Category Archives: politics

Was it the Economy that Slapped Michael Jackson?

So many of us waited this week with bated breath, on the edge of our seats. Some of us wanted the dirty bastard to lose it all, some of us wanted the misunderstood superstar to keep it. FInally, the suspense has ended. Neverland is safe. For now.

But all of us know it is a sad sad day when the economy digs its foul claws of recession into even the richest of men. The nation mourns, for the wake of foreclosures has left not even the most priveleged amongst us safe. And now that this national wave of catastrophe has lapped upon Neverland’s shores, how can anyone sleep at night? Who could possibly dream of ever attaining Michael Jackson’s immense wealth? Yet even he has had to face the pinch of poverty. Even he has had to work to scrape together the last minute deal to save his property from auction and certain occupation at the hand of strangers. What the hell happened to Elizabeth Taylor? What can lie in store for the rest of us?

It is certainly not a road trip to Bahrain to hang out with the Crown Prince.

For those of us not cushioned by multi-million dollar homes and exotic wild animals that we can sell to cover our asses, there sits between us and homelessness only a few gold chains and the toaster oven at the pawn shop. Those won’t get you very far, we all know that. We are, most of us, one major illness away from eviction or foreclosure, one lay-off, one arrest, one unexpected expense. Most of us pay more than a third of our income in rent or a mortgage. And to be sure, most of us don’t have those large settlements to pay off to the parents of kids we’ve had over just to “play” with our toys…we’ve got expenses like food. And gas. And this broadband wireless connection. Boyfriends run the tab up too, fancy underwear when you’re with ’em, liquor when you’re not…it all adds up. But the point here is that a national landmark like Neverland, almost put up for auction so that any multi-millionaire at all could just buy it, well, that should send a clear message to our leaders that something is wrong. Something must be done. The housing crisis must be averted, and I am paying them more than enough to do it. Not to save the Michael Jacksons of the world of course, they can just sell one of their Malibu homes. But I ask it for the rest of us, the ones with nowhere to turn, the ones even now soldiering on without their jewelry or their toaster ovens…

Murder and Mayhem at Theo Lacey Jail

We keep building new jails. We have more prisoners than any other country with the exception of China. We seem to think that pouring money into contractor’s pockets to build prisons, arrest prisoners, guard prisoners, feed prisoners, transfer pisoners, clothe prisoners, put prisoners to work, well, we seem to think that all that will make us safer. It certainly keeps a lot of things out of sight out of mind, though every now and then prisons errupt into the public consciousness with rioting and violence. Theo Lacy jail hasn’t errupted into riots, but it did make the front page of the LA Times yesterday after transcripts from a Grand Jury investigation were finally made public…it took a court case to make this public record public, and given what the contents are it’s pretty easy to see why the battle was fought to the bitter end. The LA times headline is simply “Rampant Abuse seen at O.C. Jail.” So what do they consider rampant abuse?

John Derek Chamberlain was raped and beaten to death over a period of 50 minutes, with inmates finding time to go and wash the blood from their clothes in an area that was close to the guard’s glass walled station and should have been patrolled every half hour.

I suppose rampant abuse is just strong enough to cover that. But I think I would call it something else, especially given the patterns exposed in the transcript of the hearings…

Inmates testified that jail deputies had told them Chamberlain had been charged with child molestation. He was not, in fact, charged with any such thing. Deputies acknowledged that they used inmates called “shot-callers” to keep other inmates in line. These inmates enforced jail rules at the behest of deputies, and used violence to do so. Prison guards not only turned a blind eye to all of the violence, but encouraged it and incorporated it into discipline at the jail. Apart from this of course, remains the fact that deputies lied in the log book and did not actually make the rounds required of them, they watched television and made personal phone calls and texts. Such a murder occurring in prison should have been referred immediately to be investigated by the District Attorney, but instead the Sherrif’s Department stepped in, an action that looks remarkably like a cover up. While heads have rolled in the Sherrif’s Department, all of the deputies on watch the night Chamberlain was murdered have continued working at Theo Lacy. A substantial legal battle occurred to keep the transcripts of this highly damaging hearing sealed so that these truths should never come to light.

This certainly raises questions about what happens in prisons in our country. It raises questions about the point of prisons at all, why do we have them? Given the levels of violence and crime, the regularity of race riots, the infamous reputations of Angola, Folsom, San Quentin…what do we hope to accomplish with prisons? It is imposible to kid ourselves that they serve to reform individuals…I think it is proven that prisons tend to break down and corrupt everyone that comes into contact with them, both inmates and employees alike. We can grow even further into a prison society, lock people up without ever letting them back out, isolate guards even more from the rest of society…but who would choose this when we can also choose to implement other solutions, strengthen our community’s ability to take of its own? We spend more on prisons than schools, so we already know what direction the government is pushing us in…

For alternatives and more information look at http://www.criticalresistance.org/

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2

Edward Lorenz Dies

I suppose not many know who Edward Lorenz is, he wrote computer programs to try and predict the weather, and in 1972 published a paper titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Does it? The answer to this now famous question is perhaps. Lorenz is credited as one of the discoverers of chaos theory, his findings proving the uncomfortable notion that due to the potentially large effects of very small things, nothing at all is entirely predictable. I suppose most of us already felt the power of unpredictable things to hit us upside the head at any time, it took science until the 1970’s to do so. Still, Lorenz is a man who can be said to have ended one way of thinking (where we thought one day we’d have everything figured out, and the future mapped out bright before us), and ushered in another (where we are continually figuring out that we haven’t really figured anything out at all). He was out hiking 2 weeks before his death on Wednesday, which leads me to believe it was not indeed predicted, and I’m glad of that. It reads as though he had a happy and full life, and I have a strange admiration for scientists who grapple with the fundamentals of our reality.

HUD Leaves the Business of Housing

Alphonso Jackson is leaving HUD, and he’s leaving under a cloud of criminal investigation for corruption in the handing out of federal contracts…but there are a lot of other reasons he should be leaving which sadly aren’t getting enough attention in the press. As a political appointee, and therefore an entirely political animal, you could argue that he is simply following the party line, following orders. I think we’ve all heard that before. Why wasn’t he fired in 2006 when he boasted in a public speech that he had revoked a contract with someone when they told him they did not like Bush? Or when he was accused in a lawsuit by a local Housing Authority of trying to force them to sell land to a developer he knew, and then gutting their budget when they refused? Now he’s the one resigning, I know it’s under pressure, but clearly he’s been allowed to save face.

Still, the deeper, much more important issue here is the reality of a federal government steadily dis-investing in housing in this country even as real wages are falling, rents are skyrocketing, the population of homeless folks is being swelled by women and children, and almost everyone but the very wealthy are only a paycheck or two away from eviction. A serious illness in the family or a lay-off and many of us would be in trouble. Given the sub-prime mortgage crisis, many thousands have already lost their homes. So lets take a look at those lucrative New Orleans contracts that are currently under investigation, what exactly was the federal government paying contractors to do in New Orleans? It certainly wasn’t to build housing for the thousands of refugees spread across the nation. New Orleans is actually a perfect case study showing how the federal government is slowly withdrawing from public housing and leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens vulnerable to the bubbles of the market. And no one will be bailing them out.

In 1996 there were 13,500 public housing units in New Orleans. 9 years later, just before Katrina, that number had already been reduced by almost half to 7,100 through programs like Hope VI; 2,000 of those units were vacant, scheduled to be demolished. 5,146 families lived in public housing before the hurricane. How many have been allowed to return? About 1,000 families. And HUD continues to put forward the plan to demolish another 5,000 units, of which they are proposing to replace around 20%. The federal government will have gone from providing 13,500 homes for needy families to a grand total of around 2,000 homes, all within the space of 12 years.

I heard a lot of speculation on the news about the mindset of those people who had refused to leave New Orleans. Leaving aside the fact that many poor people did not have the means to get out of town, I believe this definitely bears out their fear that once they left, they would not be allowed back. Poor people aren’t stupid, and balancing personal risk with keeping your home is a dilemma that many would find very hard.

The other way, less direct way that HUD is putting people onto the streets? When the Federal Housing Authority insures the mortgage of a low-income home-buyer, and that home-buyer defaults on their mortgage, then the FHA pays the mortgage off and turns the property over to HUD. Buildings between 1 and 4 units are eligible for FHA insurance, so HUD receives a number of buildings with between 1 and 4 families living in them as tenants. Their policy is to evict all of the tenants, which they can do even in rent-controlled areas, and then auction off the building. The much-publicized wave of foreclosures and the crash of the sub-prime market has undoubtedly had thousands of silent and unremarked victims. I worked with one such building several years ago where we were trying to arrange the sale of a foreclosed upon 4 unit building to a local non-profit affordable housing developer. Our goal was to keep the tenants in the building as all four families had lived there for over 10 years, and one of the tenants had lived there for over 20 years and was incredibly active in the work to improve the neighborhood. We managed it in spite of HUD, one of their employees actually told me over the phone that they were “not in the business of housing.” There are a multitude of witty answers possible to such a statement, but my jaw dropped and I could not think of a single one. Still, the woman was right, it certainly seems true that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is no longer in the business of housing.

Also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2,widget=blogs&page=2&filter=popular

L.A. City Attorney Forces $9 Million in Restitution from Landlord

Given that over 60% of Los Angelenos are renters, and far too many of them are paying far too much in rent for substandard apartments, why isn’t this being treated as much bigger news? It’s been a long time since a landlord had to dig this deep into his pockets, possibly never in L.A. We’re not known as a slum town, still, that is what much of Los Angeles is for a great many reasons (none of which include rent control). Essentially there is a great deal of profit to be made in renting to the poor; they don’t know what their rights are, and to keep a roof over their heads they’ll put up with pretty much anything. In Europe no one would believe me when I said that lead poisoning still exists in America. Or that kids are regularly bitten by rats. Or that I worked with a doctor who pulled cockroaches out of the ears of several children every week of every year. It certainly beggars belief. Until now it has been a handful of community organizations working with tenants high in bravery and low on resources trying to stop this from happening without being evicted.

Until now. After many years of pressure from community and tenant rights groups, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office has finally turned around an atrocious record for the prosecution of criminal landlords profiting from slum buildings and illegally evicting tenants, and are showing what a city can achieve on behalf of its residents. They charged Darren Stern (also known as Henry Shalom), the owner of Landmark Equity Management Inc., with using a calculated and criminal strategy to empty out his buildings, thereby evading rent control laws to increase his profits. Some of the tactics he used, all too common in a rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles, were:

Illegally shutting off utilities
Entering units without permission
Refusing to conduct repairs, resulting in dangerous slum conditions
Refusing to accept rent and then trying to evict tenants for nonpayment
Harassment, threats, and intimidation

This case is groundbreaking not only as a civil suit conducted on behalf of tenants by the city, but also as an effective and holistic campaign to target the entire business operation of the minority of truly criminal landlords. Instead of prosecuting building by building and collecting fines that do not even cover the city’s costs, they have started looking at companies like Landmark that have engaged in illegal activities in the 850 units that they own spread across the city.

To maximize the strength of these cases the city is working closely with community based organizations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles for the first time in a new and very exciting way. The Morrison Hotel served as the first test case for this new approach. Working with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA), the City Attorney took the criminal case to trial and won a precedent setting conviction of the owners on 21 charges which was based in part on extensive research and tenant testimony. In my time as lead tenant organizer at SAJE, this certainly counted as one of the high points where a clear victory had been won that would clearly have a strong ripple effect in the city. It is immensely encouraging to see that the City Attorney’s Office is working with many different tenant organizations, and truly pushing the envelope to try and solve one of the city’s worst, most intractable problems. This case has clearly taken the Morrison victory to another level with partners Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) and LAFLA. Although much will depend on the actual enforcement of the settlement agreement, this is a huge step forward for the City Attorney’s Office and a meaningful victory for tenants across the city. There are a number of other landlords out there hiding the same illegal business practices behind the corporate veil, so I hope to see this work continue.

Shall we sum up this victory then? The City Attorney’s office had already filed a criminal suit for the code violations in the various buildings which was won in May of 2007, and resulted in a sentence of 150 days in jail for the owner, of which he served 30 days. The City Attorney’s office also filed a civil suit, and yesterday reached an agreement with Landmark Equity Management requiring Landmark to pay $1 million in damages to the city in addition to the city’s legal costs, and $9 million into a restitution fund for the tenants who they mistreated. Landmark will also be prevented from buying new buildings in L.A. for the next 4 and a half years, and is required to bring all the buildings it currently owns up to code. This sends a clear message that intimidation, slum housing, and illegal evictions will not be tolerated in our city of renters.

Want more information?
City Attorney’s Press Release: http://www.lacity.org/atty/attypress/attyattypress6938518_06142006.pdf

Need help enforcing your rights?

Los Angeles Community Action Network: http://www.cangress.org/

Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles: http://www.lafla.org/

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy: www.saje.net

Need to know what your rights even are?

Los Angeles Housing Department: http://www.lacity.org/LAHD/ten_land.htm

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2,widget=blogs&page=2&filter=popular

Press Take Some Interest in the Angola 3

When NBC asked Robert King Wilkerson what it was like to spend 29 years in solitary confinement, he didn’t know what to say. How can you sum up the horror of 29 years in solitary in one of the worst most infamous prisons in the nation? They asked him to do it in a few words, and “it was hell” made it into the edited version. In a nutshell.

Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox continue in solitary. They have been there for over 35 years. NBC’s nightly news picked it up as the cases of Wallace and Woodfox are set to come before federal court. The question NBC asked is can too much time in solitary confinement become cruel and unusual punishment? It’s a good question to ask, but then look how many questions we’ve asked about waterboarding and other forms of torture and it doesn’t seem to get us very far. I imagine that most would agree that days or weeks in solitary is incredibly cruel, much less decades. I don’t think there’s any way for us to even comprehend what that might be like. Wallace and Woodfox have been in soitary confinement longer then I have been alive…how can such a thing be possible?

The more vindictive among us will ask, hey, what did they do? Maybe they’re imagining Hannibal Lecter. I’m afraid it’s nothing like that. Horrifying conditions brought Robert King, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox together while in Angola to form a chapter of the Black Panther Party. They helped organize hunger strikes and worked to expose the conditions in the prison which included the open sale of prisoners into sexual slavery, a 96 hour work week for 2 cents an hour, segregated living quarters, inadequate food and medical care…their actions were enough to start some investgation and a series of hearings about the prison. Their actions were actually getting some heat put on prison officials and change was in the air.

I didn’t take long for Robert King Wilkerson to be convicted with another inmate in the death of a fellow prisoner. He served 29 years in solitary confinement. The courts released him in 2001 after overturning his conviction; 29 years in solitary for an innocent man. Woodfox and Wallace were convicted at almost the same time for the murder of a prison guard. NBC outlined the evidence showing their innocence, a commisioner has requested the courts to investigate the case, the guard’s widow is asking who really killed her husband. Angola prison seems to be a clear beneficiary, having cast aspersions on the three men’s characters and thereby their cause, and effectively isolated and silenced three voices for change.

NBC doesn’t go into that of course, does not mention the Angola 3 or the Black Panthers or the conditions that the three men were protesting in Angola, itself a former slave plantation…I suppose as always you have to find the real news in looking deeper into what they don’t tell you.

more info at http://www.angola3.org/

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2,widget=blogs&page=2&filter=popular