Truthout Stories Mon, 31 Aug 2015 11:17:36 -0400 en-gb Death Toll Rises as Refugees Head to Europe Seeking Safety

The European Union has called for emergency talks to address the rapidly growing number of people fleeing to Europe to escape violence and unrest in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately 2,500 people are believed to have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe so far this year. On Sunday, 37 people died when a boat capsized off the Libyan coast. This came just days after another boat capsized off the Libyan coast killing more than 200 people. Meanwhile, investigators in Hungary and Austrian authorities are continuing to probe the deaths of 71 people who were found abandoned last week inside a truck on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna. We speak to Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration in Geneva; Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Chiara Montaldo of Doctors Without Borders in the Sicilian town of Pozzallo in Italy. She has been providing medical and psychological care to people rescued from boats in the Mediterranean.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 11:15:21 -0400
Deliberate Targeting of Water Sources Worsens Misery for Millions of Syrians

A Syrian man and his wife carry bottles of water walk through a sandstorm in the Zaatari refugee camp north of Amman in Jordan, Aug. 31, 2012. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)A Syrian man and his wife carry bottles of water walk through a sandstorm in the Zaatari refugee camp north of Amman in Jordan, August 31, 2012. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)

United Nations - Imagine having to venture out into a conflict zone in search of water because rebel groups and government forces have targeted the pipelines. Imagine walking miles in the blazing summer heat, then waiting hours at a public tap to fill up your containers. Now imagine realizing the jugs are too heavy to carry back home.

This scene, witnessed by an engineer with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), is becoming all too common in embattled Syria. In this case, the child sent to fetch water was a little girl who simply sat down and cried when it became clear she wouldn't be able to get the precious resource back to her family.

Compounded by a blistering heat wave, with temperatures touching a searing 40 degrees Celsius in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's water shortage is reaching critical levels, the United Nations said Wednesday.

In an Aug. 26 press relief, UNICEF blasted parties to the conflict for deliberately targeting the water supply, adding that it has recorded 18 intentional water cuts in Aleppo in 2015 alone.

Such a move - banned under international law - is worsening the misery of millions of war-weary civilians, with an estimated five million people enduring the impacts of long interruptions to their water supply in the past few months.

"Clean water is both a basic need and a fundamental right, in Syria as it is anywhere else," Peter Salama, UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement today. "Denying civilians access to water is a flagrant violation of the laws of war and must end."

In some communities taps have remained dry for up to 17 consecutive days; in others, the dry spell has lasted over a month.

Often times the task of fetching water from collection points or public taps falls to children. It is not only exhausting work, but exceedingly dangerous in the conflict-ridden country. UNICEF says that three children have died in Aleppo in recent weeks while they were out in search of water.

In cities like Aleppo and Damascus, as well as the southwestern city of Dera'a, families are forced to consume water from unprotected and unregulated groundwater sources. Most likely contaminated, these sources put children at risk of water-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea.

With supply running so low and demand for water increasing by the day, water prices have shot up - by 3,000 percent in places like Aleppo - making it even harder for families to secure this life-sustaining resource.

Ground fighting and air raids have laid waste much of the country's water infrastructure, destroying pumping stations and severing pipelines at a time when municipal workers cannot get in to make necessary repairs.

To top it off, the all-too-frequent power cuts prevent technicians and engineers from pumping water into civilian areas.

UNICEF has trucked in water for over half-a-million people, 400,000 of them in Aleppo. The agency has also rehabilitated 94 wells serving 470,000 people and distributed 300,000 litres of fuel to beef up public water distribution systems in Aleppo and Damascus, where the shortage has impacted 2.3 million and 2.5 million people respectively. In Dera'a, a quarter of a million people are also enduring the cuts.

A 40-billion-dollar funding gap is preventing UNICEF from revving up its water, hygiene and sanitation operations around Syria. To tackle the crisis in Aleppo and Damascus alone the relief agency says it urgently needs 20 million dollars - a request that is unlikely to be met given the funding shortfall gripping humanitarian operations across the UN system.

Overall, water availability in Syria is about half what it was before 2011, when a massive protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad quickly turned into a violent insurrection that now involves over four separate armed groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Well into its fifth year, the war shows no sign of abating.

As the UN marks World Water Week (Aug. 23-28) its eyes are on the warring parties in Syria who must be held accountable for using water to achieve their military and political goals.

Edited by Kitty Stapp.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 10:36:47 -0400
New Study Highlights Toxic Chemicals Travelling Through Breastmilk

Many new mothers worry about what they consume while they're breastfeeding. Obvious risks such as passing along medications or alcohol are well known to impact the development and health of their child. But a new study from Harvard shows that a certain chemical composition, all around us, could be impacting newborns more than we ever realized.

The study looked at a group of chemicals known as perfluorinated alkylate substances, also referred to as PFASs.

PFASs are found in products that are designed to repel water and oil such as food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, paints and stain-proof fabrics. These chemicals often make their way into the water supply and that's how they wind up in our bodies. These are present in most mammals all over the world and are known to have impacts on the reproductive system, immune function and certain types of cancers.

The transfer of PSAFs in breast milk has been studied before, but most of those studies looked at the quantity of PSAFs in the milk itself, which is usually fairly low. This study, however, looked at the build up in the blood of infants over time. What they found is that these chemicals tend to increase by 20-30 percent in the blood stream every month the child is breastfed. As breastfeeding stops, the amount decreases. Those who were partially breastfed also tended to have lower levels of PFASs in their system.

Phillipe Grandjean, the adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard Chan School says that, "There is no reason to discourage breastfeeding, but we are concerned that these pollutants are transferred to the next generation at a very vulnerable age." He also notes that currently there is no legislation in the US that requires testing of PFASs and their ability to move through mediums such as breast milk.

It seems like just another worry to add onto a pile of endless worries when a new baby arrives. But women can help keep PSAFs at bay by avoiding tap water while breastfeeding - which is the primary way that humans ingest these chemicals. In addition, women who are worried about continuous build up can supplement with formula during their breastfeeding period.

Yet the public must demand more studies on how certain products and chemicals can transfer to infants via breast milk. Many scientists lament the lack of funding and published, peer reviewed data on the subject. Judith S. Schreiber, a PhD who works for the Environmental Protection Bureau in New York State, writes that at the moment we mostly test for chemical toxicity in full grown adult men, and often at high doses. "Maternal, chemical, and physiologic factors influence the degree to which environmental chemicals are present in breast milk and are important determinants of the magnitude of the potential exposure of the infant," she writes. So why aren't there more tests out there to help determine the effect such chemicals can have on infants?

Organizations to combat this dearth of information, such as Make Our Milk Safe (MOMS), have sprung up, advocating for more studies and legislation on hazardous chemicals and how they are ingested and transferred.

MOMS spells out their mandate: "We believe that corporations have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the products they sell. We believe that government has a responsibility to ensure that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and their children are adequately protected by environmental health regulations."

However, despite such grassroots efforts, it will take a coming together of the scientific community, activists and environmental protection officers to really impact the level of PFASs that are currently finding their way into our water system.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The China Syndrome: Bubble Trouble

(Photo: Chinese Yuan via Shutterstock)(Photo: Chinese Yuan via Shutterstock)

The financial markets have been through some wild and crazy times over the last two weeks, although it appears that they have finally stabilized. The net effect of all the gyrations is that a serious bubble in China's market seems to have been at least partially deflated. After hugely over-reacting to this correction, most other markets have largely recovered. Prices are down from recent peaks, but in nearly all cases well above year ago levels.

But the stock market is really a side-show; after all back in 1987 the US market fell by almost 25 percent for no obvious reason, with little noticeable effect on the US economy. The more serious question is what is happening with the underlying economy, and there are some real issues here.

China's economy had become a major engine for world growth just as the US economy had been a major engine for world growth in the last decade. While predictions of an economic collapse in China will almost certainly prove wrong (many China experts have a long history of such predictions), it does seem likely that its growth going forward will be considerably slower than it has been in the past.

This will be bad news for exporters of oil and other commodities, the price of which were being sustained by the rapid growth in China. But a slowdown in China will also be bad news for the United States and other rich countries who were expecting that continued strong growth in China would boost their net exports, thereby lifting their weak growth rates.

Over the longer term it is reasonable to expect that China will continue to move from large trade surpluses to trade deficits or at least near balanced trade, the movement will likely be in the other direction in the immediate future. This means that trade with China will be a factor slowing growth in Japan, Europe and the United States for the immediate future.

While we can be unhappy with China for slowing our growth, the important point to remember is that we do still possess the keys for more rapid growth. After all, the problem is simply a lack of demand in the US and world economy. We can create more demand by having the government spend money or give out tax cuts. Larger deficits will boost the economy.

If the private sector isn't prepared to spend, the government can increase demand by repairing and improving the infrastructure, increased funding for health care, child care and education, or subsidizing wind, solar and other forms of clean energy. With interest rates at extraordinarily low levels and no signs of inflation anywhere in sight, there is no economic barrier to spending in these and other areas. Such spending would both help to make up the demand gap resulting from our trade deficit, thereby creating jobs, and also increase our economy's longer term potential and the country's well-being.

The only obstacle to such spending is political. This spending would mean larger budget deficits and our politicians are scared of talking about budget deficits.

The current economic situation is more than a bit absurd. Essentially, we have a worldwide shortfall in demand. Countries that have their own currencies, like the United States, United Kingdom and Canada could deal with their own shortfalls simply by running larger budget deficits. But for political reasons these countries don't want to run large budget deficits. Instead they are praying that their trading partners will increase their budget deficits, which will increase net exports and lead to more economic growth.

If the path to increase growth and employment remains blocked for political reasons, we should always remember that we can look to increase employment by going the opposite direction of decreasing supply. This can begin with work sharing, the policy of encouraging companies to reduce work hours rather than lay off workers. This was the key to Germany's low unemployment rate even at the worst points in the recession.

And, we can look to measures such as mandated paid sick days, parental leave and vacation, which have the effect of reducing the average number of hours worked in a year. These are all policies that can be implemented without running large budget deficits. Furthermore, since the reduced labor supply is likely to tighten up the labor market, it could lead to stronger wage growth. And, these measures will provide for a better balance between work-life and family life.

The best part is that these policies may be more politically feasible than other approaches. In addition to national governments, state and even local governments can put in place policies that shorten the average work year. Many states and cities across the United States have already implemented regulations in these areas.

If we had a saner conversation on economic policy in this country, we would be talking about stimulus to boost the economy and create jobs. But if we can't go this route due to irrational fears, we should look to getting to full employment by reducing labor supply. It cannot be acceptable to do nothing when so many people need jobs and can't find them.  

Opinion Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Close Was Israel to Bombing Iran?

New evidence has now surfaced from former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel came close to attacking Iran three times over the past few years - if you believe what "major" news media reported about the story. But you shouldn't believe it.

The latest story is only a continuation of the clever ploy that has been carried out by Israeli administrations from Ehud Olmert to Benjamin Netanyahu to convince the world that it was seriously contemplating war against Iran in order to pressure them toward crippling sanctions against Iran, if not military confrontation with it.

And there is even very strong circumstantial evidence that the Obama administration was consciously playing its part in a "good cop/bad cop routine" with the Israelis over the ostensible Israeli war threat until early 2012 to influence other states' Iran policies and gain political leverage on Iran.

The latest episode in the seemingly endless story of Israel's threat of war followed the broadcast in Israel of interviews by Barak for a new biography. The New York Times' Jodi Rudoren reported that, in those interviews, Barak revealed new details to his biographers about how close Israel came to striking Iran.

Barak said that he and Netanyahu were ready to attack Iran each year, but claimed that something always went wrong. Barak referred to three distinct episodes from 2010 through 2012 in which the he and Netanyahu were supposedly maneuvering to bring about an air attack on Iran's nuclear program. But a closer look at Barak's claims shows that in reality neither Barak nor Netanyahu was really ready to go to war against Iran.

One of the episodes occurred in 2010 when Netanyahu ordered the Israeli army to put Israeli forces on the highest possible state of alert reserved for preparation for actual war, only to be frustrated by the refusal of Israeli army chief of staff Ashkenazi to the order. But an Israeli television program on the episode aired in a television special in 2012 "suggested" that the order was not intended as a prelude to war.

Although the television account was not allowed to give the date of the episode, it is consistent with what happened on May 17, 2010, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Da Silva reached an agreement with Iran on a "fuel swap" deal. Netanyahu regarded the agreement as a maneuver to derail a new UN Security Council agreement on sanctions, but the government issued no public statement that day.

Barak denied on the Israeli program that he and Netanyahu had intended to go through with an actual attack, which implied that it was to be a short-term bluff to ensure that the sanctions agreement would go through. Ashkenazi's opposition to the order was not that it was intended to take Israel into war, but that it could easily provoke a military response from Iran.

Both Barak and Ashkenazi agreed on the program, and moreover, that the Israeli army lacked the capability to carry out a successful strike against Iran without US involvement. That agreement reflected a broad consensus within the Israeli security elite that Israel could not carry out a successful operation against Iran without the full involvement of the United States.

Nevertheless, that elite believed that the threat was necessary to pressure the rest of the world to act on Iran. As Yossi Alpher, a former aide to Barak, told me in 2012, most retired national security officials were totally opposed to an attack on Iran, but they remained silent because they did want to "spoil Bibi's successful bluster."

A second episode to which Barak refers to in his interviews involves his demanding that the United States postpone the joint military exercise planned for spring 2012, which he now says he did in order to be able to order an attack on Iran during that period without implicating the United States in the decision. But the postponement was announced in mid-January 2012, in plenty of time for Barak to plan the strike against Iran - if that is indeed what he and Netanyahu had intended. Instead, it didn't happen, and Barak offers no real explanation, commenting that they were "still unable to find the right moment."

The Obama administration pretended to be alarmed about Netanyahu's readiness to attack. But Obama was actually playing along with the Israeli strategy in order to line up support for a more aggressive regime of sanctions and then to put pressure on Iran to enter into negotiations aimed at closing down its enrichment program.

Gary Samore, Obama's adviser on WMD, had openly espoused the notion before taking that job that the United States should exploit an Israeli threat to attack Iran to put pressure on the Iranians over their nuclear program. At a Harvard University symposium in September 2008, Samore opined that the next administration would not want to "act in a way that precludes the [Israeli] threat, because we're using the threat as a political instrument."

The Obama administration's policy toward Iran clearly applied that Samore strategy early and often. Within weeks of his arrival in the White House, on April 1, 2009, Obama's Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Commander of CENTCOM David Petraeus both commented publicly that Israel was bound to attack Iran within a matter of a few years at most, unless Iran came to heel on its nuclear program.

And in mid-November 2009, Obama sent Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader of the White House staff to Beijing to warn the Chinese that the United States could not restrain Israel from an attack on Iran much longer unless the Security Council adopted a strong package of tough economic sanctions against Iran.

That diplomatic exploitation of the Israeli threat came seven months after Haaretz reported in May 2009 that CIA Director Leon Panetta had just obtained a commitment from Netanyahu and Barak that they would not take military action without consulting Washington first. That commitment reflected a reality that most senior national security officials accepted - that Israel could attack Iran without US cooperation.

What happened in late 2011 and early 2012 was a "good cop/bad cop" routine by Panetta and Barak at a historical juncture when the United States and Israel were cooperating closely in a strategy to get crippling sanctions against Iran approved in the UN Security Council while pressuring Iran to begin negotiating on its enrichment program.

Panetta's role in the routine was to wring his hands over alleged indications that Israel was intent on a strike in the spring. But Panetta's interview with David Ignatius in early February 2012 in which he warned of the "strong likelihood" of an Israeli attack in "April, May or June" included a clear give-away that the real purpose of his warning was to gain diplomatic leverage on Iran. He suggested to the Iranians that there were two ways to "dissuade the Israelis from such an attack": either Iran could begin serious negotiations on its nuclear program or the United States could step up its own cyber-attacks against Iran.

Later that year, of course, Obama would break dramatically with Netanyahu's strategy. But despite that clear indication in early 2012 that Panetta was playing a game that suited the interests of both administrations, consumers of the world's commercial news media were led to believe that Barak and Netanyahu were on the brink of war.

Barak himself is still peddling that same warmed-over, patently false tale of near war-war with Iran. And in one more indicator of the degree to which the media parrot the Israeli line on Iran, they are still reporting it as unquestioned fact today.

Opinion Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Residents of Southside Syracuse Fight to Stop Construction of a Sewage Plant

Aggie Lane made her neighborhood's pitch on July 11, 2005. Flanked by supporters, she pressed the case for civil-rights claims targeting a county government bent on putting a sewage plant in her largely African-American community.

	  Longtime Southside Syracuse resident Lula Donald. Southside is the site of an EPA Office of Civil Rights case over a sewage plant locals say would not have been built in a white neighborhood.  (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity) Longtime Southside Syracuse resident Lula Donald. Southside is the site of an EPA Office of Civil Rights case over a sewage plant locals say would not have been built in a white neighborhood. (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity)

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, DC.

Also see: Environmental Racism Persists, and the EPA Is One Reason Why.

Syracuse, New York - Aggie Lane made her neighborhood's pitch on July 11, 2005. Flanked by eight colleagues from the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, a citizens' voice for the south side of Syracuse, New York, as well as a half-dozen supporters, Lane pressed the case for civil-rights claims targeting a county government bent on putting a sewage plant in her largely African-American community.

At the US Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in New York City Lane presented to a table full of civil-rights investigators and lawyers a PowerPoint detailing the Southside community's struggles: the state highway dissecting the historically black neighborhood; the industrial plants dumping on residents; and now the sewage treatment facility threatening to add to the burden.

"We all know that a white, middle-class community would not put up with a sewer facility in a residential area," Lane, herself a white, middle-class transplant to Southside Syracuse, said to the regulators.

One year earlier, Lane and fellow members of the Partnership had filed a complaint alleging that the Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility - planned by Onondaga County, with state approval - would discriminate against the Southside's black residents "both because of the siting and the [facility's] impacts." Filed under federal civil-rights law, the complaint claimed the plant would harm the "health and overall quality of life of the surrounding community," as well as adjacent Onondaga Creek.

Partnership members believed the complaint epitomized the fight for environmental justice. To bolster their argument, they noted the county's proposal for a similar plant on the north side of Syracuse, then predominantly white. That facility used alternative technology much like the Partnership had been advocating to no avail, according to the complaint, making it smaller and less obtrusive than what Southside residents were facing.

"We felt the county was putting something in here because it's a black area, and the EPA would see right through it," recalled Joanne Stevens, a lifelong resident of the Southside who became a Partnership member.

The EPA's Office of Civil Rights disagreed, dismissing the Partnership's complaint in March 2005 after conducting a six-month investigation without interviewing residents or visiting the Southside area.

Now, at this meeting four months later, EPA investigators said little about the decision. They listened as residents challenged the civil-rights office's finding that the Midland plant did "not have a significant adverse impact" - questioning its rationale for making such a determination and criticizing an inquiry that relied on county records. EPA officials offered a small concession that would give residents hope for their cause:

"If we receive new significant information," one investigator told the group, according to Partnership meeting minutes, "we may investigate."

"They thought that would be the end of it, but they didn't know us," Lane said, alluding to the 650-page addendum the Partnership filed a year later to supplement its case. She remembers mailing it, certified, and following up with a phone call - never to hear from the EPA again.

The brush-off was not unusual. As an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has shown, the EPA's civil-rights office - assigned to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and assess environmental-discrimination claims filed by communities of color - almost always closes cases without action. Among the minority of Title VI complaints sparking investigation - 64 such cases over 17 years, including Southside Syracuse - records suggest the office has failed to fulfill its mission of rooting out discriminatory acts at agencies receiving EPA financial assistance.

Regulators have rarely closed an investigation with official action on behalf of minority communities. By the time the Partnership meeting occurred - 12 years after the EPA accepted its first civil-rights claim, in 1993 - the agency had resolved five cases, all without findings of Title VI violations, and through a mediation process not involving the complainants. In the decade since, the agency has settled an additional seven.

Alma Lowry, an environmental lawyer and former director of Syracuse University's public-interest law firm, which represented Southside residents, said EPA's civil-rights record has sent a clear message to citizens: "There's no gavel behind [Title VI]." She once worked at the Detroit law firm that has logged some of the earliest Title VI complaints with the agency; one complaint, filed on behalf of a Flint, Michigan, neighborhood, has remained open, pending investigation, for 16 years. Last month, the Flint community joined four others in a lawsuit challenging the EPA for what it called a "pattern and practice of unreasonable delay ..." in investigating their civil-rights claims. "The agency hasn't been able to take off its environmental hat and put on its civil-rights hat," Lowry said, explaining why she believes the EPA has never once found a formal Title VI violation in 22 years.

EPA officials declined to discuss details of specific cases, including Syracuse. The director of the agency's civil-rights office, Velveta Golightly-Howell, has promised to make a "full-blown effort" to improve the handling of Title VI complaints. "Our goal is really to provide relief for the complainants who have brought their issues and concerns to [the office]," she said.

The quest for justice in Southside Syracuse, however, tells a larger story of how people in some of the most disadvantaged communities can put forward a strong civil-rights case - replete with letter-writing campaigns, extensive research and what residents considered "smoking gun" documentation suggesting environmental racism - yet see little meaningful response from those enforcing the very law meant to protect them.

To this day, Lowry ranks Southside as "one of the most organized, effective and politically aggressive communities I've ever worked with." Yet it lost its battle against the Midland Avenue sewage plant, a source of bitterness for residents still. Those who fought the hardest cannot help but pin blame on the EPA.    

"If that kind of community can't make Title VI work for them," Lowry said, "I don't know who could."

A Forgotten Neighborhood

The Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility in Syracuse, New York. (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity)The Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility in Syracuse, New York. (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity)Southside Syracuse, in Onondaga County, is like many other inner-city neighborhoods across the United States: pockmarked by crime and poverty. Bars and liquor stores dominate street corners, where drug deals can burst into the open. Residents hear gunfire while lying in bed at night. New and refurbished houses stand like beacons on city blocks. Most houses are in varying states of disrepair - dilapidated, boarded-up or abandoned. In some pockets, foundations and empty lots are all that remain.

Residents remember the Southside in better days, with its luscious street trees and regal Gothic buildings. For the longest time, those who live here - 84 percent of whom are African- American, and earning an average per capita income of $8,516 - have viewed the neighborhood as the "ghetto," forgotten by white, wealthy Syracuse.

"Officials never invested money into this slum," explained Elmore Davis, who, in 1998, moved to the Southside with her two daughters, lured by the promise of a house for $500 down.

Against this backdrop of decay, the county's sewage plant does not seem terribly threatening. Situated on a bank of Onondaga Creek, near a dairy, a laundry, a canning factory and a bus terminal, the Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility looks like any other industrial building. At 24,000 square feet, the aboveground structure rivals the public-housing apartments dotting the area's residential streets. It sits 250 feet away from the closest home, surrounded by open space where the county has planted trees and shrubs, a testament to the community's activism.

Inside the facility, two "vortex swirl concentrators" act like giant toilets and flush sewer water down a pipe to a municipal treatment facility approximately five miles away. Underground, a 2.5-million-gallon tank stores storm water. As wastewater builds up, the "swirlers" disinfect the flow with chlorine and dump it into the creek. There are no stacks or vats spewing chemicals into the air. Many newer residents have no idea the plant was built to clean up a creek once so full of raw sewage that the stench wafted across intersections and seeped into homes.

For much of the last century, Syracuse's civic leaders have used the creek as a sewage channel. In the early 1900s, they designed a sewer system collecting sewage and storm water, and featuring up to 90 overflow points where waste could discharge into waterways during rain events. One such waterway is Onondaga Creek, which feeds a lake sharing its name. By the 1980s, untreated sewage had dirtied the creek, drying on its banks before funneling into Onondaga Lake, then among the nation's most polluted.

Targeting lake polluters, a local environmental group sued Onondaga County in 1988 under clean-water laws, alleging its "combined sewage overflows" violated safety standards. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation joined the lawsuit, aiming to force a clean-up of Onondaga Creek.

As far back as 1979, county officials had drafted such a plan. The compliance program relied on swirlers to catch solid waste and chlorinate wastewater. It hinged on sewage plant "storage units," designed to treat flow on rain-drenched days. Officials proposed constructing four of these units, each above ground, and processing millions of gallons of wastewater a year. Even then, the county's plan included the Midland plant.

It took another two decades and a federal-court order before Onondaga County would implement its plan. In 1998, the clean-water litigation yielded a settlement requiring county officials to eliminate creek pollution. The county was to capture 85 percent of the average annual precipitation gushing into the combined sewers to reduce overflows. The settlement also dictated specific projects to be undertaken throughout Syracuse, including the Midland plant.

The judgment identified that plant as the first to be built - and the biggest. It would consume an entire city block and rival the size of a football field. A mile-long, 12-foot-diameter storage pipe would feed the plant.

Within months, the county's proposal was circulating among Southside residents who, by then, harbored a deep sense of mistrust. Over the years, government officials had built multiple urban-renewal projects in the neighborhood, evicting residents and razing homes. Industry crept further into the area, too; today, seven minor industrial facilities operate within four blocks, all formerly residential.

That county officials would site yet another project - and especially a sewage plant, which, in the words of Southside resident Lionel Logan, "was a negative connotation" - in the same community sent a clear message to residents.

"They figured our neighborhood is black, so they'll do it," said Louise Poindexter, who has lived on the Southside for 20 years. She and other residents voiced their objections to the Midland plant at a series of public hearings in 1999. They criticized the proposal for displacing citizens and permitting the release of chlorine into the creek. By 2000, residents had formed the Partnership for Onondaga Creek and were organizing neighbors and lobbying politicians.

They demanded alternative locations for the plant but, as the Partnership's Stevens put it, "That seemed like trying to stop a freight train." They next pressed for technologies they believed would reduce the facility's presence in their neighborhood. For them, the most appealing was underground storage, which holds sewage overflow in tanks during storms. It did not require chlorine or an aboveground facility. The county could build a park or a playground on top of the tanks, they argued.

City politicians soon took notice. "I thought, 'Of course, there are other alternatives,'" recalled Joanne Mahoney, the Onondaga County executive, who then served on the Syracuse city council. She remembers meeting with county officials to discuss the options espoused by the Partnership, to no avail.

"If it wasn't about cost," Mahoney said, summing up the county position at the time, "it was along the lines of 'It'll improve the neighborhood if we put a plant there.'"

County administrators often presented the Midland plant as a kind of fait accompli: The plant, they noted at hearings and in documents, solved a serious environmental problem contributing to neighborhood nuisances. They reminded critics about the court order, and insisted the Midland location made the most technical sense. Officials acknowledged that the plant had negatives but minimized them. Some said that landscaping the grounds was sufficient recompense. "I thought it was kind of patronizing," said Mahoney, of the county's responses. She, along with the rest of her city-council colleagues, voted not to sell the county the land it needed for the Midland plant.

Seeing her vote as one cast for environmental justice, she explained: "If combined sewage overflows were ... running through one of the affluent, white [areas], we wouldn't say, 'What's the cheapest thing to do?' And we'd never suggest that just putting up a park would make the neighborhood whole again."

By 2001, Onondaga County had sued the city of Syracuse to acquire that land, prompting a legal mediation between the two administrations and designated "stakeholders," brokered by the state. Partnership members lobbied state regulators for a seat at the negotiating table as well; when ignored, they showed up at the weekly sessions anyway. Over nine months, they met with government engineers and administrators and kept up their campaign for other options. In the summer of 2002, county officials seemed ready to relent. Regulators even drafted a proposed agreement declaring that "the best solution ... incorporates the use of underground storage" - until the county balked.

"The county said, 'We're going to court,'" said Joe Heath, general counsel for the six-tribe Onondaga Nation, which opposed the Midland plant and participated in the mediation, referring to a 2003 ruling seizing city land for the facility.

Onondaga County did make some concessions - subtracting one of three swirlers, for instance, and adding the underground tank. Administrators also agreed to buy an extra acre of land to construct only one building. The changes reduced the facility's footprint by 7,000 square feet, and shifted it away from homes by 160 feet. In documents, county officials presented such plant compromises as "considerabl[e]," and "an effort to accommodate [community] concerns." For residents, though, the scaled-down version was not enough.

"We said, 'Put in underground storage,' but the county couldn't do that, okay?" said Logan, who, like many Partnership members, left the negotiations feeling dissatisfied.

"My neighborhood still has the sewage plant," he added. "Sure, it's smaller ... but it still exists."

"Total Disregard"

The Partnership shifted its focus to the EPA's civil-rights office in 2004, when the group filed its Title VI complaint. While targeting Onondaga County, the complaint also named the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, which, under the 1998 judgment, had to approve the county's compliance program. It alleged that the county had violated civil-rights law in 2003 when issuing its final plan for the Midland plant - failing to allow for "adequate, meaningful public participation"; and adopting a design and location with "adverse impacts on a predominantly minority community."

It was not the first time the civil-rights office had heard about the Midland plant. In 2000, the facility was cited as evidence of an alleged pattern of racial discrimination in a wide-ranging Title VI complaint targeting county and city administrations. Unlike Onondaga County, the city of Syracuse opposed the plant. Yet it "failed to mount an aggressive defense of its Protected Population neighborhood," the complaint argued, as required by Title VI.

"The Midland plant was a clear example of the total disregard for people who live in those [Southside] neighborhoods," said Mike Kisselstein, who, as manager of a local bank, penned the earlier complaint. "Technically, it's discrimination."

Rather than examine Kisselstein's claim, the EPA denied it on procedural grounds because, the 2001 rejection letter stated, "it was not filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act."

Four years later, Southside residents were not about to let the EPA dismiss their case so easily. The Partnership offered a show of political support for its complaint, amassing a folder full of letters from federal legislators, university trustees, tribal members, local politicians, environmental advocates - "anybody who we thought had any clout," Lane said. Within five months, the EPA accepted the complaint for investigation - in part. Investigators tossed out the first allegation as "untimely," but not the second.

"The main gist of it, the [civil-rights office] was going to investigate," said Lane, who, given the previous rejection, considered the partial acceptance a victory. Generally, the EPA can mediate some resolution of a Title VI complaint with the target of the allegations. The Partnership wanted nothing less. In the ensuing months Lowry, the group's lawyer, wrote multiple letters to federal, state and county officials suggesting as much.

"We wanted EPA to say, 'Yes, there's environmental injustice here," explained Lane, the complaint's main contact, "and the way you can fix it is to go back to the negotiation table."

Onondaga County disputed the allegation, calling the complaint "jurisdictionally and procedurally defective," and arguing the plant would have little, if any, adverse impact. Responding to the citizens' complaint, county attorneys contended that the EPA had already addressed the core issues. They pointed to an environmental assessment of the Midland plant conducted by the agency's regional office, in New York City, which funded the $125 million project.

As required by law, EPA regional officials five years earlier had reviewed the Midland plant for potential environmental impacts. In the 1999 assessment, the agency ceded that the facility could cause what it termed "high adverse impact," albeit "temporary and/or ... offset by the county's measures to mitigate." It agreed with the county that the plant tackled a larger environmental problem, and that the plant location - home to several sewer overflows and trunk lines - meets "requirements for engineering feasibility and cost-effectiveness." And while the assessment included an environmental-justice analysis, examining a few nearby alternative sites, the agency said any facility would affect a similar population.

Ultimately, the EPA approved the Midland plant, issuing a "finding of no significant impact." The agency affirmed this conclusion in 2004, stating that "no significant adverse environmental impacts will result from the construction and operation of this project." That EPA finding, the county asserted in the civil-rights case, "precludes a finding of a Title VI violation."

For Southside residents, the irony seemed rich. Soon after the EPA released its environmental assessment, the county built 1,000 feet of a plant pipeline, ripping up properties, and disrupting people's lives. Now as the agency launched its civil-rights investigation, the county kicked off plant construction, seizing 45 townhouses, and evicting residents like Vernell Bentley, who lived in a public-housing unit across the street.

"They told me I had to go but I said, 'I'm not going,'" recalled Bentley, one of the few to hold out for replacement housing. She remembers when trucks pulled into her dead-end street, leveling picnic tables and a basketball court. "They were boarding up my windows," she said, "and putting up fences around my home."

Once a close-knit community, the Southside has not necessarily recovered. After the evictions, Bentley and former neighbors scattered across the city. Many have disappeared since. "It just messed up the neighborhood," said Bentley, who likens her experience to that of black citizens pushed out by urban-renewal projects in the 1960s and '70s.

"'We don't care about these Negroes, just put it here,'" she added.

By March 2005, the EPA's civil-rights office had dismissed the Partnership's complaint. Relying on the regional office's 1999 environmental assessment, as well as the county's paper trail for developing its sewer compliance plan, investigators determined that the Midland plant would not have a "significant adverse impact." "Therefore," the 2005 dismissal letter stated, "[the office] does not find a prima facie case of discriminatory effect."

Some saw a larger pattern in the EPA's dismissal. For years, its civil-rights office has interpreted compliance with environmental laws as evidence that a target's actions or decisions would not harm a minority community. Experts note that, unlike Title VI, environmental laws are not designed to protect historically vulnerable populations; on the contrary, they are written for everybody. These laws also examine individual impacts - on the air, or in the water - rather than the cumulative effect, as required by Title VI.

"Compliance with environmental laws was conflated with compliance with Title VI," said Lowry, who, like many, has viewed such an interpretation as a misreading of civil-rights law. In the Syracuse case, investigators did not evaluate what she described as legitimate resident claims about the county's final plan - its disruption to the community, for instance, and its dislocation of residents - because of their reliance on an environmental review not intended to account for such consequences in the same way as Title VI.

"With Title VI and the EPA," she added, "there is something of a disconnect."

Stunned by what they considered an unfair investigation, the Partnership pushed for a meeting with EPA officials in the summer of 2005, during which they challenged the agency's dismissal. When they heard the EPA's concession, members set out to find what they considered "new and significant information." Over nine months, they filed records requests and combed through documents detailing Onondaga County's sewer compliance plan. By 2006, they had produced a 150-page addendum, backed by 500 pages of government records, outlining how plan architects had repeatedly made decisions that would burden the Southside over other neighborhoods.

They believed they had uncovered "the smoking gun" in a three-page document written by consulting engineers for county administrators. The 1998 document revealed that Onondaga County had planned to build a "swirl concentrator" just like the Midland plant on the Northside before evaluating alternatives that, the engineering report stated, "will reduce costs and disruption of the site."

The county could capture the Northside's sewer overflows by building an "oversize pipeline in both Midland and [nearby downtown]," according to the report, thus sparing the former "disruption." The county later scratched this area's sewage plant for a smaller, less intrusive "floatable control facility."

"It was like, 'Okay, that's discrimination,'" said Lane, noting the Northside facility sat near luxury condominiums in a predominantly white area. A retired engineer, she saw the document as an expose of the ways the county was, in her words, "shifting the burden from the Northside, sparing them and placing it onto the Southside, where you can get away with it."

Given all this work - and all this new information - Partnership members never expected that the EPA would fail to acknowledge their addendum, they say. Now, 10 years after their case's dismissal, they have learned all about the agency's lackluster record of adjudicating civil-rights claims. Still, their case has seemed as good as any could get. To them, the agency's silence has left one lasting impression of its enforcement of civil-rights law:

"We do all the digging. We send them stuff. They don't talk to us anymore," said Lane, summing up the community's Title VI experience. "It makes you cynical after a while. ... You think, 'What does any of this really mean?'"

Asked about Syracuse, Golightly-Howell, the EPA's civil-rights chief, declined to speak about cases that have not "happened on my watch," beginning in February 2014. In general, she pointed out, "the agency bears the burden of investigating and determining whether a prima facie case [of discrimination] has been established."

Under her leadership, Golightly-Howell said, the civil-rights office has worked to implement a strategic plan for improving how investigators handle Title VI complaints. As part of this effort, it issued a position paper in May explaining the role of complainants during case investigations.

"We've made forward movement in the direction of increasing confidence," she said.

After the EPA's dismissal, Southside residents kept up their fight, protesting at every phase the Midland plant's construction. They eventually benefitted from a shift in Onondaga County's political landscape in late 2007, when executive Mahoney won her first election. Almost as soon as she had assumed office, Mahoney set out to revise the county's sewer compliance plan. By then, the Midland plant had already been built, but not its feeder line. She cancelled that pipeline, as well as another proposed sewage plant.  

"It was clearly the right thing to do," said Mahoney, who has since implemented a plan largely relying on alternative technologies espoused by the Partnership, such as underground storage.

Today, the Midland plant is the rare sewage plant storage unit to actually be built in Syracuse. Mahoney's sewer compliance plan has enabled her administration to reduce the footprint of every single proposed swirler facility except Midland. Some of those facilities became underground storage tanks, and are now nestled beneath parking lots. Others were never built.

That none of the city's other neighborhoods have had to endure what they have endured remains a bitter pill to swallow for many on the Southside. "We got the plant," the Partnership's Poindexter said. "Nobody else did."  As residents see it, Southside may be in better shape today than it would be if it no one had spoken up years ago - their sewage plant is smaller, their creek cleaner. But none of these gains came about because the EPA's civil-rights office did right by the community.

"What did the agency do for us? They didn't do shit for us," Poindexter said, echoing the sentiment among many neighbors. "They gave us hope when they knew there was none. That's how I feel about the whole thing."

This story is part of Environmental Justice, Denied. A look at the environmental problems that disproportionately affect communities of color. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.
Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity.
News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Still Waiting for Help: Lessons of Hurricane Katrina on Poverty

New Orleans residents who waited out Hurricane Katrina at home took stock on the morning of August 29 2005, and they appeared to be safe; they had weathered the worst of the storm. In the hours to follow, however, a breach in the levees allowed water to continue to rise until whole neighborhoods were flooded.

More than one million residents of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities were forced from their homes. Many left with almost nothing.

By September 4, more than 250,000 hurricane survivors had evacuated to Texas, and more followed. In subsequent months, many survivors relocated again; some returned to New Orleans, but, according to accounts in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, many stayed in Texas.

Their experiences have much to teach us about the ways in which disaster relief programs interact with poverty and social welfare programs.

The Experience of Katrina Evacuees

Trained as an anthropologist, but with a social worker's perspective, I have spent most of my career studying the lived experiences of United States families in poverty, and the ways in which poverty and other social welfare programs affect their lives.

As 10,000 Katrina evacuees came into Austin, I joined a team of researchers who worked to understand the experiences of evacuees, and how they experienced the help offered them both as evacuees and as impoverished residents of a new city in a new state. We participated in interviews with evacuees whom we met as they first sought public assistance, and we also drew information from our work with city data collected by city of Austin service providers. (Some of our research appears in the book, Community Lost: The State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina and in this article.)

The experiences of Katrina evacuees illuminate the strengths and weaknesses in our disaster and poverty policies, particularly as they affect the poorest among us.

While Gulf Coast residents from all walks of life came to Austin in the aftermath of the storm, those who occupied the poorest, and most heavily African-American, wards in New Orleans arrived with the fewest resources. Evacuees from these areas, which suffered the worst flooding and storm damage, often arrived with very little. Many lacked basic identification, a change of clothing, or necessary prescription drugs. They were often separated from family members.

One mother, brought to the New Orleans airport for evacuation along with her extended family, told us how she was separated just before boarding from her brother, her adult daughter and her aunt. It took her weeks to discover where family members had landed.

Relief Efforts Unprepared for Long-Term Assistance

Evacuees were received with a large but hastily constructed and temporary disaster help program, and nearly 5,000 people stayed in the emergency shelters opened by the city. There they received medical care, food, shelter, clean clothing and advice about their next steps. However, this system was not designed or financed to care for people more than four or five weeks.

In most disasters requiring evacuation, evacuees can head back home in a matter of days or weeks. Katrina, however, displaced many on the Gulf Coast for months, years, and, for some, the rest of their lives.

Both our research team and the city of Austin tracked the experiences of evacuees as disaster services were reduced and finally closed. Within one month, the emergency shelters were closing, as social workers raced to find even temporary housing, sometimes in isolated neighborhoods outside the city. Within the next couple of months, emergency food services closed; within five or six months (depending on the case) FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) benefits were depleted.

As disaster services declined, household members were expected to find jobs, and to receive any needed assistance from regular poverty and human welfare programs. However, those evacuees who had arrived destitute were still, on average, experiencing extreme poverty.

The poorest evacuees, who had only temporary housing support, lacked personal identification and transportation, and experienced ongoing health and mental health issues, continued to have difficulty finding and holding jobs in Austin. Generally, adult disaster victims, months after the evacuation, were in the following circumstances:

  • They were earning an average income of US $629/month, with a majority of the respondents - 56% - falling between 0% and 50% of the national poverty line.

  • Sixty percent were unemployed and looking for work, often unsuccessfully.

  • Many households had received Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance, but the amounts were under $5,000 per household, and were quickly spent on rent, food and utilities as households were rapidly moved out of temporary shelters.

  • In spite of their extreme poverty, fewer than half of the evacuees had received food stamps; an even smaller proportion were receiving them at the time we interviewed them.

  • Evacuees experienced more limited health care coverage than before their evacuation.

  • More than half of the evacuees reported problems with ongoing physical health conditions; more than 40% continued to experience mental health problems.

Problems of Permanent Displacement

Meanwhile, in Austin, disaster services were declining just as evacuees were beginning to realize they might be permanently displaced. One individual, for instance, returned early to New Orleans but left because, while her house was still standing, nothing else in the neighborhood remained.

Regular poverty programs - such as welfare, food stamps, or Medicaid/Medicare - are increasingly oriented to those who possess basic identification documents, at least part-time employment, and a fixed address. Katrina evacuees who lacked identification documents struggled to find jobs, or to sustain stable housing.

Furthermore, poverty programs do not provide for all basic material needs. Most families in poverty and crisis receive the benefits of these programs, but depend on extended families, churches and local communities for supplementary assistance. Katrina evacuees, often forcibly separated from family members at the time of their evacuation, displaced from their churches and home communities, had few of these social resources.

Like others who experience extreme poverty, some evacuees needed longer-term, comprehensive assistance and support. Both our disaster and our poverty programs must reorient services to recognize and respond to those experiencing longer-term illness, trauma, isolation and lack of personal resources.

More nearly universal services in health care, including mental health services; childcare; and substantive job training can address barriers faced by families in poverty. This needs to be accompanied by housing support that provides stability and proximity to employers. Currently, means-tested programs in each of these areas require considerable documentation to participate and have substantial waiting lists.

Without such measures, we will continue to leave behind both the victims of major disasters and the poorest and most isolated of those in poverty.

The Conversation

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Prosecutors Practice Racism in US Courts

In early June of this year, the State Bar of Texas stripped Charles Sebesta of his law license and formally disbarred him. His crime? Prosecutorial misconduct that led to the wrongful conviction of exonerated death row prisoner Anthony Graves.

Graves was released in 2010 after spending 19 years in prison and on death row. A federal appeals court had ordered a new trial for him in 2006, and over the intervening years prosecutors in Washington-Burleson county found that they had no credible evidence with which to re-try and convict him. The main witness against Graves had recanted his testimony and claimed that Sebesta had coerced him into making false statements.

Since his release, Graves has fought for Sebesta to be sanctioned. For his part, Sebesta continued to make claims about Graves' guilt to the media as recently as January. Taking advantage of a new law, Graves was finally able to file a grievance against Sebesta, resulting in an investigation and subsequent hearings which culminated in the former prosecutor's expulsion from the bar.

Speaking to Texas Monthly's Executive Editor Pamela Colloff after the decision, Graves said, "I never thought that a young, African American man from the projects could file a grievance against a powerful, white DA in Texas and win."

Prosecutors facing consequences for misconduct is very rare. They hold one of the most powerful positions in the criminal justice system and have operated with very little scrutiny for decades. But that is starting to change.

Prosecutorial Power and Racism

This year has seen an explosion of outrage at the murders of unarmed people of color at the hands of the police. The anger at the cops has been coupled with an outcry against the unwillingness of prosecutors to pursue charges against police officers in cases like those of Eric Garner in New York City or Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Now, questions are coming to the fore about how prosecutors fit into the racist system of criminal justice that many call the New Jim Crow.

A new study released by the Women Donors Network (WDN) reveals that out of 2,437 elected prosecutors, 95 percent are white and 79 percent are white men. Sixty percent of states have zero elected Black prosecutors. In 14 states, all elected prosecutors are white.

Discussing the reason for the study, WDN President Donna Hall said:

Americans are taking a new look at the relationship between race, gender and criminal justice - in the failures to indict police officers from Ferguson to Staten Island, the rogue prosecutions of women who terminated their pregnancies from Indiana to Idaho, and in the epidemic of mass incarceration. Elected prosecutors have an enormous influence on the pursuit of justice in America, yet 79 percent of them are white men whose life experiences do not reflect those of most Americans.

Prosecutors have enormous power in the criminal justice system. After someone is arrested, prosecutors' discretion allows them to decide whether to file charges, what charges to file and what kinds of sentences to pursue. There is no oversight over their offices and little data is collected on how their decisions are made.

It has been historically hard to prove racial bias among prosecutors because of this lack of data. But the raw numbers regarding incarceration are revealing: While Black people make up only 13 percent of the population, 37 percent of people in prison are Black. Meanwhile, Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated for the same crime as their white counterparts.

Post-conviction, the same disparities continue in sentencing. According to the US Sentencing Commission, sentences for Black defendants are 10 percent longer than those for white defendants convicted of the same crime. Black defendants are 21 percent more likely to be given mandatory-minimum sentences than whites.

Perhaps nothing is more revealing of the racial bias in sentencing than the way that death sentences are imposed. People of color are vastly overrepresented on death row as compared to the US population, accounting for 43 percent of the executions carried out since 1976.

Study after study has shown that the race of the victim is the biggest determining factor in a potential death penalty case. White victims make up half of all murder victims, yet 80 percent of death penalty cases involve a white victim. In the 1,412 executions carried out since 1976, just 31 cases have involved a Black victim and white defendant. It seems that in the eyes of prosecutors, some lives matter more than others.

Prosecutors alone decide whether or not to seek the death penalty. For many prosecutors, winning death penalty convictions meant a boost to their political careers. This political benefit has often resulted in egregious misconduct by prosecutors, such as suppressing evidence, coercing witnesses through plea deals and excluding people of color from juries.

The Supreme Court outlawed discrimination in jury selection in the landmark Batson vs. Kentucky decision in 1986. Under the decision, defendants are allowed to challenge a decision to strike a juror if it seems like it was motivated by race. However, all prosecutors have to do is argue that they struck a juror for some other "race-neutral" reason, and then it's up to the judge to decide whether it was an improper strike. Over the years, a system of devising "race-neutral" reasons to target jurors of color has been rampantly abused.

This June, the high court agreed to hear the case of Timothy Tyler Foster. Foster was convicted in Georgia by an all-white jury - an all-too-common scenario in a murder case involving a Black defendant and a white victim. The state's claim that race played no role in striking jurors is comical, as Foster's lawyers have discussed in their petition to the court which highlights the prosecution's notes from jury selection:

(1) marked the name of each Black prospective juror in green highlighter on four different copies of the jury list; (2) circled the word "BLACK" next to the "Race" question on the juror questionnaires of five Black prospective jurors; (3) identified three Black prospective jurors as 'B#1,' 'B#2,' and 'B#3'; (4) ranked the Black prospective jurors against each other in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the Black jurors"; and (5) created strike lists that contradict the 'race-neutral' explanation provided by the prosecution for its strike of one of the Black prospective jurors.

As recently as 2004, prosecutors in Texas were given instructions on how to exclude people of color from juries using "race-neutral" pretenses.

Prosecutors' unique place in the justice system has led to other, more grotesque abuses of power. For example, a culture of celebrating death sentences in district attorneys' offices is common, especially in the South.

One of the most notable examples is in Jefferson Parish in Louisiana. In 2003, as a murder trial for Lawrence Jacobs, Jr. began, parish prosecutors walked into the court wearing macabre neckties - one featuring the grim reaper and another depicting a noose. When the defendant's father objected, the men were told by superiors to remove the ties. There were however no further sanctions, although prosecutors had apparently worn the ties at a number of previous court proceedings.

The New York Times reported in 2003 that the Jefferson Parish office also regularly held parties after they obtained a death sentence. The office took up a collection to buy a plaque with the name of the condemned person and a picture of a needle. One defense attorney reported seeing the plaques in the office of a prosecutor-turned-judge.

Other outrages included a prosecutor in nearby Orleans Parish who kept an electric chair on his desk, an office in Texas that formed a "Silver Needle Society," and an office in Baton Rouge that celebrated death sentences at office parties replete with steak and Jim Beam.

Pursuing Injustice

While gruesome, these displays are just the most outward manifestation of an outlaw culture among prosecutors, who are rarely sanctioned for their role in wrongful convictions.

In 2003, the Center for Public Integrity looked at more than 11,000 cases involving misconduct since 1970. They found that in only about 2,000 cases did an appeals court find that prosecutorial misconduct warranted the overturning of a conviction. Fewer than 50 prosecutors were sanctioned professionally for their actions.

In 2010, USA Today published the results of an investigation of 201 federal cases concerning misconduct by prosecutors. They found that just one prosecutor "was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct."

The disbarment of Charles Sebesta is an important case of what could be a growing trend of prosecutors facing the music for their misuse of the law.

The sanctioning of Sebesta came only a few years after the criminal conviction of another Texas prosecutor, Ken Anderson. Anderson presided for years as the district attorney - and later served as judge - in Williamson County, just outside of Austin, Texas. But it was his role in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, that made Anderson infamous.

Anderson went to trial in 2013, accused of hiding crucial evidence of Morton's innocence. He was found guilty, stripped of his law license and, in an unprecedented decision, sentenced to 10 days in jail. While he ultimately served just three of those days, the move sent shock waves through the system. Pamela Colloff reported extensively on the outcome of the case. "Regardless of whether justice was served, a single, extraordinary fact ... will ensure accountability," she wrote in Texas Monthly. "Innocence Project director Barry Scheck told reporters that the current Williamson County DA, Jana Duty, had agreed to allow an independent review of every single case that Anderson had ever prosecuted. The audit will hopefully answer the question that many people have wondered since Morton's exoneration in 2011. Was Anderson's misconduct in the Morton case the exception or the rule? "

Anthony Graves is hopeful for a similar outcome for Sebesta. As he told Colloff in June, "I think this is a great first step. But a lot of people in Washington and Burleson counties were prosecuted and convicted by Charles Sebesta, and some of them are still behind bars. All of those cases need to be examined, too."

Fixing a Broken System

The sanctioning of these prosecutors in Texas, combined with the report from WDN, raise real questions about how prosecutorial misconduct can be combatted. Some commentators have called for more diversity in prosecutors' offices. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative made this case in an interview with NPR in early July. Discussing the fact that most district attorney candidates run unopposed, he said, "There's no one running against them. I think that we can do some things to turn this around. I think, first of all, district attorneys in position today have the opportunity to begin prioritizing diversity and identifying people within their offices who are women and people of color to succeed them."

Stevenson also addressed some of the reasons people of color don't pursue jobs as prosecutors: "I actually have had lots of students and others enter the prosecution profession. They say 'I want to change things from the inside.' And what they typically report is that the culture of many of these offices is so hostile to being more responsive to the needs of poor people and people of color that they can't make the change that they seek."

Most would argue that more diversity in the profession is needed. Yet there are limits to how effective an electoral strategy can be. Since the civil rights movement, the strategy of electing more people of color to political office hasn't necessarily led to improved conditions in the communities they serve.

In 1970, there were just 1,469 Black elected officials in the US Today there are over 10,000. But by many indices, the condition of Black life in America has stagnated or worsened in this time period. Poverty in the Black community is still double the national poverty rate, for example, and the homeownership rate among Black people has remained stagnant since 1970.

Police departments have also diversified - but the "thin blue line" continues to prevail. Police culture is still dominated by a culture of closed ranks, as we have seen in virtually every police murder that's made the news.

The advent of the Black Lives Matter movement has posed a real challenge to police culture - which also has the potential to push prosecutors to take action in cases of police killings. The indictment and conviction of officer Johannes Mehserle, who killed Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009, is one example of the difference a movement can make in pushing prosecutors to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, there are fights for policy reforms, especially at the state level. In Texas, the high-profile shenanigans of Ken Anderson and Charles Sebesta led to the Michael Morton Act, enacted in 2013, that takes aim at prosecutors' abuse of the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to hand over any evidence that might be favorable to the defense. But the rule is written in such a way that prosecutors have tremendous discretion in deciding what they think constitutes Brady evidence. Suppression of evidence is rampant under the system, something the Morton Act aims to change.

As Pamela Colloff stated:

The key thing the Act does is force every DA's office to have an open file policy - meaning that all prosecutors must hand over every piece of evidence they collect, no matter what. Now they can no longer do things like withhold witness statements.

Of course there's always going to be prosecutorial discretion. You can't take that out of the equation. But if you enact reforms which require prosecutors to be more transparent, that could help change the win-at-all-costs culture that exists in some DA's offices. These sorts of reforms need to be enacted not just in Texas, but nationally.

Colloff also highlighted the change in the public's perception of prosecutors, and the need for state bars to take action against unscrupulous officials:

There's been a huge shift in the way people view prosecutors - they do believe there are prosecutors that are guilty. Now the Texas State Bar has belatedly and begrudgingly shown that it will take decisive action against prosecutors that don't play by the rules, including powerful elected district attorneys.

Such campaigns for reforms like the Michael Morton Act in Texas, linked with the growing movement against police killings, show the way forward in the struggle to combat racism in the criminal justice system - and, ultimately, to dismantle the New Jim Crow.

Opinion Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Hungry for Justice: Chicago Residents Go on Hunger Strike for Education

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Why is there a hunger strike generating headlines on the South side of Chicago?

Why are parents and community members starving themselves to the point of collapse and being hospitalized?

Why are bureaucrats unmoved by their plight - with some failing to so much as halt a meeting when an ailing community member is carried out on a stretcher?

There's no explanation that anyone should be able to live with, but here's a brief breakdown, for anyone who doesn't understand:

This is how it works in Chicago. A 23-year old white woman rides her bicycle to the Board of Education and asks for a green technology and global citizenship-themed school. The powers that be rubber stamp the proposal before you can blink. Today, the Academy for Global Citizenship Charter School steals space and resources from an existing neighborhood school like a growing cancer. This cancer is looking to spread onto nearby land, which once held a whole community of public housing - LeClaire Courts. It's now leveled. An empty lot where only the whisper of the promise "right of return" can be heard on the wind.

Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)This is how it works in Chicago. A community group made up of Black residents of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood go to the Board of Education to ask for a green technology and global citizenship themed school. The powers that be ignore that proposal, just as they have ignored the people of this community for years. For decades. Forever.

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) - the group at the core of the fight for Dyett High School - has been fighting for the schools in their neighborhood for over 50 years. They fought when the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) tried to change their local neighborhood high school into a selective enrollment school that would only serve a limited number of students from the community. They fought to turn Dyett, at one time a local middle school, to be turned into an open enrollment high school that would serve all children in the area. They fought when the Board of Ed began a mass program of school closures following the wake of public housing demolition called Renaissance 2010 2010, which eventually closed 20 schools in the Bronzeville area. They fought as CPS gave incentives to privately-run, undemocratic, outsider charter operators to throw up shiny new privately-run charter schools in a failed attempt to attract a new middle class of gentrifiers and to push out the undesirable low-income residents. They fought when CPS attempted to sabotage Dyett High School from the very beginning with lack of funding, constant churn, and threat of closure. And they fought when CPS finally voted to close the school in a slow-death fade-out over three years.

The members of KOCO have done everything in their power to save this school, the last open enrollment high school that serves their community. They have spoken at the Board of Education numerous times. They have partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago to produce reports on the destabilization of Dyett. They have held press conferences. They have run the former head of KOCO to become the State Representative of the area. They mobilized the youth to speak out powerfully about their right to a quality education. They have marched alongside the Chicago Teachers Union to save all schools facing closure. KOCO helped organize for an Elected Representative School Board in Chicago, instead of our current biased mayoral appointed corporate Board. They have been on television and radio and media more times than you can count. They have partnered with organizations across the country fighting school closures and racist school policy in a "Journey for Justice," visiting places like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington DC. They held sit-ins outside the local alderman's office. They held sit-ins outside the mayor's office. They have been arrested. But every time, their voices were ignored.

When CPS announced that Dyett would finally be phased-out, the community came together and created a proposal for it to be reopened. That was never part of CPS' plan. But the people fighting for Dyett were so unstoppably determined, CPS agreed to a "Request For Proposals" (RFP) process instead. RFPs are typically a way to turn over public control of a school to private operators. CPS has used this faux "community input" model as a way to pretend at democracy with the outcome predetermined numerous times. The Dyett folks were outraged that CPS was once again silencing them, this time threatening for outsiders and private entities to come in and take over the school they had fought for over 15 years to reclaim for the community. So KOCO and the newly-formed Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School fought on.

They jumped through the hoops CPS put up and created a clearer vision for the school calling it the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. In order to improve their proposal, they arranged partnerships with UIC's education department, Chicago Botanic Gardens, and the nearby DuSable Museum. They used their strong community connections to build relationships with all of Dyett's feeder elementary schools to ensure the curriculum was aligned-naming that network the Bronzeville Global Achievers Village. It was clearly the best proposal.

But then came the final straw. CPS would not even do its own RPF process honestly. They stalled and pushed back the hearing dates again and again, with seemingly no intention of going through with the deal.

So twelve brave members of the Dyett Coalition began the most radical strategy yet. They stopped eating, a hunger strike of protest against this twisted, racist system that has denied their children an equitable education for too long. These parents, grandparents, Local School Council representatives, teachers, and activists decided to put their own health at risk to save Dyett.

The Dyett Twelve have not stayed silent in their protest. Every day, huddled in chairs outside the school, they hold "teach-ins" where the hunger strikers along with a growing number of supporters speak truth to power. They have spoken loud and clear about the racism of the treatment of black citizens by the Board of Education. The Dyett Twelve have shouted out the injustices happening in schools serving black and brown children in this city. They have looked to their elders, who were fighting for better schools sixty years ago and asked, "How is it 2015 and we are still forced to put our bodies on the line to get an education for our children?" They have gone to the Board hungry and weak and told the glaring truth: that they have not been granted this proposal because they "made the mistake of being born black."

People all over the globe have responded to this hunger strike with outpourings of support. Places like South Africa, Chile, and Puerto Rico are sending solidarity photos. Twitter and Facebook are alight with the hashtags #FightForDyett and #WeAreDyett, which are topping the trending charts. But the hunger strikers are becoming dangerously ill. Three members have already been rushed to the hospital.

On Thursday, a letter signed by 17 doctors and nurses, including a retired chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, was delivered to Rahm Emanuel's office. The letter urged him to take action to end the hunger strike, saying in part, "We consider the current situation to be a deepening health emergency in our city. It is one you can abate by reaching out to the strikers, entertaining their grievances and accepting their proposal."

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Emanuel's only response thus far has been to stress how underutilized the area's schools are. Under-utilization is a familiar refrain in Chicago, where the Emanuel administration has repeated the same talking point in the face of countless pleas from community members, begging not to lose their schools and clinics. The argument is often taken at face value by those who aren't aware that efforts to drive people away from public resources and community hubs, such as schools and public clinics, are fueled by a city-wide push toward privatization. The "new Chicago" that Emanuel has long claimed to be building caters to private interests, even as residents who've lost their clinics fall through the cracks, and perish, just as they warned they would. Children lose their music and art programs, their teachers and their school librarians - and finally their schools, which have long been the beating hearts of their communities. Emanuel's response today has thus far been no different than it was when mental health clinic patient Helen Morley warned him, "You're killing us!" in 2012.

Morley later died after losing her clinic, just as she predicted.

Once again, the mayor's efforts to shuffle community members through his reimagined, profit driven Chicago have become a matter of life and death. Once again, a struggle for dignity, survival and community itself is playing out in the public eye, garnering headlines and prompting widespread pleas that the mayor rethink his position. But the great question remains: How far will Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board go to deny this community a fully public, democratic school? Will CPS continue to force these justice seekers to put their lives on the line in order to complete the neoliberal takeover of prime Lakefront property? When will CPS do what is right and approve the Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School proposal? This is how it works in Chicago. The powerful try to crush the people. And the people resist.

Opinion Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Green Activism in Palestine

Land is key to the ongoing occupation in Palestine. Wars have been fought over territory and legal battles have spun out for decades over matters as basic as accessing a plot. Despite land being such a major issue, the human cost of occupation means that the environmental cost is forgotten not just by Western outsiders like myself, but also by Palestinians themselves.

The destruction of olive trees has, of course, become almost a symbol of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The cultural significance of olive branches as messages of peace add a metaphorical layer to the trials Palestinian farmers face when their income and heritage is destroyed. (Read the Journal's 2002 report on this issue here). However, there are many other native plants and wildlife that too, are an integral part of Palestinian history and culture.

While walking in the hills around Ramallah with a group of friends recently, I ran into Saleh Totah, an activist who co-founded Mashjar Juthour, a 2.5 acre arboretum and eco-park on the Thahr al Okda hillside. Totah and his partner, Morgan Cooper, started Mashjar Juthour, which translates roughly as "the Roots Arboretum," in 2013 as a permaculture education project seeking to re-establish the diverse range of flora that flourished in Palestine years ago, but which has been lost in conflict and in ignorance.

The project is one of many that have cropped up in Palestine in recent years, including rooftop gardens and fish farms, that hope to reconnect the people in this conflict-ridden region with their natural environment and inspire Palestinians to work towards a sustainable future for themselves and their land.

That day, and on a subsequent visit when we helped to clear stones, we heard about the different plants growing in the Mashjar: Palestinian oak with its edible acorns, orchids which are used to make the drink salep, tiny, wild peas which we ate from the pod. Many of Mashjar's plants have a dual purpose. They make the land itself rich and sustainable while also providing sustenance. Lentils, for example, are grown for food and at the same time return nitrogen to the soil for hungry trees.

The diverse range of plants found in Mashjar Juthour is unusual in Palestine. The hills around the park are filled almost exclusively with olives. There is little room for any other kind of tree to grow.

"People see value only in the olive tree," says Cooper. "It's a major source of income, so farmers clear the land of all the other trees in order for the olive trees to live without other trees competing."

Partly, this is due to the challenge of accessing land. Olives are hardy, and once they reach maturity they can survive with little maintenance. This is a necessity for the many farmers who require permits, rarely granted, to access their land that has been enveloped behind the Israeli barrier wall.  This rationale is understandable, but it means that much of the traditional knowledge in sustainable farming – what we would call permaculture – has been lost. And that loss  makes Palestinians more dependent on imports for everything beyond olive oil products.

It's not just farmers with land outside across the wall who are affected. The West Bank itself was divided in 1990s, with the vast majority, about 60 percent, being designated as Area C, under Israeli occupation. On this land, the Palestinian Authority controls only health and educational matters. For every other aspect of life here, Israel is the governing authority.

The problems this causes - whether it's the lack of protection for Palestinian villagers, unplanned waste disposal that sees settlement sewage tainting Palestinian crops, or withholding of development permits - mean that people are too afraid or too frustrated to connect with the land.

"Area C has compacted the Palestinian alienation from land and it's so uncommon to see Palestinians picnicking or even hiking," Cooper says. "We don't access nature. And we're losing so much of the knowledge we have about it, without even realizing it, because most of us are totally distracted with the greater struggles of living under occupation."

The result of this is a shocking lack of environmental awareness, not just among farmers or landowners, but the wider Palestinian community. One obvious indicator is the widespread littering. The road from Ramallah to Mashjar, a winding path through hills lined with old stone huts and terraces of olive trees, would appear Biblical were it not strewn with candy wrappers and energy drink cans.

"It's a complete lack of awareness we have about the environment and the negative effect we have on it," Cooper says. The issue is compounded because the road is in Area C, so the Palestinian Authority isn't allowed to provide waste disposal services, she explains. "Instead it is the responsibility of the [Israeli authorities]. And they simply don't take that responsibility. So what happens to waste, then?"

The Mashjar project aims to use education to reverse Palestinians' loss of knowledge about the environment and of how to take care of it.

"The idea is to get our community back to nature, to remind them of the very important relationship we have always had to the environment around us, and especially to bring back the traditional knowledge and natural heritage of Palestine," Cooper says.

With a small team of mostly volunteers, Cooper and Totah have painstakingly rehabilitated the 2.5 acres of land. The park now boasts 60 species of trees, including native oaks, kaykabs, caroubs, maples, and pines. To get people out of the city and into the wild, Mashjar runs events in its arboretum: workshops, family days, guided walks and one-off events like an astronomy camp.

Cooper hopes that their schemes will encourage environmental stewardship and make food sovereignty part of the Palestinian human rights movement. It seems like their efforts have been bearing some fruit. After they've visited the Mashjar, children start to chide each other for littering, Cooper tells me. But, just a couple of acres and limited human resources, are hampering the Mashjar's ambitions .

"We have a huge vision, but that needs capacity and we just don't have capacity," Cooper says. "We have requests for more activities and workshops, for guided walks and camps, but we simply can't. Further, we're starting from square one, taking on questions like 'what is waste' and 'why should we care about the environment at all?' "

Cooper and Totah are now looking to expand the Mashjar Juthour's land and get more local educators involved in the project.

News Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400