Category Archives: race / racism

Morgan Freeman: Tea Party’s Racist Attack on Obama

Their [the Tea Party]stated policy, publicly stated, is to do whatever it takes to see to it that Obama only serves one term,” Freeman noted. “What underlines that? ‘Screw the country. We’re going to whatever we can to get this black man outta here.”‘ Piers Morgan

 

The Woodfox Judgement

Thanks to right-wing courts, the draconian sentencing guidelines passed by state and federal legislatures–and, believe it or not, the actions of Bill Clinton–the numbers of older prisoners in American prisons and jails is growing. More and more men and women have been given such long sentences that they will die in prison, and it’s become virtually impossible for most of them to mount appeals.

As one extreme case in point, yesterday the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a decision against Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3. Woodfox, who is now 63 years old, has been at Angola since he was 34, and in solitary confinement for 38 years. Last night on Solitary Watch, Jean Casella and I posted this:

Albert Woodfox has spent nearly all of the last 38 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. His case has brought protests from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who argue that Woodfox’s decades in lockdown constitute torture, and from a growing band of supporters, who believe that he was denied a fair trial. For more than ten years, he has been fighting for his release in the courts. But yesterday, a ruling by a federal appeals court ensured that for the forseeable future, Albert Woodfox will remain right where he has been for nearly four decades: in a 6 x 9 cell in the heart of America’s largest and most notorious prison.  

Woodfox was given a life sentence–and thrown into permanent lockdown–for the 1972 murder of an Angola prison guard. He has been appealing his case for years, arguing that he was convicted in a patently unfair trial based on tainted evidence. In 2008, a federal district court judge agreed, and overturned his conviction. But the Fifth Circuit came down on the side of the state of Louisiana, ruling that Woodfox’s conviction stands.

It’s hard to believe this powerful federal court once was once a great defender of civil rights:

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals once had a reputation as one of the finest appellate courts in the land. In the 1960s, a small group of Fifth Circuit judges—mostly Southern-bred moderate Republicans—was known for advancing civil rights and especially school desegregation.  But today the Fifth Circuit, which covers Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi, is seen as among the most ideologically conservative of the federal appeals courts. It is notable for its overburdened docket and for its hostility to appeals from defendants in capital cases, including claims based on faulty prosecution and suppressed evidence. The court has even been reprimanded by the U.S. Supreme Court, itself is no friend to death row inmates: In June 2004, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the Fifth Circuit was “paying lip service to principles” of appellate law in handing down death penalty rulings.  

The Court’s rightward descent is set against a background of the unyielding Supreme Court–an institution that has clearly become an enemy of the people. But contrary to what liberals like to think, these problems did not begin with the Bush Administration. In doing their dirty work, the courts can cite legislation passed under Bill Clinton.    

I can well remember the first hint of what we could expect under President Clinton in the area of criminal justice. During the 1992 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton, in an  answer to a question  at a town meeting, suggested habeas corpus had been stretched beyond its bounds. Her husband proceeded to rectify this situation, with dire results for the rights of prisoners and the accused:

The decision in Woodfox’s case shows the crippling effect on prisoners’ rights of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) which was passed under Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. That legislation has become the bane of anti-death penalty lawyers and activists, and of thousands of other prisoners seeking to challenge their convictions–a pursuit which AEDPA now renders nearly impossible.  

As the Fifth Circuit noted in its ruling, “The AEDPA requires that federal courts ’defer to a state court’s adjudication of a claim’” unless the state court decision ran “‘contrary to…clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court,’” or was ”‘based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.’” And as the judges pointed out, ”An unreasonable application of federal law is different from an incorrect or erroneous application of the law.” 

In other words, the state courts could be wrong, they just couldn’t be so far out as to be undeniably “unreasonable.” And in the end, the Fifth Circuit judges agreed with the State’s argument that in the case at hand, ”the district court failed to apply the AEDPA’s heightened deferential standard of review to Woodfox’s ineffective assistance claims.” Woodfox’s conviction may have been wrong, but it was not, in the eyes of the Fifth Circuit, “unreasonable”–so there will be no new trial for him. This is how justice works in post-AEDPA America.

Recession Over? Some Americans Haven’t Gotten the Memo

In case you missed the news, the recession ended in 2009. Some members on a panel of economists are now disputing that fact, to the surprise from politicians and mainstream media who long ago declared the greatest economic crisis of our time dead and gone, and are merely bickering over precisely when it dropped off the twig: Was it in mid-2009? Before then? After? 

Of course, some people just refuse to get with the program, insisting that with a national unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent , the recession isn’t really over. And that for older people dependent on deep-sixed 401ks, it most likely will never be over. People who are unemployed and on food stamps don’t think it’s over. People underemployed and still looking for more work are not receiving any trickledown. And for those lucky enough to have been receiving unemployment insurance, who now find it running out and still can’t find a job, things don’t seem to have materially improved. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Washington,D.C.-based think tank with a liberal bent, recently released a report that offers a different slant on this subject: 

The long-term unemployment rate — the percentage of people in the work force who have been out of work for over half a year and are still looking for a job — reached an unprecedented 4.3 percent of the labor force in March (see the chart). Yet Congress has allowed the Recovery Act measures that provide additional weeks of unemployment benefits and subsidized COBRA health insurance coverage for unemployed workers to lapse. Opponents’ arguments that these measures should not be extended unless they are paid for with cuts in other spending do not withstand scrutiny. Meanwhile, delay imposes unnecessary hardship on the long-term unemployed and weakens the economic recovery. 

Although there are growing signs that the economy is in the early stages of a recovery, unemployment remains very high, and the economy is not running on all cylinders. Demand for goods and services remains far below what the economy is capable of producing, and the rate of job creation anticipated over the next several months will represent only a small start toward restoring the 8.2 million jobs lost since the recession started. (That loss essentially erased all of the jobs created between 2003 and 2007 in the economic recovery that followed the previous recession.) 

Sam Smith over at prorev.com calls attention to another factor reported by Air Force Times

Disturbing new statistics from the Labor Department show that one in three veterans under age 24 is unemployed – and that the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has jumped to 14.7 percent, half again as high as the national employment rate of 9.7 percent.The March unemployment rate of 30.2 percent for veterans aged 18 to 24 is a big jump from February’s figure of 21.7 percent, although it may be partly the result of a small sample used by the Labor Department in determining unemployment, said Justin Brown, a labor expert for Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

Then, there’s this from Black Agenda Report:

Official labor statistics show Black unemployment rose to 16.5 percent in March, up from 15.8 percent the month before, while white joblessness remained steady at 8.8 percent. At least a score of major Black population centers now register official unemployment levels nearing 25 percent, comparable to the depths of the Great Depression – and it took World War Two to pull the economy out of that pit.

With 5.5 job seekers for every actual job opening, according to the latest data, employers can discriminate in favor of whites to their hearts’ content, while continuing to lower wages and working conditions. It’s easy to casually fire Black people and even easier not to hire them. We will soon find out if a statistical “point of no return” in unemployment levels exists, from which communities cannot recover absent extraordinary assistance by a caring government.

Auschwitz Survivor Raps Against Racism

The London Independent has a story today about 85-year-old musician and Holocaust survivor Esther Bejarano, who is collaborating with a multiethnic hip-hop band with an anti-racist message. Their first album, Per La Vita, was released last year, and a documentary about the band is being shown in German schools.

Esther Bejarano says music helped to keep her alive as a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Now, 65 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camp, she has teamed up with a German hip-hop band to get her anti-racism message to today’s youth.

“It’s a clash of everything: age, culture, style,” Ms Bejarano admitted in an interview to mark Holocaust Memorial Day yesterday. “But we all love music and share a common goal: we’re fighting against racism and discrimination.”…

The daughter of a Jewish cantor from Saarbrücken in western Germany, Ms Bejarano studied piano at home until the Nazis came to power and tore her family apart. She was deported to Auschwitz, where she became a member of the girls’ orchestra, playing the accordian every time trains full of Jews from across Europe arrived at the death camp.

“We played with tears in our eyes,” Ms Bejarano remembered. “The new arrivals came in waving and applauding us, but we knew they would be taken directly to the gas chambers.” Although she survived, her parents and sister, Ruth, were killed.

For 20 years, Ms Bejarano has played music from the past – Yiddish melodies, tunes from the ghetto and Jewish resistance songs – with her children Edna and Yoram in a Hamburg-based band called Coincidence.

About two years ago, Kutlu Yurtseven, a Turkish rapper from Microphone Mafia, asked her about a collaboration to combat the growing racism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The octogenarian thought hip-hop “was really a bit too loud” but saw it as a way to reach Germany’s youth.

“We want to keep the memories of the Holocaust alive, but at the same time look into the future and encourage young people to take a stand against new Nazis,” she said. “I know what racism can lead to and the members of Microphone Mafia are immigrants and have experienced their share of discrimination as well.”…

Their audiences range from teenage immigrants at urban youth centres to an older crowd that might be expected to favour a more classical approach. “They love it,” Ms Bejarano said. “Even some of the older guests climb on the chairs and dance.” She said it can be exhausting to perform with young people, but she chuckled: “I’ve educated the boys. We’ve lowered the volume and I told them to stop jumping around all the time.”

Mr Yurtseven said: “I asked Esther how she can make music after Auschwitz, and she said if they had taken the music from her, she would have died.”

Appeal Denied After 37 Years in Solitary Confinement

The Louisiana State Supreme Court Friday denied an appeal from Herman Wallace, who has been held in solitary confinement for more than 37 years. Wallace and Albert Woodfox are members of what has become known as the Angola 3, whose story I have been covering for Mother Jones. Convicted of the 1972 murder of a prison guard at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, both men maintain their innocence; they believe they were targeted for the crime and relegated to permanent lockdown because of their organizing work with the prison chapter of the Black Panthers. Wallace, who is now 68 years old, was recently transferred from Angola to the Hunt Correctional Center near Baton Rouge, where he continues to be held in solitary. Two days ago, Wallace descended even deeper into the hole, placed in a disciplinary unit called Beaver 5 for unknown violations of prison policy.

Herman Wallace launched the appeal of his conviction nearly a decade ago. His lawyers have introduced substantial evidence showing that the state’s star witness, a fellow prisoner named Hezekiah Brown, was offered special treatment and an eventual pardon in exchange for his testimony against Wallace and Woodfox. In 2006, a judicial commissioner assigned to study the case found that there were grounds for overturning the conviction, but Wallace’s application was subsequently denied–by the state district court, court of appeals, and now by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

While every setback comes as a blow to a man nearing 70 who has spent nearly four decades in lockdown, one of Wallace’s attorneys said tonight that this denial by the state’s highest court came as no surprise, since it has a reputation for refusing to overturn the decisions of lower courts. Today’s ruling opens the doors to a federal habeas corpus challenge, beginning with the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana at Baton Rouge. Here, if Wallace is lucky, his case will be reviewed by a fact-finding federal magistrate, and his conviction overturned by a federal judge. This is what happened to Albert Woodfox last year. Yet Woodfox, too, remains in prison–and in solitary confinement–as the state appeals the judge’s decision.

Louisiana’s Attorney General, James “Buddy” Caldwell, has stated that he opposes releasing the two men “with every fiber of my being,” while the Warden of Angola and Hunt prisons, Burl Cain, has more than once suggested that the two men must be held in solitary because they ascribe to “Black Pantherism.”

In addition to their criminal appeals, Wallace and Woodfox (along with Robert King, who was released in 2001), have a case pending on constitutional grounds. They argue that the conditions and duration of their time in solitary confinement constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Their lawyers have submitted reports showing the effects of decades of solitary confinement on men in their sixties—including arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. The suit also argues that Wallace and Woodfox are being held in lockdown for their political beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment.

The Republican Right: Bring That “Boy” Down

Jimmy Carter yesterday plainly said what everyone ought to know already. As the BBC reported it:

Former US President Jimmy Carter says much of the vitriol against President Barack Obama’s health reforms and spending plans is “based on racism”.

Mr Carter told a public meeting there was “an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president”.

Any journalist who covered the Democratic presidential primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania could not possibly have missed the naked hatred of the man based on the fact he is black. Comments such as “Oh I’ll vote for the nigger” were actually emanating from Obama supporters, so you can imagine what his opponents were saying. These same kind of comments were in the air in western Maryland during a recent town meeting on health care. The area has a history of being not just right wing territory, but Klan territory.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Younger people might have illusions of a “post-racial” society, but the unsilent generation knows racism when it sees it. America has not crossed any divide on this subject. The Republicans, especially the Republican South, reborn under Nixon, now based on young white men, can be easily ignited on this subject. This is a region of the nation where black men were not so long ago addressed as “boy”–and are still sometimes referred to that way when no one who would object is listening.

You can bet this is the kind of atmosphere Joe Wilson is familiar enough, and you can bet that’s part of what emboldened him to call the President of the United States a liar from the floor of the U.S. Congress. As I wrote on Mother Jones last week:

Joe Wilson isn’t just some mean-spirited buffoon. As a South Carolina legislator, he was one of only 7 state senators who fought to keep the confederate battle flag flying over the state capital. South Carolina, of course, was the first state to leave the Union after Lincoln was elected. Flying the confederate battle flag was a big deal in the south, which was once—and in some cases is still—inhabited by the KuKluxKlan and its successors…

The decision to fly the Confederate battle flag was made by an all-white legislature in 1962 as the civil rights movement was picking up steam. The bill passed in 2000 didn’t even remove the flag entirely—it called for a different version of flag to be flown in front of the state house instead of on top of it.

The continued presence of a Confederate flag at the state house has caused the controversy to continue. In July 2009, the Atlantic Coast Conference—after discussions with the NAACP—decided to move three future college baseball tournaments out of South Carolina.

Jimmy Carter, who knows this world well also, called Wilson’s outburst “a dastardly thing to do”–which implies, as many others have, that it was a calculated move and not a spontaneous outburst. Responding to the personal attacks on Obama at town hall meetings and similar venues, Carter said: “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on healthcare.”

Likewise, the attacks won’t end with health care reform. They’ll just roll on into other issues on the President’s agenda. Leaders of the Republican Right, whether or not they are deeply racist themselves, are determined to bring Obama down–and if the racism of their constituents does the job, so be it.

Obama and Katrina: All Talk, Little Action

During the campaign Obama pledged to make the Gulf Coast recovery a paramount goal. In February, 2008, he declared, “The broken promises did not start when a storm hit, and they did not end there … I promise you that when I’m in the White House I will commit myself every day to keeping up Washington’s end of this trust. This will be a priority of my presidency.”

But a new study by the Institute for Southern Studies reports that 50 community leaders from areas affected by the hurricane ranked Obama only slightly better than Bush in reconstruction. In a range of different categories, Obama came out with a D+ to Bush’s D.

According to the report, “A diverse group of more than 50 community leaders were asked in August 2009 to grade the Obama administration’s efforts for Gulf Coast recovery in eight key areas. The respondents came from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, and represented a wide range of constituencies, including faith, community and environmental organizations.”

The demographics assembled by the Institute in themselves reflect how little has been done to restore life along the coast. Here are a few excerpts:

Estimated number of U.S. residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina: 1 million
Rank of Katrina’s among all diasporas in U.S. history: 1
Estimated number of people displaced by Katrina still living in Houston today: 100,000
Percent of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina addresses that are actively receiving mail today: 76.4
Percent receiving mail in the largely African-American and working-class Lower 9th Ward: Less than 49
Percent of households with children in New Orleans before Katrina: 30
Percent shortly after the storm: 18
Percent two years later: 20
Percent of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population that was African-American: 67
Percent three years later: 61
Number of abandoned residential addresses in New Orleans today: 65,888
Proportion of all residential addresses in the city that number represents: 1/3
Rank of New Orleans among all U.S. cities for the rate of abandoned residences: 1
Number of 2010 federal census questionnaires slated to be hand-delivered to homes in south Louisiana in an effort to ensure an accurate count: 300,000
Average amount of federal funds states receive over a decade for each person counted in the census: $12,000