Monday, January 14, 2008
Either the delta is busting out the box with its kaleideskopic chaos, or we shave it down so it fits obediently inside. These are two modes to rationalize the unfamiliar when you're far from home. We arrive to a land whose history creates the expectations for the work we will do. At the airport with some time to kill, I checked out an exhibit on the Jackson Movement . I was reminded that I tread on hallowed land, where the most important human rights battles were fought and won not 50 years ago. Coming from Queens college, we embark on the 16th year of this trip. Going back further, we remember Mr. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered by the KKK in Mississippi during the freedom summer of 1964. Andrew Goodman was a student at Queens College.
Indeed our trip invokes a history that deserves more than synopsis. There is the history of slavery, the movement, and the apartheid that continues to fester on the periphery.
School test scores in MS are dreadfully low. Blues music is great. Next comes hospitality, and catfish. Some housing is in dreadful condition, and some clubs can be excessively violent. But is this all we can say about the delta? A plus and minus tally of the south is fatal to its autonomy. This land must speak for itself! As we enframe mississippi, we risk depriving a movement of its beauty.
From all of this, a question emerges about what we are doing in our role as advocates. Are lawyers speaking for the voiceless? This is problematic. On the other hand, it's unacceptable for a milquetoast advocate to stand alongside a movement while the system eats it for breakfast. There have been examples of both realities on this trip.
The short answer is that big old ears are the most valuable tool. For community workers, legal listening begins by remembering that courts provide relief, but not liberation. returning a plaintiff to the status quo ante through compensation (the state prior to damage) is not necessarily a delivery of justice. So as we learn to apply the law, how, when, and where to apply the law are vital considerations. Will we push a struggle through the system, or inject legal issues into the struggle? The latter means organizing. (This is not what we are taught at CUNY per se. ) It is the life affirming and therapeutic dialouge that brings people together in community, builds power, and breaks down hierarchies. For each of us, this process will look different. No doubt each struggle is unique and individual as each person. But seriously open your ears.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
We took a self-guided driving tour designed for visitors to New Orleans who want to witness the effects of the Katrina as well as the rebuilding efforts. The tour contained narrative information explaining levees and why they failed, New Orleans history, stories behind the differing neighborhoods, the science underlying coastal erosion and restoration, and tales of heroism and help. The narrators, all civic leaders of New Orleans, included New Orleans musician Charmaine Neville, Women of the Storm founder Anne Milling, and King Milling, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration.
While I found the tour and stories heartbreaking, I feel that the stories are ones that need to be heard. I came to New Orleans six months after Katrina as part of an alternative spring break for college students who volunteered gutting houses and working with grassroots organizations engaged in community organizing. Retracing my steps through neighborhoods like the lower 9th ward, I found that progress has been slow. Piles of debris have been removed and open fields of grass with cement patches where houses’ foundations once stood are the only reminders that this was once a neighborhood. There are occasional houses that residents are starting to rebuild with FEMA trailers parked outside and signs saying “roots run deep here” meaning the residents are planning to take charge of their neighborhood and rebuilding efforts. In another part of the lower 9th, there were multiple pink tents set up to represent the homes which were devastated, serving as symbols for the construction of new "green" eco-friendly homes that are supposed to go up in March. Organizations like Common Ground and the Make It Right Foundation are working in the 9th ward, supporting the community that was distinguished by the fact that more residents in the area owned their homes than in any other part of the city.
Photos to come this evening!
We read the transcripts to gather information about key witnesses and evidence that could give us a better idea as to what could prove or disprove a prisoner’s innocence claim. In reading through the transcripts it became evident that some of the prisoners were convicted on very little evidence and/or weak testimony. Also, most of the cases took place in smaller communities where the jurors knew a majority of the trial participants, leaving me to wonder how the defendant was guaranteed a fair trial.
The information we gathered from the transcripts and the research we will be engaged in in the coming days will determine if IPNO deems our cases appropriate for increased review at which time full-fledged investigations will be conducted. This means that with the 3 days left of our trip, most of that time will be spent on the road traveling across southern Mississippi to speak with the prisoners themselves, the defense attorneys, and key witnesses.
We started tracking down witnesses Friday but soon discovered a major challenge with this task. Due to Hurricane Katrina, many people not only evacuated their homes but have also relocated multiple times since their evacuation, assuming they have returned to their home states in the first place. There are still thousands of people from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama spread through out the rest of the country. There are still families searching for missing relatives, unsure if they are even alive. As far as we know, there is no directory of persons living in FEMA trailers either.
Courtney and I drove to Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis along the Gulf Coast. It was immediately evident that smaller communities past the New Orleans' city limits, if not completely wiped off the map, are still rebuilding. Even along the highway we could see empty shopping centers, houses, and apartment complexes. We were told that before Katrina, there were beautiful towns all along the Gulf but that the hurricane destroyed most of these. Indeed driving through Gulfport to locate one house, Erin and Reka entered a cul-de-sac where the house should have been only to find nothing.
On Friday, the Innocence Project team observed arraignments in Jefferson Parish. http://www.jpclerkofcourt.us/24thJDC/Judges.asp. While it is true that there are a number of differences between New York’s criminal justice system and Louisiana’s, I was struck by the number of similarities between our systems. We watched as defendants consented to waive their right to a speedy trial, similar to the practice in Criminal Court,
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Movement is sometimes slow as molasses, barely perceptible and sticky. Nine years had passed since the fifty or so employees (there are about 75 clients in all!) gathered at a community center in Biloxi by the Gulf on Sunday first took their struggle against a shipbuilding giant to court. They sued the company for creating a work environment that not only condoned but encouraged racism. Workers were forced to put up with graffiti of racial slurs, hanging nooses, threats and terrorizing pranks. Some of the workers told us they had worked at that site for ten, fifteen, to beyond thirty years. Jena 6. Columbia University.
Nooses are still a commonplace occurrence here. See Jaribu's article. The Mississippi state flag which has the Confederate flag embossed within it hangs all over the place, including outside the State Capitol. It’s shocking that nooses and Confederate flags are not just isolated outbreaks of a disease that had been all but eradicated.
Yesterday, Mike, Stephan, Shirley and I were fortunate enough to witness a meeting for a settlement that could signal the end of this stage of the struggle. The workers faced a tough decision – whether to accept the settlement proposal or to go further with trial. We contemplated what we would do in their shoes, and found ourselves weighing the practical realities that play a role i.e. what is the climate in Mississippi for racial justice, the strength of the movement, what would a jury decide, what is the politics of the judge, and the cost of trial to name a few.
I have been thinking about Professor Loffredo’s admission at his panel discussion with Frances Fox Piven that it is a bleak time for fighting for economic justice. In Mississippi it is a bleak time for fighting for racial justice, for workers’ rights, and I have come to realize, human rights. Jaribu has brought it home that our domestic struggles often labeled “civil rights” are no different than those being waged in Mexico, India, China or wherever else as “human rights.” The right to live and work decently without fear of losing life and limb is a human right. Shirley and I talked about how you fight these seemingly hopeless struggles anyway when you have a stake in the community, when it is your workplace, when it is your people, whatever you identify with that makes the fight for justice personal and real. It has taken some reminding that we are not in a foreign place. Mississippi is America. New York has its struggles. Movement may be slow, change may seem impossible, but the alternative seems to be standing still.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
The complaints reviewed during today's intake touched on almost every topic from a driver being pulled over by the police during a traffic stop to prisoners writing the organization about their prison treatment. You would think that the biggest hurdle would be determining if an incident raised constitutional concerns, but in actuality, the biggest struggle was trying to understand the complaint forms.
In 2003, Mississippi education scores (reading and math) were ranked 48th in the nation and those scores were reflected in the forms. One complaint was filed by a high school student who felt he was being treated unequally in his school. I am very sure that to the student, his form made perfect sense, but it took three careful readings of the complaint by about six people to even understand that it had something to do with his high school. Luckily a staff member remembered talking to the student over the phone and could clarify the situation for everyone.
After the attorneys began to debate over whether or not the issue was something worth looking into, I could not help but question how effective a legal organization can be when people are not even educated enough to articulate what is happening to them.
Earlier in the day I was working with Shawna, the awesome Reproductive Freedom Project Director, on Teen Chat. (Teen Chat is the peer sexual health education program spearheaded by the MS ACLU to supplement the lack of sexual health education in the schools). In order to assess what the students already know about sexual health, I designed a pre-test which asked questions such as “True or False: A girl can't get pregnant if she has sex underwater” and “The birth control pill protects a person from getting: a) sexually transmitted diseases, b) pregnant or c) HIV.”
Shawna had warned me that the students from this one particular county did not have superb reading skills and to take this into account when I designed the survey. I took this to heart and tried my best to to not use big words or phrase questions in such a way that would be confusing. Shawna reviewed the surveys I had made and reassured me that they were very good but needed to be simpler. For instance, Shawna wanted me to not use the word “designed” because she noticed that during the program last year any word that had “gn” was confusing to the students; they didn't know how to pronounce those kind of words.
Now knowing how far behind Mississippi is in education, I have yet another item added to my list of things that need to change. After all, how possible will it be have sexual health education in schools if students can't pronounce “diagnosed”?
Sunday, January 6, 2008
The ACLU of Mississippi is a leading force in social change and equality. Working out of Jackson, I was assigned to be an intern for two and a half weeks primarily to work on reproductive rights issues. Mississippi has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, which have also limited access to birth control and sexual health education, as well as severely limiting abortion clinic operations. The Reproductive Freedom Project of the ACLU wants to change all this; however, the organization, despite their gallant efforts, passion and dedication face the barriers of being woefully underfunded and understaffed. Here is a state that has the most restrictive abortion laws, the most stringent judicial bypass procedures for minors who do not have parental consent and virtually no sexual health education and yet there is no Planned Parenthood, NOW, Feminist Majority or Center for Reproductive Health. Perhaps those organizations feel that Mississippi is a lost cause or that the restrictions would make it virtually impossible for their organization to exist or perhaps they are afraid of making things worse, but their absence in a state that clearly needs their help means that the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project (which is only one person) is being pulled into too many different directions at once.
As the only intern who came to this office, I have been instantly thrown into work. Within the first half hour of being in the office, a staff attorney discussed the current political climate in Mississippi and the possible litigation the ACLU may bring forward dealing with voting rights and alternative schools. When it came to reproductive rights, it was explained that this was not the area of his expertise-- any chance I could come up with some ideas of how to litigate on reproductive rights?
Aside from the amazing opportunity to apply what I learned from constitutional law to what I know about the restrictions placed on reproductive health, most of the work I see the MS ACLU doing is community organizing and legislative work. Currently, I am helping the Reproductive Rights Project Coordinator with legislative work for sexual health education and the formation of peer sexual health clubs.
Peer sexual health education (Teen Chat) is a perfect example of the community organizing work the ACLU is doing around reproductive rights. Some students play basketball, others are involved with the honor society and a precious few pass out condoms and hold clandestine workshops after school. Teen Chat was designed only a few years ago but I believe it was only implemented last year (with the help of former MS Project delegates) and is getting revamped again this year. The system is easy: hold a community meeting asking concerned parents and children ages 10-17 to see if any are interested in being peer leaders. Those who are interested then go through a month-long training program so that they learn about their anatomy, changing bodies, contraceptive devices, STD and HIV prevention and forming healthy relationships. Once graduated from the program, the peer leaders are then given instruction on basic community organizing and then go into their schools and do what is needed to distribute the information about sexual health that is evidently lacking in the schools. To make sure this program is effective, my task is to redo some of the training curriculum so that as much information can be packed into the training month without burdening the students too much so that they drop out of the program.
At the same time, the Reproductive Freedom Coordinator is meeting with principals to see if any are willing to actually allow a sexual health club at their school. The principals are worried about Board of Education approval and feel as if their hands are tied. Is there anything the Equal Access Act can help in this regard? We don't know yet-- we'll learn as soon as I'm done doing research. In addition, to help sway the principals to allow such clubs, I am doing research to find the correlation between teen pregnancy and drop out rates and the inclusion of comprehensive sexual health education and better performance in schools.
On the legislative front, the ACLU drafted legislation that will provide for comprehensive sexual health education. Once the session starts, I will need to follow session activity to help ensure the success of the bill and monitor anti-choice and anti-civil liberty bills.
Due to the underfunding of the MS ACLU, the understaffed office and the wide array of issues the ACLU takes interest in, other staff members have asked for my assistance in their work. An issue the ACLU took notice of was the amount of arrests being made in the Delta (the portion of MS that lays along the river; the population is mainly comprised of impoverished African-Americans). The arrests were made during a drug sting operation, but the ACLU suspected the drug raids to be a tool of racial profiling and had heard through the grapevine that the arrests were unlawful.
To better understand the situation and see if there was anything the ACLU could do to help the citizens of Moss Point, a town in the Delta that had recently been targeted with a drug sting operation, a town hall meeting was held at a church. Over 70 people attended the meeting, all of whom had stories of police officers and DEA agents coming into their houses without warrants, arresting people walking down the street for not having an ID and defense attorneys who had told innocent arrested citizens to plead guilty because it would be easier.
The people who attended the meetings varied in their education of civil liberties. A fair number knew that the police could not come into their house without a warrant, but few felt empowered enough to deny them entrance into their house, as the cops had been using intimidation techniques to gain entry without warrants. Most citizens did not realize that warrants had to be specific to a place and person and felt powerless when police officers and DEA agents had a warrant for the house but began searching their cars or arrested a person not listed on the warrant.
To better help the citizens of Moss Point, the members from the ACLU gave basic information on rights when dealing with the police and took down information from people to better see if there is a case that can be brought against the government.
I have only been here for five days and yet I already feel compelled to come back and do more for the ACLU and the people whose daily activities are encompassed by extreme injustice. I am sure I will learn of more efforts to restrict the freedoms of the people here once the legislative session starts and I am looking forward to the challenges that lay ahead of me.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Driving outside the French Quarter the effects of Katrina were more visible. Besides running into another tent city of homeless people under an overpass, we drove through several neighborhoods where the number of abandoned, dilapidated houses and businesses far out numbered those that have been rebuilt, with occupants who have returned.
Friday, January 4, 2008
IPNO investigates cases in Louisiana and the southern half of Mississippi (they recently opened an office in northern Mississippi to cover that area). According to IPNO information, “Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world and the highest per capita rate in the world of people sentenced to life without parole. In 2006, Mississippi had the 3rd highest incarceration rate in the country and the world.” The majority of these people are poor and people of color – in Mississippi, for example, 35% of the population as a whole is African American whereas over 70% of the state’s prisoners are African Americans.
Staff member J.T. explained that to us the state is obligated to provide an attorney for prisoners on death row; for those sentenced to life in prison, the state is not statutorily obligated to provide counsel. J.T. himself was wrongly convicted and spent 18 years in prison, 14 of which were on death row. He was exonerated in 2003 and now works for IPNO and runs Resurrection After Exoneration, the first exoneree run re-entry initiative in the country.
The nine cases that our crew will be working on are in southern Mississippi. It seems like we will be traveling all over the lower half of the state, maybe we will even run into other members of the group in Jackson and Greenville!
Tomorrow we are off to explore New Orleans. So far, we have visited the French Quarter and Algiers Point, which appear to have recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We haven’t had much chance to visit other areas. Although getting lost driving around the Superdome, on one of the coldest nights here this winter, we saw a group of homeless people under an over pass. Sleeping bags and tents spread out for several blocks with at least 100 people seeking cover under the cement expressway overhead. (According to the Christian Science Monitor in March 2007, on any given night 12,000 people in New Orleans need shelter, before Katrina this number was 6,000).
I think we have yet to see the extent of the slow recovery of the city and the difficulties of living here after the hurricane.
Here, in Greenville, MS, Jaribu Hill '96 (who founded the Mississippi Project at CUNY Law), gave a warm and inspirational welcome to the four of us interns placed with the Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights (Beena, Mike, Shirley and Stephan). We had met up in the capital city of Jackson, MS Thursday night and drove into Greenville (pop: 41,600) after an unplanned but scenic detour through Canton and Yazoo City.
Our orientation yesterday included an overview of Greenville, so Jaribu and program director LaToya Davis packed the crew into the Center's van and launched us straight into field work: following up on reports of rental homes deteriorating from systemic neglect, near the Greenville levee's banks. Today, we head to back to Jackson, where the Center recently opened its second office and where we'll do legislative visits with the Black Caucus when the new session begins next Tuesday. Check back for photos, coming soon!