Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hear Us

In 2008, political violence erupted throughout Zimbabwe as a result of the contested national elections. Zimbabwean women of all ages, targeted for their political affiliations, were abducted from their workplaces and homes, raped, tortured, and beaten in secret torture centers. It is estimated that from May to July, state-sanctioned groups raped over 2,000 women and girls. The local police have ignored these women's pleas for protection and justice, and national leaders have been equally unresponsive to local and international demands for an end to the violence.

Hear Us features four of these women, who have come forward to demand justice from the Zimbabwean government and the Southern African Development Community. Women like Memory and Abigail, who struggle daily with the physical and psychological scars of their abuse, tell their stories to uncover the enduring effects of this violence on the women of Zimbabwe and their families.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Constance: Human Trafficking


Is It A Crime To Be Poor?

By Barbara Ehrenreich, The New York Times

It's too bad so many people are falling into poverty at a time when it’s almost illegal to be poor. You won’t be arrested for shopping in a Dollar Store, but if you are truly, deeply, in-the-streets poor, you’re well advised not to engage in any of the biological necessities of life — like sitting, sleeping, lying down or loitering. City officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about the ordinances that afflict the destitute, most of which go back to the dawn of gentrification in the ’80s and ’90s. “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a city attorney in St. Petersburg, Fla., said in June, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.

The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

That could be me before the blow-drying and eyeliner, and it’s definitely Al Szekely at any time of day. A grizzled 62-year-old, he inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Fu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972. He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until last December, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants.

It turned out that Mr. Szekely, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs or curse in front of ladies, did indeed have a warrant — for not appearing in court to face a charge of “criminal trespassing” (for sleeping on a sidewalk in a Washington suburb). So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail. “Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Mr. Szekely. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless.”

The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing.

If poverty tends to criminalize people, it is also true that criminalization inexorably impoverishes them. Scott Lovell, another homeless man I interviewed in Washington, earned his record by committing a significant crime — by participating in the armed robbery of a steakhouse when he was 15. Although Mr. Lovell dresses and speaks more like a summer tourist from Ohio than a felon, his criminal record has made it extremely difficult for him to find a job.

For Al Szekely, the arrest for trespassing meant a further descent down the circles of hell. While in jail, he lost his slot in the shelter and now sleeps outside the Verizon Center sports arena, where the big problem, in addition to the security guards, is mosquitoes. His stick-thin arms are covered with pink crusty sores, which he treats with a regimen of frantic scratching.

For the not-yet-homeless, there are two main paths to criminalization — one involving debt, and the other skin color. Anyone of any color or pre-recession financial status can fall into debt, and although we pride ourselves on the abolition of debtors’ prison, in at least one state, Texas, people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines may be made to “sit out their tickets” in jail.

Often the path to legal trouble begins when one of your creditors has a court issue a summons for you, which you fail to honor for one reason or another. (Maybe your address has changed or you never received it.) Now you’re in contempt of court. Or suppose you miss a payment and, before you realize it, your car insurance lapses; then you’re stopped for something like a broken headlight. Depending on the state, you may have your car impounded or face a steep fine — again, exposing you to a possible summons. “There’s just no end to it once the cycle starts,” said Robert Solomon of Yale Law School. “It just keeps accelerating.”

By far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong-color skin. Indignation runs high when a celebrity professor encounters racial profiling, but for decades whole communities have been effectively “profiled” for the suspicious combination of being both dark-skinned and poor, thanks to the “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” theory of policing popularized by Rudy Giuliani, when he was mayor of New York City, and his police chief William Bratton.

Flick a cigarette in a heavily patrolled community of color and you’re littering; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect, according to “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice,” an eye-opening new book by Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington. If you seem at all evasive, which I suppose is like looking “overly anxious” in an airport, Mr. Butler writes, the police “can force you to stop just to investigate why you don’t want to talk to them.” And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be “resisting arrest.”

There’s no minimum age for being sucked into what the Children’s Defense Fund calls “the cradle-to-prison pipeline.” In New York City, a teenager caught in public housing without an ID — say, while visiting a friend or relative — can be charged with criminal trespassing and wind up in juvenile detention, Mishi Faruqee, the director of youth justice programs for the Children’s Defense Fund of New York, told me. In just the past few months, a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing teenagers found on the streets during school hours.

In Los Angeles, the fine for truancy is $250; in Dallas, it can be as much as $500 — crushing amounts for people living near the poverty level. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, an advocacy group, 12,000 students were ticketed for truancy in 2008.

Why does the Bus Riders Union care? Because it estimates that 80 percent of the “truants,” especially those who are black or Latino, are merely late for school, thanks to the way that over-filled buses whiz by them without stopping. I met people in Los Angeles who told me they keep their children home if there’s the slightest chance of their being late. It’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.

The pattern is to curtail financing for services that might help the poor while ramping up law enforcement: starve school and public transportation budgets, then make truancy illegal. Shut down public housing, then make it a crime to be homeless. Be sure to harass street vendors when there are few other opportunities for employment. The experience of the poor, and especially poor minorities, comes to resemble that of a rat in a cage scrambling to avoid erratically administered electric shocks.

And if you should make the mistake of trying to escape via a brief marijuana-induced high, it’s “gotcha” all over again, because that of course is illegal too. One result is our staggering level of incarceration, the highest in the world. Today the same number of Americans — 2.3 million — reside in prison as in public housing.

Meanwhile, the public housing that remains has become ever more prisonlike, with residents subjected to drug testing and random police sweeps. The safety net, or what’s left of it, has been transformed into a dragnet.

Some of the community organizers I’ve talked to around the country think they know why “zero tolerance” policing has ratcheted up since the recession began. Leonardo Vilchis of the Union de Vecinos, a community organization in Los Angeles, suspects that “poor people have become a source of revenue” for recession-starved cities, and that the police can always find a violation leading to a fine. If so, this is a singularly demented fund-raising strategy. At a Congressional hearing in June, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers testified about the pervasive “overcriminalization of crimes that are not a risk to public safety,” like sleeping in a cardboard box or jumping turnstiles, which leads to expensively clogged courts and prisons.

A Pew Center study released in March found states spending a record $51.7 billion on corrections, an amount that the center judged, with an excess of moderation, to be “too much.”

But will it be enough — the collision of rising prison populations that we can’t afford and the criminalization of poverty — to force us to break the mad cycle of poverty and punishment? With the number of people in poverty increasing (some estimates suggest it’s up to 45 million to 50 million, from 37 million in 2007) several states are beginning to ease up on the criminalization of poverty — for example, by sending drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, shortening probation and reducing the number of people locked up for technical violations like missed court appointments. But others are tightening the screws: not only increasing the number of “crimes” but also charging prisoners for their room and board — assuring that they’ll be released with potentially criminalizing levels of debt.

Maybe we can’t afford the measures that would begin to alleviate America’s growing poverty — affordable housing, good schools, reliable public transportation and so forth. I would argue otherwise, but for now I’d be content with a consensus that, if we can’t afford to truly help the poor, neither can we afford to go on tormenting them.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Disturbing News From South Africa

Reports have been coming in on a growing trend in Africa in which lesbians are beaing beaten and raped in an effort to "correct" their sexual orientation. Even more disturbing is the fact that out of the 31 reported cases in the past decade only ONE has led to conviction!

The Guardian:
The partially clothed body of Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa's acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad, was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. As well as being one of South Africa's best-known female footballers, Simelane was a voracious equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema.

Her brutal murder took place last April, and since then a tide of violence against lesbian women in South Africa has continued to rise. Human rights campaigners say it is characterised by what they call "corrective rape" committed by men behind the guise of trying to "cure" lesbian women of their sexual orientation.

Now, a report by the international NGO ActionAid, backed by the South African Human Rights Commission, condemns the culture of impunity around these crimes, which it says are going unrecognised by the state and unpunished by the legal system.

The report calls for South Africa's criminal justice system to recognise hate crimes, including corrective rape, as a separate crime category. It argues this will force police to take action over the rising violence and ensure the resources and support is provided to those trying to bring perpetrators to justice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Obama Establishes White House Council On Women and Girls

The Council will be chaired by Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser and personal friend to the president, and the day-to-day operations will be run Tina Tchen, who is currently director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and was a major fundraiser for Obama during the campaign.
"The mission of the Council will be to provide a coordinated federal response to the challenges confronted by women and girls to ensure that all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies consider how their policies and programs impact women and families," reads a memo describing the move and obtained by The Fix.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

An Open Letter To Barack Obama

Kevin Abourezk of Reznet writes:

Dear President Obama,

I want to personally thank you for the $3 billion in direct funding and $500 million more in bonding authority you've given to Indian Country in your $787 billion economic stimulus package.

I can't think of a group of people who have a greater need for economic stimulus than Native people, who suffer from a 25 percent rate of poverty and a median household income 30 percent less than that of all Americans.

Still, I hold a number of reservations (no pun intended) about some of the stipulations on these Indian stimulus funds as they affect my tribe.

But before I lay out those concerns, I need to mention a few statistics about my tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota:

• My tribe suffers a 34 percent unemployment rate. That's compared to 7.2 percent for the entire United States.

• Of those who are employed, 80 percent live in poverty on my reservation (compared to an overall 12 percent poverty rate for the United States).

• The per capita personal income for Todd County, which lies entirely within the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, ranked 66th out of 66 counties in South Dakota in 1995.

Given these economic challenges, my tribe ranks as one of the neediest in the country, and also one of those least likely to win stimulus funds given the requirements of the stimulus money.

Let me explain.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, stimulus money meant for tribes will be directed first to federal agencies and other institutions that serve tribal governments. Those agencies ultimately will have discretion over how stimulus funds are distributed to tribes.

Those funds will be distributed to tribes mostly through existing federal grant programs, which are likely to have application deadlines much shorter than usual.

Given our deplorable unemployment and poverty rates, I think it's fair to say my tribe hasn't been the most successful at winning federal grants over the years, compared to other wealthy tribes, and state and local governments.

Blame it on a lack of funds to pay for professional grant writers, a problem that stems from my tribe's inability to build capital the way most wealthy tribes do — through economic development and gaming.

Still, we are expected to compete for stimulus funds against those same governmental entities that have continually beat us out for federal money for decades? We're supposed to compete against the Seminole and the Oneida? Against the city of Denver and the state of Indiana?


I have to say, this whole process seems to clearly favor those tribes, states and towns that have historically won federal grants and have ongoing relationships with the same federal agencies that will ultimately decide who gets stimulus money.

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seemed this stimulus package was meant to help those governments most in need. To assuage the troubles of those communities that suffer rampant unemployment and poverty. To create opportunity and hope where none now exists.

Sadly, without the support and money needed to level the playing field, the Rosebud Sioux seem destined for failure in their efforts to improve their quality of life.

I offer a solution to this conundrum, because I believe, perhaps naively, in your administration's good intentions: Offer technical and financial support in applying for stimulus money to those tribes most in need and require federal agencies to prioritize the needs of those same tribes.

Otherwise, this Indian stimulus money will become little more than a windfall for wealthy casino tribes that are able to employ armies of grant writers. And all of your good intentions to lift up the downtrodden will remain just that: intentions.

Respectfully yours,

Kevin Abourezk