households in the US?

$4,400? $44,000? $97,000?

Question Three. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development issues a national survey every year listing fair market rents for every county in the US. HUD also suggests renters should pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. In how many of the USA’s 3068 counties can someone who works full-time and earns the federal minimum wage pay 30% of their income and find a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rental amount?

19? 368? 1974?

Question Four. How much must the typical U.S. worker earn per hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment if that worker dedicates thirty percent of his income, as HUD suggests, to rent and utilities?

$9.39? $14.63? $18.46?

Question Five. The wealthiest 1 percent of the US has a net worth which is how many times greater than the median or typical household’s net worth?

50? 150? 225?

Question Six. Which of these countries puts the highest percentage of their people in jails and prisons?

China? Iran? Iraq? Germany? Russia? USA?

Question Seven. In 2012, the US will pay out about $620 million for old age Social Security benefits to 45 million families. How much is budgeted for military spending by the US in 2012?

$310 billion? $620 billion? $836 billion?

Question Eight. The US is number one in the world in military spending. How much more does the US spend compared to the top 15 countries in the world in military spending?

More than any 2 other countries combined? More than any 5 other countries combined? More than all the rest of the 15 top military spending countries combined?

Question Nine. How many people in the world live on less than $1.25 a day?

150 million? 500 million? Over 1 billion?

Question Ten. How many people in the world live without electricity?

500 million? One billion? One and half billion?

Question Eleven. The US government donates over $30 billion a year in official development assistance (foreign aid) to poor countries. Where does that rank the US government in percentage of giving among the richest 23 countries?

First? Tenth? Nineteenth?

Question Twelve. The US government donates over $30 billion a year to poor countries. How much do US consumers spend on pets and pet supplies each year?

$10 billion? $30 billion? $67 billion?

Question Thirteen. The poverty rate among children in the US is over 20 percent. How does US compare with the rest of the 30 nations surveyed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development?

First? Tenth? Twenty-sixth?

Answers to Social Justice Quiz 2012:

One: The combined pay of the top 299 CEOs is enough to support 102,325 average jobs. Source: Executive Paywatch.

Two: The median net worth of white households in the US is $97,900. Source: Economic Policy Institute.

Three: Except for eleven counties in Illinois and another eight in Puerto Rico, there is no county in the US where a one bedroom fair market rate apartment is available to a person working full-time at the minimum wage. Source: The National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Four: The typical worker must earn $18.46 an hour to rent a two bedroom apartment. Source: National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Five: In the last numbers reported, the top 1 percent had net worth 225 times greater than the median or typical household’s net worth, the highest ever recorded. Source: Economic Policy Institute.

Six: The rate of incarceration per 100,000 people is: USA 730, Russian 534, Iran 334, China 122, Iraq 101, and Germany 86. Source: International Centre for Prison Studies, University of Essex.

Seven: $836 billion. Over $713 billion on military programs and another $123 for veterans affairs. Source: US Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2012.

Eight: The US spends $100 billion more on our military than the next highest 15 countries combined. More than China, UK, France, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, Australia, Canada and Turkey combined. Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2011 Yearbook.

Nine: 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. Source: United National Development Program, Human Development Report 2010.

Ten: One and half billion people, more than one of every five people in the world, live without electricity. Source: United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2011.

Eleven: US government ranks 19th out of 23 countries in assistance to poor nations, giving about two-tenths of one percent of US gross national income to poor countries. Source: Global Issues: Foreign Aid for Development Assistance.

Twelve: US consumers spend $67 billion each year on pets, pet products and services. Source: US Census Bureau 2012 Statistical Abstract.

Thirteen: The US poverty rate among children ranks the US 26th among 30 nations in the rate of poverty among children. Source: Poverty among children. OECD.

Bill teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and works with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Sam is a law student at University of Montana School of Law. You can reach Bill at

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Community Profile: Betty Wells Allen

From our friends at VOTE-NOLA:
Some members join VOTE out of a sense of social responsibility or a personal mission. For Betty Wells Allen it was all of these forces combined with the joy of helping ex-offenders understand how to thrive in society. “My son was convicted with a life sentence [for something] he didn’t do,” she explains. “I came to learn what I could do for my child because when you are knowledgeable about sentences and what a crime entails you can help more.”

Her personal interest in understanding her son’s conviction caused Betty to become an active member of VOTE. Grateful for the knowledge she learned in both the paralegal and street law classes, she hopes that she can use it to help unite ex-offenders in their common interests. “My goal is for the organization to be very widespread because it touches a lot of African Americans,” said Ms Allen. “But I’m not just looking for African Americans, it should be ex-offenders all together."

Betty’s central concern for ex-offenders re-entering society lies with the essentials like housing and jobs. She would like to see VOTE’s message become more widespread among people who are lacking these essentials.

Betty’s career working in the school system, both with children and parents, has illuminated the intersections between that system and the systems that VOTE seeks to change. “My work in the school system relates to the work I am doing at VOTE because they both have to do with people helping people, trying to give everyone a chance in life.”

During her time at VOTE, Betty has had many new transformative experiences, especially through the trips and gatherings that VOTE has been involved with. “[VOTE’s recent trip to] L.A. was one of the best experiences that I have ever had,” she says. “From getting a lot of information at the conferences I realized how intertwined we were with the other groups of ex-

At the end of the day, Betty’s passion for VOTE comes from being part of the organization’s community and part of the community for which VOTE advocates. “Learning how to interact with different people, it’s a joy in the midst of all this work,” explains Ms. Allen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Inside Orleans Parish Prison, By Rosana Cruz

From the Bridge the Gulf blog:
In a letter to the editors of the Times-Picayune this month, New Orleans resident Mona Castillo wrote that the key to decreasing crime is to make prison "less comfortable." She wrote, "At the present time, jails are more like hotels. Many prisoners live better there than they did on the outside."

This struck a nerve for a member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC), who has a very difference experience of the Orleans Parish Prison. In submitting that member's letter to the editors of the Times-Picayune, the OPPRC wrote:

"We are requesting an exception to the Times-Picayune policy that in order to be considered for publication, letters must be signed. The member who wrote this letter has deep and legitimate fears that if her name were included, the relative who is in prison might experience retribution from the Sheriff or other prison staff. Given the attacks on those who spoke out at recent forums regarding prison conditions, we hope you will agree that this fear is very real and legitimate and make an exception to your otherwise understandable policy. We would appreciate a response from you regarding whether you are willing to waive your policy and consider publishing this letter."

The Times-Picayune did not publish that letter, and so we are publishing it here:
As someone with a relative in Orleans Parish Prison, I challenge Mona Castillo’s opinion that jails are more like hotels, where the living is enjoyable. For the last two years I have known OPP through a pre-trial detainee’s experiences, documented by our daily telephone calls, visits, and conversations with prison staff. Orleans Parish Prison is a cesspool. There is no air-conditioning and no heat, no maintenance is done on the buildings, showers are covered in mold. The only cleaning product available is bleach, which they use to scrub the walls in an effort to keep illness at bay.

Inmates are overcrowded and have very limited access to medical care. While they are supposed to be brought outside daily, they sometimes do not go in the yard for weeks or months at a time. In OPP, there are no cell phones, connubial visits, weight rooms, or other amenities. There are TVs, but they are shared, sometimes one for 40 or 50 men. Breakfast is served at 5:30 a.m., followed by dinner at 9:30 p.m. 'White' meat is left in the open for them to eat at risk to their health during the rest of the day. Cells are carpeted with roaches and rats.

Perhaps the largest problem is the lack of safety. OPP detainees go for 5, 6, 7 hours without seeing a guard. Being packed on each other like animals, treated like animals, and left unsupervised creates violence in the prison walls.

Ms. Castillo is correct about one thing – OPP does not foster a decrease in crime. On the contrary, the OPP environment breeds more crime. These inhumane conditions lead to both an increase in crime within the prison and without – spilling the internal violence back on to the streets when detainees are released. Even more unfortunate is the fact that many of these inmates have not yet been to trial, but are simply unable to make bail. Where is the presumption of innocence?
Rosana Cruz is Associate Director of VOTE (Voice Of The Ex-offender), and a member of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. Previously Rosana worked with Safe Streets/Strong Communities and the National Immigration Law Center. Prior to joining NILC, she worked with SEIU1991 in Miami, after having been displaced from New Orleans by Katrina. Before the storm, Rosana worked for a diverse range of community organizations, including the Latin American Library, Hispanic Apostolate, the Lesbian and Gay Community Center of New Orleans, and People's Youth Freedom School. Rosana came to New Orleans through her work with the Southern Regional Office of Amnesty International in Atlanta.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Possible MLK Day Hate Crime Against Civil Rights Family in Washington Parish

Family member had been founder of Bogalusa chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice

The following article was originally published by journalist Pete Tucker at

Growing up in a civil rights family in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Chuck Hicks remembers the constant threats. “We were a marked family,” he told TheFightBack in an extended interview on the eve of the October dedication of the MLK Memorial. It turns out, Hicks’ use of the past tense may have been wishful thinking.

Around 3 a.m. on Jan. 16, Barbara Hicks Collins, Chuck’s sister, heard a loud knock. She opened the door only to find no one there and her Mercedes Benz in flames. It appears an attempt was also made to burn down the family home, where Collins and her 82-year-old mother, Valeria Hicks, live.

“It’s a suspicious fire,” State Fire Marshall Butch Browning told TheFightBack. “Hate crime is a possible motive,” he said, noting the timing of the fire which occurred on MLK Day. Browning said his office’s investigation of the incident is ongoing and is being done in coordination with the local police and FBI.

Washington Parish’s The Daily News noted that the investigation “uncover[ed] a small burned hole on the roof of the house and an apparent trail of accelerant leading from the ground below it to the car.”
After the Hicks’ home burned down in 2007 – due to an undetermined cause – the family installed fire-resistant shingles, which Collins called “a good investment.” “We are just wondering whether there’s a connection between this fire and that fire,” Collins toldTheFightBack.

In typical Hicks fashion, Valeria Hicks refused to let the incident slow her down. As investigators examined the car and house on the morning of Jan. 16, Ms. Hicks took part in an MLK parade, where she was honored, Collins said.

Ms. Hicks’ late husband, Robert Hicks, possessed a similar tenacity. He founded the Bogalusa chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group whose members carried weapons in order to fend off attacks from the Ku Klux Klan.

But “his role in the civil rights movement went beyond armed defense in a corner of the Jim Crow South,” The New York Times noted in a 2010 obituary. “He led daily protests month after month in Bogalusa – then a town of 23,000, of whom 9,000 were black – to demand rights guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Whereas the Deacons used guns to fend off would-be attackers, now the weapon of social media must be utilized, Chuck Hicks said in a video message posted on YouTube. By spreading the word far and wide “we can ensure that protection is given to my family, as well as a thorough investigation,” Hicks said.

“I’m afraid. Very afraid,” Collins said. “There’s a possibility that they could come back and try again. That’s why we’re trying to reach out.”

Photo: The Hicks family's car. Photo courtesy of The Daily News.

Monday, January 23, 2012

New Orleans Filmmakers Are Hit of Sundance With Film "Beasts Of The Southern Wild"

A new film by a collective of filmmakers based in New Orleans has emerged as one of the major success stories at this year's Sundance Film Festival with their new film that shines a light on the issues faced on Louisiana's Gulf Coast.

Variety, the insider journal of the film industry, has named director Benh Zeitlin one of ten directors to watch, while the film industry website indywire reports that film companies have started a bidding war over his new film, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, which reportedly received a standing ovation after its Sundance premiere. The Hollywood Reporter has already called it "one of the most striking films ever to debut at the Sundance Film Festival." According to Indywire:
After its immensely successful premier at the ongoing Sundance Film Festival - a debut that was met with a standing ovation and lots of applause at its end, for both the film and the director - several distribution companies have been circling the film with great interest.

It was just announced that Fox Searchlight is emerging to be the company with the most attractive proposal, whatever that is, and is in "active talks" to acquire Benh Zeitlin's feature film debut, the beautiful, whimsical and tragic Beasts of the Southern Wild. Variety reports that no deal is yet in place, but multiple sources privy to the negotiations say that Fox Searchlight is fully committed to "bagging" the film by any means necessary, and will close on a deal soon.

Other companies that were in the mix include Sony Pictures Classics, Focus Features, and The Weinstein Company. So let's see how this all shakes out; I suppose an announcement will come sooner than later; unless talks with Fox Searchlight fall apart for whatever reason.
Zeitlin's previous work includes the film Glory At Sea, which received the best short film award at the 2008 PATOIS Film Festival and the New Orleans Film Festival.While Glory At Sea movingly - and elliptically - dealt with post-Katrina themes, Zeitlin's new film was shot on Louisiana's southern coast in the aftermath of the BP Drilling Disaster and reportedly explores life in the coastal communities, where the land is disappearing out from under their feet.

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy, one of the most influential film critics in the US, calls the film "Everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is." Below are more excerpts from the review:
One of the most striking films ever to debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a poetic evocation of an endangered way of life and a surging paean to human resilience and self-reliance. Shot along the southernmost fringes of Louisiana, cast with nonactors and absolutely teeming with creativity in every aspect of its being, Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut could serve as a poster child for everything American independent cinema aspires to be but so seldom is. A handcrafted look at the struggles of some of the poorest people in the United States is no prescription for commercial success, but the presence of a dynamite little girl at the center of things could, along with critical praise and enlightened handling, push this most unlikely but entirely elating drama into a successful specialized theatrical release.

The first few minutes alone establish Zeitlin as some kind of heir to Terrence Malick in the way he makes nature register onscreen. The images of thick green flora and fauna, the wetness, the wildlife that is always “feedin’ and squirtin,’ ” in the words of young heroine, the proximity of water and land and sense of the area’s precariousness, stuck out on its own away from the mainland but within sight of a hulking industrial area, all back up 6-year-old Hushpuppy’s contention that she and her dad live in “the prettiest place on Earth.”...

Undetectably based on a play, by co-scenarist Lucy Alibar, Beasts unequivocally casts a spell, one that emanates from the strange world it inhabits and evokes, as well as from the extraordinarily sensitive and expressive way Zeitlin and his colleagues have rendered it. The director, who made a short film called Glory at Sea in 2006, assembled a sort of collective of artisans to collaborate on this feature, and what has come of it, in the way the exquisite images, fleet cutting, exotic music, vivid naturescapes, native people and local language merge so seamlessly, is a movie that pulsates with the stuff of life. It’s very much an art piece, to be sure, but it feels like a genuine one that, while meditated, speaks fluently and truly for the place, people and culture it so indelibly depicts.

Ten Steps for Radical Revolution in USA, By Bill Quigley

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967

One. Human rights must be taken absolutely seriously. Every single person is entitled to dignity and human rights. No application needed. No exclusions at all. This is our highest priority.

Two. We must radically reinvent contemporary democracy. Current systems are deeply corrupt and not responsive to the needs of people. Representatives chosen by money and influence govern by money and influence. This is unacceptable. Direct democracy by the people is now technologically possible and should be the rule. Communities must be protected whenever they advocate for self-determination, self-development and human rights. Dissent is essential to democracy; we pledge to help it flourish.

Three. Corporations are not people and are not entitled to human rights. Amend the US Constitution so it is clear corporations do not have constitutional or human rights. We the people must cut them down to size and so democracy can regulate their size, scope and actions.

Four. Leave the rest of the world alone. Cut US military spending by 75 percent and bring all troops outside the US home now. Defense of the US is a human right. Global offense and global police force by US military are not. Eliminate all nuclear and chemical and biological weapons. Stop allowing scare tactics to build up the national security forces at home. Stop the myth that the US is somehow special or exceptional and is entitled to act differently than all other nations. The US must re-join the global family of nations as a respectful partner. USA is one of many nations in the world. We must start acting like it.

Five. Property rights, privilege, and money-making are not as important as human rights. When current property and privilege arrangements are not just they must yield to the demands of human rights. Money-making can only be allowed when human rights are respected. Exploitation is unacceptable. There are national and global poverty lines. We must establish national and global excess lines so that people and businesses with extra houses, cars, luxuries, and incomes share much more to help everyone else be able to exercise their basic human rights to shelter, food, education and healthcare. If that disrupts current property, privilege and money-making, so be it.

Six. Defend our earth. Stop pollution, stop pipelines, stop new interstates, and stop destroying the land, sea, and air by extracting resources from them. Rebuild what we have destroyed. If corporations will not stop voluntarily, people must stop them. The very existence of life is at stake.

Seven. Dramatically expand public spaces and reverse the privatization of public services. Quality public education, health and safety for all must be provided by transparent accountable public systems. Starving the state is a recipe for destroying social and economic human rights for everyone but the rich.

Eight. Pull the criminal legal prison system up and out by its roots and start over. Cease the criminalization of drugs, immigrants, poor people and people of color. We are all entitled to be safe but the current system makes us less so and ruins millions of lives. Start over.

Nine. The US was created based on two original crimes that must be confessed and made right. Reparations are owed to Native Americans because their land was stolen and they were uprooted and slaughtered. Reparations are owed to African Americans because they were kidnapped, enslaved and abused. The US has profited widely from these injustices and must make amends.

Ten. Everyone who wants to work should have the right to work and earn a living wage. Any workers who want to organize and advocate for change in solidarity with others must be absolutely protected from recriminations from their employer and from their government.

Finally, if those in government and those in power do not help the people do what is right, people seeking change must together exercise our human rights and bring about these changes directly. Dr. King and millions of others lived and worked for a radical revolution of values. We will as well. We respect the human rights and human dignity of others and work for a world where love and wisdom and solidarity and respect prevail. We expect those for whom the current unjust system works just fine will object and oppose and accuse people seeking dramatic change of being divisive and worse. That is to be expected because that is what happens to all groups which work for serious social change. Despite that, people will continue to go forward with determination and purpose to bring about a radical revolution of values in the USA.

Bill is a human rights lawyer who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and works with the Center for Constitutional Rights. You can reach him at

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dick Gregory vs. BP

Journalist Pete Tucker, blogging at TheFightBack, reports that Gulf Coast residents have a new ally in the struggle for justice after the BP Drilling Disaster: Legendary comedian and activist Dick Gregory. The original report is posted below.
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory wasn’t thrown behind bars this week, but he may be soon, possibly at the Olympics.

The longtime civil and human rights leader is fighting for compensation for victims of the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill. It’s this effort that led to Gregory’s September arrest one block away from the White House in the office of Kenneth Feinberg, who’s in charge of dispensing (or not) BP’s $20 billion compensation fund.

After top BP executives met with the White House, President Obama announced the creation of the fund in June 2010. “This $20 billion will provide substantial assurance that the claims people and businesses have will be honored,” Obama said.

“All the casinos have been paid. All your multimillion dollar companies have been paid,” Gregory said Tuesday outside D.C. Superior Court after the trespassing charges against him were dropped. But while the rich have been paid, others haven’t, said Gregory. “It just looks like it’s a poor people thing. It’s a minority thing. It’s a women thing.”

“BP is spending millions of dollars on public relations trying to state that they have cleaned [up the Gulf Coast],” said E. Faye Williams, attorney for Gregory, and national chair of the National Congress of Black Women. “[But] we don’t see all of this cleanup that they’re talking about.”

“We’re aware of people who’ve become very ill, who’ve actually died as a result of what has happened in the Gulf,” said Williams, who’s originally from Louisiana. “Little towns are suffering… All of these places that have no cash industry… depended upon those little fish sandwiches they sold, or people pass[ing] through the town, going down to the Gulf.”

Art Rocker, chairman of Operation People for Peace, is working with impacted families along the Gulf Coast. “There are really two presidents involved,” Rocker said, standing beside Gregory and Williams. “One is named Bob Dudley, [who's] with BP. And the other one is named President Barack Obama, who recommended Ken Feinberg.”

A great deal of power has consolidated in the hands of Feinberg, whose firm is paid by BP. While the Wall Street Journal called him “Mr. Fairness,” BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast calls him other things. “When the Energy-Finance Combine needs to screw the public, they hire a screwdriver. And they call him Mr. Fairness,” Palast writes in his new book, Vultures’ Picnic.

“Feinberg immediately did something quite odd,” notes Palast. “He required all the victims in his trust, if they took payment, to sign away their right to sue other wrongdoers at fault in the Deepwater Horizon explosion. There’s Haliburton, the company that pumped in that dodgy nitrogen cement, and Transocean, the Swiss rig owner of the Deepwater Horizon that fled from responsibility. Should they make a contribution? A trustee usually tries to ‘increase the estate,’ a fancy term for getting more money for the beneficiaries. Not Mr. Fairness.”

“I don’t think there’s any [issue] that’s as important right now,” said Gregory. His commitment to the cause landed him in London recently, where he attempted to meet with BP (British Petroleum) executives, but they sent him back to see Feinberg in DC.

Feinberg’s (in)actions, however, may send Gregory back across the Atlantic yet again, just in time for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. “BP is right in the middle of the Olympics,” said Gregory. As the eyes of the world turn to England, if need be, said Gregory, “we’ll go there and demonstrate and go to jail.”

Photo above by Art Rocker.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Working and Poor in the USA, By Bill Quigley

“Our nation, so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population, should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied men and women, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” - Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1937
Millions of people in the US work and are still poor. Here are eight points that show why the US needs to dedicate itself to making work pay.

One. How many people work and are still poor?

In 2011, the US Department of Labor reported at least 10 million people worked and were still below the unrealistic official US poverty line, an increase of 1.5 million more than the last time they checked. The US poverty line is $18,530 for a mom and two kids. Since 2007 the numbers of working poor have been increasing. About 7 percent of all workers and 4 percent of all full-time workers earn wages that leave them below the poverty line.

Two. What kinds of jobs do the working poor have?

One third of the working poor, over 3 million people, work in the service industry. Workers in other occupations are also poor: 16 percent of those in farming; 11 percent in construction; and 11 percent in sales.

Three. Which workers are most likely to be working and still poor?

Women workers are more likely to be poor than men. African American and Hispanic workers are about twice as likely to be poor as whites. College graduates have a 2 percent poverty rate while workers without a high school diploma have a poverty rate 10 times higher at 20 percent.

Four. What about benefits for low wage workers?

Ten percent of US workers earn $8.50 an hour or less according to the US Department of Labor. About 12 percent have health care and about 12 percent have retirement benefits. Nearly one in four get paid sick leave and less than half get paid vacation leave.

Five. What rights do the working poor have?

Most workers have a right to earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. Tipped employees are supposed to get at least $2.13 each hour from their employer and if the worker does not earn enough in tips to make the $7.50 minimum wage, the employer must make up the difference. People who work more than 40 hours in a workweek are entitled to one and one-half of their regular pay for each hour of overtime.

Six. What about wage theft from the working poor?

Many low wage workers have part of their earnings stolen by their employers. Examples include not paying people the full minimum wage, not paying required overtime, stealing from tipped employees, or fraudulently classifying workers as independent contractors. A survey of over 4000 low wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York conducted by university and non-profit researchers found: 26 percent of the workers were paid less than the minimum wage in the previous week, a majority were underpaid by more than $1 an hour; a significant number worked overtime the previous week and were not paid the legally required overtime; many were required to come early or stay late and work “off the clock” and were not paid for it; almost a third of the tipped workers were not paid the minimum wage and more than 1 in 10 tipped workers had some of their money stolen by their employer or supervisor.

Seven. What is a living wage in the US?

Dr. Amy Glasmeier of Penn State University has created a Living Wage Calculator that estimates the hourly wage needed to pay the cost of living for low wage families in the US. It breaks down the cost of living by state and locality across the nation. In New Orleans, a mom with one child needs to earn $17.52 to make ends meet. In New York, the mom with one child should earn $19.66 to make it. If we now realistically calculate the number of people who work and do not earn a living wage, the numbers of working poor in the US skyrocket to several tens of millions.

Eight. What about jobs for the unemployed and underemployed?

The US Labor Department estimated recently that 13 million people were unemployed. Another 8 million people were working part-time but wanted full-time work. Even more millions who are not working are not counted in those numbers because they have been unemployed so long.
A study by Northeastern University found that in the poorest families, unemployment is nearly 31 percent. Underemployment is also much more of a problem in poor homes, with over 20 percent of those workers reporting they are working part-time but seeking full-time work.

Our nation can do so much more. We say our country values work. It is time to do something about it.

If the US truly values work, we need to support the millions of our sisters and brothers who are low wage workers. Steps needed include: raising the minimum wage to a living wage; protecting workers from getting ripped off; making it easier for workers to organize together if they choose to; and creating jobs, public jobs if necessary, so that everyone who wants to work can do so. Many are already working on these justice issues.

For those interested in learning more about this, see the websites of Interfaith Worker Justice, the National Employment Law Project, and the National Jobs for All Coalition.

Bill teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and is Associate Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Thanks to Rob Dordan and Kim Bobo for help with this. A version with sources is available. You can reach Bill at

Friday, January 13, 2012

Deon Haywood, Leader in Struggle Against Louisiana's Crime Against Nature Statute, Named Queen of Krewe du Vieux

Deon Haywood, who has tirelessly led the successful struggle against Louisiana's so-called Crime Against Nature statute, has been named Queen of Krewe du Vieux, the raucous parade that signals the start of Mardi Gras parade season.

Haywood, who was also just named as one of the People Who Made a Difference in 2011 in the struggle against HIV and AIDS, is executive director of the organization Women With A Vision (WWAV). WWAV was cofounded by Haywood's mother and several other black women in 1991 as a response to the non-existence of HIV prevention resources for those women who were the most at risk: poor women, sex workers, women with substance abuse issues, and transgender women.

According to the official announcement from Krewe du Vieux and WWAV:
Wearing a V for Victory and an A for the Apocalypse in carnival colors the 2012 Parade this year is on Saturday, February 4, 2012 and the Krewe will be rolling and stumbling through the Marigny Triangle and the Lower French Quarter. This year’s theme is Crimes Against Nature, a tribute to WWAV’s internationally renowned work through our NO Justice project, and the 2012 Krewe du Vieux Queen is our very own Deon Haywood.

What is Krewe du Vieux? The Krewe du Vieux is a New Orleans Mardi Gras or Carnival krewe, originally and more fully known as the Krewe du Vieux Carre (“Vieux Carre” being another term for the city’s French Quarter). It is one of the earliest parades of the New Orleans Carnival calendar, and is noted for wild satirical and adult themes, as well as for showcasing some of the best Brass and Jazz Bands in New Orleans.
The Krewe will walk through the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny on Saturday, February 4 at 6:30pm. The Krewe du Vieux’s seventeen subkrewes will each present their own interpretations of the theme.

A portion of the proceeds from the parade's official afterparty, the Krewe du Vieux Doo, will donated to WWAV.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Louisiana Justice Institute Joins Challenges to Racist French Quarter Curfew

The New Orleans City Council Decision to impose a curfew on minors in the French Quarter has been called a racist policy by critics, who have called it "the equivalent of a Black code." Louisiana Justice Institute joins those who have condemned the law, and is taking action. As local station WWNO has reported:
The Louisiana Justice Institute is sending what attorney Tracie Washington says are testers of the 8pm curfew. The New Orleans City Council approved an ordinance that took effect Monday banning unaccompanied minors from gathering in the French Quarter and parts of nearby Frenchmen Street. Supporters say it's aimed at protecting children from violent crime. Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed the ordinance, and backs another pending change that will make the 8pm curfew effective citywide.

Washington says "testers" are African-American males 17 years old or more who, she says, have a constitutional right to assemble in the area - even without identification. Neither Landrieu nor Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas could be reached for comment. Washington says
a boycott she announced last week for the French Quarter to begin on Martin Luther King Day is now being reviewed.
The new law comes in the context of a long history of racial discrimination in the French Quarter. On New Year’s Eve in 2004, nine months before Hurricane Katrina hit, bouncers in the Bourbon Street club Razzoo’s killed a Black college student named Levon Jones. The outrage led to near-daily protests outside the club, threats of a Black tourist boycott of the city and a mayor’s commission to explore the issue of racism in the French Quarter. Despite widely publicized advance warning, a “secret shopper” audit of the Quarter, conducted by Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, found rampant discrimination in local businesses. Bars had different dress codes, admission charges and drink prices—all based on whether the patron was Black or white.

Many in New Orleans are still upset that City Council President Jackie Clarkson recently spoke fondly of the New Orleans of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and expressed her hope that the city was returning to the "glory" of that era. When Black residents of New Orleans East complained, she refused to apologise, and simply added that one of her father's "best friends" was Black, adding, "My father never built a white playground without building a black playground."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Angola Warden Burl Cain on "Black Pantherism"

Last week, the newsletter of the International Coalition to Free the Angola Three published recently transcribed testimony of the October 2008 deposition of Burl Cain, Warden of Angola Prison, questioned by Nick Trenticosta, an attorney representing former Black Panther and Angola Three member Albert Woodfox. The testimony, quoted below, reveals a lot about Cain's view of Black Panthers and others who have engaged in prison organizing.
NICK TRENTICOSTA: I would like to show you State's Exhibit 30. Are you familiar with this document? It purports to be a letter, and who is it from?

BURL CAIN: Albert Woodfox.

NICK TRENTICOSTA: Is this letter significant to you?

Yes, it is. You can read here, "I view amerikkka" - and he spelled it real crazy, more like the Black Panther would, I suppose - "and her lies, capitalism, imperialism, racism, exploitation, oppression, and murder of the poor and oppressed people as being highly extreme. It is my opinion that anyone who views these situations as anything other than extreme is petty bourgeois or a capitalist fool!!! History has taught us that revolution is a violent thing but a highly necessary occurrence in life. Revolution is bloodshed, deaths, sacrifices, hardships. It is the job of the revolutionary forces in this country to manufacture revolution instead of trying to avoid it. To do otherwise is the act of an opportunist." This is very scary because it means that it needs revolution. Violent revolution is scary for America, for us.

NICK TRENTICOSTA: What is the date of that letter?

CAIN: September 9, 1973.

NICK TRENTICOSTA: And do you know whether his political views have changed since that time?

That is what is scary to me. I think not because even in 1997 we had the protest in front where - "Release the Panther" and "Angola is a shame, Burl Cain to blame" - there was a Black Panther demonstration there. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace is locked in time with that Black Panther revolutionary actions. Even when Robert King Wilkerson came with Congressman Conyers to Angola, they gave me a little pack of pralines, Congressman Conyers did, and on that pack of pralines was a Black Panther.

Let's look at State's Exhibit 3. You stated, if I can paraphrase, Woodfox was throwing human waste?

Apparently they were throwing human waste at each other. It's on their cell bars, both of them. So either he was throwing it out or throwing it in.

Could it possibly be someone throwing human waste at Mr. Woodfox?

It could be, and I would ask why. How did Mr. Woodfox provoke him to throw human waste at him?

You have some mentally ill people that live on CCR, don't you?

I have 1,900 inmates taking psychotropic medicines. I don't know where they live, but I would hope the medicine would tame them down.

An inmate only gets human waste thrown on them when they provoke it to happen? Is that your testimony?

Not only, but if you're throwing human feces at somebody, you have to have normally a reason. You just wouldn't throw it at the wall.

Are you aware that a federal judge has ruled that Mr. Woodfox's conviction is now reversed?

Until we get release papers, he's in our prison guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.

So it's your understanding everybody in jail is guilty? Come on.

In Angola. Because he's in Angola.

In the last five years he has done pretty good, hasn't he?

He's like a man on death row could do good, but he is still on death row. He's just good because he is locked in CCR, not because he's good at heart.

He didn't cause very much trouble, correct?

Because the lion in a cage can't cause much trouble, you see.

Let's just assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.

I would still keep him in CCR. I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison, because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kinds of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the whites chasing after them. I would have chaos and conflict.

Warden Cain, what is Black Pantherism?

I have no idea. I know they hold their fists up. I know that they advocated for violence.

Assume that he did not kill Brent Miller and he is not a member of the Black Panther party, because you don't know what the Black Panther party is, then why are you considering him so dangerous?

You would like me to say yes to everything you say so you can go say I did, but you can't go there, and you're trying everything in the world to get me there. I'm happy. I'm laughing at you. I'm not mad. You just ain't going to get me there. That's just Angola. What can I say? He's bad. He's dangerous. I believe it. He will hurt you. They better not let him out of prison.

Of Traitors and Fools: Robert King Comments on Brandon Darby

In a recent newsletter published by the International Coalition to Free the Angola Three, former New Orleans Black Panther Robert King has written his first comments on notorious FBI informant Brandon Darby. His comments are quoted here:
Unfortunately this year has seen the rise of the far right and it saddens me that people have the propensity to be gullible, tricked and trapped by the lies spun by the likes of Brandon Darby who by his own actions has undermined his credibility.

In a recent presentation to a far right group, Darby recalls his endeavors within the progressive movement and his abrupt epiphany which led him to become an informant. However he fails while telling his tales to disclose he only had a short life as a credible informant. He now continues to spin his lies to far right groups who have no regard for the truth.

One word describes Darby: deranged. He continues to mislead people and he continues to attempt to rewrite the truth. In the final analysis, he goes the way of the fool, he impales himself on his own sword.

Robert H. King, a.k.a. Robert King Wilkerson, is the only freed member of the Angola 3. Along with his comrades Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, he was targeted for his activism as a member of the Black Panther party. After 31 years in Angola prison in Louisiana, 29 spent years in solitary confinement, King was released in February 2001. Since that time he has been described as an author, a candy maker, a former political prisoner and an activist. His life’s focus is to campaign against abuses in the criminal justice system and for the freedom of Herman and Albert, who are now serving their 40th year in solitary confinement.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

City Council to Establish Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana Day

From a press release from Faces of Culture/Allison Montana Institute of Art, Culture, and Tradition Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe:
New Orleans City Council Pays Tribute to the Legacy Of Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana by Acknowledging and Establishing the first day Carnival /Mardi Gras as the Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana Day in the City of New Orleans

Today at 10am, members of the New Orleans City Council and Mardi Gras Indian tribes, community members, supporters, friends, and family gather in City Council chambers to pay tribute to the legacy of Allison Marcel Montana, “Big Chief Tootie” “Chief of Chiefs, and Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe. Allison Montana, a master artisan, dedicated more than 53 years to the indigenous cultural tradition of “Masking Indian.”

June 27, 2005, Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana, a cultural warrior and leader, tragically passed away while he was addressing the Council on the unwarranted, violent, and illegal assault on Mardi Gras Indians, neighborhood residents, senior citizens, and children. Big Chief Tootie was in the middle of recounting half of a century of history of police harassment and abuse when stricken. His last words were “I want this to stop.”

Television news cameras captured his fall as the chiefs and others who loved and respected him took up the hymn “Indian Red.”

After his passing, the public hearing was originally scheduled to reconvene in September of 2005 but, because of Hurricane Katrina, the levee breach, and the aftermath, a hearing was never rescheduled. Today, establishing the first day of Carnival/Mardi Gras as the Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana Day will serve as impetus for conversations among members of the New Orleans City Council, City Administration, the New Orleans Police Department, and all Cultural Bearers, namely, the Mardi Gras Indians, to address the lack of understanding and appreciation for indigenous traditions unique to our city. Most importantly, these conversations, along with policies and procedures regarding culture and traditional practices will end the harassment, disrespect, and cruelty exhibited by some police officers.

Seven years after his passing, those same cruelties Big Chief Tootie spoke of continue today. It must stop!

Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana died a warrior’s death in council chambers fighting for the respect of a cultural tradition that defines the City of New Orleans. Today the Indian community hopes the city will provide real and lasting protection and respect for the indigenous traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and all Cultural Bearers as well as develop a profound understanding of those they aim to serve and see the world as the cultural community sees it. The Mardi Gras Indian community, supporters, friends and family of Allison "Big Chief Tootie” Montana appreciates the leadership and commitment of the New Orleans City Council. Collectively, we look forward to the city taking more permanent action to ensure that the sacred tradition is forever respected and protected. Moreover, the yearly acknowledgement and celebration of the legacy of Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana will spark the interest of the young, perpetuate the “Masking Indian” tradition, and ensure full protection and respect for New Orleans indigenous cultural traditions.

The public is invited to attend a wreath laying by the Montana family at the Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana statue inside of Armstrong Park at 4:00 pm on Friday January 6, 2012 followed by a Mardi Gras Indian Film Festival at 5:00pm at the Golden Feather Mardi Gras Indian Gallery and Restaurant located at 704 North Rampart Street across from the historic Congo Square.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Haiti: Seven Places Where the Earthquake Money Did and Did Not Go, By Bill Quigley and Amber Ramanauskas

Haiti, a close neighbor of the US with over nine million people, was devastated by earthquake on January 12, 2010. Hundreds of thousands were killed and many more wounded.

The UN estimated international donors gave Haiti over $1.6 billion in relief aid since the earthquake (about $155 per Haitian) and over $2 billion in recovery aid (about $173 per Haitian) over the last two years.

Yet Haiti looks like the earthquake happened two months ago, not two years. Over half a million people remain homeless in hundreds of informal camps, most of the tons of debris from destroyed buildings still lays where it fell, and cholera, a preventable disease, was introduced into the country and is now an epidemic killing thousands and sickening hundreds of thousands more.

It turns out that almost none of the money that the general public thought was going to Haiti actually went directly to Haiti. The international community chose to bypass the Haitian people, Haitian non-governmental organizations and the government of Haiti. Funds were instead diverted to other governments, international NGOs, and private companies.

Despite this near total lack of control of the money by Haitians, if history is an indication, it is quite likely that the failures will ultimately be blamed on the Haitians themselves in a “blame the victim” reaction.

Haitians ask the same question as many around the world “Where did the money go?”

Here are seven places where the earthquake money did and did not go.

One. The largest single recipient of US earthquake money was the US government. The same holds true for donations by other countries.

Right after the earthquake, the US allocated $379 million in aid and sent in 5000 troops. The Associated Press discovered that of the $379 million in initial US money promised for Haiti, most was not really money going directly, or in some cases even indirectly, to Haiti. They documented in January 2010 that thirty three cents of each of these US dollars for Haiti was actually given directly back to the US to reimburse ourselves for sending in our military. Forty two cents of each dollar went to private and public non-governmental organizations like Save the Children, the UN World Food Program and the Pan American Health Organization. Hardly any went directly to Haitians or their government.

The overall $1.6 billion allocated for relief by the US was spent much the same way according to an August 2010 report by the US Congressional Research Office: $655 million was reimbursed to the Department of Defense; $220 million to Department of Health and Human Services to provide grants to individual US states to cover services for Haitian evacuees; $350 million to USAID disaster assistance; $150 million to the US Department of Agriculture for emergency food assistance; $15 million to the Department of Homeland Security for immigration fees, and so on.

International assistance followed the same pattern. The UN Special Envoy for Haiti reported that of the $2.4 billion in humanitarian funding, 34 percent was provided back to the donor’s own civil and military entities for disaster response, 28 percent was given to UN agencies and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) for specific UN projects, 26 percent was given to private contractors and other NGOs, 6 percent was provided as in-kind services to recipients, 5 percent to the international and national Red Cross societies, 1 percent was provided to the government of Haiti, four tenths of one percent of the funds went to Haitian NGOs.

Two. Only 1 percent of the money went to the Haitian government.

Less than a penny of each dollar of US aid went to the government of Haiti, according to the Associated Press. The same is true with other international donors. The Haitian government was completely bypassed in the relief effort by the US and the international community.

Three. Extremely little went to Haitian companies or Haitian non-governmental organizations.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research, the absolute best source for accurate information on this issue, analyzed all the 1490 contracts awarded by the US government after the January 2010 earthquake until April 2011 and found only 23 contracts went to Haitian companies. Overall the US had awarded $194 million to contractors, $4.8 million to the 23 Haitian companies, about 2.5 percent of the total. On the other hand, contractors from the Washington DC area received $76 million or 39.4 percent of the total. As noted above, the UN documented that only four tenths of one percent of international aid went to Haitian NGOs.

In fact Haitians had a hard time even getting into international aid meetings. Refugees International reported that locals were having a hard time even getting access to the international aid operational meetings inside the UN compound. “Haitian groups are either unaware of the meetings, do not have proper photo-ID passes for entry, or do not have the staff capacity to spend long hours at the compound.” Others reported that most of these international aid coordination meetings were not even being translated into Creole, the language of the majority of the people of Haiti!

Four. A large percentage of the money went to international aid agencies, and big well connected non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The American Red Cross received over $486 million in donations for Haiti. It says two-thirds of the money has been contracted to relief and recovery efforts, though specific details are difficult to come by. The CEO of American Red Cross has a salary of over $500,000 per year.

Look at the $8.6 million joint contract between the US Agency for International Development (USAID) with the private company CHF for debris removal in Port au Prince. CHF is politically well-connected international development company with annual budget of over $200 million whose CEO was paid $451,813 in 2009. CHF’s connection to Republicans and Democrats is illustrated by its board secretary, Lauri Fitz-Pegado, a partner with the Livingston Group LLC. The Livingston Group is headed by the former Republican Speaker-designate for the 106th Congress, Bob Livingston, doing lobbying and government relations. Ms. Fitz-Pegado, who apparently works the other side of the aisle, was appointed by President Clinton to serve in the Department of Commerce and served as a member of the foreign policy expert advisor team on the Obama for President Campaign. CHF “works in Haiti out of two spacious mansions in Port au Prince and maintains a fleet of brand new vehicles” according to Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone, in an excellent article by Janet Reitman, reported on another earthquake contract, a $1.5 million contract to the NY based consulting firm Dalberg Global Development Advisors. The article found Dalberg’s team “had never lived overseas, didn’t have any disaster experience or background in urban planning… never carried out any program activities on the ground…” and only one of them spoke French. USAID reviewed their work and found that “it became clear that these people may not have even gotten out of their SUVs.”

Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton announced a fundraising venture for Haiti on January 16, 2010. As of October 2011, the fund had received $54 million in donations. It has partnered with several Haitian and international organizations. Though most of its work appears to be admirable, it has donated $2 million to the construction of a Haitian $29 million for-profit luxury hotel.

“The NGOs still have something to respond to about their accountability, because there is a lot of cash out there,” according to Nigel Fisher, the UN’s chief humanitarian officer in Haiti. “What about the $1.5 to $2 billion that the Red Cross and NGOs got from ordinary people, and matched by governments? What’s happened to that? And that’s where it’s very difficult to trace those funds.”

Five. Some money went to for profit companies whose business is disasters.

Less than a month after the quake hit, the US Ambassador Kenneth Merten sent a cable titled “THE GOLD RUSH IS ON” as part of his situation report to Washington. In this February 1, 2010 document, made public by The Nation, Haiti Liberte and Wikileaks, Ambassador Merten reported the President of Haiti met with former General Wesley Clark for a sales presentation for a Miami-based company that builds foam core houses.

Capitalizing on the disaster, Lewis Lucke, a high ranking USAID relief coordinator, met twice in his USAID capacity with the Haitian Prime Minister immediately after the quake. He then quit the agency and was hired for $30,000 a month by a Florida corporation Ashbritt (known already for its big no bid Katrina grants) and a prosperous Haitian partner to lobby for disaster contracts. Locke said “it became clear to us that if it was handled correctly the earthquake represented as much an opportunity as it did a calamity…” Ashbritt and its Haitian partner were soon granted a $10 million no bid contract. Lucke said he was instrumental in securing another $10 million contract from the World Bank and another smaller one from CHF International before their relationship ended.

Six. A fair amount of the pledged money has never been actually put up.

The international community decided it was not going to allow the Haiti government to direct the relief and recovery funds and insisted that two institutions be set up to approve plans and spending for the reconstruction funds going to Haiti. The first was the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) and the second is the Haiti Reconstruction Fund (HRF).

In March 2010, UN countries pledged $5.3 billion over two years and a total of $9.9 billion over three years in a conference March 2010. The money was to be deposited with the World Bank and distributed by the IHRC. The IHRC was co-chaired by Bill Clinton and the Haitian Prime Minister. By July 2010, Bill Clinton reported only 10 percent of the pledges had been given to the IHRC.

Seven. A lot of the money which was put up has not yet been spent.

Nearly two years after the quake, less than 1 percent of the $412 million in US funds specifically allocated for infrastructure reconstruction activities in Haiti had been spent by USAID and the US State Department and only 12 percent has even been obligated according to a November 2011 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The performance of the two international commissions, the IHRC and the HRF has also been poor. The Miami Herald noted that as of July 2011, the $3.2 billion in projects approved by the IHRC only five had been completed for a total of $84 million. The Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), which was severely criticized by Haitians and others from its beginning, has been effectively suspended since its mandate ended at the end of October 2011. The Haiti Reconstruction Fund was set up to work in tandem with the IHRC, so while its partner is suspended, it is not clear how it can move forward.

What to do

The effort so far has not been based a respectful partnership between Haitians and the international community. The actions of the donor countries and the NGOs and international agencies have not been transparent so that Haitians or others can track the money and see how it has been spent. Without transparency and a respectful partnership the Haitian people cannot hold anyone accountable for what has happened in their country. That has to change.

The UN Special Envoy to Haiti suggests the generous instincts of people around the world must be channeled by international actors and institutions in a way that assists in the creation of a “robust public sector and a healthy private sector.” Instead of giving the money to intermediaries, funds should be directed as much as possible to Haitian public and private institutions. A “Haiti First” policy could strengthen public systems, promote accountability, and create jobs and build skills among the Haitian people.

Respect, transparency and accountability are the building blocks for human rights. Haitians deserve to know where the money has gone, what the plans are for the money still left, and to be partners in the decision-making for what is to come.

After all, these are the people who will be solving the problems when the post-earthquake relief money is gone.

Bill Quigley teaches at Loyola University New Orleans, is the Associate Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights and volunteers with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Amber Ramanauskas is a lawyer and human rights researcher. A more detailed version of this article with full sources is available. Bill can be reached at Amber can be reached at

Monday, January 2, 2012

Community Profile: Eugene Dean

From our friends at VOTE-NOLA:
Eugene Dean has been with VOTE from the very beginning, when the organization sprang from an effort of incarcerated men within Angola to organize people both inside and outside of the prison around the right to vote. “We had the Angola Special Civics Project and then we continued to work trying to change policies and laws,” explains Dean. "We really focused on trying to get some laws passed regarding parole eligibility.”

From his own experience re-registering to vote, Eugene has realized how much the community still needs the consciousness raising and mobilization that VOTE undertakes. “When I went to register to vote the lady in the voter registration office said she didn’t know if I could vote and I had to explain it to the head person in charge, “he says. "He told me I sounded like I knew what I was talking about and signed my letter.”

These misconceptions are not just limited to those that have no experience with incarceration, but are also perpetuated within communities that are directly impacted by the criminal justice system. “I think that misconceptions happen because at the time people’s offense takes place, they aren’t educated [about voting],” adds Dean. “People have been led to believe that once you get a conviction you lose all your rights.”

Eugene is a living example of the principle of education leading to advocacy. Now that he has regained the right to vote, he works constantly to give civic and legal advice to family and friends. “My favorite aspect is bringing incarcerated people’s issues to light,” he says. “My family and friends call me with advice because I have been through the legal system.”

Eugene’s advocacy doesn’t stop at the issue of re-enfranchisement. One of the ways that being in VOTE has got him thinking about the criminal justice system is by becoming involved in jail reform issues connected to OPP. “I didn’t know all the interaction in the way that things are structured, as far as how the sheriff goes about getting his funds,” he explains. “The jail issue brought me to the next level.”

A member from the very start, Eugene has been able to witness the things that VOTE has accomplished in a first-hand way that helps him brainstorm for future efforts. “I’m excited about future work on ban the box,” he says, adding, “I’d like to see more young people involved.”