Monday, December 29, 2008

Katrina's hidden race war

When it comes to Hurricane Katrina, the tidal wave of indifference continues to wash over poor New Orleans.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, much of the national news media were initially fed tales of the most base stereotypes - rumors of marauding black people, looting, raping and pillaging.

The rumors were later proved false, but not before the damage was done.

(I must stop and point out that, for the most part, reporters, once on the ground, quickly caught up and determined what was really happening. Many journalists, at great risk to their own lives, did a remarkable job of assessing the truth of the situation - and were able to see through the spin of the Bush Administration's deception and shameful attempts at disassociation. The staff members of The Times-Picayune will forever remain my heroes.)

But back to the point of this post, even as the news media was reporting rioting by black people, it was missing another story: That of vigilante whites declaring open season on any black people who crossed into their Algiers Point neighborhood - even if those black people happened to live there.

A new investigation by A.C. Thompson writing in The Nation magazine does a powerful job at documenting the killings that took place while the city was still underwater and people were desperately seeking escape. The Truthout web site includes video of interviews here.

The Nation series also documents the New Orleans police force's woeful failure to investigate those killings. From the article Katrina's Hidden Race War:
I contacted the police department repeatedly over many months, providing the NOPD with specific questions about each incident discussed in this story. The department, through spokesman Robert Young, declined to comment on whether officers had investigated any of these crimes and would not discuss any other issues raised by this article.

Sifting through more than 800 autopsy reports and reams of state health department data, I quickly identified five New Orleanians who had died under suspicious circumstances: one, severely burned, was found in a charred abandoned auto (see "Body of Evidence," page 19); three were shot; and another died of "blunt force trauma to the head." However, it's impossible to tell from the shoddy records whether any of these people died in or around Algiers Point, or even if their bodies were found there.

No one has been arrested in connection with these suspicious deaths. When it comes to the lack of action on the cases, one well-placed NOPD source told me there was plenty of blame to go around. "We had a totally dysfunctional DA's office," he said. "The court system wasn't much better. Everything was in disarray. A lot of stuff didn't get prosecuted. There were a lot of things that were getting squashed. The UCR [uniform crime reports] don't show anything."

As I read the accounts in The Nation, the story of chaotic times and justice denied began to sound familiar. Ten years ago, I was a reporter investigating York's 1969 riots, in which two people were murdered: A white rookie cop shot by a black mob; a black preacher's daughter shot by a white mob. For 30 years, no one had ever been arrested, even though an estimated 100 people witnessed each killing and police had long had a pretty good idea who was responsible. My fellow reporters and I heard many attempts at explanations for why no one was ever brought to justice.

The explanations essentially went like this - that, yes, bad things had happened, but in the name of unity and political expediency, we need to get on with our lives and move forward.

Bury the past.

Those who said such things certainly weren't those who lost loved ones to a vigilante mob. And as William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Color of Change has launched a petition urging a legal investigation into the killings.

And Rep. John Conyers, the incoming Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a public statement last week, expressing concern and vowing to looking into the matter.

According to a follow-up story in The Nation is calling for justice, Conyers said:
"I am deeply disturbed by the reported incidents in Algiers Point, Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina," said Conyers, a Michigan Democrat. Algiers Point residents, Conyers continued, "allegedly shot randomly at African Americans who had fled to the area escaping the effects of the storm. Several injuries and deaths were reported. I am particularly concerned about accounts that local police fueled, rather than extinguished, the violence."

Lauri in York

Editor's note: If this topic interests you, please check out national ACLU's 2007 report Broken Promises about racial injustice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays from the ACLU

Each holiday season the ACLU receives anonymous Christmas cards from concerned citizens who believe we are fighting a “war on Christmas.” Many of these are lovingly hung on the wall of our office, but it saddens us that we are unable to respond to the senders, who don’t seem to realize that we are on the same side.

Take for instance the sender who writes “if you choose not to swear to God on a bible, or repeat the words ‘one nation under God’ when reciting the pledge of allegiance, that is your right, but it is also my right to do so!” We couldn’t agree more!

Or the card inscribed, “It is my constitutional right to display my Christmas tree, manger, etc.” This is absolutely true, and we would hope to get a call from anyone told otherwise so that we could defend their right to religious expression.

It is often misunderstood that the ACLU fights for religious freedom for all Americans, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or any other spiritual persuasion. While we will always fight government endorsement of any specific religion, we have fought and will continue to fight just as hard for the individual religious rights of citizens.

To clear things up, the ACLU has never told any store they should not say “Merry Christmas.” We are not trying to make Christmas a secular holiday. We are in no way opposed to Christmas or the Christian faith. In fact, we file many suits in defense of the religious rights of Christians. Just a month or so ago, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit defending the right of a Christian church near Pittsburgh to operate a ministry to the homeless. There are many more examples on our web site of the ACLU going to bat for Christians, including some specifically defending observances of Christmas.

So here’s a holiday message from the ACLU to those who celebrate Christmas: make the most of your right to religious expression! Put up the biggest Christmas tree you can find! Light your crèche so bright the electric meter spins out of control, and sing your carols at the top of your lungs. Mostly, please stop stressing about the fictional war on Christmas, enjoy the time with your family, and accept the warmest of wishes from your friends, the defenders of religious freedom at the ACLU.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Step in the Right Direction

Those who think Central Pennsylvania is a lost cause got a surprise last night when the Harrisburg City Council unanimously approved legislation creating a Life Partnership Registry. While far from a perfect solution to the problem of discrimination against the LGBT population, this marks a step forward in the struggle for equality.

The new Life Partnership Registry is open to couples who, like married couples, are 18 years of age or older, competent to contract, and freely declare that they are “solely and mutually committed to each other.” They also must share common obligations, as evidenced by common ownership of property, joint bank accounts, designation of each other as the beneficiary of life insurance policies and retirement benefits, or other factors.

The partners must sign a declaration, which includes a statement “that the persons are in a relationship of mutual support and caring, and are responsible for each other’s welfare. For these purposes, ‘mutual support’ means that they contribute mutually to each other’s maintenance and financial support.”

In his book Gay Marriage: Why It’s Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, Jonathan Rauch argues that this – mutual support and caring and responsibility for each other’s welfare – is the primary purpose of marriage and the reason why society has an interest in seeing its citizens, gay or straight, in married relationships. The legal and social ties that marriage establishes, he says, stabilize these relationships and contribute to their longevity. Marriages then serve as a vehicle for society to provide emotional support, financial assistance, care during health crises, and other benefits that the state or another entity would otherwise have to provide to the married partners.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also endorsed gay marriage because it allows two parents to mutually support and care for a child. In many states, same-sex parents are not allowed to co-adopt a child, and only one can be the legal parent. The non-biological/non-adoptive parent may be unable to access rights on behalf of the child, including health insurance, survivor benefits, consent for medical care, or visitation rights should the relationship end or the legal parent die.

Returning to reality as it stands at the present, Harrisburg’s Life Partnership Registry is far from being gay marriage. It does, however, recognize the importance of these relationships for promoting “the public health, safety, welfare, and prosperity of its citizens and generally [improving] the overall quality of life,” and confers those rights over which the city has authority. Specifically:

- health care facilities operating within the city must allow registered Life Partners the same rights and visitation privileges granted to married spouses
- for the purpose of leases, rental agreements, and real estate contracts within the city, the definition of the term “spouse” will also include registered Life Partners
- the City of Harrisburg will be required to provide health care benefits equal to those for spouses to Life Partners of its employees
- private employers in the city, as well as the City of Harrisburg, will be required to provide bereavement leave to Life Partners if that leave is offered to married spouses
- all facilities owned, leased, and operated by the city must offer Life Partners the same rights and privileges given married spouses related to the use and access of these facilities
- the City Clerk must comply with any requests from private employers who wish to use the Life Partnership Registry as the basis for providing partner benefits to its employees

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution says that, “No state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Today Harrisburg took a step toward fulfilling that promise to its LGBT citizens. We look forward to the time when gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals will truly enjoy equality under the law.

Becca in Harrisburg

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Torture me this

Last week I started to write a post about the horror of America's policy on torture under George W. Bush. The post was inspired by an NPR story last week about Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was wrongly detained during a layover at JFK in 2002 and sent to Syria, where he was tortured. Eventually, officials realized he was innocent, and Arar was released. The Canadian government awarded him $10 million for his ordeal, and last week the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in his case.

I was struck by the NPR story because the personal story can be so moving. Hearing Arar describe his experience, which you can hear at NPR's website by clicking the link above, penetrates even the deepest cynicism.

That post I started was never finished. And now since Friday, the floodgates have opened on the Bush administration's torture scandal. In the administration's waning days, the Bush crime syndicate would probably prefer to control the message of Bush's legacy. Instead, it has had to deal with the stain it has left on America's reputation and the very real damage it did in America's pursuit of national security through its use of torture.

Last Thursday, the Senate Armed Forces Committee, led by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), released a report indicating that high level administration officials, going at least as high as then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were directly responsible for torture committed by American military members. Lynndie England and Charles Graner weren't a couple of low level bad apples. They were told from on high to do what they did.

The committee report was the result of two years of investigation. It confirmed what we already knew due to the previous release of DOD and DOJ memos.

Stunningly, rather than tamping down the story, Vice President Dick Cheney has faced it head on, telling ABC News that he thinks the use of torture, including waterboarding, was appropriate. Of course, Cheney doesn't admit that the techniques used were torture. He sticks to the administration line that the United States doesn't torture, but in the same interview, within minutes, he states that he feels that all of the interrogation tactics used by the U.S., including waterboarding, were appropriate.

It is well known that torture techniques, including waterboarding, were used on al-Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and in the ABC interview, Cheney claims that about half of what we knew about al-Qaeda a few years ago came from KSM.

But Cheney's claim doesn't jibe with a new article at David Rose of VF has written a story, "Tortured Reasoning", in which counterterrorism officials from various agencies indicate that the Bush administration's use of torture not only did not produce reliable intelligence but it was also counterproductive in our country's attempt to protect itself.
In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts—with Abu Zubaydah’s case one of the most glaring examples.

Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading “information” that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.

And here's where Cheney's assertion about KSM is blown to shreds:
But according to a former senior C.I.A. official, who read all the interrogation reports on K.S.M., “90 percent of it was total f--king bulls--t.” A former Pentagon analyst adds: “K.S.M. produced no actionable intelligence. He was trying to tell us how stupid we were.”

So not only is torture morally reprehensible, it's not practical.

Incredibly, there are people out there still willing to defend this wretched practice. Philly radio talk show host Michael Smerconish told MSNBC's Chris Matthews on Wednesday on Hardball that if the US does it, it's OK.

Meanwhile, Senator Levin stated on The Rachel Maddow Show that his committee's report warrants the creation of a commission to determine if Bush administration officials should be charged with crimes. (Gotta embed this one.)

The New York Times' editorial board, meanwhile, believes the commission step should be skipped:
A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

We're all looking forward to putting this sad chapter of American history behind us, but even with a mere month remaining in the Bush administration, this story continues to have plot twists.

Andy in Harrisburg

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

America's odd institution

The death penalty continues to teeter under its own weight.

On Friday, the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment released its final report. While not unanimous, the commission's verdict was clear- the death penalty must go. By a vote of 13-9, the commission recommended repeal of the ultimate punishment in Maryland.

The commission found that:
  • The death penalty is expensive, even more expensive than life without parole
  • There is geographical bias in how Maryland carries out capital punishment. Similar crimes committed in different jurisdictions do not have equal punishment.
  • There is racial bias in Maryland's death penalty. Intentional or not, the race of the defendant and the race of the victim play a role in death sentencing.

In response, columnist Dan Rodricks of The Baltimore Sun said:
In the report from the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, the people of this state and their elected representatives have all the evidence needed to abolish the death penalty, once and for all, in the next session of the General Assembly.

But even more than that, the report presents the state with a chance to reform its criminal justice system by diverting funds from the costly and ineffective death penalty into law enforcement, juvenile intervention, medical therapies and educational and vocational services for inmates - things that, unlike capital punishment, might actually do some good.

One year ago, New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to repeal the death penalty via legislation. Maryland might be next. And soon Pennsylvania will be nearly surrounded by abolition states. If MD goes, Delaware and Ohio will be Pennsylvania's only neighbors with capital punishment.

On Monday, The Star Ledger of Newark looked at abolition in New Jersey, a year on. The article makes clear that repeal of the death penalty has not impeded the pursuit of justice in the state.

These quotes jumped out at me:
"I don't think it's made much of a difference at all other than that some of the cases that were languishing out there are now getting tried," said Richard Pompelio, executive director of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center. "The important thing for crime victims is that the process have an end, and with the death penalty there never was an end."


(Essex County prosecutor Paula) Dow said repealing the death penalty also freed prosecutors from the burden of pursuing death penalty cases in lengthy, expensive trials and prolonged appeals.

"It was a very big drain on the limited resources of law enforcement," she said. "There were long delays in the resolution of the cases, multiple appeals and very high costs associated with the handling of the litigation."

Finally, the Death Penalty Information Center released its year-end report last week and once again reports that executions and death sentences are down, even from last year's numbers, which were the lowest numbers in the modern era of the death penalty (post-1976).

As noted in an editorial by The Beaver County Times, the low executions might be a result of the national moratorium that was in place earlier this year as SCOTUS considered a challenge to the lethal injection method (a challenge that was ultimately defeated). But the continued drop in capital sentences shows that juries just are not comfortable dealing out death.

The Times notes:
America’s love affair with the death penalty may be starting to wane.


A majority of Americans still favor the death penalty. However, the United States might be reaching the tipping point when it comes to capital punishment.

A drop in violent crime is one reason. Another factor is that several states have given juries the right to impose life-without-parole sentences instead of the death penalty, and more juries are opting to do so.

Two other reasons are the growing number of exonerations because of DNA evidence — and not just in cases involving the death penalty — and increasing public awareness of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. These factors have undercut confidence in sentencing, especially harsh ones like the death penalty.

Given the flaws of the criminal justice system and the real possibility that an innocent person might be executed, it is better to spare the lives of 100 murderers than it is to execute an innocent person.

It really is no longer a question of if the death penalty will be abolished. Instead, it's a question of when.

Andy in Harrisburg


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Beware the puppet

"If I did one thing I'm proud of, it's to make people feel that together they count."
- Studs Terkel

Sigh. It never ends. Yet another story on a bunch of over-zealous cowboys, this time in Maryland, going undercover to spy on such threats to society as peace groups, puppet-makers and Quakers.

As the L.A. Times reports:
Maryland officials admit that faulty undercover operations let state police to wrongly list at least 53 Americans as terrorists in a criminal intelligence database -- and shared some information about them with half a dozen state and federal agencies, including the National Security Agency.

Those on the list include:
...two Catholic nuns, a former Democratic congressional candidate, a lifelong pacifist and a registered lobbyist. One suspect's file warned that she was "involved in puppet making and allows anarchists to utilize her property for meetings."

Of course, these spying tactics are not new. This has been going on since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, across the country and right here in our backyard.

These cases serve as a reminder of the price of fear, of the danger in letting the government bully us into silence and submission. Over the weekend, I attended a memorial celebration for Studs Terkel, a man who could never be silenced and who would never submit.

As the New York Times described him, Terkel was "the father of oral history, the voice of the American worker, a pre-eminent listener, the sage of Chicago and a champion of the underdog."

"The pages of history are cluttered with the pronouncements of presidents and military heroes," Howard Zinn, the historian, told the crowd of 800 at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. "Studs brought people back onto the pages of history, people with feelings, people with anguish and their joys."

"He was always concerned with what he called the 'et cetera' of history," Mr. Zinn added. "The people left out."

Those at the memorial remembering Terkel told wonderful stories of his insatiable curiosity and compelling interest in all those around him. But there is a story, one that was also told at the celebration, that also so clearly illustrated his courage, and the courage of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

In the 50s, Terkel was one of many writers black-listed for his support of civil-rights issues and his refusal to denounce communism. Finally, he was able to land a job when Mahalia Jackson asked him to come write for her on a new show that was created for her. The day the show was to be aired, a corporate exec from the network presented him with a loyalty oath, explaining to him that it was just a formality, but he needed to sign it. Terkel asked the man, "If the communists are against cancer, do we have to be in favor of it?" The man told Terkel that if he didn't sign the paper, he'd be fired.

Jackson overheard the exchange and told the executive that if Studs didn't work, Mahalia wouldn't sing.

Here is a link to the blog Undercover Black Man, that includes a video of one of Terkel's last interviews with Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, in which he describes what happened that day. He begins telling the story at around 2:20.

"Somebody said no. Mahalia said no." Terkel says in the interview. "And you know what happened?" he asked Goodman.


Lauri in York

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

More on Just for Jesus

Last week, we posted about our recent case for a church that cares for the homeless. ACLU-PA legal director Witold "Vic" Walczak blogged a more extensive post about the case on national ACLU's blog. Here's a small sample:
The Pennsylvania ACLU handles — and always has handled — lots of religious-liberty cases. The cases that attract people’s attention are the ones where we challenge government sponsorship of religion — freedom from government-promoted religion...

But we do an almost equal number of cases on behalf of religious people or groups fighting against government interference — the freedom of religion stuff. And we do a lot of cases for Christians, especially considering there are so many public-interest groups that do cases only for Christians (think of the ACLJ, Alliance Defense Fund, Christian Legal Society, Thomas More Law Center, etc.). While those groups favor only these cases, ACLU still represents Christians and everyone else, and we are always happy to help.

Andy in Harrisburg

Labels: , ,

WSJ takes note of downfall of anti-immigrant crowd

Updated below

You may recall my post-election reaction to the downfall of hardline, anti-immigrant politicians. Today the Wall Street Journal also took note of "More Immigration Losers".
Virginia Republican Congressman Virgil Goode's narrow loss to Democrat Tom Perriello became official last week, and it caps another bad showing for immigration restrictionists. For the second straight election, incumbent Republicans who attempted to turn illegal immigration into a wedge issue fared poorly.


Immigration wasn't a dominant issue this fall, and other factors contributed more to the GOP defeat. But the political reality is that Republicans who thought that channeling Lou Dobbs would save their seats will soon be ex-Members.

America's Voice did an excellent post-election analysis, before the Goode loss, called "Fenced In" (pdf). (I love that title.) The report looks at 21 congressional races that included an extreme anti-immigrant candidate. In 19 of those races, the extremist lost.

AV also produced this inspiring video before the election.

It's time for elected officials and candidates in Harrisburg and in Washington to come to grips with this reality: Hating on immigrants is the best way to a quick retirement.

Updated, 3:58pm:And there's this from political observer Charlie Cook, who surveyed Republican strategists. One strategist had this to say:
"Fourth, stop being [misguided] on immigration. We are alienating huge parts of the electorate, we are turning our primaries into single issue 'hate' contests and ignoring the single fastest growing bloc of voters in the country."

Andy in Harrisburg

Labels: , ,

Fight defamation! Award the medal of freedom!

Or Bill Kristol is such a jerk

You gotta read this. No really. You…just…gotta…read…this.

William Kristol writes in the Weekly Standard that President George Bush should not only consider himself an old-fashioned last-minute preemptive pardoning spree of any and all folks who participated in the "War on Terror," but (get this) he should also award them the Medal of Freedom.

Bush should consider pardoning--and should at least be vociferously praising--everyone who served in good faith in the war on terror, but whose deeds may now be susceptible to demagogic or politically inspired prosecution by some seeking to score political points. The lawyers can work out if such general or specific preemptive pardons are possible; it may be that the best Bush can or should do is to warn publicly against any such harassment or prosecution. But the idea is this: The CIA agents who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and the NSA officials who listened in on phone calls from Pakistan, should not have to worry about legal bills or public defamation. In fact, Bush might want to give some of these public servants the Medal of Freedom at the same time he bestows the honor on Generals Petraeus and Odierno. They deserve it.

Let's forget for the moment about why those who have engaged in torture or illegal spying should be protected from public criticism. Let's focus instead on what the Medal of Freedom is supposed to be about. According to the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
Recipients of the medal are those who have made outstanding contributions to the security or national interest of the United States or to world peace, or those who have made a significant public or private accomplishment.

Sniff. Beautiful. Gets this red-blooded freedom-loving girl a little misty around the eyes.

Except that, as Andrew Sullivan writes in his Atlantic Monthly blog The Daily Dish:
There is no "witch-hunt" for CIA staffers ordered by their superiors to commit war crimes.

However, there remain questions. Very big, very constitutional questions. Whether President-elect Barack Obama will call for a governmental investigation into war crimes is still being debated - even though, as Sullivan points out, there may be very well be a vital need to hold those at the top accountable.

But to even suggest that the president - so obviously trying to dodge that door slamming shut right now on his butt - should use the highest civilian award to honor those folks who have spent the past eight years committed to shredding the very document on which this nation has been built is a suggestion of obscenely cynical proportions.

Lauri in York

Editor's note: To this day, I'm still in awe of the fact that the NY Times thought it was a good idea to give this nutcase a weekly column. He's the classic example of failing upward. "Wrong about everything? You, too, can be a high paid columnist and analyst, just like Bill Kristol!" --Andy in Harrisburg

Labels: , , , ,