Fort Lauderdale Airport Shooting Linked to Inadequacies of Alaska Mental Health System

The building where Esteban Santiago lived in the Fairview neighborhood of Anchorage. He is charged with killing five people and wounding six more at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6. Credit Joshua Corbett for The New York Times

New Orleans   Having been in the small capitol city of Juneau, Alaska within recent months, I have been wondering if some of the powers that be in state government have been holding their breath and waiting for the other shoe to drop after the terrible tragedy of a shooter flew in from Alaska, suddenly producing a gun in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport and killing five people and injuring six before lying down and waiting for the police hardly a week ago. The shoe has now dropped in The New York Times.

This horror has been thoroughly reported of course, as it should have been. A fairly recently discharged soldier who had even more recently turned himself into the FBI office in Anchorage in November because he believed the government was controlling his mind had been the shooter. The fact that this had happened in Anchorage and not Juneau or a smaller city in Alaska should have been a lucky break. The major state psychiatric facility is located in Anchorage, so he was able to turn himself in voluntarily, pretty much right on the spot. Had he been in Juneau for example, the intermediate facilities have been closed and whether he would have even gotten to Anchorage for even the minimal observation given, might not have happened. After four days he was released. There were no curbs on his access to firearms, and of course that’s another troubling question, but let’s just focus on mental health treatment and support for right now, because the horrible consequences of these multiple institutional failures are already clear enough.

Kirk Johnson writing in the Times is clear about the failure of Alaskan governmental authorities to provide for mental health consumers in the state, and therefore the community and public as well. He starts it out badly:

In Alaska when people are involuntarily committed for mental health treatment, the median length of stay, at only five days, is shorter than in almost any other state. Only Wisconsin has a shorter median commitment time, at four days, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national group that works to improve mental health laws and care. The national average is 75 days, with some states, like California, having a median of more than four months.

But then it just gets worse:

The mental health needs are great here, too. Alaska has the nation’s second-highest suicide rate, after Wyoming, and some rural areas are by far the worst in America in rates of self-harm, federal figures say. Alaska also has among the highest rates of adult binge drinking, according to federal figures. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation ranked it 47th among states and territories in terms of the percentage of mental health care needs being met. At the same time, the number of beds at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage, the state’s only long-term psychiatric hospital, is now half of what it was in the early 1990s, though many other states also cut their mental health treatment systems during the Great Recession.

Admittedly, and the Times acknowledges this, Alaska started dealing with mental health needs only when it transitioned from a US territory to a full-fledged state. Congress ceded one-million acres as part of the transfer of lands to the state to create the Mental Health Trust in order to use the resources of those assets to create the mental health system virtually from scratch. The Times credits the Trust with lobbying for expansion of Medicaid benefits under Obamacare in the state, but didn’t detail the scandals in the first decades of the Trust’s operation that led to the courts forcing reforms or the current confusing upheaval in the Trust’s management and operations, all of which have left people questioning what is really going on with the Trust.

Alaska’s mental health consumers organized MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers’ Action Network, last year which has broad agenda which includes pushing the Trust for more transparency and accountability, as well as better provision of services and support for the mental health community, but with the shooting in Fort Lauderdale state government and the Trust officials both have to be squirming, because it is now crystal clear and beyond any question that mental health needs to be a top priority in the state and is a job undone and woefully handled. Not only are Alaska’s consumers demanding action, but the rest of the country is now clear that Alaska needs to step up, and its failure to do so, risks all Americans, as well as its own citizens.

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Suggestions for the Anti-Inaugural

just some of the protests

Puerto Aventuras   Charles Blow, Louisiana native, New York Times columnist, and committed Trump resistor, wrote a piece on the Anti-Inauguration, as he called it. Blow made sure to point out that everyone needed to keep it positive, etc, etc, so that he could keep his day job, and you could keep yours in the uncertainty of regime change, but he threw a laundry list out there: protest, volunteer, donate, subscribe, read, watch, write, and connect.

Ok, some of this is a bit lame and spitting-in-the-wind, but his heart is good and his anger is real. Subscribe is about keeping the press alive. Read was a mild antidote to fake news. Watch was really just donate under another subhead and involved a California telethon or some such. Write is old school sending letters or emails to your local Congressperson, although between the lines Blow seems to be advocating a bit of hounding and stalking in this area, since he says, “Make them remember your name,” and that involves some persistence if you’re not sending them a big check. Connect is about lobbying your close friends and family, so good luck with that, but I would add that you should make sure you keep the paths cleared and the bridges in good repair so that you can make more progress once some smoke clears and the Trump body count builds and comes closer to home.

Now, protest, well that’s an opportunity worth a look in DC and closer to home, but frankly it’s not really enough, and I have to be honest with you, I’m not sure it’s effective right this minute. Take the Women’s March which is projected at one-hundred to two-hundred thousand, which is great, but from all reports, no demands, which makes it something of a “I am Woman, Watch me Roar” thing. That’s not bad of course, and certainly appropriate, but…there’s no way to get around the fact that protests, to be something more than symbolic, need real targets, real issues, where we can point out the rightness, and even morality of our cause, and where we are committed to hanging in until we win. There will be plenty of opportunities to come. In fact more than any of us – and our organizations – can handle.

Which brings me to “volunteer.” With tongue in cheek I’ve been talking about ACORN and our “volunteer army” for years, but I think there’s a lot that is real in that. My work in the Netherlands over the last quarter of 2016 convinced me of how much can be done when you can put up to 1000 volunteers to work on a campaign. ACORN’s own work around hospital accountability in the USA, electric cooperatives in the rural South, analysis of Bollere scandals in Africa, and banking practices in the United Kingdom has all been done 100% by volunteers. We are finding in our tenant organizing in Scotland and England that volunteers are able to organize new chapters all around the country and take action. I’ve touted the new book by Zack Exley and Betsy Bond on their experience with the Sanders’ campaign which points real directions in this area. If a couple of hundred to a thousand people would agree to volunteer even 20 hours a month, we could organize something different in this country, so, hey, call me maybe!

And, on the “donate” suggestion, I’m all for that, too, go directly to ACORN International  and it will show you how, and muchas gracias!

But, some things not on Blow’s list that anyone can do should include speaking out and reaching out.

Speaking out is hard, but it can’t be someone else’s job. It must be everyone’s responsibility now, and can’t be left to the victims. Injustice must be confronted and can’t be ignored, particularly when it is expressed as racism and misogyny. It’s time for no more Mr. or Ms. Nice on this. When it shows its face, it has to be named, shamed, and stopped.

Reaching out is going to be necessary for everyone as well. There will be millions of victims hit by the train wrecks coming our way from Washington soon. People are going to need help. It’s going to be complicated, obfuscated, and confusing. People are going to need a hand navigating the future for themselves and their families. Reaching out, you could make a difference. Find a way.

There’s no disagreement with Charles Blow on one count. There’s plenty to be done, and the time is now.

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Lives They Lived: Denis Murphy and Asian Community Organizing

Denis murphy and Alice

Puerto Aventuras   Recently my friend, comrade, and brother, Na Hyowoo from Korea, sent me a message asking if I knew Denis Murphy had passed away. Denis was the father and founder of many initiatives in community organizing, certainly in the Philippines where he mainly lived and worked, but also in India and Asia where his work also inspired many organizing programs among the urban poor. He and his wife, Alice, also a community organizer, trained and inspired organizing in Kenya as well. Denis and Na had invited me to several meetings of Asian organizers in Manila in the LOCOA, a network of Local Organizers and Community Organizations of Asia. I had visited with him as well in New York City, where he would spent a month or so living in Manhattan near Union Square with his sister, who was a nun, just as Denis had been a priest. His organizing was old school, focused on building “peoples’ organizations” among the poorest and most powerless, so he saw many affinities with ACORN, though always scratched his head about dues, he invited me to the Philippines to tell the story and teach the model. His shadow is long over the work in Asia, and his passing will be missed, but also honored for its contributions.

Here is an obit from the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Denis Murphy: As Filipino as most of us

By: TJ Burgonio – Deputy Day Desk Chief Philippine Daily Inquirer / 01:14 AM October 10, 2016

Denis Murphy cut his teeth organizing the urban poor in the late 1960s. It became his lifelong advocacy even after he left the priesthood. He even tried to convince Mother Teresa to get involved in it, his widow said.

The founder of Urban Poor Associates died on Oct. 2 at 86, capping more than 40 years of community organizing in the Philippines and in other Asian and African countries.

In death, many remembered Murphy for championing the rights of the poor—from slum dwellers in Tondo to fishermen in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban—and teaching them to have a voice of their own.

Vice President Leni Robredo, former President Benigno S. Aquino III, Senators Bam Aquino and Rissa Hontiveros, and former Cabinet members Dinky Soliman, Florencio Abad, Teresita Deles and Carina David, among others, came to pay their respects.

But it was the community organizers from around Metro Manila and elsewhere who packed Arlington Memorial Chapels in Quezon City where his ashes were to pay him tribute.

‘Daunted by the odds’

“He had always accompanied us to dialogues. If an American was helping the poor, who were we not to help the poor?” community leader Bernadette Sabalza said in her eulogy.

“There were days when I felt daunted by the odds. But I’m holding on to my promise to Sir Denis to fight for my members. I’ll fight for our cause till my last breath,” she said in Filipino.

“Denis was passionate and committed, a true Irishman, but no less Filipino than most of us,” said Inquirer Opinion editor Rosario Garcellano.

“In fighting for better conditions for the urban poor, he was in there pitching, even during the dangerous days of martial law. He was in Tacloban before he fell ill, helping the homeless get their bearings in more ways than one,” she said.

And he was such an evocative writer, Garcellano added.

“Whether describing the misery of a coal-packing community in Tondo with its sooty sad-eyed children or the windswept cemetery where his brother is buried, the leaves turning into the colors of fall, he brought the reader to the precise, chilling moment,” she said.

Murphy first came to the Philippines with the Jesuits in the 1950s. After completing theology studies in Woodstock, Maryland, he returned in 1967 as a priest.

From that time until 1976, he served as deputy director of the Institute of Social Order in Manila and was put in charge of urban social work across the country. It was here that he became involved in community organizing.

From the ’70s onward, he helped kick-start community organizing by founding the Philippine Ecumenical Committee for Community Organization and Community Organization of the Philippines Enterprise.

He even invited American Saul Alinsky, considered the father of modern community organizing, to Manila.

Love and shared advocacy

Murphy left the priesthood in 1976 when he married Alice Gentolia. Community organizing became their shared advocacy. They have a daughter, Marifel.

He also founded the Asian Committee for Peoples Organization, an ecumenical body that introduced community organizing to India, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia, and offered training in Pakistan, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.

Murphy also helped set up a community organizing program in Nairobi, Kenya, with COPE sending a team to train young Kenyans in organizing on such issues as garbage collection, water, jobs creation and evictions.

Journey with Mother Teresa

In his visits to Calcutta, India, he often called on Mother Teresa, according to Alice.

“He would go around. Calcutta was one of his favorite cities and Mother Teresa was there. What he did was talk to her, trying to convince her to get involved in community organizing,” she recalled.

In New York, Murphy joined the 1965 Freedom March in Selma, Alabama, led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Alice said.

Murphy was born in New York on Sept. 18, 1930, to parents who had migrated from Cork, South Ireland, and who were members of the Irish Republican Army. He studied at the Jesuit-run Regis School in New York.

His brother Ned was also a former Jesuit priest and sister Margareth was a nun. Their brother Tim was a soldier who served in the Korean War.

Murphy wrote a novel, “A Watch in the Night,” short stories and commentaries for the Inquirer.

Respect well-earned and gratefully given!

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Hawking Chichen Itza to the Tourists is a Bummer

the horde coming through the ticket book

Cancun  I’ve read about the great Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo for decades, and Chichen Itza has always been fabled as one of the most extraordinary. When travelers once spoke of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was often on the list. I still cherish my copies of John Lloyd Stephens great two-volume classic, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan illustrated by Frederick Catherwood published in 1841 after his journeys. “Raiders of the Lost Arc” always paled in comparison to their story, and the vivid illustrations that made me feel like I was there, plunging through the jungle undergrowth to see what few non-Mayans had ever seen.

We had spent Christmas Day at the Uxlan ruins in one of the more amazing days in a legendary list for our family. We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter, the power of the place was incredible. We were prepared for Chichen Itza being a different experience in some ways. The books indicated that the site gets more than a million visitors annually. We knew to be early. Chichen Itza in Mayan means something along the lines of “mouth of the well of the Itza people.” When we finished wending out way up the narrow road into the site, and parked with amazing ease for barely a buck and change, we saw a horde of people near the ticket booths and walked up to them in order to find the end of the line to get ours. It turned out that Chichen Itza now means “mouth at the well of the hawker people.” We walked through one hawker’s stand after another, until reaching the end. The falling expressions on hundreds of faces was shocking, but in a little more than a half-hour we had our tickets in hand and were ready to see the ruins and leave the hawkers behind.

the line snaking through the hawkers’ stalls

Leaders of ACORN’s hawkers’ union in India always asks me if there are hawkers in the United States, and I say, no not many, but they would be impressed at the way all of these tourists were being channeled through the stalls to the booths. I was too, until we passed the ticket booth and found that we were still walking a gauntlet of hawkers and booths. They weren’t selling hats and yelling, “Five dollars, cheaper than Walmart,” once we got into the archeological park, but they were literally everywhere we walked, often heralded by the sound of jaguar cries they were trying to sell. Often we could tell we were on the right path to see the Observatory or the cenote if it was lined by hawkers’ booths on both sides. Wherever there was shade away from the monuments, there were hawkers. It was impressive and amazing in its own right.

Google Chichen Itza and hawkers, and one Trip Advisor report after another from Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand says almost the same thing: Chichen Itza is Awesome, but What’s with the Hawkers!

the Grand Pyramid

If this is supposed to be a community benefit to the local population, it fails there mainly because so few are making any sales. We walked three miles according to my son’s counter. Who would want to lug souvenirs through 90 degree heat? My daughter looked at fans she had priced in Centro Merida and they were 200 pesos or $10 dollars more expensive at Chichen Itza. How does this help the local community?

What is the government thinking? As at Uxmal, the federal and state government both separately collect money for tickets and stamp the tickets as you enter. Is there no coordination or is this an issue of there being no trust between the state and federal government? The government is probably right to believe that people like me and my family would weather any storm to see Chichen Itza in all its majesty, but why not leave millions in wonder and awe, rather with a funny, nagging taste in their mouths after the experience.

the Observatory

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Beware Website Rental Car Scams for Foreign Travelers in Canada and Mexico

Merida   I’m not a rookie traveler. I’ve been on the road, literally all of my life. My dad’s job would pack us out all over the American West, where I was born and partially raised, in motels and kitchenettes from Billings to Fargo to Rangely and Denver, Cheyenne and Laramie, and every place in between, where there was a pumping station or tank farm that his job as a field auditor with an oil company required him to hit. In my work United Airlines sent me a “thank you” note for more than a million miles, and I logged another million or so with the rest of the airlines over the years. I’ve driven all over Canada and Mexico and tested the road in a bunch of other countries as well. Sadly, none of this protects anyone from rental car rip-offs.

When you land in the Cancun airport, as my family did at midday on Christmas Eve, you are greeted by a wildly efficient industrial tourism machine. Vast crowds are deplaning from multiple gates and a small army of custom agents processes the horde in amazing speed, disgorging you from the doors into a maze of rental car booths. You get to your chosen company, purchased at an amazing bargain of $15 per day online, and are walked out to a scrum of white vans lined up and moving in a seemingly endless conveyor belt of people, baggage, and rolling stock until you are deposited at your rental company, one among many.

We felt lucky to find only a short line and four or five agents working. I had seen a post the day before from Cancun of an hour and a half wait, so standing in the warm, Yucatan air, it all seemed a good omen. And, then we heard the crying, gnashing of teeth, and rending of clothes all around us as the agents of the company explained the exorbitant, rip-off costs of additional insurance that they were claiming was mandatory. Insurance cards were being shown. Purchases via American Express cards were being touted. It was a horror, for some worse than for others, as charges for liability and collusion were being routinely added on to every car contract and people, friends and families, were stepping away to caucus and see if they could come up with the money or fathom a way around it.

The agents all pretended empathy and mouthed words of apology, since this was a common and usual scam for them. To avoid the charges a customer would have to provide a copy of their insurance policy from the United States covering both liability and collision insurance. They would also have to provide a letter that specifically mentioned Mexico (and I’ll add Canada, but I haven’t gotten to that yet). If they don’t have it with them, they have to have it emailed or faxed while they are waiting. Even if they have it, they would have to put $6000 on their credit card and another deposit that was too painful for me to hear clearly, because any accident would mean a repair in full on their credit card, and they could work out the refund with their company in the states. Or, they could pay about $35 USD a day extra and drive away. Purchasing separate liability insurance in Mexico, at least from what I can now tell, seems to be legally required, but that’s worth checking.

As you can tell, I listened carefully while waiting in line and occasionally queried my fellow travelers as they angrily interrogated the agents, but when our turn came, I was already a beaten man, and simply shrugged at the price with my family in waiting, signed, paid, and went on my way on my vacation. Why? Because I had been through the same hurt dance at a rental car office in Toronto only three months before at 1230 AM in the morning, where a similar premium was also required by a cheapo online deal someone had found for the ACORN Canada training and staff meeting where I was tasked with picking up the rental.

This scam seems broadly popular across North America, and a minute’s research indicated it was popular in the United Kingdom as well. Like any scam, there’s a kernel of truth in the shell of the lie. It isn’t hard to imagine why rental car companies, even reputable ones, try to transfer the problems of an accident to the customer. It is also possible to reasonably understand why countries, like Mexico, might require purchase of some kind of liability in-country. I’ve had to do that driving my own truck into Mexico at the border, and have watched them put a sticker on my window indicating I paid to bring the car into the country. But, the bait-and-switch is inexcusable, since the websites allege they are giving you the total price, and, if these charges were legitimate, why not disclose them on the front end?

See the world, my friends, but caveat emptor all the way!

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Visiting with Buffalo Community and Housing Organizations

Buffalo   No small part of the Buffalo comeback has to be because of the work of community organizations in the city, and ACORN Canada’s staff was fortunate to get some time with both Voice Buffalo, a Gamaliel affiliate in Western New York, and the community-based housing organization, PUSH Buffalo.

Michael Okinczyc, the executive director of both Voice Buffalo and NOAH, the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope, a 25 minutes of drive away, but as he pointed out later their transportation campaign has been trying to improve the fact that it takes more than two hours on public transit for lower income, car-less families to make it from Buffalo to Niagara. Overall their organization involves over 80 different organizations, largely churches in the area. Besides transit they have also been deeply involved in campaigns focused on criminal justice and the lopsided levels of incarceration for minorities. Education has also been a focus in working to block charter schools with the American Federation of Teachers and deal with the diverse needs of Buffalo’s vibrant immigrant community due to what was described as rust belt resettlement programs.

Michael Okinczyc from Voice

There were interesting exchanges about the differing methodologies between faith-based work and ACORN’s membership-based community organizing model. Michael described the way they organized a church with twenty of more one-on-one’s until, quoting the words of Gamaliel founder, Greg Galluzzo, “they could smell the church,” meaning they could understand the parishoner’s issues and concerns. He was asked how a charitable organization, as a 501c3, was able to effectively pressure and lobby office holders, and Michael told how Voice used its larger accountability meetings and tried to walk a line of bipartisan pressure.

We visited the West Side-based People United for Sustainable Housing, better known as PUSH-Buffalo, which has deeply rooted itself in the area since 2005. PUSH Buffalo defines itself on the axis of community organizing as an affiliate of the newly formed Peoples’ Action and formerly National Peoples’ Action, and co-founder Aaron Bartley, also described the organization to us as ACORN-like in the sense of having a dues-paying membership of several hundred paying about $30 per year, while mentioning that he had organized with ACORN in Brooklyn years ago. The deeper mission of the organization is forging a new rust belt city model combining a community membership base with a development program for sustainable, green homes, rental units, and community-determined utilization of formerly vacant space or deteriorating properties as parks, community centers, and social enterprises. The community base has given them not only legitimacy outside the West Side and accountability inside, but a strike force for the half-dozen direct actions they desire in advocating and winning support, services, and investment in the community.

Julia White of PUSH Buffalo meets and shows ACORN organizers their community park on their tour

In the fresh snow, we trudged along with PUSH Buffalo’s Julia White on their Green Zone tour where they had constructed top of the line demonstration projects including green roofs, solar powered heating systems, green houses, and the like. PUSH Buffalo has also rehabbed several building with rental units for lower income families. The organization has acquired some fifty vacant lots on the West Side. We visited a park they had rebuilt with community input and the City of Buffalo Park System that included a huge, state of the art soccer field, pavilion, and play equipment. None of this is gentrification on the West Side, but even in the snow, we could tell the difference their development projects had made.

Community groups have definitely been moving Buffalo forward both with their voice and their push.

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