Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Close Another Pipeline to Profit—End Prison-based Gerrymandering


California has the largest prison system in the Western world and it is busting at the seams. Media outlets report triple-bunking and inmates sleeping in gym areas. Prisons are so overcrowded that inmates are dying at a rate of one per week. Recidivism is so high that more Black and Brown men and women are returning to prisons than graduating from high schools in South Los Angeles. Perhaps the state see’s a more lucrative payoff in the prison system than the educational system. If that’s not enough, with the groundswell of 2010 Census promotion critics would argue that another way that California and other states are capitalizing off of the prison system is by counting inmates in the wrong place—resulting in inaccurate distribution of political power and funding.

Although an average California State Prison stay is about 16 months, every ten years the US Census Bureau counts women and men in prison not as residents of their home addresses but as residents of the correctional facilities where they are incarcerated. This is startling considering that California law does not define a prison cell is a residence (California Election Code, §2025). Still, when it comes time for redistricting in 2011 the census count from state prisons will be used to redraw state and local district boundaries. Given the current counting method, smaller counties (whose population numbers are padded by prisons) will have the same amount of voting power as larger counties with largely non-incarcerated residents. This is not only a state issue; this has also become a national issue. In one Iowa City, the use of this faulty census data resulted in a local resident being elected to city council with only 2 votes because 96% of this particular district was incarcerated and could not actually vote. In one northern California senate district, more than 11% of the district is made up of incarcerated persons. These are cases of political representation without resident population and can lead to a controversial practice called gerrymandering. This is when legislative districts are drawn in a way that can influence election outcomes. Prison-based gerrymandering is when the prison census is used to pad population counts—counts that can ultimately influence voting power, policy, and funding for over a decade.

Why does this matter?

Los Angeles County contains 28% of California’s population. Thirty-four percent of the state’s prisoners come from the county—yet the county contains only 3% of California’s state prison cells. That means that about 31 percent of the approximately 165,000 people in the state prison system are being counted in the wrong county. Prison-based gerrymandering should raise eyebrows throughout California especially in those counties that along with Los Angeles County contain the highest concentrations of communities containing formerly incarcerated residents that have returned home.

Furthermore, those of us that do work relating to the criminal [in]justice system know all too well that many of the hundreds of thousands women and men incarcerated across California are products of sentencing inequity and financial exploitation. In the case of prison-based gerrymandering, grassroots organizers must challenge this practice of exploitation and demand that our incarcerated brothers and sisters be supported and not again used for profit. We must stop prison-based gerrymandering dead in its tracks and hold officials accountable to bring needed resources to our community through a proper census count.

Taking Action

The stakes are high and we should make sure our communities are supported not exploited. Our communities must not be diluted of voting power and resources—no matter how big or small. Conditions in poor and working class communities have been exacerbated by the economic downturn and we need resources now more than ever. We must work to close the loop that makes prison-based gerrymandering possible.

Grassroots statewide forces need to organize and become key players in a statewide effort to end prison-based gerrymandering in California. Voters have continuously elected representatives that fall short of moving the interests of constituents that elected them. We must demand that our state officials take a stand on behalf of their constituents—incarcerated or not. Call the office of your State representatives and demand that when it is time to vote for prison counting legislation, they vote in favor of a census practice where inmates are counted as residents of their own communities.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Oscar Grant and the need for Nation Building

In an effort to analyze the epidemic of lynchings suffered by Black people during the early twentieth century, the great Marcus Garvey once stated that Europeans and Asians escaped such a fate “because they are represented by great governments, mighty nations and empires…” With each painstaking, agonizing day of the trial of Johannes Mehserle – the former BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 – Garvey’s words and the subservient position Blacks hold within American society proves increasingly true.
First of all, Robert Perry – the judge on the case – has a well-known history of excusing the brutal and outright illegal behavior of police officers. As the judge in the Rampart Scandal, he led a court that allowed Los Angeles police officers guilty of stealing and selling drugs, shooting unarmed residents and participating in bank robberies to go free. Second, there are no Black people on the jury. As this writer stated in an article written months ago, one of the first tactics that the system does to protect its police officers in this type of trial is to rig the composition of the jury so that Blacks – the most critical group of the police – are either small in number or non-existent. While usually this is done by moving the case to a court in a white suburban community (see Rodney King or McDuffie cases), the system was able to get the same result by moving the trial to Downtown Los Angeles. Third, the District Attorney’s strategy on behalf of the murdered young Black man has been questionable at times. When the jury was finalized and no Black people were on it, the DA should have instantly filed a legal challenge out of concern for a lack of a fair trial. However, they chose not to do so. Despite the fact that every legal expert following the case stated that Mehserle’s intent had to be clearly proven in order to avoid an acquittal or a light sentence, it’s questionable if the prosecution was able to do so. That is why in spite of the great organizing of the Los Angeles Coalition for Oscar Grant and the scores of folks who trek down from the Bay Area for court dates, there is a sense of acquittal flowing in the air.
However, as Black people we know that this “aint no new thing”. We have lived through centuries of abuse and murder that has gone unpunished in America’s so-called justice system. Police brutality, like lynchings in Marcus Garvey’s day, were accepted by the legal establishment as something that happens to Black people without any need of punishment for the perpetrator. In these times we are reminded that America’s legal system still operates upon principles established to maintain the chattel slave system. As we near the end of the Mehserle trial – with our hearts and minds anxiously awaiting the verdict – the question inevitably becomes what can be done? Surely, we can and should continue to protest in large numbers to show the masses that injustice will not be accepted. Furthermore, those of us who organize around the issue of police murder and misconduct must seriously attack and remove the web of laws and legal interpretations that make California one of the most difficult states in the nation to convict cops of felony crimes. However, the ultimate solution to the police terror that has helped to define the reality of 30 million Black people in America, regardless of income or stature, is building independent social, political and economic power. As long as we continue to depend on the police as our primary source of protection and depend on the courts – in its current makeup – for legal remedy, we will never break ourselves out of the dependent relationship that has made us vulnerable to suffering abuse at the hands of authorities – be it police or politicians.
Garvey once concluded that “action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom.” To that end, we must take the energy created around the Oscar Grant case and develop grassroots organizations capable of building the economies of our neighborhoods, improving education and decreasing crime and violence without depending exclusively on the police force. While many people would assume block clubs and neighborhood councils carry out these functions, they often struggle to do so because of restraints resulting from their relationship with the City’s bureaucracy or police departments. As Garvey taught us many years ago and as the Oscar Grant case demonstrates to us today, in order to transform our existence from dependence and victimhood to one of power, freedom and justice, we must build power that is independent from this system that sanctions the murder of Black men in the streets and provides protection for the perpetrator in the courts.

Lets get to work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Growing Up Alone – A Look at the Dilemma Black Youth and Young Adults

For nearly thirty years, there has been an uncomfortable and persistent conversation within the Black community concerning the condition and behaviors of Black youth and young adults. As a people whose expectations for success were increased by the civil rights/Black Power Movement, the youth and young adults that came of age in the 1980s through the new millennium were supposed to have it easier and realize the dream of Dr. King. However, suffering through the realities of the Crack cocaine epidemic and street gang wars that claimed thousands of Black lives, many of our people – particular some elders and Black elite – became disenchanted with their own kids and grandchildren and bought into the mainstream narrative that Black youth and young adults, in particular, had largely become a group of disrespectful, violent savages.

With every news report of another gang-related murder or music lyrics laced with the “N” word, this problematic perception grew in the hearts and minds of many of our own people which resulted in collective behaviors that further isolated and damaged a vulnerable group of young people beset by the impacts of white supremacy, Reaganomics and police brutality. While there were elders, community leaders and members of the Black elite that understood the changing and complex landscape impacting Blacks born in the waning decades of the 20th century, too many still defaulted to simplistic and useless explanations to the rise of gang membership, poverty and political apathy among the youth. Some of their theories centered on the evils of hip hop music or lack of prayer allowed in schools. As convenient and appealing as these explanations may be, they fail to hold the white power structure accountable or expose the divisive dynamics within our community. Below are two scenarios that became prominent within the last 30 years, which highlight the dilemmas of our young people.

Enrolling Black Children in Schools Outside of the Black Community
Desperate to keep their children away from the so-called “riff raff” youth found in our community’s public schools and emboldened by the integrationist leanings of the civil rights movement, many Black parents – particularly the middle and elite class – began enrolling their sons and daughters in schools in predominately white areas. While their actions were in many respects understandable, this decision by a critical mass created additional problems for their own children who had to struggle for support, credibility and acceptance within a white-dominated, racist learning environment that did not and could not affirm the self-worth and identity of a Black child. Furthermore, since school is where many life-long social practices are honed and developed, the scenario described above effectively prevented many Black youth from relating to and learning to work with their Black peers, who still went to school in the ‘hood. Since many of the highest achieving Black students began attending public or private schools in white areas, talented, yet low-performing Black students who suffered from a plethora of familial and socio-economic distractions were isolated to underfunded or neglected schools in the Black community. In short, the educational conditions and practices within our community have worked together to create divisions within the younger generations and ineffective leaders who have grown up relatively separated from the masses of Black people. While the recent development of charter schools and magnet programs in our community have kept some Black youth from heading to Santa Monica or the West Valley for school, these models have still re-enforced, in many respects, the self-destructive pattern of dividing the talented Blacks from the struggling masses.

Lack of Response to the Crack Epidemic by Black Leadership
For many in Black leadership, the post-civil rights era was supposed to be about moving forward in new and expansive ways. We were inspired by the growth of Black mayors and Jesse Jackson’s run for President. We were encouraged by the growth in the number and visibility of the Black middle class. On television, the Cosby Show and A Different World showed that a Black oasis within white America was on the brink. In the midst of the celebration, however, conditions were being created in the Black community by the white power structure (i.e. Iran Contra Program) and other entities that introduced problems not yet seen. By the mid-1980s, a new form of drug called “crack” came onto the scene. While there had been drug epidemics before in our community, this was different in so many ways. Given the white power structure’s elimination of many domestic living wage jobs and cuts in public services to the poor, crack became arguably the primary economic engine in many parts of the Black community for over a decade. It may be embarrassing to admit, but while many Black people lost their lives to this drug, many also paid their rent, bought groceries or started businesses because of the crack game. This created a scenario where local drug dealers and gang leaders became the heroes of a large number of youth and young adults who were not being touched by more positive examples of Black leadership. Furthermore, the aggressive behavior associated with crack addiction and the growth of street gang combat over the control and distribution of dope created heightened levels of murders, assaults and robberies. By the end of the 20th Century, some Black neighborhoods had lost thousands of lives to drug-related murder and addiction. Sadly, however, since the crack epidemic and gang violence were seen as “poor Black people” problems, many civil rights organizations – with their middle-class orientation – were inadequately prepared to respond. Churches witnessed the devastation among their members but couldn’t successfully solve the issue through its traditional means of prayer and preaching. In the meanwhile, the numbers of children in foster care skyrocketed and incarceration rates rose to record highs – thus creating an overwhelming sense of loss, grief and anger within many Black youth and young adults that still haven’t gone away.

The two preceding examples highlight the complexities of conditions impacting Black youth and young adults. In the course of trying fight back the impact of white supremacy, members of our own community made decisions, at times, that actually made the situation worse – particularly for our young people. Thankfully, we have the capacity to change mistakes made in the past. The issue of poor education, drug addiction and gang violence remain and we have the opportunity to address these problems in more creative and dynamic ways. However to do so, we must do at least for things:
1. Embrace every Black child as a member of our family through word and deed
2. Teach Black children about our fight for freedom and justice
3. Challenge and eliminate any thoughts that re-enforce division within our community (i.e. income, geography)
4. Get out into our community and organize

Friday, May 21, 2010

Election Day 2010 – White Supremacy’s Comeback or Desperate Last Stand

With President Barack Obama’s historic victory in the 2008 presidential campaign, some believed that the racist and pro-corporate individuals and organizations that have ruled the United States for decades were on their way out the door. While such a bold prediction may come true at some point in time, the mindset of racial hatred and corporate greed among some seem to be on the rise. The Tea Party movement – a network of front groups for the Republican Party’s most conservative leadership – has organized large-sized rallies throughout the nation putting fear in elected officials from coast to coast. In Arizona, politicians have legalized racial profiling in the name of “immigration reform” and attacked ethnic studies programs in high schools. Even in the midst of post-Health Care Reform jubilation, Black Congressional members – like John Lewis – were subjected to mobs of angry whites spewing out “Nigger” and other racial epithets.
It is within this problematic context that California prepares for its June 8th primary election. In a year where voters will be choosing a new Governor and a practically new legislature, we will also be confronted with arguably some of the most important and impactful ballot initiatives in recent memory. While there is a lack of high profile subjects such as affirmative action or immigration, these initiatives will shape critical issues like car insurance, energy and elections for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, since most were placed on the ballot by the same conservative element that has emboldened the anti-people of color fervor currently sweeping the country, their passage threatens to make the Golden State more unlivable for so many.
Below is a brief analysis of some of the problematic initiatives that will appear on the June 8th ballot:
Proposition 14 – This measure ended up on the ballot as result of a deal made between then-State Senator and current Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado and the governor in exchange for votes on a 2009 budget deal. If passed, Proposition 14 would eliminate the current system of partisan elections in California. Hence, voters registered with any political party could vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. This would mean that the two candidates with the highest vote count from the primary would face each other in the general election – even if they are members of the same party. Proposition 14 would have a huge impact on our communities because it would increase campaign-related cost and make it more difficult for progressive, community-minded candidates to be elected.
Proposition 16 – Energy corporation Pacific Gas and Electric (PG & E) spent over $34 million to put this measure on the ballot. Why? Quite simply the company, which earned over $1 billion in profits last year, wants to eliminate competition from publicly owned energy providers, which tend to charge less for services. If passed, Proposition 16 would require a 67% approval margin by voters to allow local governments to use public money to start or expand electric services. This is clearly an effort by a huge corporation to protect its interest and profits at all cost.
Proposition 17 – According to current state law, only a driver’s safety record, years of driving experience and number of miles driven annually can be considered in determining pricing for coverage. If Proposition 17 passes, car insurance companies can include gaps in coverage as a factor in price-setting. Like Proposition 16, this measure is the brainchild of a corporation – in this case Mercury Car Insurance – who spent millions of dollars to protect its profits at the expense poor and working class taxpayers.
In addition to the above measures, there are a couple ballot initiatives that appear benign, but may end up having a detrimental impact of our community. These include:
Proposition 13 – If passed, this measure would change the state constitution to allow certain types of earthquake safety repairs made to property to be excluded from the tax assessment process. Since state law doesn’t differentiate between personal and corporate property, home owners and corporations would be able to take advantage of Proposition 13’s benefits. While providing home owners with incentives to make their property safer is a good idea, we cannot afford to provide another tax loophole for greedy corporations who want to avoid paying their fair share of taxes to the state.
Proposition 15 – If passed, this measure would create a pilot program where candidates running for Secretary of State in 2014 and 2018 could choose to receive public money for their campaigns. Major party publically financed candidates would be eligible for $1 million in base funding and $4 million in matching funds for the primary election. For the general election, that amount would increase to $1.3 million in base funding and $5.2 million in matching. Moreover, the money for the pilot would come from a $700 bi-annual tax collected from state lobbyist. Despite its intent to clean up state politics, Proposition 15 falls short in the following important ways:
This program only pertains to the Secretary of State races in 2014 and 2018, which significantly limits its impact
If there is not enough money in the fund for eligible candidates, those candidates would have to raise money from the very private interest the measure seeks to neutralize
Proposition 15 does nothing to impact the influence of lobbyists who are skilled at hiding their money in special accounts and projects of politicians
Increases the importance of Independent Expenditures, which will allow special interest and lobbyist to impact elections with less restrictions
As demonstrated by the June 2010 state ballot, conservatives and corporate forces are on the attack. While many of us are still languishing in the post-Obama victory fog, opponents of our community are pushing subtle and complicated legislation that will make it much more difficult for people of color and the poor to live lives of dignity and freedom. In order to defeat this complex manifestation of contemporary racism, we must dedicate our selves to serious political education, grassroots community organizing and fervent fundraising. More importantly, we must believe that we deserve better in every aspect of society and put those expectations into action.
Lets get to work.

Black People - Stand Up and Condemn Arizona Senate Bill 1070

As a Black man who works primarily to address the issues of my community, I AM asking the Black community to see Arizona Senate Bill 1070 for what it truly is – racism in a legislative form. Given the sentiment in some parts of the Black community that undocumented immigration is a cause for decreased job opportunities for our people, my argument may be difficult to initially accept. However, we must reject the very strong, and in some ways understandable urge to utilize our deplorable employment situation to condone racism in a very blatant form.
SB 1070 – in its original and modified form – is law based upon the same problematic premise that has killed, injured and maimed our people for hundreds of years. It espouses the belief that a non-white racial group must be monitored, contained and controlled through the most aggressive means of the law. For example, SB 1070 gives non-immigration enforcement police officers the power to identify and detain individuals as undocumented immigrants. In the version first signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, this can happen during any contact that police officers deemed legitimate. The revised draft states that officers can only do so during a stop, arrest or detainment. From our community’s standpoint this change means little. Historically, legal language such as this has been used to substantiate the practice of racist Black codes in the post-Civil War south and our current scourge of racial profiling by law enforcement. Like the above examples, SB 1070 provides cops with the unfettered ability to enforce racist perceptions of a particular group – regardless of evidence. To this point, and despite rhetoric around the bill’s non-racist intent, there is nothing contained in the bill that clearly protects U.S.-born citizens who happen to be Latino from getting pulled over and arrested at higher rates as a result of this legal maneuver. This is yet another disturbing and unfortunate parallel with law enforcement’s racial profiling of Black people.
Another problematic clause in SB 1070 is the fact that law enforcement officers can arrest anyone, without warrant, who they believe committed a crime that could lead to deportation. Given our historical struggle with being abused and mistreated by the U.S. justice system, Black people should strongly reject the expansion of law enforcement’s power to arbitrarily arrest anyone. We should reject this because we know from our own history that this power has and will continue to be used to incarcerate higher numbers of people of color – citizen or not. As our experiences with slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and de-facto discrimination prove, whenever the white power structure targets a particular group, they will empower a diverse array of individuals with policing rights. During the 19th century, southern whites of almost every economic level and occupation could detain any Black people for anything. SB 1070 creates a similar situation by empowering every law enforcement officer in the state of Arizona to arrest and deport individuals for immigration-related offenses. These are principles and practices that Black people must reject and fight against every single time.
With unemployment in double digits and many of our neighborhoods becoming increasingly Latino, the Black community has found it difficult to build solidarity with the immigrant rights movement. Furthermore, the immigrant rights movement has done a terrible job of bringing in Black people – even Black immigrants – into the work. However, one of the reasons Black people has played the vanguard role of bringing and expanding justice within the United States is our capacity to do what is moral and just in the face of isolation and opposition. It is consistent with our community’s historical struggle for human rights and equal opportunity to strongly denounce SB 1070 and the copy cat legislation that promises to follow.
In spite of our legacy of progressive and revolutionary activism, there will be those in the Black community that will insist that undocumented immigration must be dealt with aggressively, due in large part to the perception that Latino immigrants have taken jobs from our people. While immigration has presented some challenges – especially around community demographics – we must remember that living wage jobs in areas like South Los Angeles began disappearing years before Latinos became the majority in the area. Companies like General Motors, Kaiser Steel and Firestone began moving out of U.S. urban areas as early as the 1960s because they wanted to exploit workers in other countries for lower pay. As Black people, we must ultimately look at ourselves for our employment problems. Despite an increase of Black college graduates over the last 30 years, our own Black business class has not successfully created living wage jobs in our community. Perhaps if we practiced the principles of Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad and stayed dedicated to the model of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, we wouldn’t be so pre-occupied with the perception of another group taking our jobs. Perhaps if our Black elite and business class invested, rather than avoided poor Black communities like Westmont-Athens and Watts, we would be further along in terms of providing employment to our people who need it the most. In any case, we cannot cease to carry on our community’s dual mission of achieving liberation for our people and fighting for justice in the world abroad. This, in my opinion, would necessitate a strong condemnation of SB 1070.

Healthcare (Insurance) Reform

How does the bill affect you?

Since President Barack Obama was sworn into office, the nation has been on edge about his campaign promise, change. Health care reform has been high on his agenda, especially with the failing economy the previous administration (George W. Bush) so kindly established. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 45 million Americans are uninsured. Twenty percent include African Americans.

Historically, Black health care and coverage have been on the bottom of the totem pole, warranting Blacks to provide care themselves.

Dr. Samuel Shacks, former King Drew physician and medical expert, says African Americans’ health care is inadequate and has been since the Civil Rights era of the ‘60s. Black physicians began to open up their own hospitals and private practices in the late 1800s.

“A majority of Blacks received insurance coverage initially through Black benevolent societies created by freed slaves after the Civil War,” Shacks explained. “Activities such as these were pre-modern forms of voluntary private health insurance.” He says two major Black insurance companies of the time were Golden State Mutual of Los Angeles and The Spaulding Insurance Company of Atlanta.

Though African Americans made provisions for themselves, Shacks says the government’s health care was ultimately inadequate, especially when Black hospitals and insurance companies began to dwindle.

Obama’s health care plan, which is actually a health insurance plan, is supposed to close the gap between the un(der)insured Americans and those with decent packages. Nearly 32 million uninsured citizens are supposed to be covered through this new plan.

Since passing on March 23, nationwide, people have been trying to figure out exactly how the law is going to impact them. While the plan will not be in full effect until 2014, experts and health care professionals are attempting to break down the facts. Last Wednesday, MA’AT Club for Community Change held a public forum about Obama’s health care bill, bringing to light the possible impact the bill could have on the African American community.

Njideka Obijiaku, main facilitator of the event, says this plan is a step in the right direction, but there are flaws to the bill that should be ironed out later.

“Theoretically, it creates access for a lot of folks,” she said. “The bill has a lot of holes and a lot of things that sound good, but when it comes down to practical implementation, I’m sure there will be amendments, copies will be modified, gaps that were left open will be more amplified. The discussion is certainly not closed.”

When looking at the bill as it relates to the African American community, Obijiaku recognizes that there are some disparities in health care compared to mainstream Americans, especially those living in more affluent areas. She says some of the main issues Blacks are currently facing are equity and disparity, sighting the quality of health care in South Los Angeles compared to care in Westwood, for example. She also points to the closing of Martin Luther King Hospital.

“Economic development doesn’t sound like it’s related to the health care debate, but it is,” Obijiaku explained. She says access and quality have historically been the issue for the Black community, but through the president’s bill, low-income areas and cities flogged with compromised care will have better access.

Individuals who qualify will receive subsidies of amounts comparable to their income. Businesses will not formally be mandated to provide health care provisions for their employees.

Small businesses are broken down into two groups: category 1 - those with 49 or fewer employees and category 2 - those with 50 or more.

Category 1 employers will not be held accountable for supplying their employees with insurance. Category 2 employers will be issued a $2,000 fine for not providing insurance for employees. The government will offer tax credit for covering 35 to 50 percent of insurance costs for employers who do provide insurance, however.

Under the new law, everyone will be required to obtain some kind of coverage, but there are a few exceptions. Native Americans, undocumented people, incarcerated people, and individuals with religious objections will not be required to obtain insurance.

What about the ones who can’t afford it? Low-income, under employed and unemployed people have opportunities to gain access through government subsidies. Individuals making less than 14,000 a year (households 29,000 a year) will not have to pay no more than 3-4 percent of their incomes for insurance. Individuals making $44,000 a year (households $88,000 a year) will not pay more than 10 percent of their income for insurance. These changes will take effect in 2014.

Obijiaku also explained that Medicaid would be expanded, therefore providing more access for people falling under the low-income bracket.

Individuals making $200,000 a year (households $250,000 a year) will get hit with a tax increase. These changes will take effect in 2011.

There is a fine for individuals who choose to avoid paying for coverage of $95 in 2014, $325 in 2015 and $695 in 2016. According to Obijiaku, the enforcement has not been detailed at this point, but the government will issue hardship waivers.

The bill purportedly will impact seniors in a positive way. Before the bill, many seniors on Medicare fell into a “donut hole,” making seniors responsible to pay for medication.

“I think they will be impacted well. Currently, folks on Medicare are spending between $2750 and $6154 on prescription drugs. You have this very large group of people who had high prescription costs who fell in this donut hole. The biggest piece of the bill eliminates that donut hole,” Obijiaku said.

She added that the bill also invests in preventive services, increasing payouts to primary care physicians and eliminates co-pays for government-approved services. However, Medicare Advantage participants will see the funding for the program be cut over the next 10 years. The savings will go back to Medicare.

“I see the benefits and challenges (for African Americans). People will theoretically have increased access to health insurance. However, for communities like ours, where you have major hospitals close down, you are not only putting a lot of strain on outside health facilities, but you are also putting a high strain on community clinics,” she said.

The bill offers an influx of resources to community health facilities, but it is unclear how the resources will be used. President Obama is requiring clinics to double their client capacity over the next five years. Obijiaku is concerned because of other factors that currently impact health care quality in neighborhoods of color.

“I think there were things that were not included and not thought totally out; the capacity of our community clinics, the education within our communities and you have the infrastructure that exists in communities of color,” she shared. “There is also a question of health education. I think there are some social disparities that weren’t taken into account that have major implications on Black health.”

Shacks agrees. He believes Black health care should be a civil rights issue at this point, but the Obama administration is failing to adequately address the root of the disparity.

“The recently passed ‘health reform bill’ did not take specific notice of ethnic disparities,” Shack commented. “The solution to better health for all Americans rests with the needed evidence-based answers to the etiology of Black health disparities.”

He gives the Obama administration an “F” for failing to address Black health care.

Despite the efforts the bill makes to broaden access, other issue remain for Black health. Obijiaku says insurance reform does not address the needs of the general African American population, however, the bill does have the potential to decrease the gap.

MA’AT Club for Community Change has more information available to the public. E-mail Njideka Obijiaku at Obijiaku has a Masters degree in public health from Drexel University.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Rebirth of Black Power Part 3 – The New Black Revolution Begins in the Classroom

The recent tumult within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) again highlights the frequent struggles and failures of public school districts charged with educating large numbers of Black children. In spite of federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the increased presence of charter schools and innovative policies such the Public School Choice Initiative that allows external groups to run district schools, Black children continue to perform at or near the bottom in all of the major educational indicators. A review of the 2009 California Standardized Testing Report (STAR) results substantiates concerns around the lack of intellectual development of our youth and more broadly, the ability of our community to compete in a highly competitive and technically savvy world.
In terms of math, 47% of Black second graders in LAUSD scored at or above a proficient level on the test. That number dropped to a deplorable 18% for Black seventh graders. In terms of English, 44% of Black second graders scored at or above a proficient level. Like math however, these scores declined rapidly to a paltry 25% at the seventh grade. Overall, Black children scored the lowest in both math and English – the two most highly used and necessary skills in the job market. In addition to the poor level of intellectual development our children receives, they are also missing another critical piece of the educational experience – a substantial exposure, understanding and appreciation of their culture and history. As great thinkers like Carter G. Woodson and Elijah Muhammad taught us, education is inherently linked with culture. Therefore, children will either develop pride in themselves and their people or take on an “I AM less than” attitude that makes academic achievement impossible. In districts like LAUSD, Black History and culture is often narrowed to a short lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in February or a hollow conversation about slavery. In short, Black children in LAUSD are being mis-educated and prepared to maintain a condition and lifestyle of dependency, servitude and death.
Thankfully, there are those in our community that refuse to accept LAUSD’s failure of Black students as the only reality. In the past there have been trailblazers like Dr. Anyim Palmer, who founded Marcus Garvey School in 1975 and established a national model for Afrikan-centered education. Today, a new model has emerged in the form of the Culture and Language Academy of Success (CLAS). Founded in 2003 by colleagues Dr. Sharroky Hollie, Janis Bucknor and Anthony Jackson, CLAS is focused on setting a standard of excellence in terms of educating Black children in Los Angeles. Although the school still has room for improvement, nearly half of its students – almost all Black – are proficient or above in math and English, which is much higher than Black children in traditional district schools. Moreover, CLAS utilizes a system called culturally responsive pedagogy, which attempts to attack the cultural isolation many of our children experience by creating a school environment that affirms the history and culture of the students. Every morning before class begins, students gather in a circle to repeat affirmation statements in order to ready themselves for the day’s learning. The ancient Afrikan principles of MA’AT adorn the walls of each classroom – serving as both standards of conduct and reminders of the great history the students have inherited. Armed with a successful system and improving student outcomes, the founders of CLAS recently attempted to spread its influence through assuming responsibility for the struggling Hyde Park Elementary School through the School Choice Initiative process. Rather than provide the school with an opportunity for change, the district retained control of Hyde Park. As education columnist Larry Aubry stated, the School Choice Initiative continued a pattern of ignoring the schooling needs of Black children and parents. This unfortunate scenario underscores the reality that we – as the Black community – must unleash a revolution that extends from the home and lands squarely inside the classrooms in which our children learn. However, we cannot depend on the status quo (i.e. LAUSD) to provide us with support in our efforts to develop Black children who have knowledge of self and skills to conquer the world. For this most holy of revolutions we are going to have to “do for self”. Black educators will need to come together – like the founders of CLAS – and develop school plans based upon our culture, history and expectation of excellence. While taking over district schools or opening charters provide some opportunities, we must develop truly independent structures in order to maximize our efforts. Of course, this would require Black people of all economic classes contribute their money and time to support the growing number of independent schools that will inevitably need to be come. We cannot build a community with flourishing businesses, safe streets and solid infrastructure without people with a strong cultural consciousness and skills that come from good schools.
Lets get to work.

The Rebirth of Black Power Part 2 - Black Elected Officials’ Role in Today’s America

Over a year ago many in the Black community temporarily suspended reality in order to fully enjoy and embrace the previously unthinkable – Barack Obama had became the first Black president in United States history. For that precious magic moment on November 4, 2008, centuries of racism, disproportionate poverty, and police brutality seemed like a nightmare that had been erased by shouting, crying, embracing one another in victory, and repeating YES WE CAN over and over again.
Unfortunately, all moments in time must succumb to the enduring nature of reality. No matter how great and historic Obama’s victory was, it could not permanently mask the deep rooted problems that impact Black people in particular. On November 11, 2008, Dontaze Storey Jr., a 28 year-old unarmed Black man, was shot and killed by LAPD officers. Exactly one week after Barack Obama trounced John McCain to win the presidency, an unarmed Black man was shot in the back and mouth in front of his pregnant fiancĂ© on a busy Los Angeles street corner.
Perhaps more tragic is the fact that Obama’s victory has seemingly failed to embolden Black elected officials to take stronger stances – especially on behalf of Black people. In the aftermath of Dontaze’s murder, no Black elected official wanted to acknowledge and/or assist the family in finding justice against the officers and department responsible. Even in the era of Obama, these “community leaders” found holding the LAPD accountable for their actions way too risky. From their estimation, taking that kind of stand puts them at risk of not receiving hefty campaign contributions from law enforcement organizations or getting re-elected.
This train of thought is particularly damaging considering the fact that Black people marched, registered to vote, and mobilized to elect Black politicians like Tom Bradley, Shirley Chisholm, Kenneth Gibson, and yes Barack Obama because we believed that having someone from our community as a decision maker would protect us from police terror, open up educational and economic opportunities, and help lead us to a brighter tomorrow.
Despite that legacy, however, many Black politicians have become accustomed to playing it safe. Instead confronting unjust individuals and groups that negatively impact our community, they would rather play the game “let’s make a deal”. On many of the issues that have long plagued Black people – poverty, violence, police brutality – Black politicians have been silent and/or grossly ineffective. It begs the question, “Why do we even keep voting for them?” In the aftermath of Obama’s great victory, many Black young adults are beginning to wonder, “What difference did voting really make?” Rightfully so, we are wondering what good is it to have Black elected officials if the Black community in which they represent remains largely without jobs, full of poor schools, and littered with drugs and disrespectful police.
However, I must state that I firmly believe that the Black community must be represented by Black leadership. It must also be made clear that problems within the Black community are not the sole fault or responsibility of Black elected officials. Surely, we need a united front of principled and hard-working Black people from various sectors (i.e. churches, labor unions, students) to come together. However, Black elected officials, in my estimation, are currently the most visible symbol of community empowerment. We cannot ignore the fact that they are involved in making crucial decisions on a daily basis. Therefore, as a community we must demand more from them. Furthermore, Black elected officials must demand more from themselves. Whether they’re a City Councilperson, County Supervisor, or President of the United States, they must see themselves as custodians of a legacy covered in the blood and heroism of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, and Ella Baker. Thus, they cannot allow the illusions of the Obama era or political convenience to numb their passion to protect and provide for Black people in particular and all people who seek truth and justice. In this spirit, I humbly offer the following recommendations:
1. We must immediately end divisive political camps within the Black community. Many hard-working and intelligent people are kept from working with each other because two Blacks elected officials don’t get along. This situation has prevented many good ideas from being developed and implemented
2. Black elected officials must lead a serious and sustained organizing effort to re-connect themselves with the broad concerns of the entire Black community in order to act upon them. Too often Black elected officials listen to a relatively small circle of supporters and allies. Often that circle is defined by socio-economic class and geography. A series of townhalls, house meetings, and other community-based events should take place anywhere Black people live
3. Do serious political work anywhere Black people live. In Los Angeles, there is a tendency to concentrate efforts in the Black community to the Crenshaw District, Baldwin Hills, or Leimert Park. However, we also live in areas along Normandie Avenue, neighborhoods in Mid-City, and in the low bottoms on the Eastside. I suspect that much of the hesitancy to work in these areas are a result of class-bias issues within our community
4. Lastly, Black elected officials must play a leading role in developing organizations – independent from political parties – that unify the diverse spectrum of the Black community, develop the next generation of Black leaders, and carry out the work of the people. In the 1960s, they called this the “Black United Front”.
Lets get to work.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Mehserle's Trial Suggest Change in Law Enforcement

The first pre-trial hearing for Johannes Mehserle – the Ex-BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009 – brought out a tapestry of emotion and activity. The Foltz Criminal Justice Center was a buzz with scores of brave protestors, media representatives, and agents of the legal system all taking part in the early morning rush. It was an amazing scene considering that the hearing itself was rather basic and bland. The biggest developments of the day included an announcement of a May 2010 start to the trial and Judge Perry’s insistence of no cameras in the courtroom. While these tidbits of legal information are indeed critical, they pale in comparison to the acknowledgment that countless legislative barriers make it nearly impossible to fairly and successfully prosecute officers like Mehserle in a court of law. This reality creates a piercing anxiety in the hearts and minds of everyone hoping for justice in this case that will not dissipate anytime soon. However, if Oscar Grant has any chance of being our generation’s Emmit Till – a martyr that inspires a movement for progressive social change – we will need to immediately identify concrete next steps to work on. A few recommendations include:
1. Repealing or Amending the California Police Bill of Rights
Passed in 1976 to supposedly protect officers against workplace harassment, this part of the state’s Constitution has become a tool used primarily to protect trigger-happy cops from getting fired. Much of the Police Bill of Rights deals with issues of due process when officers violate department rules. However, it contains several problematic clauses that not only make it difficult to fire officers, but to convict them of criminal acts. Some of these clauses include guaranteeing every officer an administrative review regardless of the severity of their actions and paying officers if they are questioned while off-duty. Moreover, as long as the Police Bill of Rights remains intact, local efforts for community-controlled policing are rendered ineffective. In order to repeal or amend the California Police Bill of Rights community leaders will need to raise millions of dollars to put forth a ballot initiative before voters. This will be a hard-fought, yet just battle to save the lives of thousands of vulnerable residents.
2. Establishing a Special Prosecutor Office to Investigate and Charge Police-Crimes
As the legal representatives of Californians, County District Attorneys have the primary responsibility to handle felony cases throughout the state. Consequently, DAs work very closely with local law enforcement. This collegial relationship creates a gapping contradiction in the legal system. DAs are very reluctant to bring charges against on-duty police officers – especially in cases of brutality and murder – out of fear of alienating the very group often responsible for their pay and job status. In Los Angeles, District Attorney Steve Cooley has consistently refused to charge on-duty officers of murder and other serious felonies. In order to change this appalling scenario, community leaders should look at creating a Special Prosecutors Office that would assume the responsibility of investigating and charging police-related crimes. This move would likely require a ballot initiative approved by voters.
3. Eliminate the Police Board of Rights in Los Angeles
One of the most peculiar police structures in California is the LAPD’s Police Board of Rights. This panel, which is comprised of 2 high ranking police officers and 1 civilian, has the power to make binding decisions in cases where a cop may be demoted or terminated. What makes the Board even more powerful is that no one, including the Police Chief, can reverse their findings. Furthermore, the Board has skillfully interpreted State law to make their process confidential. Therefore, the names of the officers involved or rationale around their findings are not released to the public. The role of the Board of Rights became resoundingly clear in the aftermath of the 2005 LAPD shooting of 13-year old Devin Brown. Despite findings by the Police Commission that the shooting was out-of-policy, the Board of Rights cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Undoubtedly, the Board’s decision in the Brown case was impacted by their secretive nature and the pervasive presence of the “police investigating police” dynamic. For a department maintained by taxpayer dollars this situation is an abomination and an affront to the principles of freedom and representative government. Since it is written into the Los Angeles City Charter, eliminating the Police Board of Rights will require Los Angeles voters to approve the change at the ballot box. Another hard-fought battle. Another expensive campaign.
All of the above recommendations would require a lot from community leaders and residents. Well-financed law enforcement interest groups would work to prevent any of them from becoming reality. This will force activists to adopt a long-term vision and strategy, raise large sums of money, and recruit a talented network of progressive attorneys, media consultants, and of course, organizers. However, we must recognize that while marches and protests are essential tactics, they leave much to be desired in terms of deterring police officers from arbitrarily killing and abusing members of our community. The family of Oscar Grant and other victims of police brutality deserve our maximum effort. They deserve victory.

The Rebirth of Black Power part 1 - We Need a Black Private Sector

The Rebirth of Black Power Part 1 - We Need a Black Private Sector!!!
I AM not a Republican nor am I blind to the structural inequalities of Capitalism. However, as a Black man I AM thoroughly convinced that my community needs to develop a strong, unified, and viable private sector, which would include at the very least:
1. Independent political organizations free from the constraints and contradictions of the Democratic, Republican or any other mainstream party. We need organizations with the freedom and commitment to develop goals that address the particular needs of Black people and serve as a respected voice on behalf of the Black community to world abroad
2. Black-owned businesses that service a significant consumer base in all communities, but continually utilize their earnings to employ and empower the Black community
3. Independent schools that teach our history and culture, yet also prepare our youth and young adults with the skills to compete in a global, high tech world
We must recognize that after 500 years of enslavement, lynchings, disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation Black people – as a whole – have become largely depended upon the government to provide us with political and economic power. Our concept of political power has been narrowed to the process of voting for practical strangers every four years to positions we honestly don’t understand. Our economic reality is largely defined by a middle-class sustained through dwindling unionized public service jobs or the poor subsisting on endangered government aid like food stamps and CalWorks. Conditions are such that a large portion of our community is literally owned by the State through incarceration in public-run prisons and the foster care system.
The consequences of this imbalance include the following:
1. Black people are largely seen as burdens, rather than power players in the United States. While many in power will not admit this publicly out of concern for being politically incorrect, they express this reality through the way they deal with our community on important matters. Our community is often ignored when important issues in society are being developed and debated. At best, we are alerted about decisions after they have already been finalized
2. Too much responsibility is ceded to elected officials in the Black community. This goes contrary to the fact that an elected official’s effectiveness is primarily defined by the political, economic and social strength of the communities they represent. Unfortunately, too many Black elected officials are counted on to be the SOLE SOURCE of political, economic and social strength of the community. However since the private sector of the Black community is relatively weak and our system of accountability is spotty at best, Black elected officials are courted and controlled often times by mainstream political parties, white corporate interest or a small circle of Black elites.
3. Black people are extremely vulnerable in times growing conservatism in government and budget cuts to public services. We see this currently in California and other states where our people are being disproportionately injured by eliminations to education, public aid and health care programs
On the eve of Black History, we need to know that we can change our current predicament. In order to do so, we will need to have what Marcus Garvey taught – namely a plan that emphasizes “action, self-reliance and a vision of self and the future…” With a small, but entrenched Black middle class, a plethora of community leaders and elected officials, and numerous community organizations, labor unions and churches, Los Angeles can be the epicenter for the re-birth of real Black Power. However, in order to do so, we must change our current thoughts and actions around the role government will play in our liberation movement. Furthermore, we must once again develop and expand Black-owned independent political organizations, businesses, and schools and do so in a principled and coordinated manner. This is the type of work plan that a people interested in power will take up. Lets get to work.

Lesson from the Oscar Grant Tragedy - We Need to Get to Work

In many instances, the second pre-trial hearing for Johannes Mehserle could be seen as a victorious day for the family and supporters of Oscar Grant. After weeks of nervous speculation, presiding Judge Robert Perry rejected motions put forth by Mehserle’s legal team to reduce his bail amount and remove the Alameda County District Attorney from the case. While Judge Perry acknowledged that prosecutors employed some questionable and perhaps, unconstitutional tactics during the course of their investigation, those acts failed to substantiate the extreme requests of Defense Attorney Michael Rains.
Victory also extended to outside of the courtroom as scores of activists and supporters braved the early morning chill to hold signs, recite chants and talk to onlookers – all in the name of making the often apathetic Los Angeles populace aware of one of the most significant court cases in state history. While the number people who attended the rally this time was slightly smaller than that at the first hearing, the crowd contained an impressive intensity, dedication and discipline that was appropriate and effective.
However, in the midst of countless examples that spoke to the triumphant potential of this case, it was difficult for me to enjoy the moment. In the background of the day’s court rulings and grassroots activism stood the realities of an unjust system that leaves too many families – particularly Black and Latino – mourning the loss of a loved one at the hands of law enforcement. In Black and Latino communities across the United States, there are too many women like Oscar Grant’s mother who have to learn how to live again after having their child’s life ended prematurely by those sworn to “protect and serve”. This tragic situation is compounded by the fact that police murder – unlike murder committed by civilians – often leaves the family with little or no hope of ever receiving legal justice. While some may receive financial settlements, the court system fails time and time again to convict and sentence police officers for murder. For Black people in particular, this perpetual lack of legal re-dress for one of the oldest problems impacting our community has created deeply entrenched pain, fear and anger. No matter the social status, economic class or skin tone, almost every Black person in America has experienced a nervous moment whenever a cop came near. This is not because we are a community of cowards – rather it is because we recognize that the police can arbitrarily kill us without any threat of jail time.
The Mehserle trial is so important to all of us because it can establish a more humane legal precedent in terms of police conduct. A just verdict of murder can help shift policies and practices of law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles, Inglewood and across the country. In order to ensure victory in the case however, we need every resident – especially Black and Latino – to become aware and active in the work. We need established civil rights organizations and leaders in the city to step out of the shadows and become public advocates for the Oscar Grant family. In a case so important, no one who yearns for the full expression of justice can afford to sit on the sidelines and carry on like business as usual. For if we choose that route, another unarmed Black man will be murdered without any accountability and our current attempts for social revolution will be exposed as a hollow and weak impersonation of the 1960s. As the great Afrikan leader Amilcar Cabral taught us, we cannot “claim any easy victories”. Victory in this case not only means the conviction and sentencing of Mehserle, but as Dr. Maulana Karenga teaches, a corresponding re-building of a strong movement capable of instituting progressive practices and policies throughout the society. Lets get to work.

If you are interested in supporting the family of Oscar Grant, please contact Los Angeles Coalition for Oscar Grant at 213-663-6316.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2009: The Year of the LAPD and Lies

2009 was a monumental year for the Los Angeles Police Department. Going into the year, then-Chief William Bratton had firmly established himself as arguably the most powerful individual on the Los Angeles political scene. Armed with sly media skills and firm control over the deployment of a supposed understaffed police force in a police-crazed metropolis, Bratton was able to resuscitate the image of the strong Police Chief first honed by the infamous William Parker several decades ago. Furthermore, he skillfully used his growing goodwill to build strategic relationships with communities of color who have long been victimized by the LAPD’s abusive behavior. Bratton’s popularity was growing so rapidly that Councilperson Herb Wesson put forth a plan to change current term limits for police chiefs. This was an obvious attempt to retain Bratton for a longer period of time.
With a strong leader in tow, the LAPD was able to become a strong political force by end of the last decade – especially in the eyes of elected officials like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Faced with plummeting approval ratings, various personal scandals, and a re-election bid, the Mayor consciously attached himself to perceived success of Bratton and the LAPD.
In the days leading up the 2009 primary election, the Mayor and Bratton began touting the historic drops in murders, rapes, and robberies throughout the city. According to their data, Los Angeles was as safe as it was in the 1950s. To a population still battered and bruised by the drug-induced violent crime waves of the 1980s and 1990s, reports of rapid declines in shootings and causalities were met with open arms.
Consequently, the Mayor was successful in his re-election bid, with much of his support coming from Black and Latino communities. Around the same time, Harvard released results from a survey, which stated that the LAPD enjoyed high approval ratings even from communities like South and East Los Angeles. Furthermore, the LAPD was able to convince a federal judge to lift the Consent Decree and its leader, William Bratton – long rumored to have grander aspirations – abruptly resigned as Police Chief to earn big money with a private security firm. In addition to the before-mentioned accomplishments, the Police Department opened a brand new $440 million administrative building during a time when many in the city were losing their jobs and homes.
While it is clear who benefitted from 2009 being the year of the LAPD, it is also comprehensible that any real benefit alluded residents once again. First of all, the re-occurring narrative around the rehabilitation of the LAPD effectively covered up some recent police killings of residents like Dontaze Storey Jr, a 28-year old unarmed Black man who was shot in the leg, chest, and mouth in front of his pregnant fiancé by Rampart Division officers. While LAPD leadership and elected officials ran around town espousing the development of a more humane police force, yet another Black family suffered the permanent lose of a loved one to brutal police savagery.
Another illusion used to change public sentiment towards the Los Angeles Police Department was its effectiveness in fighting violent crime. In the eyes of some, questionable tactics by police officers became acceptable because crime was going down at a rapid rate. However, a 2009 Los Angeles Weekly report revealed that the city was not as safe as it was in the 1950s as some claimed. In fact, the current crime rate was at least double that of fifty years ago. The Los Angeles Times also reported that the LAPD’s public crime stat website undercounted its violent crime by a whopping 40%. These examples, along with the recent discovery of financial mismanagement by the Bratton regime, support the strong possibility that millions of Angelinos were lied to about the state of their city’s safety and the conduct of its police force in order to ensure the re-election of politicians, the elimination of Federal oversight of the local police force, and of course, the financial gain of key individuals.
As residents that live in communities ravaged by unemployment, drug addiction, and violence, we must finally accept responsibility for our own well-being. The only true solution to creating long-lasting safety and declines in crime are to organize every person on our blocks, streets, and neighborhoods to create activities to provide our basic needs. If we know that people steal because of persistent poverty, we must take responsibility in creating opportunities for our people – especially youth and young adults – to gain employment. Gang violence can be curtailed if community residents create organizations and activities that keep at-risk individuals effectively occupied and engaged. Until we declare ourselves as the first-line responders and primary solution-makers, we will continue to fully depend on a police force that has proven for over 100 years to be hostile, unresponsive, and ineffective to the needs of Black and Latino people in particular. Moreover, without adopting a strong spirit of self-determination, we will remain vulnerable to the continued lies of those we allow to lead us.