Friday, March 30, 2012

The End of Sex Offender Registration for Louisiana Sex Workers?

Judge Rules That Sex-Offender Registration for “Crime Against Nature by Solicitation” Convictions Is Unconstitutional
From Center for Constitutional Rights:

Yesterday, one day after attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights argued that individuals convicted prior to August 2011 under Louisiana’s “Crime Against Nature by Solicitation” (CANS) law should not have to register as sex offenders, a federal judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana agreed and granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs. The statute was amended in August 2011 to no longer require those convicted of CANS to register, but the change was not made retroactive.

“The defendants fail to credibly serve up even one unique legitimating governmental interest that can rationally explain the registration requirement imposed on those convicted of Crime
Against Nature by Solicitation,” wrote Judge Martin L. C. Feldman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. “The Court is left with no other conclusion but that the relationship between the classification is so shallow as to render the distinction wholly arbitrary.”

“Today’s decision is a powerful vindication of our clients’ right to equal protection before the law. The court has agreed that they have been singled out for this harsh treatment without a legitimate or rational purpose, and that this cannot stand,” said Alexis Agathocleous, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Previously, people accused of soliciting sex for a fee in Louisiana could be criminally charged in two ways: either under the prostitution statute or under the solicitation provision of the Crime Against Nature statute. A CANS conviction carried harsher penalties than a prostitution conviction, including the sex-offender registration requirement. Police and prosecutors had unfettered discretion in choosing which to charge. Judge Feldman’s ruling holds that the discrepancy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

“Today’s ruling is a testament to the power and importance of speaking out for justice. Individuals marginalized by the CANS law told their stories, spearheading a campaign to change the law,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of Women With A Vision, a community-based organization in New Orleans that has led advocacy efforts around this issue. “The people heard, the legislature heard, and now the courts have heard. Now we can move on to healing and renewal.”

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

“This is an important victory in light of the Department of Justice’s recent finding that this charge was being discriminatorily applied against poor Black women and transgender women and gay men,” said Andrea J. Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney who is co-counsel on the case. “It takes away a discriminatory tool used by police and prosecutors.”

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

For a letter from Deon Haywood with her reaction, see this link.

OUR WIN – Letter from Women With A Vision Executive Director, Deon Haywood

Yesterday, US District Judge Martin Feldman ruled that the Louisiana law that required sex workers to register as sex offenders is unconstitutional. Lawmakers had already changed the law last year, but this ruling is expected to help remove from the registry hundreds of women (and some men) who remain on the registry because of past convictions.
Dear friends and allies,

There are few times in our work when are truly brought to the point of being speechless. For all of us at Women With A Vision, today is one of those days. Today, we celebrate with the women and men who courageously stood up to combat the criminalization of their lives – and won. Today, we celebrate a victory for all people who have told their truths that justice might be done. WWAV has always just been a catalyst for women affected by this.

So many times, people tried to tell us not to do it. They didn’t believe that poor, uneducated women could win a victory on this scale. They didn’t think that our women were important enough, or that they had the ability to change their own lives. Let this be an example of people standing together through grassroots organizing to change their lives. We didn’t back down even when we lacked the funding to do this. We did not back down when person after person said that they were unsure about standing by us. We knew what we were doing was right. We did not waver. We did not compromise what needed to happen. We just stayed the course and fought the fight.

At a time in this country right now when we feel like justice is not on the side of the people, the people most affected spoke their truths – not some abstract ‘speak truth to power,’ but their truths from their hearts – and that is what made the difference.

This was not a legal fight or a legislative fight. This was a fight for women’s lives and well-being. This was a fight, simply put, about everything. This was about the freedom of people to make choices for themselves. This was about public health. This was about sex worker rights. This was about human rights. This was and is about everything. Which is why we cannot pick apart injustice. We can’t decide that something is wrong for one group and right for another. We can’t decide we don’t like this law for women, but it’s okay for gay people or trans people.

Especially in the South, most people feel like we come in last. But this is where the Civil Rights Movement started. And today it continues in the South.

We have seen too often that the way problems are solved in Louisiana is through incarceration. But over-incarceration is not going to solve things. It’s not going to make our communities safer. It’s not going to make our communities better. The issue here is poverty. Over-incarceration is not going to solve that.

For once, women and men won. And we believe that this is not just a win for us. This is a win for every group that has ever been criminalized. Our win today proves that when we stand with folks who have been wrongly charged, we can make a difference.

With this win, the women of NO Justice can begin to heal. With this win, we can begin to renew and rebuild our lives.

And the struggle continues,

The women we stand with, Deon Haywood, the staff of WWAV, and our Board of Directors

Monday, March 26, 2012

From NYPD Spying to Trayvon Martin, By Jordan Flaherty

A version of this article originally appeared on The Progressive website.

When I heard that my name was featured in a New York City Police Department report, I should have been outraged. I had followed revelations of NYPD spying, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they would come to New Orleans to watch me speak at a film festival.

However, I also knew that the NYPD, in their crusade under the guise of safety, had gone whitewater rafting with college students and aggressively monitored and infiltrated mosques and Muslim businesses. They operate in at least 9 foreign countries, so why shouldn’t they come to New Orleans, listen to me say a few words at a public event, and write a classified report about it? Perhaps the only strange thing about the case is that I don’t fit their regular profile. As a white US citizen, I feel my case is a bit of an anomaly for a department that has developed a reputation for targeting immigrants and communities of color. My privilege has given me a certain amount of security and expectation of privacy that many others simply don’t experience.

Recent revelations about NYPD abuses go beyond spying. The notorious stop-and-frisk program, which has led to the criminalization of virtually an entire generation of young men of color in the city, is one example. The New York Civil Liberties Union reported that more than 4 million stops and interrogations from 2004 through 2011 led to no evidence of any wrongdoing – about 90% of all stops. Other recent revelations about NYPD abuses have included arrest quotas, sexual assaults, and the harassment and arrest of an officer who had turned whistleblower. So my little brush with violation of privacy was just a small taste of what is possible from a police department that never met a boundary it didn’t want to cross.

The Occupy movement – now just over six months old - first captured mainstream attention when police were filmed pepperspraying young white women on a New York sidewalk. Subsequent instances of police violence, such as the wounding of former Marine Scott Olsen in Oakland, and the nonchalant pepperspraying of UC Davis students, brought more public outrage and attention. The response from many in the Black community has been, “welcome to our world.”

Step-by-step, we have seen any idea of privacy disappear – everything we do is the business of police. This has always been true for communities of color; now the scope has simply gotten wider. While law enforcement representatives defend the presence of officers filming at every protest around the country as harmless public safety measures, there is no doubt this has had a chilling effect on dissent.

It is not just in New York that there is a divide in how people see – and experience - police. The national outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin shows that his death – and the continued freedom of his killer – has struck a nerve among Black communities nationwide.

Here in New Orleans, public outrage has been mounting over the abuses carried out by our own city’s police department. More than a dozen officers have faced charges for their involvement in the murder of unarmed civilians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, most notoriously in the Danziger Bridge shootings. In that incident, two families fleeing the storm’s devastation were attacked under a hail of police gunfire that left four wounded and two dead, including Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged 40-year-old, and James Brissette, a sixteen-year-old who had been called nerdy and studious by friends. Most alarmingly, our local media, district attorney, and other systems of accountability mostly failed in their oversight – it was not until the US Justice Department became involved in 2009 that the officers faced charges. The next year, a Justice Department investigation of the NOPD found "reasonable cause to believe that patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law occurred in several areas."

In the latest outrage, during the first week of March, two young Black men were killed by New Orleans police in separate incidents. One of the victims, Justin Sipp, was shot by officers during a traffic stop. The other youth, 20-year-old Wendell Allen, was shot in his own home by an officer executing a warrant. Allen was apparently unarmed and only partially dressed. Allen’s killer remains free, as does George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon.

This week, it was revealed that one of the officers who killed Sipp recently wrote a racist rant about Trayvon Martin on a news website, saying the young man deserved to die, and is now "in hell."

I am disappointed that the NYPD choose to make me a target – however peripheral – of their spying. But I am truly angered by the role that police play in communities of color, at the criminalization of young Black children wearing a hooded sweatshirts. These latest revelations have had the effect of renewing my commitment to fighting for a system that knows that true safety and security comes from providing justice, liberation, and human rights for all; not in the harsh and violent justice of law enforcement.

Images above from New Orleans monuments to white supremacy, recently spraypainted in support of Justin Sipp, Wendell Allen, and Trayvon Martin.

Crime Against Nature Court Hearing This Wednesday

From our friends at Women With a Vision:
As many of you know, last June we had a huge legislative victory in our work to challenge Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature statute, which mandated fifteen years or more of sex offender registration for women who would have otherwise been charged with simple prostitution. While no new women can be sentenced under the law, our legislative victory was not retroactive. But that is going to change next week!

Women With A Vision has partnered with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Andrea J. Ritchie, Esq., and the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Law Clinic to file a lawsuit that would remove crimes against nature by solicitation from Louisiana’s registry law and remove all persons from the registry registered as a result.

On March 28th, the parties to the lawsuit will argue that plaintiffs, eight individuals convicted of Crime Against Nature by Solicitation, along with everyone else, must be removed from the state’s registry of sex offenders. Plaintiffs in Doe v. Jindal were placed on the registry as a result of allegations that they solicited oral or anal sex for a fee. We will argue they have been required to register as sex offenders simply because they were prosecuted under a provision of Louisiana’s 205-year-old Crime Against Nature statute, rather than its Prostitution statute. Plaintiffs argue that their harsher treatment is unconstitutional.

We hope that you will consider joining us in court next week for the argument to demonstrate to the court and everyone attending that the community is opposed to law. Details below:

Argument in court for the rights of Plaintiffs who remain on the sex-offender registry for old Crime Against Nature by Solicitation convictions
March 28th at 10:00 a.m. CST
District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana
500 Poydras Street, Courtroom 551
New Orleans, Louisiana

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Eight Anti-Nuclear Activists Arrested at Entergy Corporate HQ in New Orleans

From a press release from the Safe And Green Energy (SAGE) Alliance:
Group demands: “No Nuke Business as Usual for March 22nd” and "Shut Down Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant"

An affinity group of eight anti-nuclear activists with the New England-based Safe And Green Energy (SAGE) Alliance, today entered the New Orleans headquarters of US nuclear corporation, Entergy to declare “No Nuke Business As Usual on March 22nd.” The group is demanding that the company cease operations at its Vermont Yankee reactor in Vernon, according to the democratic decision of the State of Vermont and the popular wishes of the Vermont people. The State voted in February 2010 to close the plant on March 21, 2012 when its 40-year license expired.

The eight protesters, all of whom have ties to New England anti-nuclear activism, some for decades, taped off a corporate “crime scene” at the downtown Entergy building, demanding an audience with Entergy, CEO, J. Wayne Leonard. The request was not granted. The protesters hung banners and yellow crime tape after entering the building. All eight were arrested. It was expected that they would spend 24 hours in jail before being arraigned. A statement by one of the protesters, Renny Cushing can be viewed on YouTube.

“I come with the message from Vermont and from New England, that we stand united to oppose nuclear tyranny over our state’s right to self determine a safe and green energy future,” said Nancy Braus, a resident of Putney, Vermont and a bookstore owner in Brattleboro. “Our simple trespass is our statement of resistance to Entergy’s corporate trespass with the continued illegal operation of this nuclear waste factory,” she said.

Vermont Yankee is the same GE Mark I Boiling Water Reactor design as the four Fukushima Daiichi reactors that exploded and melted down in the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.

"Entergy’s assault against democracy and the people of Vermont makes it a corporate outlaw,” said Renny Cushing, a founding member of the Clamshell Alliance in New England that launched the anti-nuclear movement in the US in July 1976 with The Declaration of Nuclear Resistance. “We have a responsibility to our families and our communities to resist Entergy’s recklessness, arrogance and greed. The corporation’s management and shareholders need to recognize that if Entergy won’t shut down that Yankee Plant, then as citizens we will work together to shut down Entergy," Cushing said.

Entergy has challenged the State of Vermont in federal court over the state’s decision to close the reactor. On January 19, 2012, a federal judge found mainly in Entergy’s favor but the state has appealed. The federal government, represented by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, issued the Vermont Yankee a 20-year license extension on March 21, 2011, just ten days into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, despite the plant’s history of fires, radioactive leaks, structural collapses, and cover-ups. Entergy also owns reactors in Arkansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, and New York.

The occupation of Entergy’s New Orleans headquarters came at the same time as protesters in Brattleboro, VT gathered at Entergy offices there. Five Vermont activists were arrested today during a similar non-violent protest action took place at the Entergy regional headquarters in White Plains, NY. On March 21, seven women protesters chained shut the gates at Vermont Yankee while Buddhist monks and others chanted and sang in opposition to the reactor’s continued operation.

The SAGE Alliance is organizing a people’s campaign to shut down the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Reactor through grassroots organizing, education and non-violent direct action.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Race, Gender, and Occupy By Sweta Vohra and Jordan Flaherty, Fault Lines

A version of this article originally appeared on the Al Jazeera website.

At a recent panel discussion on the Occupy movement, a left-leaning professor from New York University speculated that identity politics - the prioritizing of issues of race and gender in movements for justice - could be a plot funded by the CIA to undermine activism. While most commentators do not go this far, the idea that activists who focus on these issues are "undermining the struggle" has a long history within progressive organizing. And in Occupy Wall Street encampments around the country these debates have often exploded into public view.

For the past six months, we have been following the Occupy movement for a two-part documentary on Occupy for Fault Lines. We have spent weeks in conversation with activists as they have planned actions and struggled to keep their movement relevant through a cold winter. And organizers have told us repeatedly that they feel these discussions around race and gender, far from weakening the movement, have lent it strength and made organizing more accountable to the communities most affected by the economic crisis.

The process of challenging structural oppression has been difficult. We spoke to many women and people of color who felt pushed out of Occupy. Some activists, already bruised by dismissive media coverage, tried not to let these conflicts show. When internal conflicts would arise they tried to not let it happen on camera. But what we did observe are many fiercely intelligent activists dedicated to waging these struggles within Occupy and strengthening the movement with their work.

The 99 per cent

When people gathered in Zuccotti Park on September 17, the anger at corporate greed was a unifying call. This was a protest that in large part was about shifting power from the wealthy to the many. It was a mostly white crowd, but it sought to incorporate a wide range of voices.

The economic crisis in the US had made the white middle class question their future. Soaring unemployment rates, suffocating student loan debt, and thousands of foreclosures began to close in. This reality propelled the Occupy movement forward. And many feel that the presence of so many relatively privileged white people brought increased media attention and public sympathy.

Organizers told us they immediately saw the next step as needing to raise awareness among the many young people new to activism that came flocking to occupations. "It's the job of the social justice movement to continue that conversation," says Max Rameau, a co-founder of Take Back the Land, who has advised many of the Occupies.

He told us that occupiers need to "make sure this isn't just a movement of the way white people have gone from being able to every day shop at particular malls, and now they have to shop at reduced, discount stores … this has to do, really, about inequality and long-term inequality, including communities who have suffered for years, not just because of the recent economic downturn."

Many women reported harassment in the camp, and even assault - especially those that stayed overnight. "I think there were some (Occupy camps) that allowed homophobia and sexism to thrive in a really significant way," says Rameau. "I think homophobia and sexism in society exist everywhere, but were allowed to thrive in some of these areas."

Manissa Maharawal, a PhD student and Occupy activist, said: "I love the discourse of the 99 per cent. I think it's great, I think it's been really unifying. But I would like it to go along with saying something like, ‘We are the 99 per cent, but the way that we experience the 99 per cent can be very different.'"

Jack Bryson, a 49-year-old Black public service worker, became an activist after his sons witnessed the killing of their friend Oscar Grant at the hands of transit police in Oakland. When he heard that Occupy Oakland had named their camp Oscar Grant Plaza, he came to check it out. He was excited by what he found, but also thought many young white activists he met had a lot to learn about poverty and repression. "The black community, for 400 years, [have] always been the 99 per cent," Bryson said. "Welcome to our world."

Bryson was one of many who told us that Occupy activists needed to understand the ways in which communities of color experience the criminal justice system. He noted that Occupy Oakland had faced intense police repression. But, he told us, what many failed to realize was that police brutality is a daily fact of life in many communities. "Black, young men … would love to come out here. But what happens here, with the police? It happens on Saturday nights to Black young men leaving a nightclub, or a black young man going into a gas station and being followed by the police."

Boots Riley, a hip-hop artist and Occupy Oakland organizer, told us that he hopes the Occupy movement can challenge the ways that people have viewed policing. "I think that what happens normally is the media has most of white America looking at people of color as deficient, savage, and when they see something happen to them by police they believe that it was somehow their fault," says Riley. "Our ideas and views about the police are very tied in to our ideas and views about why people are poor."

If OWS wanted to be a movement that was going to shift power in the US, these organizers felt it had to come to terms with the fundamental differences in the ways that communities of color experienced racism, how women experienced patriarchy, and how queer and transgender communities experienced homophobia and gender bias. If Occupy Wall Street wanted to talk about envisioning an alternative community, activists would first have to face their own privilege.

That awareness has involved active engagement by white anti-racists, as well as the activists of color who committed deeply to the movement, despite often facing attacks for bringing up issues of race and gender.

"I was totally impressed by the leadership that was coming from young people of color, young women of color," activist and scholar Angela Davis told us in a conversation about Occupy camps she visited on the East coast.

"I think it's good that there's some white men getting involved, but they also have to recognize that, in order to be involved in this campaign of the 99 per cent against the one per cent, we have to recognize that the 99 per cent is hierarchically developed by itself."

Davis told us that Occupy was indebted to a long history of direct action led by women and by people of color. She specifically noted the legacy of resistance in prisons, led by those behind bars. "Let's recognize that we're not artificially imposing these issues on the Occupy movement," added Davis. "The Occupy movement has organically risen from those movements."

For Lisa Fithian, one of many white activists who seeks to challenge race and gender bias in the movement, this consciousness raising is a crucial part of struggling for justice."What I teach is that those with more privileges whether because your color of your skin, your gender, your education, whatever, how do you use those privileges strategically to raise those of all?"

"We have to take our privileges, become conscious and use them to actively change the social relationships, and access, and availability of resources," she added.

Blocking the process

Manissa Maharawal, a South Asian woman, has been one of Occupy Wall Street's most eloquent and passionate defenders. But she almost walked out of the movement on one of her very first visits to Zuccotti Park. When she, along with several people of color, stood up in front of hundreds of people to block a proposal at a very early Occupy Wall Street assembly, she felt anger and hostility from many of those present. She says it's "still one of the more intimidating things that I've had to do in my life". The proposal was for a document called the Declaration of the Occupation, and she felt language in the document erased oppression faced by people of color.

She did not want to have to block the proposal and face the angry stares of hundreds of people. However, says Maharawal, it's something she had to do. "What struck me then was that if I want Occupy to be something that's around for a long time in my life … it needs from the very beginning to be a movement that's taking these things on," she explained. "And that is thinking about not just corporate greed and financial institutions, but is thinking about how these things are connected to racism, to patriarchy, to oppression generally."

Ultimately, Maharawal and others who agreed with her succeeded in changing the language of the declaration. Nearly two months later, one of the white male activists who had expressed his frustration with her came up to her to thank her for her intervention. "I'm really glad you did that, I learned a lot right then," he told her.

"Making these connections is difficult, it's been like constant work in this movement," says Maharawal. But, she adds, "this stuff doesn't feel like minutia, it feels fundamental to me". She says this movement is about creating a real alternative to our current system, and, for her, that means fighting these systemic issues. "Why are we going to create a system that just re-creates all these oppressions? That recreates racism, that recreates oppression, that recreates gender hierarchy. Why would I want to be a part of that?"

Sweta Vohra and Jordan Flaherty are producers of Al Jazeera's Fault Lines. Fault Lines presents two special programs on the Occupy movement premiering March 20 & 27.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Two New Documentaries Explore Occupy Wall Street Movement

The Al Jazeera English television network has just released two new documentaries on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, produced by the award-winning current affairs program Fault Lines. The films can be seen on the Al Jazeera website and youtube. Below are the full credits for the films.Fault Lines: Occupy Wall Street

Part One: History of an Occupation
Fault Lines looks at how Occupy Wall Street went from a small group of New York protesters to a broad people’s movement in the US. Premieres March 20, 2012.

Part Two: Occupy Wall Street: Surviving the Winter
Fault Lines follows key Occupy organizers through the winter as they continue to build a movement even after violent evictions across the country. Premieres March 27, 2012.


Executive Producer

Mathieu Skene

Sweta Vohra & Jordan Flaherty

Sebastian Walker

Warwick Meade

Thierry Humeau
Singeli Agnew
Ralf Oberti
Trudy Hutcherson
Matt Bockelman
Eric Schneider

Additional Footage
Aggie TV - UC Davis
Ali Winston
Andrea Schmidt
David Martinez
Joshua van Praag
Luke Rudkowski
Marisa Holmes
Meerkat Media
Sara Kenigsburg/Huffpost

Amin Husain
Angela Davis
Boots Riley
Christopher M.
Clarence Thomas
David Graeber
Jack Bryson
Josh Boss
Lisa Fithian
Luis Moreno
Manissa Maharawal
Max Rameau
Mohamed Algohari
Nelini Stamp
Nell Myhand
Sandra Nurse
Scott Olsen
Thadeaus Gantry
Tim Pool

Additional Filmmakers (Footage did not end up in film)
Andrew Susich
Atiq Zabinski
Barni Qaasim
Cari Machet
David Morse
Geoff King
Josh Wolf
Luke Richardson
Maria Chunikhina
Renée Renata

Interns/Production Assistants/Volunteers
Abigail Deroberts
Arushi Sharma
Courtney Irvine
Kaitlin Loukides
Negin Owliaei
Paul Abowd

Special Thanks
Andrew Huckins
Andy Bichlbaum
Anjali Kamat
Arun Gupta
Brooke Lehman
Clare Bayard
Colin Moynihan
Dan Siegel
Elizabeth Falcon
Feliz Solomon
Gemma Mirkinson
Geoffrey Wildanger
Hena Ashraf
James Ploeser
Jean Ross
Causa Justa/Just Cause
Karanja Gaçuça
Katy Romer
Laura Gottesdeiner
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Liz Butler
Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Maria Poblet
Marina Sitrin
Matt Smucker
Melisa Spence
Michael Ellick
Michael Haack
Michael Premo
Michael Thompson
Mike McSweeney
Mohamad Ezzeldin
Mona Lisa Trevino
Nathan Brown
Nora Callahan
Regan Brashear
Ricky Lehner
Ryan Devereaux
Sam Jewler
Sara Shaw
Sarah Lane
Sean Devlin
Shaw San Liu
Shon Whatevaya
Sonny Singh
Suresh Naidu
Tim Franzin
Tom Hintz
Tracy Van Slyke
Valery Jean
Vasudha Desikan
Yes Labs

Saturday, March 17, 2012

“Parents’ Guide” Publisher Aesha Rasheed Talks Public Education in New Orleans; Interview by Rosana Cruz

From our friends at Bridge The Gulf:
As the parent of a New Orleans Public School student I can tell you, the reality of sending your child to school has completely changed from when many of us were growing up. When I was a kid, we went to our local neighborhood schools. In New Orleans, since Hurricane Katrina, just sending your child to the closest school is no longer an option. Once a child reaches school age, parents have to walk through a maze, from different registration and application processes; different school calendars; different eligibility requirements for students; to different interventions and services for children with special needs (for schools that have them at all.)

Puzzling through the confusing and very long list of “options” is a frustrating and time consuming process for even the most patient, well equipped and well informed parent. But without one basic tool, I think it would be nearly impossible. That tool is the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools, published and distributed by New Orleans Parent Organizing Network. This combination catalogue and guidebook comes out every February, in time for students to review before the application deadlines for many schools.

Download the Parents' Guide here.

Parents: This year the Recovery School District (RSD) has a unified application, due on March 31st. (This is only for RSD schools, for other schools' enrollment information visit

The 6th edition of the Parents’ Guide just came out, so I sat down with my friend Aesha Rasheed, the publisher of the Parents’ Guide, and the founder and former Executive Director of New Orleans Parent Organizing Network. What was going to be a 20-minute interview turned into a fascinating hour-long conversation about the history and broader landscape of public education in New Orleans. Both of us are outraged about the continuing racial and socio-economic disparities that have persisted in Education and impact the larger community in a myriad of ways, but first I wanted her to explain how we got to where we needed a Parents Guide. Here’s part one of that conversation.

Will you please tell me what Parents’ Guide is?

The New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools is an annual book to help parents understand the landscape of public schools in New Orleans, get some basic information about what schools are open, where they are, what kind of programming they provide, what kind of student population they serve and what their academic performance is. Parents can use it to inform their choices and compare and contrast what is happening at different schools. It is also meant to be an advocacy tool, to hopefully raise the level of parent dialogue about what quality looks like at schools.

How did the parents guide come to be? This is the sixth edition, right?

This is the sixth edition! I was education reporter in New Orleans before the flood. After Hurricane Katrina and the flood, as people were trying to figure out returning and rebuilding, I got lots of questions from colleagues, friends and neighbors, who knew that I knew something about schools. They were like, "Is this school open? I've heard such and such. I heard Capdau is open. Is that true? But I went by the building and it looked like it was flooded."

By then there'd been such massive change in schools, and most schools were still closed. Even schools that were open weren't necessarily open in the buildings that they used to be in. As I tried to just find one list that had all the school names and addresses and phone numbers, I couldn't find that. There would be a little piece here and a little piece there but everything I found was pretty full of holes and errors.

So I tried to make this chart, which is actually in the Parents Guide now. I call it the spine of the Parents Guide because it's how it began.
And as I made that chart I realized that if it took me this much time and that much energy to try and get it clear, it would be really hard for anybody else. There needed to be some kind of central tool.

Meanwhile our organization at the time, which was called New Orleans Network, was convening people who were doing work to rebuild New Orleans and defend the right to return, especially for the folks who were the most marginalized and the people who were most likely to be pushed out of the city. We were convening people to talk about different areas that we needed to "skill up" around and talk about sharing tools and advocacy and organizing strategies.

I convened an education advocates circle and the thing that came up that was needed to bolster everyone's work was just that, a book, a list, information about what schools were open. New Orleans Network set about trying to do it. I was able to build relationships with other organizations that were also interested in it, and had enough money to print it as a book.

But why were things so different? It wasn’t just the Hurricane, right? A lot of changes had begun before the storm. Can you talk a little bit about the landscape of education before Katrina?

Part of what was happening in New Orleans Public Schools before Katrina is that there were very significant inequities. There were a few high performing schools in New Orleans. In fact, the highest performing schools in the state were here. But they were selective and very few kids could get in to them. They were also the only schools that were ethnically or socio-economically diverse at all.

The vast majority of the schools were incredibly homogenous in terms of race, all black, and in terms of class, quite poor. Most of the folks who could scrape it together to afford to send their kids to non-public schools had done that, if they couldn’t get into these few public schools that were considered decent.

And all of that created an environment where there was general disenfranchisement with public education. The conventional wisdom was that schools in New Orleans sucked. They were bad and they were never going to be any good. And that the kids who went to them were not valuable, this was the undertone of that message.

There was a big piece that the paper did before my time looking at how many kids were graduating and applying for jobs who couldn’t spell New Orleans, for example. New Orleans and Louisiana had one of the lowest adult literacy rates in the country. Real kids were having real problems getting what they need to make it in the world. So there was this rock and hard place situation.

In the 5 years before Katrina, we had a revolving door of superintendents. There were 10 superintendents in a decade, different people leading the district. And what came with that was different policies, new layers of administration. That created a condition where there was mass instability. There were massive levels of corruption, so that by 2005 the F.B.I. had actually established a field headquarters in the Orleans Parish School Board office.

Meanwhile the state had introduced an accountability system. It was actually ahead of No Child Left Behind [George W. Bush’s 2001 education reform bill], which is based somewhat on what was happening in Louisiana. So standardized testing was offered up as the answer.

Schools were being labeled as failing. Already the word on the street is that the schools are bad. But then annually you have the reports coming out, here are the schools that are failing, here is how bad they are. I think it numbed everyone into thinking, “It is just a failed system” Add to that continuing news of this corruption so that no matter your political perspective, what you are hearing is that it’s a mess.

So that when the [state's] intervention was presented, “What if the state came and took over the schools?” I think a lot of people were basically like, “Sure.”

They were not saying, “Oh, the state does such an excellent job of dealing with schools,” or of doing anything. People actually had a deep distrust of Baton Rouge. But this system had become so neglected and so shriveled and so maligned, and actually was quite bad, folks were like, “Even you can’t make it worse.”

So in New Orleans there was a state constitutional amendment to allow the state to have the right to take over the schools, and that passed overwhelmingly. 64% of voters in New Orleans said, “Yes, we want to allow the state to take over our schools.”

All those conditions led to a situation where immediately before Katrina the state had moved to take over 5 failing schools. It was supposed to be a small, controlled experiment: “We’re going to try 5 schools, we’re going to give them to a local university who will intervene and try to make improvements and we’ll see how this works. We’ll incubate them, we’ll take care of them like preemie newborns and give them all the supportive systems that they need. And then when they are ready, we’ll return them to the local district.”

And that was what was being implemented in the 2004-2005 school year?

It was the 2005- 2006 school year.

Ok, so it was actually about to start…

And then Katrina happens. And again, the local school district was essentially bankrupt and under investigation. There was a chaotic situation, it lacked leadership and this law had been passed to allow the state in. And there was massive turnover on the school board too.

And so this led to the situation where, come August 29, 2005 this horrible, man-made disaster happens and by fall, Orleans Parish School Board was saying, “We don’t have any money; we will not be opening any schools this year.” That met with people who were back, especially on the Westbank and especially in Uptown saying, “What do you mean you’re not going to re-open the schools?” So it opened this door politically for people to be like, “Well if Orleans Parish School Board isn’t going to open schools, then let’s do something else.” And so the Recovery School District (RSD), or really, the state legislature, in that political moment, said “Ok, we’re going to change the rules.”

After Katrina they said, “Not only are we going to take over the ones that legally we had the authority to take over, but we’re going to take over any school that is below average,” which swept a whole bunch more schools in.

So that at the end of the day what got moved over to the RSD was about 128 or 130 schools.

The RSD was never designed to run schools. It was supposed to be a holding bin that then farmed schools to a charter school operator, either a university or another non-profit organization. But the mandate post-Katrina was to actually open schools.

There was this moment where lots of kids were put on a really long waitlist because the district was like, “We literally don’t have any more space in a building anywhere.” Which was illegal and is outrageous. It was the wrong answer. And also, physically, there weren’t buildings. There was a ramping up of trying to get staff and open up so many schools really quickly to take in the kids who were returning.

Meanwhile, the OPSB was slowly going about reopening schools and indicated that it would be many months before that happened, possibly one entire school year. The administrators of their schools or some collaboration of administrators and some parents were like, “Well if you aren’t going to open us under your authority now, we're going to open ourselves and we’re going to demand to be a charter school.”

So where as there might have been more dialogue and contention about the decision to become a charter school in a different landscape, this became the only way you were going to have a school. Parents who may have felt that they weren’t sure about charter schools were sort of up against a wall. You need your kid to go to school somewhere and this school is going to reopen only if we push for it to become a charter school.

So that brings us to creating the Parents’ Guide. Most New Orleanians were not aware of the small experiment. They may not have been aware that there were charter schools happening at all, or what the Recovery School District was. Before Katrina it was such a small thing in grand scheme of schools in New Orleans. Then suddenly the RSD is the district, it basically is running all the schools.

Rosana Cruz is Associate Director of VOTE (Voice Of The Ex-offender). 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, March 13, 2012

Coalition Gathers to Demand Action on NOPD Shootings

NEWS RELEASE: Non-Profits, Attorneys, and Community Members Unite to Demand Information from and Action by Local and Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, the District Attorney, Mayor Landrieu, and the Local Press concerning NOPD Police-Involved Shootings
One week after the tragic NOPD police officer involved shooting of Wendell Allen, New Orleans area non-profits and community members are calling for immediate action by government officials.

“Wendell Allen’s murder raises significant civil rights issues, again, and reminds this community that nearly one year since the U.S. Department of Justice’s report concerning severe dysfunction within NOPD, that system has regressed,” according to Attorney Tracie L. Washington, Director/Counsel for Louisiana Justice Institute.

The assembled groups and community members have sent their letters to NOPD, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice, District Attorney Leon Canizzaro, and Mayor Mitchell Landrieu, calling for immediate access to critical information and actions to redress systemic problems within the criminal justice system.

Among those requests are the following:

1. To the NOPD, that it provide the names of all officers involved in the fatal shooting of Wendell Allen, and the Public Integrity Bureau files for all officers on the scene of this tragedy, in addition to providing to the public all NOPD policies related to

a) NOPD’s Use of Force, and,

b) NOPD investigation of officer involved shooting, including any policies or practices related to a waiting period after an officer involved shooting before officers are interviewed by investigators.

2. To the Office of Mayor Landrieu, that it provide documentation concerning status of the Consent Decree negotiations and confection;

3. That District Attorney Cannizzaro immediately convene a Grand Jury to investigate the fatal shooting of unarmed Wendell Allen shooting by NOPD Officer Jason Coclough, and request appropriate criminal charges;

4. That the NOPD provide unfettered and immediate real time access by the Independent Police Monitor (IPM) to all shooting-related crime scenes and that any and all information related to officer related shootings be released immediately, and upon demand to the IPM;

5. That the F.B.I. is called immediately to all officer-involved shooting crime scenes – and that the F.B.I. accepts this charge as a mandate – and that the FBI is actively involved in such investigations and allowed unfettered and immediate real time access to same. Further, that the F.B.I. provide names and access to all assigned agents involved in these investigations;

6. That the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights, open an investigation immediately into any NOPD officer-involved shooting and allegation of excessive use-of-force, and allow public access to all findings at the earliest appropriate time, and

7. That Mayor Mitchell Landrieu attends a meeting of community groups to discuss his plans to address the growing sea of distrust between the NOPD and the people of New Orleans they are sworn to serve.

The tragic fatal shooting of Wendell Allen by the NOPD, the unanswered questions regarding the investigation of this calamity, the outstanding questions regarding the shooting of Earl Sipp in police handcuffs and the fatal shooting of Justin Sipp – these events alone are alarming enough, but when considered with the surge of violent crime, and the mounting credibility challenges facing Superintendent Serpas and fundamental failure of NOPD command to respectfully and effectively engage the public in the fight against violent crime have resulted in an toxic and volatile atmosphere of distrust that threatens the peace and safety of every New Orleanian. It is imperative that leadership act immediately and transparently to begin to address the evaporation of public confidence in the NOPD and city government leadership.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Bobby Jindal vs. Public Education, By Diane Ravitch

Below is an excerpt from a post by Diane Ravitch that originally appeared on the Education Week blog:

I went to Lafayette, La., last week to speak to the Louisiana School Boards Association. These men and women, representing their local schools from across the state, are trying to preserve public education in the face of an unprecedented onslaught by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state's Republican-dominated legislature. Jindal has the backing of the state's corporate leaders, the nation's biggest foundations, and some powerful out-of-state supporters of privatization for his sweeping attack on public education.

Gov. Jindal has submitted a legislative proposal that would offer vouchers to more than half the students in the state; vastly expand the number of privately managed charter schools by giving the state board of education the power to create up to 40 new charter authorizing agencies; introduce academic standards and letter grades for pre-schoolers; and end seniority and tenure for teachers.

Under his plan, the local superintendent could immediately fire any teacher—tenured or not—who was rated "ineffective" by the state evaluation program. If the teacher re-applied to teach, she would have to be rated "highly effective" for five years in a row to regain tenure. Tenure, needless to say, becomes a meaningless term, since due process no longer is required for termination.

The bill is as punitive as possible with respect to public education and teachers. It says nothing about helping to improve or support them. It's all about enabling students to leave public schools and creating the tools to intimidate and fire teachers. This "reform" is not conservative. I would say it is radical and reactionary. But it is in no way unique to Louisiana.

Gov. Jindal is in a race to the bottom with other Republican governors to see who can move fastest to destroy the underpinnings of public education and to instill fear in the hearts of teachers. It's hard to say which of them is worst: Jindal, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich of Ohio, or .... There are so many contenders for the title, it's hard to name them all. They all seem to be working from the same playbook: Remove any professionalism and sense of security from teachers; expand privatization as rapidly as possible, through charters and vouchers; intensify reliance on high-stakes tests to evaluate teachers and schools; tighten the regulations on public schools while deregulating the privately managed charter schools. Keep up the attack on many fronts, to confuse the supporters of public education.

The governors appear to be working from the ALEC playbook, ALEC (or the American Legislative Exchange Council) being an organization that shapes model legislation for very conservative state legislators.

Using the right coded language is a very important part of the assault on public education: Call it "reform." Say that its critics are "defenders of the status quo," even though the status quo is 10 years of federally mandated high-stakes testing and school closings. If possible, throw mud at the defenders of public education and say that they only have "adult interests" at heart, while the pseudo-reformers—the rich and powerful—are acting only in the interests of children.

Soon after I spoke, Jindal's newly selected State Superintendent John White had a conference call with reporters to challenge what I said, which was odd because he was not present and did not hear what I said. He had no substantive response to my research review showing that charters, vouchers, and merit pay don't produce better education. He had no substantive response to my critique of the vagaries of value-added evaluation of teachers. Instead, he pointed to the New Orleans model as a paradigm of "reform," meaning, I suppose, the benefits of closing down public schools, turning the children over to private management, breaking the teachers' union, and hiring inexperienced, uncertified teachers.

John White was selected by Jindal to lead the state after Jindal took control of the state board of education last fall. John White had led the New Orleans Recovery School District for only a few months when he was chosen to run the state. He is a former Teach for America teacher and a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Much of his time in New York City was spent closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools, the so-called portfolio approach (like the stock market, where you keep the winners and sell the losers). He had nothing to do with academic matters, with curriculum or instruction. So he is well-suited to what Bobby Jindal is trying to accomplish in Louisiana. By the way, it won't surprise you to learn that Arne Duncan applauded Jindal's appointment of White as state superintendent and called White a "visionary leader." I guess, in Duncan's worldview, a "visionary leader" is someone willing to shut down public schools no matter what the parents and local community say.

The New Orleans' "miracle" is supposed to be evidence for the value of handing public education over to private managers and uncertified teachers. But the state's own website contradicts that "miracle" narrative. The state education department rated 79 percent of the charters in the Recovery School District as D or F.

The state also reported that the New Orleans Recovery School District was next to last in academic performance of all 72 districts in the state. It has made gains, but only in comparison to its own low base line in 2007.

All this data was compiled before the Jindal takeover of the state board of education. Currently, researchers are having trouble getting any data from the state education department.

Why are the elites of both parties so eager to hand children and public dollars over to private corporations? Why are both parties complicit in the dismantling of public education? Why do so many Democrats at the top advocate what used to be known as the right-wing agenda for education? Is it all about campaign contributions? Why does the media let them get away with it? Why does anyone think that this will be good for our society in the short term or the long term? Why have the monied interests decided to privatize large swaths of public education? What happens to our democracy when the public sector is effectively whittled away or purchased by big money?