Hot Check Court Another Debtors’ Prison for the Poor

Sherwood's Hot Check Court Arktimes

Sherwood’s Hot Check Court arktimes.com

Little Rock   My brother-in-law and I agree on a million things, but those are family things, construction projects, upkeep of my trailers, automotive advice, and fixing anything and everything, but we do our best to NOT talk about politics, because he’s what you might call a Huckabee-man in Arkansas terms, and I’m anything but. We know where each other stands, so we know how to walk around most of the rocks in the road. This morning at dawn before I pulled out he said, “You got to see this!” He was following the news on Facebook, so I went over and looked over his shoulder where he was pointing. “Do you know about the “hot check” court? They’re running a debtors’ prison over in Sherwood.” I was all no, yes, and out the door. What the heck was a “hot check” court?

He was on to something though. Out of curiosity, I googled hot check court in Sherwood, which is a suburban enclave in Pulaski County across the Arkansas River and up the road from Little Rock. What you find with Google’s help is that, yes indeed, the City of Sherwood actually has a “Hot Check Division” of the Sherwood District Court of Pulaski County. How could it be that this little town has enough hot checks to have its own division? Are people driving from all over the county, the state, and the South in order to try and pass hot checks? The answer is, yes, sort of.

What had caught my brother-in-law’s eye was that the ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had joined to file a suit for several defendants over the practices of this hot check division arguing that they were effectively running a court as a money printing machine exploiting low income defendants by larding on fines, court costs, and penalties connected with the original offense to milk the defendant and when they couldn’t bleed them dry, they were jailing them to keep the system going. The lawyers weren’t shy about referencing how similar this Arkansas mess was to Ferguson, Missouri where this was a system on steroids. They were also quick to mention that the Justice Department had jumped in and sued several venues around the country for using minor infractions as cash machines for their towns and cities.

In a report by the Associated Press one plaintiff is a good example of this system:

The plaintiffs in the case include Nikki Petree, a 40-year-old Arkansas woman who has been in jail for more than 25 days because she was unable to pay more than $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to a bounced check she wrote in 2011 for $28.93. According to the lawsuit, Petree initially faced $700 in court fines, fees and restitution, but the amount ballooned over the years due to related failure to appear and failure to pay charges.

The City of Sherwood of course denies everything. Their claims though seem hollow. They argue that it is only after the third or fourth hot check that they jail someone, and that they offer payment plans to resolve the earlier problems. I’m sure no one has every bounced a check, which is what a hot check is, essentially an NSF or non-sufficient funds matter, but these days if you are on not on top of your balances or a deposit goes bad, you could bounce a half-dozen checks in one sitting, bing, bam, boom! And, the City is in cahoots with the County, because Pulaski County has been sending over hot checks for more than 40 years to Sherwood to crank this ATM for them.

The AP reports that this adds up to a pretty penny.

The groups say Sherwood relies on the hot check fines and fees as a significant revenue source for its operations. The city’s receipts from district court fines and forfeitures were estimated to be at least $2.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Sherwood’s third-highest revenue source after city and county sales taxes, the lawsuit said.

Before you start South-bashing and pretending that this is just something you find in the backwoods or in broke-ass states like Arkansas, the lawyers are clear this situation exists in a lot of counties around the state for sure, but all of us know that this is common increasingly all over the South and the country, and certainly not confined to Missouri, Arkansas, North Carolina, and other places that have been in the news for creating modern day debtors’ prisons on the backs of the poor in order to avoid fair taxation and harder political choices.

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What Happened to Community Economic Development Strategy?

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Greenville, Mississippi    Driving between New Orleans and Little Rock on my monthly route to oversee the 100,000 watt KABF in Little Rock and our union operations in Arkansas, you hopscotch from Vicksburg, Mississippi on Interstate 20 to Tallulah, Louisiana in one of the poorest parishes in that state, and go north on highway 65 through Sondheimer and Transylvania until you cross into Arkansas and Eudora. When you come to the dead end at the lake, you can either go left to Lake Village and on up to Little Rock or go right for sixteen miles and cross a modern newish bridge over the Mississippi and land in the delta town of Greenville. I had heard there was a small radio station facing some challenges in Greenville and though I had been missing a connection, it was only a half-hour out of my way to do some cold doorknocking and see if there was any way I could lend a hand.

I was interested in more than WDSV 91.9 FM and 1500 watts of power. In trying to track down the folks at WDSV, I had hit the web to see if MACE, Mississippi Action for Community Education, was still alive and well. It turned out that in fact the old “twin” organization, the Delta Foundation, was actually the license holder for WDSV. When ACORN was still a young organization in Arkansas and starting to expand, we would frequently cross paths with MACE and the Delta Foundation. Funders would ask how we were different and in some cases, suggest we should stop this community organizing stuff and just do economic development like Delta. Ed Brown, the founder of the Delta Foundation was from Baton Rouge, and was helpful when I was opening the ACORN office in New Orleans where he was living then before moving to Africa and later Atlanta. Charles Bannerman, his assistant from New York City, who ended up as the executive director of Delta was a legendary fundraiser and the darling of foundations, large and small, until his untimely death, and many ACORN leaders and organizers were Bannerman fellows over the years, which has become his legacy. Larry Farmer, the MACE community organizer, was my buddy and ally on the Youth Project board. I had been out of touch for decades, so it was worth a detour just to see what was up.

The Mississippi delta is one of the lowest income areas in the country and with its African-American majority the scene of civil rights struggles that in many ways haven’t ended yet. Economically, when you drive through Greenville, you see an abandoned housing project, for sale signs on empty warehouses, and downtown vacancies side by side with current commercial operations. When people talk about economic recovery, the conversation lingers over decades rather than just the last few years.

The Delta Foundation’s building was big and on Main Street. They had been in the small, select group of organizations that were the model for what community economic development might mean in the 70s. Two ladies saw me in the parking lot looking across the street at two radio stations. I was wondering if WDSV was over there, rather than here. They said, no, and showed me the side door where you entered the building. A woman operating a site where you could enroll in pre-TSA airport screening, helped me find the station and called up for folks to come visit with me. We then had a productive session that finally had to end after three hours so I could get on to Little Rock.

Visiting with them and with one of the original founders, Spencer Nash, who was on his way to retirement and had come back to Delta and Greenville from McComb where he had been a judge to run the organization. There had been some problems and a significant debt had to be retired, but in talking with him, it was clear the challenges were deeper than that for Delta. Their strategy had been to buy small manufacturing plants to create jobs in the Mississippi delta region. I asked him about a plant that I remembered they had bought in Memphis that made window fans. Long gone. Nash told me they had also recently sold their plant in Little Rock where they made retractable attic stairways. They had one small manufacturing operation still in the Greenville area. What happened? Nash said that competitors had moved to Mexico, and the Delta couldn’t compete on the labor costs. They provided loans and other small services now in addition to operating the radio station. In some ways their highly touted economic development strategy had been collateral damage swept up by the tidal wave of globalization that has exacerbated inequity by obliterating decently waged manufacturing jobs.

Seems like for this strategy to have continued to work, we would have needed a policy that “sheltered” job development projects like those owned by Delta from NAFTA and the backwash of globalization. We didn’t. And, we won’t, and it’s too late now. AM/FM, KABF, and WAMF, will help WDSV become a community force for our friends in the Delta, but there needs to be a broader and more effective strategy that works for today. Nash told me that my friends and comrades had now all passed away as well, but the problems remain and the banner has to be carried forward!

***

Please enjoy Dwight Yoakam’s Purple Rain. Thanks to KABF.

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Professor Lead-Head: A Zealot? No Way!

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Dr. Marc Edwards and doctoral student William Rhoads (left) examine pipes in a home in Flint, Michigan.

Little Rock   I should just start with some disclosures. For years my ears have been inches away from a thousand conference calls, shouts of outrage at newspaper articles, and screams at television sets for the level of ignorance and ignoring of the dangers of lead pretty much on land, sea, and air all around us. Enough so that a favored Christmas gift to our family several years ago was a water filtration system for our house. We would constantly joke about “lead heads.” I hope I’m making myself clear.

Mostly, I learned to nod at the right times, slow down if we ever happened to drive by a home rehab site that was using open air sanding, and highlight any articles in the paper or elsewhere when I stumbled over them, but gradually like lead itself, all of this began to sink in more and more clearly. Recently, as I have reported on radio and in these reports, we have been pushing schools with ACORN’s affiliates and with Local 100 United Labor Unions to test for lead in water, using the crisis in Flint, Newark, and other cities to put wind in our sails so that victory has seemed both imminent and inevitable.

When I saw there was a feature in the Sunday New York Times Magazine involving one of the heroes of the lead-safe movement, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, I put it on the stack to read in full, knowing it was important, and that I would probably be quizzed about it later. I asked my companera, “What does the title mean, ‘The Zealot? Are they knocking your guy?” She answered, she wasn’t sure, might be the other guy in the article?

Well, I got around to reading the piece finally, and, I’m sure, they were body slamming Professor Edwards with that headline, though I understand the confusion. The reporter, Donovan Hohn, casts these aspersions widely using more inference than evidence. We are sidetracked around the fact that he is a Republican and a libertarian. The reporter tries to introduce a false paradox about whether a scientist can also be an advocate, even a Cassandra. Those seemed like low-blows. Republicans can like drinking clean water, just as there were Republicans who were consumer advocates and who vote for environmental issues. Libertarians don’t trust government. On that there is almost universal consensus across the political spectrum, and, frankly, we need more scientists who are loud and clear advocates given the threats we face, especially ones that are willing to speak truth to power.

The reporter does score some points arguing that it would be nice if Edwards built more capacity for local fights and used himself more as a nail in these controversies and was less like a hammer. That’s a point a community and labor organizer like me would make. If reporters for the Times are going to start leveling the playing field and join those of us in the “let’s build power for the people” program, they are going to have to lobby to add a few more pages to every day’s paper, because they would have to rewrite half of their articles about politicians, artists, movie stars, and every story where they focus is on the individual, rather than the collective, the “hero,” rather than the community, the big “I’s” rather the huge “We’s.” I’m ready, but until they change their standard, it seems like they are rough handling Professor Edwards.

Our experience with Edwards has been the opposite of this story. In the fight in Houston, we have reached out to him several times. He knows we are union, it’s clear from the email address to the questions, and he has been immediately accessible, totally responsive, and completely helpful. In New Orleans when A Community Voice pushed the issue, he gave them instant credibility in moving school board members to contact him, and he has been totally responsive in that situation as well. He has asked for no credit, hogged no press, and been totally supportive in each and every instance.

I could call out people and name names of scores of similar professors and big whoops where you can’t even get a response to an email, much less real help of any kind.

Zealot? If fighting for clean water and justice makes you a zealot, well, we’re charter members of that group, and we’re recruiting every day for more folks to join our ranks. Welcome aboard, Professor Edwards! Hopefully in your lab you’ve learned the old truth that when you stir the water, you’re going to get wet, too!

Dr. Edwards addressing the water crisis in Flint.

Dr. Edwards with community members addressing the water crisis in Flint.

***

 

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Where You Live Could Kill You Faster

SSM Population Health

SSM Population Health  Age-standardized annual probability of death among U.S.-born women aged 45–89 years.

New Orleans    Many of us live where we live, where work has brought us, or where family keeps us. Maybe we live where we have come to love the land or the local culture? Maybe we live where we managed to hang on to a house or bought a small piece in a patch where we thought we might want to spend lots of time someday or some summer when it was too hot, or winter when it was too cool. None of us probably include in the equation that by living one place or another we could literally be bringing reality to the expression, “I’m dying to live there!”

Sadly, studies are now emerging that go to the heart of why life expectancy has been lagging, particularly for American women, although American men are not gaining much time these days either. Looking at extensive population data, researchers are finding that discounting all other factors including wealth, employment, and marital status, where women live could mean life and death. Since where you live could also impact on issues like whether or not your state has favorable maternity and parental leave policies, this hits women particularly hard, and could take years off their lives. Social and economic scores were critical because advancing inequity where you live also is not just an issue of justice, but life itself.

In studies being published in SSM Population Health and reported by the New York Times, the residential life lottery ranks the states with the best scores as Hawaii, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont. Good news for them, but bad news for many of the rest of us, since other than Hawaii almost nobody lives in the other states on that list, and even fewer want to move there for goodness sakes. Other than Hawaii, these are also just about lily white states, which quickly brings us to the states with the worst scores and you can hear the sounds of “Dixie” playing in the background: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New York. Huge income inequality accounts for New York being part of the New South. For women, the list was not much different. The best were Hawaii, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota made this list as well. Women hit hard luck in a different array of states though which included Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

All of this is in spite of the creation of Medicaid and Medicare over the last 50 years, and even more recently the Affordable Care Act. Looking at the states in-and-out of Medicaid expansion didn’t solve the problem. In the worst list, only New York had expanded coverage until Louisiana just came onto the list. In the best, South Dakota and Nebraska rank high, but haven’t expanded while Nevada and West Virginia drag down even though they have.

All of which means there is no quick fix to this. It’s not a matter of just figuring out where the best hospital in your community might be. It’s got to be the pretty much the whole package of social and economic improvements to lengthen lives of both men and women.

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Rigged Elections and Delegitimized Democracy Increasing Polarization

 A rally last week in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton said voter registration efforts were the best tactic against Donald J. Trump. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

A rally last week in Philadelphia, where Hillary Clinton said voter registration efforts were the best tactic against Donald J. Trump. Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

New Orleans    The early warning signal was a report that 40% of recently surveyed Republicans already believed that ACORN was going to steal the election between Trump and Clinton. Yes, that’s down from the even higher percentages reported on other surveys since 2008 arguing that ACORN stole both elections for President Obama, but it’s still total falsehood and fantasy backed by not one iota of proof, not to mention the fact that ACORN has not operated in the United States since 2010, which seems to trouble none of these conspiratorialists in the least about such a zombie attack on election purity.

Now Trump partnered with the hate mongering, fact-adverse Breitbart bunch is putting out its first television advertisements with the subliminal headline, “Rigged,” flashing across the screen. Trump told his rallies in Pennsylvania that the polls were all corrupt and that the only way he could lose the election in Pennsylvania was if the election was stolen and the whole process was rigged. Normally, these would be tactics only associated with what we would usually call, “sore losers,” except that Trump seems to have virtually trademarked the word “loser,” and may not realize yet, as he undoubtedly will soon, how permanently that moniker will stick to him for the rest of his life, perhaps even in epic, historic terms.

If this were just about Trump, we could easily ignore his attempt to inoculate his fanboys and girls from what is increasingly seeming like the inevitable. The problem, as we have all sadly seen in the eight-year war by the right to delegitimize Obama, is that such a strategy is designed to polarize and erode democracy, which in the vicious circle of our political life, also paved the way for a Trump candidacy. Many will remember from his earliest days in office when President Obama, then a naïve democracy advocate, tried to remind the Congressional Republicans that he “had won the election,” believing that the mandate from the voters came with an understanding that some of his positions should be implemented in policy. We don’t believe any of that nonsense in Washington anymore that somehow the voters will deserves respect. It’s dog-eat-dog period, and the people take the hindmost, which is happening on a state-by-state basis where the rightwing has been able to work their will without restraint.

What does this augur? If Hillary Clinton prevails, will we once again watch her try to be bipartisan, as Obama did, and fail while the right quickly tries to reframe a defeat as not about them but about the flawed Trump candidacy?

Some are advancing the theory that the Senate could change hands if the Trump defeat continues on its current abysmal trajectory. A turnover of four or five seats would make the difference there for four years until 2020 when more Democratic seats are up for grabs, but that wouldn’t break through the logjam, even if it would hedge against our worst nightmares. For the House to flip, thirty or so seats would have to change, and most pundits are estimating only half of that will happen.

It’s depressing when the end of this polarized dysfunction still seems nowhere in sight, even as November’s outcome seems more and more inevitable.

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No Place to Hide from Climate Change

Baton Rouge area

Baton Rouge area

New Orleans   For the second time this year Louisiana has been hit by unexpected flooding. The latest and most horrific is the so-called 1000-year rain and flooding event that has already pushed more than 87,000 to apply for FEMA relief and has decimated homes and communities in East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and Tangipahoa Parishes. A cloud formation hung over these areas on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, overfilling rivers, canals, and bayous with rising water with no place to go, and actually pushing water backwards against and reversing normal flow. So many of these areas were outside – far outside – of normal flood maps and low-lying areas that the vast majority, in some cases more than 90%, had no flood insurance meaning that the likely $30,000 cap on assistance will leave tens of thousands of families far short of recovery.

It’s not the Katrina of 2005, but it’s a big league disaster. Taylor Swift has committed one-million. Lady Gaga has come in with a big pledge. Trump and Pence have been down. Obama is coming next week. Many are thanking the “Cajun navy” of volunteers in skiffs running up and down the waterways for rescuing thousands. Big retail, like Walmart and Home Depot, are stepping up. Sadly, this is a scene we’re seeing repeated too frequently now. This is more like “standard operating procedure,” than emergency preparation or reaction.

Is there any place to hide from this level of emerging climate change and the disasters it triggers? How many times does a 500-year or 1000-year rain become so common that such an event becomes a 100-year rain or just something we see with regularity? Will this kind of rain become the “new normal” in Louisiana and elsewhere?

One of the morning papers speculated on what the difference might have been if several proposed diversion and reservoir projects had been implemented or completed. Looking at the charts, it might have saved 30% of the homes in some areas, but these would have been big-time infrastructure projects, and the experts seemed to be saying that it was probably cheaper to let the water come than make a place for it. That’s a sobering conclusion. The reality of climate change may be to keep your valuables on the second floor and keep a canoe on your patio and a generator at the ready like I do in New Orleans. You get the message: we’re on our own now, less citizens, and more survivalists.

And, we’re not talking about temperatures rising and their impact as well. A map the New York Times showed the distribution of the coming heatwave of over 100 degree days by 2060 and 2100. 77 days in Hot Springs, 98 in Dallas, 62 in Houston, 77 in Jackson, 64 in Memphis, and even 39 days in the home of humidity, New Orleans. Outside of the upper northwest and upper northeast around Maine, the only areas not sweltering ran along the western slope of the Rockies and nearby areas from northern New Mexico through much of Colorado and western Wyoming into southeast Montana from the Centennials to the Bitterroot Mountains.

We’re past the point of arguing about what we read and hear. It’s now come down to what most of us can feel and see for ourselves. There are few places left to hide from rising water and heat, so before all of this is an everyday deal, we better change not just our “where,” but our ways.

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