Prosecutors Gone Wild

New Orleans   For months I had heard the stories of the abuse by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office of two so-called “material witnesses.” The DA was trying to compel them to testify about gang violence, so in each case they were jailed. The young, single mother was being pressured that she risked losing her children to the state while in jail. The young man was being held in order to force him to testify or lose his job because he was incarcerated. Did I mention that these were potential witnesses, even though they were being rough-handled ruthlessly as if they were criminals. Needless to say both of them were African-Americans.

Headlines in the local news services this week trumpeted the fact that prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office finally conceded that they would drop the practice of issuing written notices labeled “supoena” and threatening jail time and fines that they had been using for years to trick potential witnesses into talking with them. Prosecutors admitted that the DA’s office does not have the authority to issue subpoenas without court orders from a judge.

This is not just New Orleans. These kinds of untrammeled, wildly unaccountable actions by local prosecutors from US Attorney offices to local district attorneys is increasingly seen as responsible for the epidemic of mass incarceration and blatant discrimination which has filled the nation’s prisons even while crime rates have been dropping.

This point was made starkly in a recent book by James Foreman, Jr., son of the late civil rights leader, in a book he wrote entitled, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Besides his points on prosecutors, including former US Attorney General Eric Holder during his time as US Attorney in Washington, DC, he puts the shoe firmly on the collusion of local police and prosecutors:

When we ask ourselves how America became the world’s greatest jailer, it is natural to focus on bright, shiny objects: national campaigns, federal legislation, executive orders from the Oval Office. But we should train our eyes, also, on more mundane decisions and directives, many of which took place on the local level. Which agency director did a public official enlist in response to citizen complaints about used syringes in back alleys? Such small choices, made daily, over time, in every corner of our nation, are the bricks that built our prison nation

Another recent author was even more severe in pointing the finger of responsibility at prosecutors by looking at the numbers and the impact of various policy decisions, making the point that…

While violent crime was increasing by 100% between 1970 and 1990, the number of “line” prosecutors rose by only 17%. But between 1990 and 2007 when the crime rate began to fall, the number of prosecutors went up 50% and the number of prisoners went up with it.

None of this has to do with justice. This is state-sanctioned vigilantism shielded by politics and demagoguery. The local prosecutors’ offices is where real reform has to begin.

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Depressing Reports on the State of Union Organizing

USW campaign to organize at Pitt

New Orleans   Just by the luck of the draw in a 48-hour period I happened to have a chance at some “state of the unions” shoptalk with three former high ranking union officials with deep backgrounds in organizing as well as a younger former organizer whose current work forces him to try to find the pulse of union organizing around the country from the rank-and-file forward. Spoiler alert: it was really depressing, especially in these times that cry for a revival of a workers’ movement demanding change.

Let’s have some good news first.

There’s been progress in organizing adjunct professors, graduate students, and other university employees by several unions. These kinds of workers may not be at the heartbeat of the labor movement in some peoples’ estimation, but more pink and white collar workers in unions is always good news for the future and a hope that more trickles down. The shifting emphasis by unions like the Service Employees towards airport-based workers and subcontractors is achieving some successes, especially along Atlantic Coast cities. A unit here and there of hospital workers breaking through to win elections on the West Coast still holds hope as well. There was some hints that some workers’ centers are migrating from service provision, job training and referral to assisting immigrant workers in organizing unions.

And, now for the rest of the news.

The McDonalds’ initiative and much of the Fight for Fifteen which propelled some cities and states to raise their minimum wages, seems virtually all over but the shouting. The encouraging efforts supported by large unions and federations to develop what I have called “majority union” strategies among Walmart workers nationally and warehouse workers in the Imperial Valley of California have now seen their support wither so substantially, as their sponsors have pulled the plug, that they are trying to subsist at some level almost like advocacy organizations hoping to score foundation and various philanthropic funding.

In fact several conversations veered dangerously into the “grasping for straws” area of how to shore up declining organizing prospects and membership dues support for worker organizing with private monies. A social media action network that seemed to be growing rapidly to support organizing and union work was trying to figure out how to appeal to foundations. Workers’ centers who were debating helping organize unions, shop to shop, were asking for advice in mapping the borderline between their tax exempt, nonprofit status, and the more direct work entailed in actually union organizing, which is not exempt.

Several former officials speculated that membership figures of various unions were being propped up by “creative accounting” of associate members and various affiliations of worker associations in order to maintain the public claims of membership strengths even as actual full-fledged dues payers were dropping precipitously. Such moves might be politically tactical and even defensible in a more expansive view of worker organization, similar to what I have advocated, especially in these trying times, but are certainly not strategic as organizing strategies, and, needless to say, are not sustainable. Meanwhile published reports indicate that a lawyer being vetted for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board is a certified and registered union-buster or “persuader” as they call themselves, currently involved in trying to take away recognition for over 20,000 home health care workers in Minnesota in the ongoing efforts to push back on the area of greatest organizing success for organized labor in the last generation of organizers.

What’s the old saying, “if it weren’t for bad news, there wouldn’t be any news at all?”

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Ask El Chapo About the Wall

New Orleans   There seems little question that El Chapo, also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera, the infamous Mexican drug lord and leader of the Sinaloa cartel, would have to be classified in President Trump’s words as a “bad hombre.” He is alleged to have ordered the killing of thousands in Mexico’s bloody drug wars of recent years, but he is perhaps more famous in the United States as a serial prison escapee having broken out twice from high-security prison facilities in Mexico, once in a laundry cart and then again after he was recaptured his gang members were able to dig a tunnel a mile long that ended up in the shower of his prison cell to bust him loose. After his last capture, he was extradited to the US and has more recently been calling home, a 17 by 18 foot prison cell in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan which is also know as 10 South, where he is held in solitary for about 23 hours per day.

El Chapo is not a happy camper wearing an “I Love New York” button these days. A report in the New York Times says he has had his public defenders file numerous petitions with the court demanding reforms in his imprisonment. As a putative prison reformer, he has asked that Amnesty International investigate conditions in the prison, which unsurprisingly prosecutors have resisted in their pleadings. He has complained about the quality of the tap water, which might be a comment on the New York City infrastructure, in his request for bottled water. He also has raised a beef about the inability in the exercise area to see the television because it is placed at a bad angle to the stationary bike and the treadmill preventing a twofer experience in his break from solitary.

Perhaps El Chapo does have a small contribution to make as an adviser of sorts to the President about the construction of the wall between Mexico and the United States. He does have a research staff it turns out. Lawyers and others visit with him 21-hours per week preparing his defense. Undoubtedly, his ability to dedicate this kind of time would exceed the time that President Trump has really spent thinking about the problem of the wall from financing to security.

In the “Ask El Chapo” prison news column, if prisoners were allowed such, it’s easy to imagine the questions that might come flying about the wall. Would a wall be enough to keep anyone out who wanted to come to El Norte or is the wall just a giant construction and employment project, sort of a big real estate deal which Trump would understand best? Would the wall be able to stop this whole tunneling thing? What should we do about the hundreds and hundreds of miles of gaps that the generals running Homeland Security think would still exist along the border, would this be a deterrence for El Chapo and his crew or anyone else? El Chapo clearly knows a lot about getting out, maybe the White House needs to take advantage of his free time now to ask him more questions about getting “in?” All of his years of moving drugs across the border could help make El Chapo the Answer Man for the President about whether or not this is wall is worth the $60 billion or so that some experts are estimating it would cost. Maybe some hard facts from El Chapo might convince President Trump that this whole wall thing is just a waste of time and money.

El Chapo is now a New Yorker, just like the President, and god knows he probably is a gazillionaire as well, if he could get his hands on his stash, and certainly his tax returns are as unavailable and invisible as the President’s as well. El Chapo seems just the kind of guy who Trump would be able to identify with so that they could have a heart-to-heart about the wall and really make some sense of this nonsense. Let’s “Ask El Chapo!”

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And, the Civil War Monuments Come Down

New Orleans   Mi companera was happy for a number of reasons this morning.

She liked the fact that there was a positive comment about a Southerner on the front page of the New York Times. The reporter in dissecting the bad boy antics and ruthless operation of Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, had told a story his being summoned to a meeting at Apple where engineers had discovered that his company was breaking their rules of operation. In the meeting, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple confronted the Uber exec by saying, “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Cook said – now hear this – “in his calm, Southern tone.” You can see why she was excited. How often do any of us see “calm” and “Southern” in the same sentence. It just doesn’t happen.

But, that was the icing on her cake on this particular morning. She had awakened to beeps on her phone that she described to me later as Twitter being “on fire.” The first of the long promised and long delayed removal of four Civil War and Reconstruction monuments in the City of New Orleans had been accomplished under the cover of darkness, outfoxing opponents who were on a self-proclaimed vigil to protest and attempt to block the removal and had long delayed the efforts with legal maneuvers and anonymous threats to contractor bidders of violence and mayhem.

The first to go was, if anything, the least defensible, the so-called “Liberty” Monument or more formally the Battle of Liberty Place monument, that memorialized the efforts of white New Orleanians to oppose the post-Civil War Reconstruction government in the city and state. This was not the first trip the monument had taken. Under a previous mayor, Sidney Barthlemy, the second African-American mayor elected in the city, it had been moved in 1993 and placed almost in hiding behind a parking lot structure near Canal Street. The plaque was changed at the time. Where previously the language had expressly commemorated white supremacy, it was rewritten to commemorate the courage of the local police force in opposing the vigilante efforts by various parts of the racist, white community to turn back the clock. For a long time the monument had been the staging ground for various racist groups around Louisiana to rally, hoot and holler.

Hiding behind the true facts, local reporters interviewed a man who claimed to be a great grandson of one of the men listed on the Liberty Place monument. He claimed his relative had only recently arrived from Ireland, never owned slaves, and had not been part of the War Between the States. He claimed that his fore-bearer and his associates had only been fighting to maintain the role of state and city rights versus those of the federal government, responsible in this case for Reconstruction after the war that had temporarily empowered and elected some African-Americans to public office. He may have wanted to believe that, but of course it wasn’t true, and the original plaque, had he been willing to acknowledge it, would have made his remarks a lie, even as he spoke them.

This monument and the others that will now follow will go to much less visible hiding places elsewhere in the city, but these are concrete and marble embarrassments that have long divided this city and so many others in the South, allowing “calm” and Southern to be more comfortable reside together in many sentences, cities, and states around the South for everyone, not just for the few still trying to breathe something different in the hate that has scarred these communities for too long.

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Heartbreaking Stories of Housing Ripoffs

New Orleans   Meeting with friends and lawyers in Austin, Texas, including my longtime, go-to-counselor for organizational and personal matters, we had stopped briefly on the way to their celebrated annual spring crayfish boil for a cup of coffee and to watch marchers with homemade signs hearing towards the Texas capitol in the name of science. Later in the back patio of the law firm’s offices in a downtown house, while we watched young people take their turns at stirring the four boiling pots filled with crayfish, potatoes, corn, mushrooms, and even sausage, we found ourselves talking about how in the world it could be legal for the contract for deed and rent to own real estate predators to be able to stay in business given their total lack of compliance with local laws or contractual ethics of any kind whatsoever.

We discussed the lawsuit filed in Cincinnati, Ohio by that city to try and collect $335,000 in fines and penalties from Harbour Portfolio, the Dallas-based private equity vulture financier of contract-for-deed sales, and whether or not the company would run from the business. We made plans to challenge any application that the principals might make to acquire banking assets in Arkansas with our organizational allies there.

Where there was no question was that these companies had to be stopped. On the way to the airport, I read a report from Craig Robbins of Action United in Philadelphia who had been part of our recent doorknocking teams in Pittsburgh, Akron, and Youngstown. On a recent call, we had asked him to jot down any stories that we could put on the Home Savers Campaign website from the visits he was making with Vision Property Management, the South Carolina based rent-to-own predator. I opened the email and here is what I read:

Maria Rodriguez and her husband “purchased” the house at 917 Sanger St., in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia for $65,500, almost 4 years ago. Their credit was not that good, so Vision seemed like a good way to pursue their dream of home ownership. They both worked: he as a landscaper and she worked at a hotel doing housekeeping. Contract was signed on 9/1/13 w/BAT Holdings 8, LLC. They put down $2000, plus $465 as the monthly lease payment, $105 for real estate taxes, $30 for general liability insurance, or $2600 as an initial payment and $600 a month. Contract runs until August 2020. $57.06, +2000 initial option, of the monthly payment is credited toward the purchase price. Maria and her husband have put about $25,000 in the property-huge issues when moving in like unpaid water bills, no heating or electrical system. They believed that at the end of the contract, in 2020, they would own the property and get the deed. Instead, they will have paid $6,793 toward the $65000 house price. On Aug 30, 2020 they have 3 options: give Vision a check for $58,206; walk away, or they can convert to seller financing with a new contract for the remaining $58K. Like all the Vision properties people we’ve talked to, this was a total surprise.

Change the names and the listing price and this is the story of Vision – and many companies like it – all over the country. They have to be stopped.

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Charters Don’t Change School Segregation

New Orleans   In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans public schools were hijacked through a state takeover that made the city the largest charter school experiment in the country. A special grant from President George W. Bush became an offer too good for the state to turn down as it muscled aside the publicly elected school board and set about redesigning the school system. Where the charter movement had been stopped in the past by requirements for concurring votes by the system, the parents, and the teachers, the union was broken and the takeover was complete.

There were a number of claims for what this takeover might mean. Most of them have not been met, including improvements in test scores and student performance. A proposal to turn over the last five non-charter schools to a newly minted charter operator was suddenly withdrawn, preventing the system from now being 100% charterized. The school board is gradually replacing the state recovery district, so there is hope for local control once again.

One claim though that the charter-boosters had maintained as a premise for their bold experiment is that the school system under their control would be more equally integrated by race and income. Making the whole city open-admissions was supposed to be a workaround for residential segregation in this majority African-American city. On that score the experiment has earned an F minus.

This must have been a bitter pill for the Tulane Education Research Alliance for New Orleans to report since Tulane and its then president had been huge backers of the charter movement including funding one school, essentially for their own staff and professors. The report indicated the following:

  • High school segregation increased for students who were African-American, Latino, low-income or learning English.
  • White students were just as likely to be concentrated in particular schools as they were pre-Katrina.
  • The typical low-income student is in a school that is 78% low-income, which is 6% worse than before the storm.
  • Before, Katrina, only one high school was less than 80% black out of 125 campuses, now with far fewer schools, six are less than 80%.

Most devastatingly, the district was 92% African-American before Katrina and is now 85% African-American, in spite of some significant demographic changes in the city. Tellingly, private and parochial schools enroll a majority of the city’s white students. Parents simply did not buy the charter’s claim and elect more diverse schools. They continued to self-segregate. This is not a surprising pattern, but more the norm. The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, according to the Times-Picayune, has repeatedly found that charter schools are “generally more segregated than public schools.” Penn State researchers have found that black and Latino students “tended to move into charter schools that were more racially isolated than the public schools they left.”

Charters still seem mainly about privatization and imposed ideology. The notion that they increase diversity based on income and race seems to just be a cover story, and is certainly not proven out in New Orleans or other cities to date.

***

Please enjoy Shelly Fairchild’s Mississippi Turnpike. Thanks to KABF.

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