Undocumented Philadelphia

Mar 19th, 2014
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They are everywhere in the city, but you see them most often in the kitchens of restaurants, the corridors of hotels and motels, the cash-only businesses. They are Philadelphia’s undocumented immigrants and depending on who you ask, they are either a menace to society, a boon to the economy or an at-risk population taken advantage of by employers and businesses.

It’s obvious to anyone paying attention to Philadelphia’s shifting demographics that the Latino and Asian populations are expanding exponentially. A quick walk through South Philly’s nationally known Italian Market shows the majority of businesses are no longer Italian-owned, but are Latino- and Asian-run.

According to the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, the city’s Latino/Hispanic population increased by 44 percent to 187,611 and its Asian population grew by 42 percent to 95,521. The racial breakdown of the city in 2012 was 44 percent black, 36 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic/Latino and 7 percent Asian. Within those demographics some people are also of mixed race.

When two racial groups nearly double in size in a decade’s time, it signals a change in the city overall–a change that will continue to manifest itself in myriad ways. One change that has occurred in Philadelphia is there are more undocumented workers and they are increasingly at risk.

The majority of those undocumented workers are Latinos, predominantly coming from Central America. On March 12, City Council held hearings about what Public Safety Director Michael Resnick called “the pernicious impact” of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on “certain communities” in Philadelphia. The “communities” he referred to are overwhelmingly the Hispanic and Latino communities, although some Asians and Africans are also at risk.

For well over the decade of the expanding number of Hispanic/Latino Philadelphians, ICE has had a treacherous liaison with local law enforcement. Police and prison officials have been obligated to share data and hand over undocumented (and even documented) workers to ICE.

That ended last week when Mayor Michael Nutter agreed to sign an executive order barring PPD and local prison officials from honoring immigration detainers.

This means ICE could no longer simply request detention, nor will they be able to do so randomly. A warrant would be needed and grounds other than immigration status would be required.

The hearings didn’t make much news outside City Council or the local Latino community. Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez called the new policy “huge” and “historic.” She said, “It shows what cities can do until Congress deals with comprehensive immigration reform.”

Councilman James Kenney said the new policy would exempt police from “doing the work of federal agents.”

Kenney also pointed out the problem that exists in the community: “When two young Mexican kids get into a fistfight and get hauled off to the Fourth [Police] District and there’s an ICE agent waiting in the lobby, that’s not right,” he asserted.

For several years now advocacy groups have been urging municipalities–particularly large cities with huge immigrant populations like Philadelphia–to rescind all quid pro quo actions between police and ICE. Other cities to enact similar bans are New York City, Newark, Miami, and New Orleans with the largest Latino communities in the country and San Francisco, with the largest Asian population.

Not surprisingly, conservatives here and throughout the nation decried the new policy, calling it a “gateway to amnesty” and that it would open the door to “criminal aliens.”

A small group at the City Council hearings held that view which was most popular during the Palmer Raids of the 1920s.

As philly.com reported, “John Ryan, Vince Weston, and Margaret Weston-Adelsberger held a banner promoting the group Victims of Illegal Alien Crime, voiac.org, which describes its mission as tracking crimes committed in the United States ‘by foreign nationals, including illegal aliens.’”

In his testimony before City Council, Ryan (seeming to forget his Irish forbears were vilified similarly a century ago) said Council members should not “yield to the

demands of leftist human rights groups” who want to “install radical-left mind control” and “embrace a world without borders.”

Unfortunately, the irrational extremist tone set by Ryan is endemic to the Republican Party, particularly its Tea Party affiliates. And while that matters little in Democratically controlled Philadelphia, it does have impact in the rest of the more Republican-controlled state and of course the nation as a whole.

The City Council hearings, while lifting one more burden from the shoulders of Philadelphia’s undocumented people as well as our overburdened Police Department, they only addressed one problem within the larger context of the wave of immigration in Philadelphia.

Last month the New York Times profiled Puentes de Salud (Spanish for Bridges of Health), a clinic in the heart of the Latino neighborhood off the Italian Market that is funded and run by both the University of Pennsylvania health system and volunteers. The non-profit provides

low-cost health care to those who are not covered under the Affordable Care Act.

The New York Times profiled the clinic in January, noting why it was necessary: “The new federal health care law does not provide assistance to illegal immigrants, who are generally ineligible for Medicaid, cannot get federal subsidies for private insurance and cannot use the new insurance exchanges to buy unsubsidized insurance with their own money.”

The article, which was reprinted in several business news websites for obvious reasons, also reminded readers that “Under the federal Affordable Care Act, such immigrants are exempt from the requirement to have insurance. They remain eligible for certain types of emergency care under Medicaid if they have low incomes and meet other criteria, and they may receive care from free and charitable clinics in some places.”

Like Puentes de Salud.

But what is the city doing to help these people? Does that demographic of 13 percent Hispanic/Latino Philadelphians even include the undocumented, or are they another percentage altogether, every day at more risk due to their shadow status in the city?

The hearings on ICE and subsequent executive order were meant to protect undocumented persons from harassment by immigration officials, but what is being done to integrate people fully into Philadelphia?

Puentes de Salud has maternity services now, but what happens to those children once they are born? How many parents of such children are working under-the-table jobs with none of the benefits native-born or naturalized Philadelphians can access?

Since 2006, Puentes de Salud has served thousands of undocumented people for various health issues. The New York Times article opens on a 38-year-old Honduran woman with leukemia being seen by the clinic. What are her prospects in these circumstances? How many people might actually be dying as they live in the shadows in the city that calls itself the birthplace of liberty?

The clinic’s co-founder, Penn professor of emergency medicine, Dr. Steve Larson, 53, was quoted in the NYT piece as calling Puentes, “an underground health system.”

Is this what we are doing now in Philadelphia? Setting up a permanent underclass of at-risk, undocumented workers whose children will continue to lead the same shadow lives their parents are forced to endure?

How is that American?

I was heartened by the City Council hearings, but disheartened by the national response from conservatives.

Despite the fact that the Obama Administration has deported twice as many undocumented people as the Bush Administration and despite the fact that the border patrols have been exponentially increased by Obama, an estimated 13 million undocumented people are living and working and having their children here in the U.S. Very few of those persons will be leaving the U.S. Which means immigration reform must become an essential discussion in Congress as well as in the cities where those people are living their anxious shadow lives.

While Philadelphia may already be heavily burdened with needy citizens, we cannot allow a whole swathe of Philadelphians, be they native-born or not, to be leading lives of poverty, misery and fear. That is not what this nation was predicated on and it is most certainly not what this city was founded on.

City Council needs more hearings to address the larger question of how the city will focus on undocumented workers going forward. It’s a critical issue and a critical time to address it. We must do so, so that the people we see every day in our restaurants and shops, hotels and streets, can live the lives our own immigrant forebears where able to forge.

 This article first appeared in The Independent Voice March 19, 2014

Justice Denied: Violence Against Lesbians on the Rise

Mar 19th, 2014
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The recent wave of marriage equality laws across the U.S. as well as support for several high-profile celebrities like actress Ellen Page, NBA player Jason Collins and NFL prospect Michael Sam coming out may have lulled many into thinking homophobia and hate crimes are over.

They aren’t.

Lesbians are at risk. Violence against lesbians and bisexual women is on the rise. According to several studies, including one conducted by the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) and another by the EU, lesbians and bisexual women report a higher incidence of violence than heterosexual women. And considering the breadth of violence against women overall–one in three will be a victim in her lifetime–those statistics are alarming.

Yet although report after news item after academic study affirms that an insidious pandemic of violence against lesbians has been sweeping the globe, mainstream media has met that violence with a dismissive and deafening silence. The range of violence lesbians experience is as broad as it is horrifying. Corrective rape and murder in South Africa. State-sponsored femicide in Uganda and Nigeria. Sexual assault in the military in the U.S. and on college campuses. Sexual assault while in immigration holding centers worldwide–including in the U.S. and U.K. Honor killings throughout the Middle East. Hate crimes in the U.S.–harassment, stalking, assaults, gang rapes, even murder.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old lesbian bartender from Queens, New York. Genovese is one of America’s most famous murder victims because 37 of her neighbors allegedly listened to her screams for help as she was being raped and stabbed to death by Winston Moseley and did nothing.

Her murder was deemed emblematic of urban apathy and the New York Times headlined the story with, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.”

Less well-known than her actual killing is the fact Genovese was a lesbian and that her partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, lay sleeping and unaware as Genovese was murdered several stories below.

Genovese’s lesbianism was not mentioned in the newspapers, nor was her relationship with Zielonko. Like many young lesbians, the women had moved away from their families to get away from anti-gay attitudes. But several lesbian academics have posited that it was knowing Genovese was a lesbian that kept her neighbors from responding to her assault.

In the intervening five decades since Genovese’s killing, attitudes have slowly shifted with regard to lesbianism, but not entirely. A June 2013 Gallup poll found 60 percent of Americans saying homosexuality should be accepted. That number was up from 49 percent in 2007. But that still leaves nearly half of Americans not accepting of homosexuality.

One of them is James Cosby.

Cosby, 46, was arrested March 13 in connection with the grisly murders of a Galveston lesbian couple, Britney Cosby 24, and Crystal Jackson, 24. Britney is James Cosby’s daughter.

The two young African-American women lived with James Cosby, his 90-year-old grandmother and Jackson’s 5-year-old daughter and had been together for two years.

According to Britney’s mother, Loranda Remer, James Cosby was upset by his daughter’s lesbianism. Remer told reporters that Cosby would “throw it in her face” and told Britney repeatedly “Don’t throw that gay shit around in this house.”

The murder was allegedly committed in that house, in the women’s bedroom. Jackson was shot once in the head, then Britney Cosby was bludgeoned to death, sustaining head wounds and a broken neck, according to autopsy reports.

The bodies of both women were found the morning of March 7 behind a dumpster, behind an isolated convenience store in Port Bolivar, Texas off Highway 87. The dumpster lies below the staircase of an abandoned and boarded up motel. A long, wide swathe of a bloodstain was still clearly visible after the women’s bodies were removed.

On March 12, Crosby spoke at a Houston vigil about his daughter, saying he would miss her smile and bubbly demeanor. On March 13 he was arrested after video surveillance footage showed he’d been near the bodies but had not called police.

A search of the house was described by police sources as “a bloodbath.”

Hate crimes are well-known for their “overkill” of victims. Matthew Shephard’s murder is an extreme example. But so is Britney Cosby’s beating death. How much hate does it take to beat your own daughter to death?

The rise in such violent crimes against lesbians has barely been reported in the LGBT media, let alone the mainstream press. Just as Genovese’s lesbianism was never mentioned in reports of her murder, the majority of news reports on the Cosby/Jackson murders described the women as “friends” or “acquaintances.”

A recent spate of deportations of lesbians in the U.K. has been accompanied by questions about how lesbians “prove” their lesbianism to officials when seeking asylum from nations like Uganda or Nigeria where being a lesbian is illegal and being openly lesbian will result in life-sentence.

On International Women’s Day 2013, Jackie Nanyonjo died in Entebbe, Uganda from injuries she sustained at the hands of Ugandan authorities after she was forcibly deported from the UK on Jan. 12, 2013.

Nanyonjo was a lesbian activist. It is illegal to be a lesbian or gay man in Uganda. Nanyonjo sought asylum in the UK, but the Home Office’s UK Border Agency insists on lesbians and gay men “proving” their sexual orientation via sworn statements from their home country.

Where just talking about being lesbian or gay can get you killed.

On February 24, Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini signed one of the world’s most repressive laws against lesbians and gay men. The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 was passed in Parliament on Dec. 20, 2013. It was originally called the “Kill the Gays” law because it made homosexuality punishable by death. The law was amended to life in prison.

Musevini had waited to sign the bill while a study was conducted to see if homosexuality was innate. “No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature. That’s why I have agreed to sign the bill,” Museveni said in a speech at his Kampala palace.

In addition to sentencing “offenders” to prison for life, the bill also prohibits any and all

“promotion” of homosexuality. In addition the legislation includes extradition to Uganda for lesbians and gay men who leave the country to engage in “homosexual acts.” The law also includes penalties for individuals, businesses, media or NGOs that support lesbians and gay men in any way.

Because of the penalties imposed on people who support anyone lesbian or gay, people are being encouraged to turn in people they know who are lesbians or gay men. Anyone who knows someone is lesbian or gay must turn them in within 24 hours or be subject to both a fine and a three-year-prison sentence.

The new law has ratcheted up already-existing hatred toward and discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Nanyonjo’s killing pre-dates the current law, but the law was first proposed in 2009 when Ugandan politicians agreed that the “worldwide homosexual agenda” as the bill’s sponsor, David Bahrati terms it, was damaging the Ugandan family structure.

Nanyonjo is just one of many victims: her lesbian activism outside Uganda made her a target as did her open lesbian relationship. Under the current law she wouldn’t have had to be deported–she could have been extradited.

Corrective or curative rape is another layer of this violence against lesbians. On June 30, 2013 the dead and partially naked body of Duduzile Zozo, 26, an out lesbian, was found by her mother, not 40 feet from her home. A toilet brush had been shoved into her vagina, rupturing it. Zozo’s murder was the first corrective rape/murder to be labeled a hate crime.

Corrective rape of lesbians is practiced in several nations, including Thailand, Ecuador, Jamaica and Zimbabwe, but nowhere is it as prevalent as in South Africa where the term originated.

According to the World Health Organization, South Africa leads the world in rapes. It is also the capital of “HIV cure” rapes–rapes of toddlers and babies as an alleged cure for HIV, which is pandemic in South Africa. South African officials assert that there are at least 10 “corrective” rapes each week in the Cape Town area alone.

Corrective rape is supposed to cure or “correct” the sexual orientation of lesbians–to turn them heterosexual and make them stop “acting” lesbian and start acting “straight”–behaving more like the gender stereotype for women. Like honor killings, corrective rape is frequently perpetrated or supervised by member’s of the lesbian’s family.

Corrective rape is extremely violent, often including stabbing, mutilation, beating and stoning. It is usually perpetrated by more than one man. It is a leading cause of HIV infection among lesbians. Corrective rape is so brutal and causes such physical and emotional trauma, it leaves the victim scarred for life–or dead.

South Africa’s most infamous case of corrective rape/murder was that of Eudy Simelane, a lesbian rights advocate and former captain of the national women’s soccer team who was training to be the first female World Cup referee for 2010 when she was murdered.

On April 28, 2008, Simelane was left face-down and naked in a drainage ditch in a stream in a park near Johannesburg. Simelane had been beaten savagely. She had been stabbed 25 times, including on the upper inside of her thighs and the soles of her feet. She had also been raped.

Simelane’s killers were brought to trial, but only two of the five men initially charged were convicted. No mention of a hate-crime was made at the trial. Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng did not want to use the word lesbian at all, asking the prosecutor, “Is there another word that you can use instead of that one?”

Simelane’s was the first corrective rape to result in a conviction, but at their sentencing, her killers actually laughed in the courtroom.

Jennifer Hopper was able to get a semblance of justice when the man who raped and murdered her partner, Teresa Butz, and raped and nearly killed her in 2008, was sentenced to life in prison on August 12, 2011.

Mary Kristene Chapa, 18, was not so lucky. She and her partner, Molly Olgin, 19, were shot in the head on June 25, 2012 outside a Portland, Texas park. Olgin died at the scene, Chapa survived. No one was every arrested in the case, which remains open.

On Dec. 18, 2013, the ringleader in the kidnap and gang rape of a Richmond, CA lesbian by four men was finally convicted almost five years to the day of the assault. The case was deemed a hate crime because the men called the woman homophobic slurs throughout the attack.

The list of violent crimes against lesbians is long and gruesome. The number of cases where justice has been served for the victims is regrettably short.

Why?

The double and sometimes triple oppression of victims plays an obvious role. Women are less likely to get justice in the courts for crimes against them. Factor in sexual orientation and sometimes race or ethnicity and the criminal justice system turns its back on victims with less cachet than a man.

Yet if violence against lesbians continues to rise–FBI stats show hate crimes against lesbians at an all-time high–what can be done to stop the violence?

The FBI asserts that reporting hate crimes is essential. But so is prosecuting hate crimes as hate crimes. The federal statute–the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act has been on the books since 2009, but how often is it applied?

James Cosby is under arrest, held on $500,000 bail. Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson will likely get justice. But hundreds of other lesbian victims will not. And until justice bends in our direction, clearly none of us will be safe.

This article previously appeared in SheWired on March 14, 2014.

March 8 Should Be a Day for Action

Mar 5th, 2014
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March 8 is International Women’s Day–a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women. In more than 50 countries, International Women’s Day is a national holiday.

Observance of IWD was formally established in 1911, following rallies and protests by women globally–including in the U.S.–for voting rights and fair wages.

Although there have been significant inroads for women in the 103 years since, most notably in the past 25 years, women are still fighting the same battles they were in 1908 when 15,000 women took to the streets of New York City to demand fair wages and working conditions.

In 2014, as President Obama noted in his State of the Union Address in January, women still earn less than men–77c for every $1 a man makes for the same job, on average. Over a lifetime of work that adds up to a half million dollars for the average woman. A half million. There’s your house, your kids’ tuition and every vacation you ever wanted, women.

And it’s actually worse with more education. Women with Ph.D.s make an average of 46% less than men with Ph.D.s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the same wage gap as the one between women and men who never finished high school.

Of the Fortune 500 companies, only 22–or 4.2%–currently have women CEOs and 135 still do not have a single female executive officer. When Mary Barra was made CEO of General Motors last December, she became the first woman in the world to run a major automotive company. Yet Barra, who has worked at GM for 30 years, is making $4.4 million in total compensation–salary and stocks. The man she replaced, Dan Akerson, made $9 million. And in fact Akerson will continue to make more money than Barra: He was hired as a consultant to GM at $4.68 million a year. After he was replaced by Barra.

Barra may be on the high end of the wage scale for women, but if wages for women increase at the rate they have since 1989, it will be another 50 years before women achieve wage parity.

The wage disparity matters a great deal as it sends more and more women into poverty every year in America. According to the most recent U.S. Census, poverty rates in the U.S. are highest for families headed by single women. In 2010, at the last census, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were at or below the poverty level, as opposed to 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households at the poverty level.

In Philadelphia, the numbers are even higher: 36 percent of female-headed households live below the poverty level, according to a status report last month from the state. Among women with children, more than 40 percent are living in poverty. And poverty delays learning by about two years, according to a 2013 Stanford University study–so mothers living in poverty have children living at an educational deficit.

That’s the money gap for women. Then there’s the politics.

Among the governors of the 50 states and six territories, only five are women: four Republicans (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina) and one Democrat (New Hampshire).

In Congress, the percentage is nearly as bad. Of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate, there are 20 women–the highest number ever. In the House of Representatives only 79 of the 435 congresspersons are women.

Of the 50 largest cities in America, only five have female mayors and only one of those is mayor of a city in the top ten—Annise Parker, mayor of Houston, TX. None of the other top ten cities, including Philadelphia, has ever had a female mayor.

Women are so under-represented in political office, if representation of women in Congress continues to move at the pace it has over the past decade, it will take another century to reach equal representation there.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women holds its annual conference each year around International Women’s Day to coordinate efforts for women’s rights in the social, political and economic arenas. The 2013 conference focused on a growing problem in the U.S. and globally: violence against women and girls. The theme was the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.

The UN Commission Status Report was succinct as it was grim: Seven in ten women globally–including in the U.S.–will be beaten, raped, abused or mutilated in their lifetimes.

The majority of these acts of violence are perpetrated by intimate partners–husbands, boyfriends. Most of the other acts of violence against women and girls are committed by family members or other men known to the victim. Rarely strangers.

As the report noted, “Violence against women and girls is a gross human rights violation that fractures families and communities. It has enormous social, economic and productivity costs for individuals, families, communities and societies.”

The Philadelphia Police Department’s blog site notes there were 143,534 domestic violence calls to police in 2012, the last year for statistics. The police blog also notes these are the calls–not the number of incidents, which are thought to be significantly more than reports of the crime. The blog also asserts that one in every three women has experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse or stalking by a current or former intimate partner at some point in their lifetime.

On March 4, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights released the statistics on the largest study of violence against women in Europe. That study matched the Philly Police blog–one in three women throughout the EU over the age of 15 have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse, with 8 percent reporting a violent incident in the past 12 months.

In Philadelphia, the number of reported rapes of women over 18 has been between 945 and 1,100 for the past five years. The number of non-rape sexual assaults is significantly higher. The Philly Police blog states that only 54% of rapes are reported in Philadelphia, although advocacy groups put that percentage of reports much lower.

Before I wrote this column, I was checking my Twitter feed for news as I do every morning. There was a tweet from President Obama which read: I believe when women succeed, America succeeds #StandWithWomen

If ever a tweet demanded response, it was this. Does Obama “stand with women” as his hashtag states? If that is true, why are only three of the 15 members of his Cabinet women–only one of whom was also in his first administration? If he stands with women, why didn’t he nominate Gen. Ann Dunwoody for Secretary of Defense instead of Chuck Hagel? Dunwoody has far more experience both in the trenches and in the Pentagon than Hagel. And of course that nomination would have made history.

If Obama stands with women, why did he nominate Larry Summers–embroiled in scandal over his sexist extremism at Harvard University–to be Chair of the Federal Reserve instead of the most qualified person, Janet Yellen? Yellen was Obama’s choice only after Summers withdrew due to the ongoing controversy and scandal.

We don’t celebrate IWD in America. There’s no federal holiday for any woman on our federal calendar, let alone every woman. Yet the statistics in this column explain why we should not only be celebrating IWD, but hearkening back to the issues that caused it to be founded in the first place.

Women have the vote now, but we still don’t have fair wages or equal representation in government. More than 250 years ago the shout went up in Boston Harbor against the British: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

We wrenched ourselves from the grasp of the British. But more than two centuries hence, women are still fighting that same battle in every aspect of their lives in the world’s most powerful nation.

How is it possible that women are still fighting the same fight they were when IWD was first proposed? And that Philadelphians, living as we are in the birthplace of liberty, have never had a woman mayor? Nor have we had a woman governor or woman senator. And America–more than 50% women–has never had a woman president.

Whether you celebrate March 8 or not, the facts of women’s second-class status remain: we are the poorest, the least well-paid, the most abused, the least represented in America. That doesn’t just deserve a day to contemplate, it deserves a day of reckoning.

@VABVOX

This column first appeared in The Independent Voice March 5, 2014 

 

Where Are the Police?

Feb 20th, 2014
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Where Are the Police?

By Victoria A. Brownworth

The helicopter buzzed my house for 20 minutes on the morning of Feb.20. It’s hardly the first time. New Year’s Day a man police were searching for detoured through my yard. He’d just broken into my neighbors’ house, grabbing one of their young daughters and ripping her Christmas iPad literally out of her hands as he put his hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t scream. Fortunately, she was only robbed.

I was not so lucky.

On a sunny September day, the first day kids were back at school after summer vacation, I was bringing my trash cans up from the sidewalk after trash collection. My partner had left for her teaching job. I was alone, as I am most days, as I work from home.

I didn’t see the man on my first trip up the front walk. But then I heard a voice asking if I needed help. I turned, smiled, said thank you, no. I turned my back, signaling the conversation was over.

I had heard the tone in his voice. The hint of sexual suggestion as he said, “Need some help, pretty lady?”

It would have been worse if I’d tried to run. I knew that then and now. I wouldn’t have been able to beat him to my front door. And then he would have been in my house. And I might be dead now.

It was only seconds before he was behind me, grabbing my arms, pulling me back, shoving me into the alley where I stood, the trash cans behind me. He pushed me into the neighbors’ yard that abuts the alley that leads to my own yard.

On the ground, my arms pinned beneath me, I couldn’t move as his knees pressed my thighs down and his hand covered my mouth as he announced each thing he was going to do before he did it. He promised to kill me. He didn’t get that opportunity. But I was raped, beaten, bitten, punched. I was left bruised, bloody and torn when he ran off, scared away from killing me by some people talking loudly as they walked down the other side of the street.

Later, as I sat with a detective at the Special Victims Unit, I would discover that he had raped several other women before me. And yet we were not alerted to this in my lower Germantown neighborhood. Even though this serial rapist was trolling the exact same places between Fernhill Park, Happy Hollow playground and Queen Lane Station. Empty spots where women would be alone: babysitting small children, waiting for a train taking a short cut home.

These rapes had all happened during the day. When women would never expect to be attacked. And always with the same modus operandi of speaking to the women, then pinning their arms behind them, immobilizing them, military style, as the detective told me.

I took the sketch police did of my rapist and xeroxed it, papering the neighborhood with it. But he was never caught, as far as I know. I and his other victims never got the justice we deserved.

Maybe if we’d been warned, we wouldn’t have been victims, either.

I was not at the meeting last week at Queen Lane Station where Councilwoman Cindy Bass and other neighborhood leaders and activists discussed the need for more police presence in lower Germantown. But had I been able to be there, I would have told my story, the story of my neighbors and their kids, and the story of how a couple of months ago a man was shot 12 times 100 feet from my house. And so many other stories.

I have lived here, around the corner from the Germantown Cricket Club, on a lower-middle-class block of mostly working families and a few elderly folks, for 20 years. It was a different block when I moved here. Almost perfectly mixed racially–black and white. Now it’s mostly black, but the white families on the block have been here either as long or longer than I as have some of the black families. It’s a solid block with no vacant houses. But one block east at Wayne Avenue, drugs and guns and extremes of violence are a commonplace.

The nearest police station is on Hunting Park–more than five minutes away. More time than it takes to stop a rapist or a robbery or a shooting.

When I first moved here I used to see police cars all the time, patrolling the area. And about a decade in, we got a mobile substation at Mannheim and Wissahickon, three blocks from my house.

I never knew why that station was removed. I assumed it was because Cricket Commons, long a den of drug dealing and prostitution, was bought and rehabbed and so it was no longer a crime vector.

Except it is.

Drug deals and guns are everywhere in my neighborhood, which statistically is one of the highest crime districts in the city. The 39th police district covers a vast section of North Philadelphia, Nicetown-Tioga and Germantown.

In the past year nearly everyone I know in my immediate neighborhood has been robbed or burglarized. A couple of months ago a young man who grew up in the house literally 20 feet from my back yard and whose grandmother still lives there kicked a blind man in the street at Wayne and Seymour while onlookers stood by, frozen in fear. Another young man who lives across the street from me and is autistic was beaten bloody in the Chinese take-out place around the corner. All the shops on Wayne Avenue have been robbed repeatedly. I don’t know how the shopkeepers stay on. The laundromat closed due to repeated burglaries. The Fresh Grocer left for the same reason–as had the Shoprite before it.

This is our day-to-day reality in lower Germantown. Violence, fear, frustration. Lack of access to basic services. Concern for our kids–our sons who are prey to drug runners and gun dealers, our daughters who are prey to pimps and rapists.

I don’t like to blame the police. I know their job is hard and dangerous. I know the majority are decent. I wouldn’t want to do it. That said, Philadelphia has more violent crime than any of the top ten big cities–three times the crime of the largest big city, New York.

Who is responsible for that? I know the simple answer is “criminals,” but what about law enforcement? Why have there been three times the number of murders and shootings in Philadelphia since New Year’s Day as there have been in New York City–which has three times the population of Philadelphia?

We can blame many things for crime. Poverty may account for some petty crimes like shoplifting. We know drugs are a major factor in most theft and burglaries as well as other violent crimes. Gangs are also an issue.

But other big cities have drug and gang problems. Poverty afflicts most urban areas. And while Philadelphia is the poorest of the top ten big cities by far, statistically poverty makes poor people victims, not criminals.

So why are the crime levels so high in Philadelphia and why are they exponentially higher in lower Germantown?

It’s a question I have asked before here and in the Philadelphia Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. But it’s a question never answered. Just as the city’s leadership ignores the crushing level of poverty in Philadelphia, it also ignores the immensity of the crime problem. Why are there more murders here than in New York City? Why are there more rapes?

The excess of crime and seeming lack of response by both the city administration and the police administration must be addressed. Superintendent Hite just asked for $320 million more for the School District. Why isn’t anyone asking for more money for the police to employ more officers?

The Philadelphia Police Department employs 6,646 officers to patrol an area of 143 miles and a population within the city limits of over 1.5 million. That’s 4.5 police officers per 1,000 citizens. Exactly the same ratio as New York City and Chicago. Meanwhile Los Angeles and Houston have 2.5 police officers per 1,000.

So what’s the difference? Why does Philadelphia have more crime if we have the same ratio of police to people as New York? Why do cities like Los Angeles and Houston have fewer?

It bears investigation. Is anyone investigating it?

Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey have been talking up the drop in crime in Philadelphia. But has crime dropped in places like lower Germantown? Lived experience says no.

Throwing money at problems doesn’t always work: Witness the School District where we spend $11,000 per student each year. Really? With no access to computers, often no books, rarely libraries and the highest number of students per classroom in the state? Where is that money going? Are students seeing any benefit since Philadelphia still has the lowest achievement rate in the state overall?

So it’s conceivable that throwing more money at the PPD might not achieve a lower crime rate. But it stands to reason that more police on the ground would stop more crime and increase response rates. Last summer there was a fight among about 20 teens at the corner of my block. The police never came. At least seven of us made the calls–I witnessed that.

Fortunately no one was shot. Or stabbed. Several of us–men and women–were able to break up the fight. But it could easily have ended in tragedy.

If that substation had still been there, three blocks away, wouldn’t we have gotten police intervention?

Just like we need more teachers, not fewer, less students per classroom, more books, not fewer, to make our schools work, we need more police to stop crime. If every 1,000 people safely ensconced in their Chestnut Hill mansions are being patrolled regularly, what about the Germantown residents who have drug dealers and drug addicts, rapists and robbers roaming their streets, pushing in doors with young girls holding their Christmas presents, shoving women to the ground in broad daylight to be raped and beaten, grooming fatherless boys to be gunrunners and drug dealers.

We need the Mayor to see us. We need the Police Commissioner to see us. We need more police. Germantown needs more police.

I don’t blame my rape on the police. I blame it on the rapist. But it’s just luck that my neighbor’s 14 year old daughter only had her iPad stolen and the robber only put his hand over her mouth. I don’t want any other girl or woman to experience what I did. I don’t want to hear more gunshots or more helicopters. I don’t want to see any more victims lying in the street outside my front door.

We need help. We need a substation and we need it now.

@VABVOX

This article first appeared in The Independent Voice

 

 

 

 

 

On Hiatus

Dec 19th, 2013
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I’ve been incredibly busy writing for a plethora of newspapers and magazines and have not had time to post here.

I will return after the holidays. In the interim, please look for me at Huffington Post, Curve magazine, She-Wired, The Advocate, Lambda Literary, The Independent Voice and various other spots.

Also check me out at Tiny Satchel Press. www.tinysatchelpress.com

You can also follow me on Twitter, where I always have something political to say, regardless of who’s listening:  @VABVOX

Wishing you a lovely and festive and most of all giving holiday season

warm wishes–Victoria A. Brownworth

 

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Time to Stop Stop and Frisk

Oct 16th, 2013
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Stop and frisk. The term should have been synonymous with reducing crime in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Oakland where it’s been the law for years. Outgoing-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg asserts that the practice has stopped thousands of crimes in New York in the 11 years since he implemented it there in 2002. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter was a proponent of stop and frisk when he first ran for mayor in 2007, basing his support for it on its success in New York City.

But even those of us who supported Nutter were always queasy about stop and frisk and how it would be enforced. The past few weeks in Philadelphia have underscored why.

The video first released Tuesday by the New York Daily News and NBC 10 is disturbing to watch and even more disturbing to listen to. Two white police officers, one identified as Philip Nace of the 25th District, stopped two Latino men on Sept. 27 for saying “hi” to someone on the street in North Philadelphia. One of the men covertly recorded the incident on his cell phone. The video has since been viewed nearly a half-million times on YouTube and as of Oct. 15 was on every local Philadelphia TV news website.

In the video, a police cruiser slows and begins to follow the two men. One of the men puts his cell phone video on as he walks, first viewing the sidewalk, then the cruiser. The police roll to a stop next to the men (it’s broad daylight on a sunny morning) and ask them what they are doing and tell them they cannot speak to strangers on the street. “Not in this neighborhood,” one of the officers says. The men, who say they live in Camden, keep asking what they’ve done wrong. The police get out and slam the man not holding the cell phone up against the patrol car.

The other man continues to walk away, but the cell phone is still recording. The officers order him to come back.

From the outset the police officers are angry and abusive, with no provocation. The men are reasonable, answering the officers’ questions, but also asking why they’ve been stopped. Neither uses foul language, but both officers do.

Then there is this exchange:

“Don’t come to f***ing Philadelphia. Stay in Jersey!” one officer yells.

“We don’t want you here anyway, all you do is weaken the f***ing country,” the other adds.

“Yeah? I weaken the country? How do I weaken the country? By working?” one of the two men stopped asks after repeatedly arguing that he was just walking to work.

“No. Freeloading,” the officer tells him.

“Everyone thinks they’re a f***ing lawyer and they don’t know jacks**t,” one of the officers says in response to something said to the officers about the stop.

The video goes on for 16 minutes, all of which is extraordinarily abusive. The men are eventually told they were jaywalking and are taken in for questioning, which means they lost that day’s work and possibly their jobs as well. (They have described their jobs as servers in a local restaurant. Both men, who give their birth dates on the video when asked by police, are in their 20s.)

The second incident is equally disturbing, yet also ironic. On Sept. 10, Herbert Steadman, 50, a married father of four from West Oak Lane, endured a stop and frisk as he walked to a bus stop.

Steadman told Philly.com that the police drove up to him, angling the police car and jumping out, grabbing him by his shirt and pants. They went through his wallet without his permission and demanded to know what he was doing “so far from home.” (Spellman had been with his son at the Academy Cyber Charter School.)

Spellman said the language used with him was abusive, and that he was asked if he was on drugs and then accused of being on drugs. Ultimately he was not charged with any crime.

What makes Spellman’s story ironic is that he is a retired Philadelphia police officer with 20 years on the job. He retired on disability in 2008 after he was injured.

Spellman has filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department. He described his experience as “demeaning” and “humiliating” and said he felt he needed to warn his son to be as wary of police as of actual criminals.

These two incidents have become newsworthy specifically because one complainant is himself a former police officer and the other videotaped a full 16 minutes of verbal abuse and harassment from the police in question. We can see much of the incident and hear the rest.

The Philadelphia Police Department has been both tight-lipped and defensive in response to both instances of stop and frisk gone wrong. In Spellman’s case, Lt. Thomas Fournier of Internal Affairs confirmed the complaint, but declined comment pending an investigation.

In the case of the videotape, in a prepared statement, PPD Lt. John Stanford asserted that “the department and a vast majority of our officers go out and give the city and our citizens 100% each day in providing great service and protection. We will not allow the poor judgement of one individual to speak for this department.”

These two very ugly incidents of obvious abuse raise new questions about what is happening with stop and frisk off camera and when the subject of the search is not a former police officer.

Most Philadelphians have empathy for the police. It’s a brutal job and Philadelphia, alas, leads the nation in officers killed in the line of duty in the past five years. That said, in neighborhoods like mine or those where these two incidents occurred, how often do police take advantage of the stop and frisk policy to vent their anger at what they face daily on men who statistics show are rarely arrested after the stop?

Philadelphia’s demographics tell part of the story. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 36.9% of Philadelphia’s 1.6 million inner-city residents were white. The city is 43.4% African American, 12.3% Hispanic, 6.3% Asian, with the remainder of the residents mixed race. By sheer numbers one would be more likely to be stopped by police if one was non-white.

Maybe.

Philadelphia’s is the oldest municipal police department in the country and the sixth largest non-federal law enforcement agency, larger than any other city but Los Angeles and New York with 6,446 officers as of January 2013, plus a mounted patrol unit. (An additional 625 officers are being hired between now and January 2014.)

But while Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is African-American and has been in the post since he was hired by Mayor Nutter in 2008, the demographics of the PPD are the obverse of the population of the city. Men are 70 percent of the force, women 30 percent. White officers are 57%, black are 36%, Hispanic 6.5%, other, 1.5%.

Oh.

With 21 patrol districts, some of them, like the 14th, 39th and 25th, both massive and the most crime-ridden in the city, there are going to be many white cops patrolling primarily black neighborhoods.

Some of the arguments I heard while serving on community panels prior to the enactment of stop and frisk in Philadelphia were that since African-Americans were both the primary victims of crime in the city and also the primary perpetrators, that stop and frisk could not be considered racial profiling, especially since then-City Councilman and mayoral candidate Nutter was himself African-American.

But if you listen to what Nace says at several points on the purloined video, he’s succinct: People in “good” neighborhoods don’t get stopped. Which implies that he believes everyone in more crime-ridden neighborhoods like North Philly, Germantown and West Oak Lane are potential perpetrators rather than potential victims.

The question this raises for the rest of us is: Is that solely Nace’s perspective and that of his partner, or is it the unwritten rule of stop and frisk for the PPD as a whole?

It seems unlikely that the two incidents described here are anomalous with regard to the behavior ascribed to the officers–all white–involved. One has to ask why the PPD has not released the name of the officer riding with Nace on Sept. 27 or why Nace was still riding the streets of his district as recently as Friday.

While Nace is the more abusive of the two, both officers participated in the racial profiling of the two men and both officers used similar language–language that Steadman also described from his encounter. Is this kind of verbal assault considered appropriate and acceptable by the PPD? Because it’s not the language used in other jobs. Are there no rules about the way people are spoken to by police?

While language may seem to be the least of the issues here, the language used just reinforces the us-versus-them mentality concomitant with the stop and frisk policy. Nace and his partner clearly believe the two men are not American and clearly believe that non-whites are “freeloaders” and as they reference at other points, “crooked” and “dirty-a**.” In the view of both these white officers the men are “weakening the country.” Yet they are on their way to work, coming from another city, a good hour’s travel-time by public transit from Camden to North Philly. The stop and frisk policy put their livelihood at risk. And Camden already has a 20% unemployment rate and 52% of the city’s residents live at or below the poverty level.

According to Ezekiel Edwards, head of the national ACLU’s criminal-law reform project (the ACLU has filed several class-action suits related to stop and frisk laws), stop and frisks have declined overall in Philadelphia, but “in 2012, 47 % of the frisks conducted were without reasonable suspicion, 76% of the stops were minorities and 85% of the frisks were of minorities.”

So–significantly over the city’s racial demographic. What the ACLU doesn’t reveal is how many of those stop and frisk incidents were conducted by white officers of non-white suspects.

In 2011, as a result of one of the lawsuits filed by the ACLU over stop and frisk, a court-appointed monitor regulated the police’s stops and searches. But is that enough? It seems not.

No one can argue that in neighborhoods where crime is rampant, like my own on the border between Germantown and North Philly in the 39th District, citizens need as much help from the police as we can get. Just last month a man was shot 12 times and killed not 100 feet from my front door. A week earlier a woman, her baby and two other men were shot in the parrk around the corner.

But if more than half of these stop and frisk encounters aren’t even predicated on reasonable suspicion–like the one on Sept. 27–then isn’t the policy doing more harm than good?

It would seem so.

The anger some police seem to feel in fighting crime is making men like Steadman, a cop himself for 20 years, feel that the police are not only not on his side, but that he and his son are, as African-American men, at risk from the police. The stop and frisk concept might have made sense on paper–disperse gangs of young men of all races hanging out in front of beverage stores or on known drug corners who are harassing local residents and making them fearful. That’s certainly how Nutter and Ramsey presented it to Philadelphians and it’s how Bloomberg promoted it to New Yorkers.

But most of us never imagined stop and frisk would be happening in broad daylight when people were on their way to work. Or that lone men like Steadman would be stopped as if they had been fleeing police, rather than just walking down a city street after leaving a son at a computer class.

Nor did any of us envision the overt racism, xenophobia and abusive language evinced by the officers who stopped Steadman and the Latino men from Camden.

I’ve been the victim of violent crime in Philadelphia as well as a victim of property crimes. So have many of my friends and family. We want the police to have as many tools to fight crime as possible. But–and this is an essential, ineluctable but–it can’t be this. It can’t be racial profiling and being stopped-while-not-white and being harassed and being told you are ruining the country. If this is what police officers are thinking first thing in the morning, what are they thinking late at night when most crimes of the sort stop and frisk was meant to deter are happening?

What happens when all the men who have been stopped unreasonably file lawsuits against our city? What happens when a man who is stopped gets even more scared than the men on the cell phone video and decides to run and gets shot by police and killed? The potential risks seem to be growing by the day. These two incidents occurred in a two-week period last month and were revealed this week. How many more are waiting to be revealed? How many more repugnant videos are there? How many more ex-cops are preparing to file complaints?

Philadelphia tried this policy. It hasn’t worked. All it has done is to make police less tolerant of the citizenry and the citizenry feel threatened by the very people we need to help us when we are in real danger. It’s time to stop stop and frisk. It’s time to stop treating every man in every neighborhood that isn’t Chestnut Hill or Society Hill as potential suspects. It’s time the PPD had a sit-down with its officers and told them we are citizens first and suspects second. It’s time. It’s past time.

 

@VABVOX

this column first appeared in The Independent Voice, Northwest Newspapers Inc. 

 

 

The New Civil War:How the Republicans Stole Washington

Oct 2nd, 2013

Like most sentient Americans, I hoped–and because I do this, prayed–there would be no government shutdown. But there was. When Twitter blew up at midnight Monday, I was among the millions venting my anger at the Republican horde that shut down the government.

I’m stunned by the sheer awfulness of some in Washington. And by some, I mean the extremist wing of the Republican Party which has taken the entire nation hostage to its inability to grasp the concept of three branches of government, the meaning of elections and public duty to the citizenry.

I used to play sports both at school and after. Team effort is how one wins a game. We’ve all watched rookie and rogue players act as if they didn’t need the team–that the game was all about them. And we’ve seen the disastrous results.

Rep. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is one of those. A far-right extremist of the sort that would give the Taliban pause, he’s leading a pack of what can only be termed feral secessionists who want to run from that pesky little document written here in Philadelphia a few hundred years ago–the Constitution.

I wish Cruz had been reading from that instead of Dr. Seuss when he staged his little performance piece last week on the floor of the House of Representatives. Maybe if he’d read the Constitution over and over again in the 14 hours he was stalling a budget bill to keep the government running, some of it would have sunk in and he’d have had the good grace to be ashamed by his behavior and not obstruct our government after all.

But that didn’t happen. Republicans have no shame.

So now we have the first government shutdown in 17 years–a shutdown orchestrated and led by Cruz and which the titular head of his party, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), was powerless to stop–if indeed he actually wanted to, as he claimed prior to the stroke of midnight, Sept. 30th.

People on both sides of the aisle talk about government gridlock and Washington being broken and a host of other trite truisms and platitudes we’ve been hearing rehearsed and re-hashed for decades.

Of course Washington has been way worse than now. So much worse that the Union almost didn’t survive. This nation fought a Civil War for 4 years, 3 weeks and 6 days that killed 750,000 soldiers and wounded another half million. The war killed 20 percent of all American males between the ages of 18 and 45.

Take that in for a moment. That’s what can happen when ideologues take hold of government.

Now, back to the current problems in Washington.

It’s not a Civil War. It’s a skirmish. But there are some disturbing similarities. One problem in the lead-in to the Civil War was large segments of the country considered Abraham Lincoln to be an illegitimate president.

Lincoln carried 17 states and had a popular vote of 1,865,908. But the other three candidates–Stephen Douglas, John Bell and John Breckenridge had a combined total of 2,819,122 popular votes and carried 15 states.

That was a nation torn in half with an elected president whom only 39 percent of voters had chosen and 61 percent had voted against.

Fast forward to now. The Republican Party is simmering the way the South was in 1860. Republicans believe the president is illegitimate, that he’s not really America’s leader. Or that he’s not the leader of all America, that maybe because he’s biracial, he only cares about people of color.

And so, like Lincoln, that half of the country represented by the Republican Party views Obama as illegitimate.

Except, if one reads that pesky Constitution, Barack Obama is the president, just as Lincoln was, except actually far more clearly defined.

In 2008, Obama carried 28 states and 52.9% of the vote. In 2012 he carried 26 states and 51.1% of the vote. Close, but clear. In 2008, Obama had 9 million more votes than Sen. John McCain and in 2012 he had just under 5 million more votes than Gov. Mitt Romney.

In short, Obama is president. Duly elected. Both elections were decided quickly; there was no reprise of 2000 when there was an actual question of true legitimacy, where George Bush lost the popular vote and the U.S. Supreme Court decided the winner by just one vote. No, in both 2008 and 2012, Obama won–definitively.

He won.

Yet some Republicans have never accepted that fact. Among those most vociferously anti-Obama have been Tea Party Republican extremists like Cruz. They claimed Obama was a Muslim aligned with Islamist radicals. He’s neither Muslim, nor aligned with terrorists. When that ploy failed, Tea Partiers started a “birther” movement in which they claimed Obama wasn’t an American citizen. He is. When the Tea Party failed at their birther invention, they focused on the Affordable Care Act–deeming it Obamacare. Because there was nothing else they could attack.

One problem for Republicans throughout the Obama Administration is President Obama has embraced and continued every policy established by the Bush Administration that candidate Obama promised to vitiate. So while there has been much for Democrats and Progressives like myself to complain about with regard to Obama, there’s really been just this one actual issue for the Republicans to focus on: health care reform.

They’ve gone after it like a dog with a bone. Or a drowning man after a life preserver. Since 2010 when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have tried 42 times to repeal it. That’s every three weeks since it was enacted. Even though during that time the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts who was appointed by Bush and who is a staunch conservative found the ACA to be legal and binding.

Legitimate. Just like President Obama.

So two elections and one SCOTUS decision and still the Republicans can’t acknowledge defeat.

The governmental shutdown marks the 43rd time the Republicans have gone after the ACA. When the House voted last Friday to de-fund Obamacare, Speaker Boehner told reporters, “The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare. The House has listened to the American people. Now it’s time for the United States Senate to

listen to them as well.”

But the Senate refused to be bullied by the Republican minority and so Republicans shut down the government.

It’s not the Civil War, but it’s a salvo over the bow, because we are at an impasse now. And the ACA is just a foil. What extremist Republicans want–and they run the party now, make no mistake–is to pretend the last two elections never happened.

Democracy doesn’t work that way. Democracy doesn’t move backward; it can only move forward. The voters spoke, the Supreme Court spoke and the tantrum the Republicans have thrown is tearing the nation apart.

The ACA is part of a democratic movement forward for the nation. With more than 67 million Americans–a third of them children–either uninsured or under-insured, the ACA is essential to the health of the nation. Why would anyone want to keep even one American from being protected from disease and injury? Why would anyone want to put the lives of children at risk? Why would anyone want to keep women from getting mammograms and men from getting prostate exams and kids from getting vaccinated for school or receiving life-saving treatment?

And yet that’s what the Republicans want to do.

Except it’s too late. On Oct. 1, the day after Republican extremists shut down the government and once again tried to assert the false sovereignty of their minority party, the ACA went into full effect. Because the ACA was already paid for. As the Republicans all knew when they pulled this stunt that has hurt millions and cost billions.

Contrary to what Boehner and other Republicans assert, Americans absolutely want health care. So much so that the ACA website crashed when close to ten million people tried to log on to sign up for health insurance in the first few hours on Oct. 1.

So is this irony writ large? The spiteful Republican minority in a 230 to 189 vote shuts the entire government down because they cannot find another way to subvert the Constitution?

It’s not the Civil War, but it’s a skirmish. And it’s a dangerous one. Political blood is being spilled and with our government under siege, the citizenry is as well. So much harm will come from this shutdown, it’s breathtaking. The CDC isn’t monitoring disease. An epidemic could break out tomorrow and we’d have no way of knowing. Food safety isn’t being monitored. There could be outbreaks of e.coli, salmonella and listeria and people would just sicken and die with no one to know there was a link.

Children in Head Start programs have nowhere to go, because those are closed down. WIC programs aren’t functioning. Thousands of people coming to visit historic Philadelphia will find Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and other revered landmarks closed until further notice. Want to travel? No passports or visas until…whenever. The list goes on and on.

Republicans will tell you this is the Democrats’ fault. It’s not. If Democrats were the minority party with only control of the House and threatened to shut down the government if gun control wasn’t voted in with the budget, the hue and cry would be heard worldwide.

This shutdown is a Republican gambit, a game being played with the nation that is putting millions at risk, 800,000 workers on furlough, many others out of work and the economy back into free-fall.

And for what, exactly? Republicans can’t get what they allege they want. Obamacare is already happening without them because it’s essential and necessary and Americans want it. It may not be a perfect plan–Republicans saw to that when they did everything they could to gut it in 2010–but it’s a gazillion times better than the nothing we had before it.

So what will the Republicans do now? How much hostage-taking do they plan for? How many of us will fall victim to their oligarchy?

We don’t know. The ugly truth is that one half of our nation’s two-party system has chosen to ignore the Constitution entirely, adopting the same mentality that was rife in 1860 and which precipitated the war that nearly ended the republic and took nearly a million men with it.

Is that the route we want to take again? Do we want a nation so riven by extremist ideology that one party–the minority party–can ignore elections, ignore Supreme Court decisions, ignore our Constitution, shut down the government and not pay a price?

Count the days of this shutdown. Mark the names of those who caused it. Email, call, tweet. Let them know the Constitution matters and they can’t shred it at will.

We have a legitimate government led by a legitimate president. We may not all like him or his policies, but he was elected fairly and democratically. Republicans lost on issues. And now they want to run the table on ideology.

President Obama and the Democrats cannot and must not accede to Republican threats. The Constitution matters. And unless someone stands for it, we simply aren’t the democracy nearly a million Americans gave their lives to save in the real Civil War.

@VABVOX

(This piece appeared in The Independent Voice, Northwest Newspapers, Inc.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aug 28th, 2013
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I’ve been busy writing for The Advocate.com, SheWired.com, Curve Magazine, HuffingtonPost (GayVoices), LambdaLiterary.org and NorthwestNewspapers.com

Look for me there or on Twitter @VABVOX until September.

 

thanks!—Victoria

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Bradley Manning: The Trial of the Century

Jun 5th, 2013
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On Saturday, June 1, women from the activist group Code Pink strung the gates of Ft. Meade with Nobel Peace Prize emblems for Bradley Manning. The demonstration was one of many scheduled throughout the coming week to call attention to Manning’s court martial trial which begins June 3 at Ft. Meade, MD, about 30 miles north of the Capitol.

An openly gay former Army intelligence specialist, Manning served under the repressive DADT ruling rescinded in 2012. Manning received five medals for distinguished service while serving in Iraq.

Manning, 25, has been in prison for over 1,100 days–since he was arrested in Baghdad on May 26, 2010–and has spent three birthdays in prison. He was held in indefinite detention and solitary confinement for much of that time under extreme conditions that included not being allowed to lie down or close his eyes except during certain night-time hours, not being allowed a pillow, sheet or blanket, being forced to be naked and searched every morning, not being allowed out of his windowless cell.

Because of his extreme treatment and the crimes of which he is accused, Manning has been deemed a prisoner of conscience by human rights groups worldwide. Amnesty International has called his treatment “torture” and has called for his release. He was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.

Details of Manning’s treatment and discussion of his upcoming trial have been discussed mostly by his supporters and a few devoted journalists in the blogosphere. The mainstream media has largely positioned Manning’s story as that of a misguided soldier at best or a villainous traitor at worst, as if that is the substance of his trial.

Because the majority of the mainstream media has been playing catch-up on the Manning story, their focus differs from those of us who have covered this Manning from the beginning. His case is far less well-known than celebrity trials of Jodi Arias or Casey Anthony or OJ Simpson. He’s never been on “Access Hollywood” or “Inside Edition,” and the major networks have repeatedly skewed the facts of his story.

Yet make no mistake: Manning’s is the real trial of the century. Manning is essentially being tried for treason. One of the charges against him is “aiding the enemy,” which is treasonous (and a charge he categorically denies). Another is larceny–meaning he stole the documents he is alleged to have distributed to WikiLeaks.

The Obama Administration and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have referred to Manning’s case as “the largest security breach in U.S. history.”

Manning is not a spy, but he’s being treated like one, prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. In fact, emails in the months leading up to the release of the documents between Manning and Adrian Lamo specifically state that Manning knew he could have sold any of the documents he handled daily or given them to a foreign government. But, in his own words, he said the documents were “public data…it belongs in the public domain…information should be free.”

That’s the real story here. What did the American people have a right to know and when did they have a right to know it? How much influence did the publication of these documents have on ending the combat portion of the Iraq war? How much transparency did they force in an administration that the ACLU has called “the least transparent in U.S. history”? Manning has already been credited with influencing the Arab Spring, which has thus far toppled five dictatorships. And Vietnam War leaker Daniel Ellsberg has said on several occasions that Manning’s actions have “saved tens of thousands of lives.”

What hasn’t been discussed in the mainstream media, is how much Manning’s treatment and trial have to do with the consistent repression of whistleblowers and investigative reporters by the Obama Administration.

Journalists have had to file suit to have public access to Manning’s trial. In a complaint filed in federal district court last week, a group of journalists asked for a preliminary injunction to compel the judge to “grant the public and press access to the government’s filings, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of the proceedings.”

That’s how difficult it is to get the real story about Manning’s trial.

At his preliminary hearing in February 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the lesser of the 22 charges against him through his attorney. David Coombs. Those charges included

possessing and willfully communicating to an unauthorized person all the main elements of the WikiLeaks disclosure. That included the “collateral murder” video of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, portions of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, files on detainees in Guantanamo and intelligence memos.

The Obama Administration could have accepted that plea deal and agreed to sentencing. Those charges carry a two-year maximum sentence each, but could have added up to 20 years in prison, had Manning received the maximum.

The Obama Administration, however, is making an example of Manning. His trial is a classic show trial of the sort usually seen only in countries that are not democracies. Manning’s trial is meant to dissuade any and all whistleblowers from coming forward. It is also intended to act as a deterrent to any dissidence within the military, Pentagon, State Department, CIA, FBI or any other government agencies–or beyond. The Obama Administration has already prosecuted other whistleblowers, notably John Kiraikou, the former CIA agent who was convicted in January 2013 and sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Kiraikou informed Americans about water-boarding being used against Al Qeada prisoners by both the Bush and Obama Administrations. (Water-boarding is called torture by human rights groups, both the Bush and Obama Administrations have referred to it as an “enhanced interrogation technique.”)

Manning is likely to receive a far stiffer sentence than 30 months in prison, however. What’s more, many question whether Manning will–or can–even receive a fair trial, given the attitude the Administration has already taken toward him and the treatment he has received thus far with no intervention from President Obama or any other member of the Administration.

President Obama could pardon Manning; other leakers have been pardoned, including during other wars.

It’s true Manning has admitted to having contact with the 750,000 classified documents, including diplomatic cables related to overt and covert wars, war logs related to both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, gun-site video footage of civilians being attacked in a U.S. Apache helicopter assault in Baghdad and another in Ganai, Afghanistan, as well as various other documents related to U.S. involvement in wars and covert military operations throughout the globe.

At his preliminary hearing, Manning detailed what he had learned while reading the documents he handled daily and how “fascinated” he had become by what he read and learned. Manning said, “With my insatiable curiosity and interest in geopolitics, I became fascinated with them. I read not only the cables on Iraq, but also about countries and events that I found interesting.”

According to Manning. “The more I read, the more I was fascinated with the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think these documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world.”

But while Manning wanted people to know the truth, he also didn’t want to jeopardize national security or put lives at risk. Of the documents he is alleged to have released, Manning asserted, these were “the only ones I was not absolutely certain couldn’t harm the United States.”

Because there has been so little attention given in the media to Manning’s case, few Americans have heard his painful descriptions not just of his own treatment by the government, but of some of the more gruesome things he witnessed at the hands of American military, notably the killing of civilians in the videos he watched.

The documents Manning leaked went to the global anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks and their media partners. Many of the documents have been published in the most renowned newspapers, magazines and journals in the world, including the New York Times, Washington Post and the Guardian (both UK and US).

None of these publications has been called to account, however, unlike in 1971 when the Nixon Administration petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. The Nixon Administration was able to stop publication for several weeks until the Supreme Court ruled that the papers could be published.

Ellsberg held a high-level government security clearance at the time he leaked the documents to the media and had previously worked at the Pentagon under then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

The treatment of Ellsberg–who was made Time magazine Man of the Year in 1971–is instructive as a parallel to Manning because like Manning, Ellsberg was arrested and charged under the same Espionage Act of 1917 that the Obama Administration has employed against Manning.

Ellsberg noted when he surrendered on June 28, 1971, “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could not longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”

Manning has made several similar statements. Prior to his arrest Manning wrote how he had begun to realize that he was, “I was actively involved in something I was completely against.”

At his preliminary hearing Manning read from a 35-page prepared statement for over an hour, explaining that he had leaked the documents in question. But he also gave extended explanations for his reason for doing so.

The statement (the complete text of which can be read online) is smart, coherent, passionate and declarative. Manning states, for example, “I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure-cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. After the release, I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public. As I hoped, others were just as troubled, if not more troubled, than me by what they saw.”

Manning’s primary rationale, however, was transparency. He simply did not think what the U.S. was doing was right and thought the public should know what was being done in their name and without their knowledge.

Manning has asked that his trial be conducted solely by the judge who presided at his preliminary hearing, Colonel Denise Lind. There will not be the military equivalent of a jury.

Lind has already proven some level of fairness in her handling of Manning’s case. She ruled that any sentence should be reduced by 112 days because of the detention conditions under which he was held. Those were named by the UN Special Rapporteur as torture,”cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

The Manning trial is expected to take between two and three months and the prosecution intends to call close to 150 witnesses.

President Obama has already declared Manning guilty, stating unequivocally that he “broke the law,” convicting Manning before he has even been tried.

And a new documentary, “We Steal Secrets,” by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, provides a nice, creepy bolster for the “Manning is deviant” perspective both the Obama Administration and the mainstream media have taken. Manning is presented by Gibney as a confused queer who doesn’t know from one day to the next whether he’s gay or a woman. The film positions Manning as addled by hormones.

The film also reinforces the Obama Administration’s position that whistle blowing is wrong. Even though candidate Obama promised to support whistleblowers as well as provide a transparent government. In 2008 Obama said there was nothing more important than brave men and women willing to risk everything to bring the truth to the American people.

But now Obama wants life in prison for Manning–a whistle blower of the very stripe he lauded a few years ago. The recent revelations about the Obama DOJ spying on reporters like FOX’s James Rosen and the Associated Press clarify why Americans are lucky that Manning let us see what our own government would not.

With the trial, Manning begins a literal fight for his life with the deck stacked against him. Will he–can he–get a fair trial? That may be solely up to Col. Lind. The President, his DOJ and the mainstream media seem to have already convicted Manning and done everything possible to silence the press that would publish the facts of his story.

 

this article originally appeared in The Advocate Magazine 

 

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OBITUARY AS HISTORY: The Lost Lives of Dead Queers

Jun 5th, 2013
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Memorial Day always makes me sad. So many losses to remember.

I take my copy of the war poems of Wilfred Owen from its shelf. World War I–the first “modern” war–seems ineffably tragic as an entire generation of young English men perished in ways ever-more-ghastly than in previous wars, thanks to the advent of bombs, aerial attacks and mustard gas.

Owen was killed just one week before the end of the war–November 4, 1918. He was 25.

I love Owen’s poetry. It’s maddening that there’s not more of it. I am compelled by the horrifying intensity of the war imagery, the undertone of homoeroticism, the harsh hint of looming tragedy, the knowledge of encroaching death.

There is this:

[I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell],
Like a Sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendor burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
In different skies. –”I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson Deepen As It Fell”

 

It’s a poem that could–almost–as easily be about a lost lover, as of a soldier lost to war. But Owen began the war with this opening salvo in his poem “1914″:

War broke: and now the Winter of the world
With perishing great darkness closes in

And at war’s end, just before Owen’s own death, there is a grim tale, “Disabled,” of a soldier still in his teens, a rugby star who

sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow.

The soldier’s literal youth remains, but not really, because now he’s something else, and people turn away. They don’t want to see what’s left of him, because, as Owen writes elsewhere,

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy

It’s painful, reading these poems that just get better and better as Owen nears his death. Because he does die, in what fellow war poet Rupert Brooke might call “the full flower of his youth.” And so we never get to see what comes next.

What would have come next, could have been the poetry of another W.H.Auden–a vibrantly strong gay voice still speaking out against war (as Auden did in the 1930s and Owen himself did from the very trenches of that earlier war)in a series of brilliant poems, but with the experience of war behind him as well as the experience of the rush of queer youth in war-time. Owen would have been a majestic poet. If this was his work at 25, imagine his work at 40 and 50 and beyond.

But we’ll never know any of that, because Owen is lost to us.

And Owen is not just lost to us due to his tragically youthful dying, but because his family, intent on protecting his reputation and their own, burned and destroyed his papers, his letters, his journals after he was killed in the war.

I want to know what was written there–what more there was that told us of a young gay life driven by the perils of wartime. I want to know if he did indeed have an affair with the older poet Siegfried Sassoon when he met him as they both recuperated from the war between shellings. I want to know if he was involved with Oscar Wilde’s “friend” Robbie Ross, to whom he’d been introduced by Sassoon, or if he’d dallied with Edith Sitwell’s brother Osbert whom he also met through Sassoon. Or if that Scottish writer and Proust translator C.K.Scott-Moncrieff was in fact his lover just before he went back to the front.

All of this is lost to us.

In the April 15 issue of The New Yorker, Susan Faludi wrote a much-criticized piece on New York Radical Feminists co-founder and lesbian/feminist activist, Shulamith Firestone, who died recently under extreme circumstances in her Manhattan apartment. She was 67 at her death.

A life-long schizophrenic, Firestone, author of one of the most important books of modern Second-Wave feminism (in fact it was she who coined that term, “Second Wave”), “The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution,” had apparently been dead for upwards of a week before she was found. She had suffered from severe mental illness for years, as Faludi details.

I was deeply moved by Faludi’s piece, which depicted Firestone’s flaring intellect, ferocious activism and long, reclusive decline. Firestone was a radical feminist activist of the sort we can barely imagine in 2013, feminism has become such a degraded concept. But she was to feminist theory as Wilfred Owen was to the grim poetics of war.

Firestone was unequivocal in her scathing deconstruction of the role of women in patriarchal society. She wrote, “(Male) culture was (and is) parasitical, feeding on the emotional strength of women without reciprocity.”

Compare that statement to the self-reflective apologetic parsing of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” where women’s inculcated behavior is commented upon as if it has no context of oppression.

Firestone was writing out oppression and it was vivid and uncompromising–just as Owen’s stark imagery brought us right up into the trenches and also into the legless post-war misery.

Owen and Firestone were both 25 when they wrote their critically important work. Their visceral, fever-pitch writing can be categorized as genius. But their ends were very different.

Faludi was criticized for saying too much about Firestone, but is that not the role of the obituary writer? Susan Brownmiller, feminist author and co-founder of New York Radical Feminists (which went on after Firestone left), accused Faludi of mining the tragic circumstances of Firestone’s death to gain personal attention. But what I read in Faludi’s piece was a history of a woman who led and also symbolized a movement. There was also the delineating of all the ways a life can go awry when activism is the locus of one’s life and exterior pressures are such that one has to either withdraw or crack. Alas, Firestone did both.

I’ve written tributes and obituaries for numerous writers over the years. Some I have known well, others I have only known through their work. Like almost everyone who didn’t know her well (and few did, in the last 30 years of her life), I hadn’t known Firestone had died until I read Faludi’s piece. I was shocked by both her death and the manner of it. The last five or six obituaries I have written were of men and women who had died in their 80s–full lives lived. As Faludi details it, that’s not what happened to Firestone. Her life stopped, rather than ended.

Not all of us get that full life we all hope for. Owen certainly didn’t. The constraints of mental illness kept Firestone from pursuing the life of an intellectual and activist theorist that she was–but Faludi’s re-telling of her story reminds us of her importance. I still remember reading Firestone’s treatise as a teenager and then later, in a college course. I have never read a more revolutionary book. Faludi’s obituary made me take it out again and re-read it, made me re-visit the radical feminism of the 1970s.

Firestone wrote, “A revolutionary in every bedroom cannot fail to shake up the status quo. Feminism, when it truly achieves its goals, will crack through the most basic structures of our society.”

She also noted that “In the radical feminist view, the new feminism is not just the revival of a serious political movement for social equality. It is the second wave of the most important revolution in history.”

But perhaps most radical of all, Firestone wrote, “The end goal of the feminist revolution is the elimination of the sex distinction itself.”

The impact of obituaries for those relegated to the margins of mainstream society cannot be overstated because they are histories. Faludi’s obituary of Firestone is also an obituary of radical New York feminism, if not Second-Wave feminism itself. It’s phenomenally compelling history.

But not all obituaries are written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. And some are not written at all.

May 11 marked the tenth anniversary of Sakia Gunn’s death.

Gunn’s name remains largely unknown, in part because we pick and choose who we memorialize and in doing so, the more marginalized one is in life, the less likely one is to be remembered in death.

I remember Sakia Gunn because I wrote about her when she died.

Sakia Gunn was a young butch African-American lesbian from Newark, New Jersey. I don’t know if she wrote poetry about the war she fought daily as a young black lesbian. I don’t know if she hoped feminism would eradicate gender difference. Her life was her poem and her death was her queer feminist manifesto.

Gunn was a casualty of war: the war against women and the war against lesbians. She was street harassed to death for proclaiming her lesbianism to a man who propositioned her and her girlfriend when they were waiting for a bus to go home after a night with friends in Greenwich Village.

The man, Richard McCullough, kept harassing Gunn until she told him to leave her alone, she was a lesbian and wasn’t interested. McCullough then stabbed her in the chest.

Gunn was murdered two weeks before her sixteenth birthday.

Gunn didn’t get much memorializing. Gunn was killed five years after Matthew Shepard’s grisly hate crime murder. There were close to 700 articles about Shepard’s death as well as nationwide candle-light vigils.

There were 21 articles about Gunn’s murder. No vigils.

Obituaries are histories. They memorialize our dead and bring them back to life. I had forgotten Firestone over the years. But reading Faludi’s long tribute to her reminded me of what that time was like, the fervid nature of early Second-Wave feminism and how it changed my own life and the lives of so many women around me.

Re-reading Owen’s poetry reminds me of how much we lose without concomitant histories; Faludi interviewed dozens of people who had known Firestone. But Owen’s family destroyed every detail of his life that wasn’t a poem. And so we will never know, for sure.

Just like we will never know for sure about Sakia Gunn. Because she was only 15, because she was black, because she was a lesbian, because she was just starting to live her real life, heading to the queer hangouts in Greenwich Village, feeling her strong butch self, details were scant about her. Unlike Shepard, her father wasn’t a diplomat, her mother wasn’t an activist. Keeping her legacy alive has been left to those of us who consider her female, of color life of equal importance.

Sakia Gunn’s murder told me a lot about her life. It tells me she fought. It tells me she made her voice heard. It tells me she wasn’t about pretense. It tells me she was brave. It tells me she died telling the truth about her life.

These three lives–and sadly violent deaths–remind us of why we need to take note of our dead, pay tribute to their lives, leave a lasting memorial. In many respects, obituaries are our only histories. In small-town newspaper where we read of someone survived by their longtime companion, this is the only notation of a queer life and death. For centuries that was the only thin marker of our queer lives.

Obituaries tell the story of a life, elucidating what we did and did not know. I knew about Firestone’s fierce intellect. I didn’t know about her shattered psyche. Brownmiller, in response to Faludi, noted, “You need nerves of steel to stay in for the long haul in a radical political movement.”

Firestone didn’t have those nerves. Gunn seemed to–but they killed her. Owen would have been 75 at Stonewall. Would he have been a revered poet, or a recluse like Taylor Mead, who died May 9 in Manhattan, his celebrated youth long-past?

Queer history is still nascent–there is so much still to record and report, so much that we have yet to discover and detail. I understand that Brownmiller thought it was too soon to memorialize Firestone. But I disagree. It’s never too soon, because details get forgotten, or worse, burned in the fireplace of someone else’s fear and shame.

Our lives are our story. Once we are gone, someone else must carrying on our legacy. Obituaries may read as mere notation or as thorough tribute. But without them and all they detail, we have no memory of our dead, and nothing upon which to build our history.

this column originally appeared in Lambda Literary Review

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