Keeping Truth Alive: The Impact of Social Justice Organizing on the Glover Case

In case you are just tuning in, 2010 has been the year when, like Malcolm X once said, “the chickens have come home to roost” for  New Orleans Police Department officers involved in shootings of unarmed civilians.

First, six officers involved in the cover-up of the Danziger Bridge murders after Hurricane Katrina were indicted, four of them charged with the murders of two African-American men. Their trial in Federal Court is still pending, but they could face life in prison or even the death penalty.

Currently, five police officers are on trial for killing and covering up the murder of Henry Glover in Algiers (across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter). The cover-up included burning a car near the levee with Glover, possibly alive, inside.

While the newspapers, particularly the Times-Picayune, are now covering the trials and original incidents with the attention they deserve, most social justice organizers remember when no one believed the families side of the story. And the media never took them seriously enough to independently investigate the claims.

Safe Streets/Strong Communities, an organization formed after the hurricane to address brutality and other unaccountable behavior by the police, were visited in their office by friends or relatives from both these cases who shared their stories and sought support for justice. The stories were included as testimony in the little-remembered, but sweeping International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The tribunal was hosted by the New Orleans Black-led organization Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund over the weekend of the Katrina Commemoration in 2007.

With the support of Safe Streets, the Madisons, who lost a family member at the Danziger Bridge shooting, organized and pressured the District Attorney to file criminal charges against the police officers in local criminal court. Not surprisingly, Judge Raymond Bigelow found a way to dismiss the charges, finding prosecutorial misconduct during the Grand Jury process. Almost immediately, Jim Letten’s U.S. District Attorney’s office started their own much broader investigation, which included an FBI raid of the New Orleans Police Department to seize files.

William Tanner, who was beaten by police and whose car Glover was burned inside, approached Safe Streets unwilling to let the murder of this stranger go without consequence and justice.

When Safe Streets  heard from A.C. Thompson, a journalist with ProPublica and The Nation, they directed him to William Tanner. Thompson included the cover-up of Henry Glover’s death in his long investigative article in late 2008 on white vigilantes who murdered African-Americans in Algiers in the weeks after the hurricane.  The report brought national attention and regained local momentum to seek justice for everyone murdered in that “time of crisis”.

The lesson is clear: never stop documenting injustice and speaking truth to power, for its effects and impacts may influence people you least expected. The FBI seeking justice for a few black people in America?  Proactively prosecuting nearly a dozen white police officers? Relentless organizing to expose the truth of the NOPD to the public made the FBI’s investigation a safe choice.

Legal action, however, has its structural limitations in the “bad apple” theory, where only the most destructive individuals are picked out for indictment. Questions arise about transforming the culture of the NOPD but always blow over until the next murder at the hands of police. From where will the spark come to address the root causes of unequal power accorded police in American society? And the courage to implement and fund alternatives that will make the need for police obsolete? Now that’s the terrain for lifelong relentless organizing that we all must participate in if we are ever to find the beloved community.

Published in: on November 30, 2010 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

Beyond Jena

I am attending a conference focusing on “bloggers of color, education and social justice in New Orleans” that ties its news peg to the Jena 6 movement, especially the Sept. 20 protest, that has largely been attributed to blogging and internet organizing.

[below are notes, not my personal opinion…I’ll respond in my own way later on…]

Professor Dedra Johnson, blogger of G Bitch Spot.
Perspectives not taken into account, documentation that can fall through the cracks.

Dr. Eban Walters, blogger of New Orleans — It’s Just Me.
Most productive period of blogging was when he moved back home in late 2006.  Happened that there was the first Rising Tide blogger conference, which was the first time everyone had met.  Another blogger, NOLA Slate, urged him to blog because there were so few bloggers of color (Dedra being one of the only people). His first post was the first anniversary of Katrina, August 29, 2006, when he just couldn’t take it anymore.

Clifton Harris, blogger of Cliff’s Crib.
“It was a lot easier to write when I thought no one was paying attention. I’m not a writer by trade.” People shouldn’t be over concerned about who your audience is, says Harris, because then you’re doing things to get readers instead of staying true to yourself.

Harris — comment on blogs if you support what they say. Don’t just say the compliment in person…cause then it looks like it’s just one crazy black guy. Fight back against derogatory comments on nola.com! Needs to be a dialogue, conversation that’s TWO-SIDED.

Johnson — Been waiting for the number of bloggers of color in New Orleans to increase, doesn’t know why. Thinks especially important here to have those voices, need to represent the diversity of the culture of this city ONLINE. “I mean, you know there are more opinionated black people than the three of us.” Parts of the conversation were missing, whether talking about which neighborhoods should be rebuilt, public housing, etc.

Harris — Did write about Jena before 9/20. One of the few moments that I felt that technology was used to change a wrong that was done. There was black radio, but the seeds of the story were on blogs. The only regret I have about the whole situation — in a piece I wrote called “My personal apology to Michal Bell” — is that we had enough to follow through to get him out of jail, but not enough to heal his life. Should have had a counselor there with him, or something. If he had been successful in killing himself, the whole Jena movement would feel completely hollow.

Johnson — I was hopeful to get more out of the movement to Jena. Of course, there was a great dialogue that popped up on this issue…misperceptions. It shows us what we can start, not what we can finish, how we can follow through. I did find it disappointing that there was this great swell of interest and support that kind of faded.

Walters — I didn’t blog about Jena. I think about that period, I remember being surprised that this Jena story popped out of nowhere. I was upset that Nagin went up there, get some photo ops instead of handle business back home.

Moderator: What’s the next civil rights issue or important issue in New Orleans?

Johnson — Still feel housing is important. Education. I hope I make an impact by documenting, bearing witness to what’s happening.

Walters — Healthcare, mental healthcare in particular and crime. Link between crime and education. [tries to rock the boat a little, but worried about career?] I’ll write a letter to people, like Governor Jindal or David Vitter. Or some jerk editor from the New York Post about how New Orleans should be written off. And I’ll post that letter and tell people to use what they want from it to make their own letter.

Harris — If we’re fighting for new schools, hospitals, etc, then you can’t trash the schools or start a turf war as soon as you come back to the city. Job training.

Need to say: This is what we need to do once we get it. [set expectations] Fight for justice and equity that we deserve and then hold each other accountable. Don’t know how to separate the two, so I do both at the same time.

[end of the first panel…battery cut out before Q &A…]

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)  
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If This is How it Starts: Report Back from the Citizen Participation Process Summit

Tonight, the “Citizen” Participation Process (CPP) Summit opened on the 11th Floor of the Pan-American Life Building in the Central Business District. Though this event was free with an advance registration, only about 150 people showed up in a city of nearly 300,000. This pales in comparison to the UNOP’s Congress Events, to which thousands flocked and where efforts were made to include displaced persons via teleconference.

Of course, civic participation may not be for everyone, but everyone must be offered the time and space to contribute and be a part of the decision making process from the beginning—for everything that starts at this summit will influence subsequent dialogue.

A potential pitfall is that residents who miss this summit due to conflicts or not being informed will not be viewed as legitimate—in effect people could become a victim of what’s known as “Founder’s Syndrome.” Or perhaps more simply, that certain attendees can say they were at the summit and can use this for political and personal power in influencing others in decision-making. Greater inclusion and

Some of these concerns were brought up throughout the night session. The session included questions to key note speaker Judith Mowry, a representative from the formalized Office of Neighborhood Involvement in Portland, Oregon.

Mowry’s last sentence–“Basically the world is run by those who show up”—showed considerable insensitivity to the context of post-Federal Flood New Orleans and to the logistics of low-income people. It makes invisible the difficulty of many New Orleanians who might work two jobs, have night shifts, or other conflicts and may not be informed, as stated above, especially by mass emails or by direct connection to a neighborhood association. (This is a pattern: The primary way to stay informed and engaged with the Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance process, which the City Council approved to put on the November ballot for popular vote on Thursday, is through its website. This is unacceptable in New Orleans, a place known for its digital divide and acquisition of news through those old-timey mediums like radio.)

In response to Mowry, Brad Ott, a health patient advocate and resident of New Orleans, immediately spoke to the necessity to involve the approximately 200,000 people who are not present. In addition, he later added how those directly affected by land grabs, such as the destruction of public housing and now the imminent VA-LSU teaching hospital plan for lower Mid-City—were and are currently left out of the decision-making process. The first public meeting on the teaching hospital came last month, more than two years since plans began. Ott’s determination is then that the CPP, as a burgeoning formal body, could put certain current issues on hold until a well established and inclusive participation process is in place.

After questions for Mowry, facilitators then continued the agenda wherein each table at the summit had two models of citizen participation. There were six models total across the participants. My table had models #2 and #5. The models described “Structure,” “Scope of Focus,” and “Funding.”
[Note: It should be mentioned that these models were meant to ignite discussion and feedback, not what the coalition organizing this summit actually want to see.]

#2: Essentially created a three-tiered system beginning with neighborhood groups, then to district coalitions, then to a Citizens Voice Council, wherein the scope was largely developmental and the funding decision-making power remained in the hands of the city council and mayor who would have to respond “in some way” to the Voice Council.

No one at my table thought this model would improve anything in the city. From their comments, it seems this would function largely as the system already does but formally, by granting authority to neighborhood associations alone and not including more informal community groups. In general, in all models, there were no specifics as to a standard of how decisions would or should be made—consensus? simple majority? two-thirds majority?—from the neighborhood association level all the way up to a Voice Council.

In my view, this tiered system continues the concentration of power into fewer and fewer representatives that is a mirror of our government, which we all know is largely out of touch with the priorities of its residents. We need to flatten out the decision-making power to include as many people as possible that will still be functional.

#5: Somewhat like #2, but more broadly inclusive and distinct in the fact that participants in the process could have decision-making power over the priorities of the budget.

We appreciated this distinction, but the process still remained vague. I noted that I would put more faith in this model if the budget priorities were determined in a city-wide ballot constructed like run-off elections in Ireland: if there are five priorities (or candidates) then you rank them from 1 to 5 for the ones you prefer (or give no rank for things you disagree with). The ranks are given weight in the ballot count such that a #1 priority would get 5 points, a #2 priority 4 points and so on…

Of course there could be thirty items on the ballot, each of which would have a paragraph description of what they mean…for this to be efficient you’d have to extend the number of days people can vote and you’d have to have an informed electorate.

Of course, in the larger analysis, even the word “Citizen” is problematic as it precludes migrant workers, incarcerated people and others who are and will be residents of the city and are affected by the decisions made in this process. Resident was preferred. People unable to vote, such as those under 18, should also be considered in the dialogue.

When groups reported back on other models, we had no concept of the context from which their comments sprung, whether critical or in support. The gap in communication and lack of a “crib sheet,” or list of participation process definitions, only produced confusion. For instance, in model #5, what is a municipal assembly? Who comprises it and how many people are on it? What is it accountable to and how does it make decisions?

I recommend any information, including all 6 models, intended to be commented back to the entire group should be included in the packet so all participants can read them and understand the comments in context.
We wished that we had a greater introduction and understanding of different models run around the country—their successes and problems—before engaging and brainstorming in this process.

Lastly, these are my initial observations and this entire process is new to me so I have much to learn, but I see pitfalls in the concentrating of power all around. I’m open to dialogue on this, please add your thoughts as comments.

Published in: on July 13, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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NEXT WEEK: People’s Summit in New Orleans! Counter the new NAFTA!

The People’s Summit : Our Response to NAFTA Expansion

www.summitneworleans.org

April 20 – 22, 2008 · New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Coming together for our communities

Linking the Gulf Coast struggle to the fight for the survival of communities in Mexico, Canada, & the rest of the United States

Building collective knowledge and action to transform NAFTA & other unjust economic policies pushed by Bush, Calderon, & Harper

Sunday, 4/20

12:30 pm – NAFTA Workshop in coordination with the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. FREE at Zeitgeist.

1:30 pm – Press Conference outside Ashe Cultural Center, 1724 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.

3pm-5pm: Pick-up Soccer at City Park. Go on Orleans Ave. away from French Quarter a couple miles until City Park Ave where it turns into Marconi Blvd (on western edge of C.P. ). Stay on Marconi underneath Interstate 610, fields on left between road and a canal.

6pm: Conclusion of New Orleans Fifth Annual International Human Rights Film Festival with Jena 6 Documentary and Panel. Perhaps a social gathering

Monday, 4/21

9am – 12pm Community Tour of New Orleans & Story Circles along Algiers Riverfront (a ferry’s ride across from the French Quarter, pick up at base of Canal St. & leaves on :15 and :45 of every hour from Canal Side, :00 and :30 from Algiers Riverfront side)

12 – 1:30pm Opening Ceremony & Lunch along Algiers Riverfront

2pm – 5pm Understanding Who Profits & How: NAFTA+ and Katrina Profiteering (Craige Cultural Center)

5pm – 6pm Dinner

6pm – 9pm Understanding Who Profits & How: NAFTA+ and Katrina Profiteering (for day workin folks; also at Craige Cultural Center)

Tuesday, 4/22

9am – 12pm Self-organized sessions

1pm – 4pm Self-organized sessions

6pm – 9pm Breaking Inferiority & Superiority to Restore Ourselves & Our Communities

Locations of Workshops: McKenna Museum of African American Art (2003 Carondelet St.), Craige Cultural Center (1800 Newton St. on West Bank/Algiers), Loyola University, Greater Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church/Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (5130 Chartres St.)

MORE TO COME AS THE WEEK PROGRESSES….

Published in: on April 15, 2008 at 3:05 am  Comments (1)  
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White Supremacists in Jena for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Tomorrow, January 21, a group of white supremacists/nationalists plan to rally in Jena, Louisiana on MLK Day as a counter demonstration to the national support for six black high schoolers unfairly tried and overcharged in an attack on a white boy at the local high school. The general narrative of the incidents in the town, if not the facts, is widely known after September 20 when more than 20,000 people from across the nation flooded into the small oil and lumber town (see my feature article and timeline). It was one of the largest demonstrations in this country on racial injustice in over a decade (though, no doubt that the Mayday 2006 rallies across the nation were larger).

At first the town officials in Jena blocked the white supremacists from acquiring a permit. After filing a lawsuit, a judge rightly returned the group’s first amendment rights to “peaceably assemble.” I’m not familiar with how the group has advertised this event, so it remains unclear whether they plan to be peaceful. I’ve of course heard news that groups will be traveling to Jena to counter this counter demonstration.

A couple family members of the original six boys, along with other black and white community members, have joined a national coalition to confront the racist slogans of the counter protesters in Jena tomorrow. From my limited knowledge, there is no intention of aggressive confrontation from the groups in the national coalition, but militant anti-racist groups in the south may do so regardless of the will of the larger coalition.

The controversy here in New Orleans among individuals involved over this past summer, when much of the grassroots work started to put Jena on the map, is about the consent of the Jena families. The people pushing the event in New Orleans are people who moved to New Orleans in the last four months and, although that’s not necessarily a mark against them, it’s the evasive way some questions of accountability have been answered. Such as: what is the strategy for the counter-counter demonstration? Have you made preparations in case there is violence (medics, etc)?

I’m not in a position of experience in organizing to decisively favor to either: 1) confront racists anywhere or 2) respect the wishes of many family members of the Jena 6 who do not want there to be scene, potentially riotous, when they favor ignoring the white supremacists instead of giving them a platform for their cause.

I do have a friend going (though only to meet up and travel back with folks coming from another city) and hope that all ends without incident.
Peace be on Jena tomorrow.

Published in: on January 20, 2008 at 7:50 pm  Comments (2)  

Why is Michael Baisden spreading lies about Color of Change?

Michael Baisden, host of a daily radio show in Alexandria, Louisiana, began rallying in support of the Jena 6 case during the late summer of 2007. He talked about the case daily, gathering more and more information to educate his audience. On the eve of September 20, when thousands were on buses coming to the small town of Jena, Baisden even appeared next to Reverend Al Sharpton as they were interviewed by CNN.

Color of Change is the largest black-led online advocacy organization in the country, founded by James Rucker and Van Jones after Hurricane Katrina and the federal flood. Rucker, who previously worked for two years with MoveOn.org as their Director of Grassroots Mobilization, is based in the New Orleans-area and began going to Jena and working with the families months before Baisden. He is the one who worked with the families on a statement that they could all agree on to appear as an online petition. That statement was only the second statement that all six families approved (the first being a facts and demands document made available through Friends of Justice). The petition, as word and emails spread regarding the injustice of the cases, garnered 45,000 signatures by the time Rucker and family members presented the pages to the LaSalle District Attorney’s office on July 31 (a description of this scene is in my previous post titled “Jena Bears Strange Fruit”).

Recently, despite likely knowing this information, Baisden has slandered Color of Change on his radio show, putting them in the same category as organizations that did fundraising for Hurricane Katrina victims, but then never distributed the funds. Yet, Color of Change has on its website the photos of cancelled checks and the family signed requests for funds that match those checks. $210,000 of $212,000 fundraised through Color of Change has been distributed so far.

In addition, Baisden and his guest Marcus Jones, Mychal Bell’s father, described Rucker as “shady.” While Baisden may have never met with Rucker, Jones certainly has (the petition being one instance and I witnessed a meeting in which everyone introduced themselves and their connection with the case–both Marcus and James were in the room and it was apparent James had relationships with family members as well as the ACLU organizers involved).

Color of Change responded by having their lawyer call Baisden’s producer to work it out, but Baisden didn’t back down from his comments. Now Color of Change has a petition on its website asking Baisden for an apology. With the documents they’ve put on their website proving that their money has been sent to lawyers representing the Jena 6, I signed on to the petition. Here is what I added:

“The grassroots movement that Color of Change and other organizations built prior to Michael Baisden’s involvement brought the case to a national stage. I have met James Rucker and the allegations that he is “shady” and that the families do not know him are false. I was present in Jena for planning meetings where James Rucker and Marcus Jones were in the same room and everyone introduced themselves. Rucker knows the families well, and the ACLU organizers on the case. Rucker was the person who presented the first stack of petition on July 31, 2007 to the Asst. DA of LaSalle Parish. The comments made by Marcus Jones are disappointing, as they falsely undercut an organization that has done so much work on their behalf; Michael Baisden’s comments are in some ways slanderous, spreading lies despite knowing the truth. I hope they recognize their errors and amend the divisions that they just created within the Jena 6 movement.
Thank you for your time.”

These disrespectful and malicious lies are one way to divide movements. From all I’ve ever seen or heard, Color of Change has been front line advocates and approached the families in a humble, accountable way. So it boggles my mind as to why Baisden would go to these lengths, stretching truth beyond the point where it bursts. Color of Change offers up its analysis, arguing that Baisden’s fundraiser day for Jena 6 is coming up and perhaps he wants other fundraising efforts to be distrusted, leaving his own fund more attractive for generous folks. If that has any truth, it is an unfortunate recurrence of ambition for personal power and status within a movement that has many unsuccessful historic precedents. It is what can deride movements precisely by falsely knocking out one of the movement’s pillars, one of its devoted and stable strengths like Color of Change has been for the Jena 6 families. Don’t let that happen. Demand that Baisden apologize and clear Color of Change’s name.

Published in: on November 9, 2007 at 10:00 pm  Comments (6)