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All Eyes Fixed on Ferguson’s April 7 Election

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In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo. after a grand jury's decision in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Newly released documents reveal that police planning for a grand jury announcement wanted Guard troops and armored Humvees stationed in the Ferguson neighborhood where Brown had been shot. But the records show the requests were not granted, because Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon preferred to use the Guard in a support role to police. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

In this Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, police officers watch protesters as smoke fills the streets in Ferguson, Mo. after a grand jury’s decision in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

 

By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – If the Black residents of Ferguson, Mo., want to radically reform the political climate that encouraged police to disproportionately ticket, fine and arrest them to collect revenue for the city coffers, they’ll have to do more than embrace non-violent acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protests – they will have to vote.

In the north St. Louis suburb that is nearly 70 percent Black, five of six city councilmembers are White and the mayor is a White Republican. The police force is almost 95 percent White.

On April 7, voters in Ferguson will go to the polls in a round of highly-anticipated elections for three out of the six of the city council seats.

“We are in the process now of preparing people to go to polls so that we can turn the tide of the council, where the real power lies in Ferguson,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., adding that four residents who have been actively involved in the protests are running for those three open seats.

The city council selects the city manager, who supervises every department in Ferguson. While Mayor James Knowles brings home $350 a month for serving as mayor of the St. Louis suburb. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Ferguson city manager, John Shaw’s annual salary soared to $120,000 after he was hired in 2007 at $85,000. Shaw resigned shortly after the release of two separate Justice Department reports, one of which painted him as one of the chief architects of a plan that turned the Ferguson police into collection agents for the city.

Getting voters to turn out will be an uphill battle for the activists that have led protests in Ferguson for more than 200 days since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager.

CNN reported that roughly 42 percent of Ferguson voters cast ballots during last November’s midterm elections and that only a few hundred residents had registered to vote between August 11 and October 8.

In 2013, even though Blacks account for nearly 70 percent of the population in Ferguson, Whites made up more than half of the Ferguson electorate, according to voter data analyzed by the Washington Post. Less than 20 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls when Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was elected in 2011.

Blackmon said that low voter turnout in local elections is not unique to Ferguson. Municipal elections are often held separately from national elections and in some jurisdictions party affiliation is left off of the ballot completely. Blackmon said that economic depravity and educational inequality have caused some to turn away from the political process.

Denise Lieberman, an attorney with the Advancement Project who also co-chairs the Don’t Shoot Coalition, a network of more than 50 diverse local organizations that came together in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, said that the epidemics of police violence and voter suppression add to that malaise.

Police investigating the shooting left Brown’s body in the middle of the road for more than four hours, then responded with military-style weapons and gear when residents began to protest. The events were chronicled on social media and transmitted across the world. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Ferguson to underscore the Justice Department’s commitment to investigate the shooting and the police response. Activists from Ferguson met with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Following two separate reports from the Justice Department, a slew of resignations including the city manager and the chief of police and the shootings of two police officers, with local elections rapidly approaching, activists say that protests will continue.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, the pastor of Christ the King Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., said that the activists were praying for the police and their families just like they continue to pray for the victims of police violence in the region.

“We must not let the rogue actions of a few derail the positive path that the Department of Justice has placed us on,” said Blackmon. “We will continue to pray with our feet until there is no more blood in the streets.”

After an extensive investigation into the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, the Justice Department released a report that stated, “Under the law, it was not unreasonable for Wilson to perceive that Brown posed a threat of serious physical harm, either to him or to others. When Brown turned around and moved toward Wilson, the applicable law and evidence do not support finding that Wilson was unreasonable in his fear that Brown would once again attempt to harm him and gain control of his gun.”

The report also stated that, “There are no credible witness accounts that state that Brown was clearly attempting to surrender when Wilson shot him,” and that witnesses who said that the teenager was trying to surrender when he was fatally shot, “could not be relied upon in a prosecution because they are irreconcilable with the physical evidence, inconsistent with the credible accounts of other eyewitnesses, inconsistent with the witness’s own prior statements, or in some instances, because the witnesses have acknowledged that their initial accounts were untrue.”

On the same day, the Justice Department also released a searing report that found Ferguson Police Department not only violated First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and federal statutory, law officials routinely urged Thomas Jackson, the police chief, to generate more revenue through law enforcement and disproportionately targeted discriminated African American residents for searches and use of excessive force.

Montague Simmons, the executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, a group founded in 1980 that advocates for a society free of exploitation and oppression, said that the realities exposed in the Justice Department’s report on the Ferguson police department are realities that community members have known for a very long time.

“Even with the findings being revealed, we have yet to really see clear action that there is going to be an effective transformation of the way that policing authorities are allowed to operate in our communities,” said Montague. “We’ve seen some resignations, but no real commitment toward change officially coming from Ferguson or the [surrounding] St. Louis County municipalities who are guilty of the same things.”

Rev. Osagyefo Sekou agreed.

Sekou of the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Mass., said that the events that occurred in Ferguson follow a familiar pattern of injustice that is happening around the country.

“Throughout the nation Black communities see Ferguson in their own experiences with police,” Sekou. “The resignations and recent shake ups in Ferguson are simply not enough. We need wholesale change.”

Lieberman said that Ferguson groups have had many meetings with members of the Justice Department and other members of the administration about necessary reforms for police departments, local communities and the statehouses.

Lieberman also led a group to Missouri’s statehouse to advocate for legislation that called for greater accountability for police actions and reporting of interactions with residents, greater civilian input and oversight for local police departments.

“This is a movement that is deeply-rooted in principles of nonviolent civil disobedience. And it works,” said Lieberman. “There is no indication that anything would be changing in Ferguson if it weren’t for the people that have taken to the streets for more than 200 days demanding change, forcing government actors to step in.”

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Activism

Greater Justice is Coming: Taking on Abusive and Deadly Policing with New DOJ Leadership

And I am not just talking about justice as an idea. I am talking about a Department of Justice that is willing to take on abusive policing and law enforcement agencies that are corrupted by racism.

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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta

Thanks to the voters who elected President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, we now have a Department of Justice that actually cares about justice.

And I am not just talking about justice as an idea. I am talking about a Department of Justice that is willing to take on abusive policing and law enforcement agencies that are corrupted by racism.

In his first month on the job, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland reversed a Trump-era policy that made it harder for the Justice Department to investigate police departments and hold them accountable for violating people’s civil rights.

And he was just getting started. In the past few weeks, the Justice Department has announced that it is starting an investigation of the police departments in Minneapolis—where George Floyd was murdered by former officer Derek Chauvin while other officers watched. The Minnesota AFL-CIO has called the city’s police union a white supremacist-led organization.

The Justice Department has also launched an investigation of policing practices in Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her own home.

These investigations will look at more than those individual killings. This kind of “patterns and practices” investigation looks at the big picture to determine whether and how a law enforcement agency is violating people’s civil rights. They are a way to evaluate—and do something about—the impact that systemic racism has in a police department and the communities it is supposed to serve.

“Patterns and practices” investigations can lead to consent decrees — agreements that require police departments to change the way they operate, with oversight from the Justice Department to make sure change actually happens.

In the past, Justice Department investigations and consent decrees have been important tools for getting violent police behavior under control and changing abusive cultures in out-of-control departments.

When the Trump Administration shut down this kind of investigation, it sent a signal to police departments that the Justice Department would look the other way rather than hold them responsible for misconduct. Of course, Trump himself repeatedly made it clear that he was not opposed to violent policing. In fact, he encouraged it.

Biden has spoken personally about the importance of ending police violence and reimagining public safety. He has called on Congress to pass the imperfect but important George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Another good sign was the announcement that the FBI is doing a civil rights investigation of the killing of Andrew Brown, Jr., who was shot in the back of the head by police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

All of these are important steps in protecting Americans, especially Black Americans, from abusive policing.

Biden has also spoken out against Republicans’ racist efforts to pass new voting restrictions in states all over the country. Biden has called those efforts “sick” and we can count on his Justice Department to do what they can to challenge voter suppression—even though right-wing justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have greatly weakened the tools that the Voting Rights Act gave the department to prevent Black voters from having their rights denied.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has just written the Arizona Senate president to raise concerns that a bogus “audit” of ballots from last year’s presidential election that is being conducted by private contractors from the so-called “Stop the Steal” movement could be violating the Voting Rights Act.

There are more signs that we can expect changes at the Justice Department. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who was recently confirmed by the U.S. Senate, started her career as a civil rights attorney by winning freedom for dozens of mostly Black people wrongly jailed in a small Texas town.   And the Senate should soon confirm Kristen Clarke to head the civil rights division, where she started her legal career investigating police conduct, hate crimes, and human trafficking.

Together with Biden and Garland, Gupta and Clarke will save lives, defend civil rights, and give millions of Americans hope that greater justice is coming.

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Bay Area

Asian/Black Relations Can Get Better Together During Heritage Month

Heritage months are ways to benchmark our progress and see what urgently needs to be done now. 

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Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

President Joe Biden has given May a new name. It’s no longer Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, as proclaimed by Obama in 2009.  And it’s definitely not Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, as proclaimed by Jimmy Carter in 1978. It’s Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Month, as proclaimed by Biden on the last day of April this year. 

That’s our new umbrella. A big one, incorporating everyone. From the East Bay’s Rocky Johnson, the father of Dwayne the Rock, an African American/Samoan American. To Vallejo’s Gabriella Sarmiento Wilson, a/k/a H.E.R., the African American Filipino of Grammy- Oscar-winning- songs fame.

Despite how huge the umbrella is incorporating more than 23 million people from more than 20 countries of origin, we are all American. And we’re the fastest-growing group in the nation, set to double in size, overtake the Latinx population and, with 46 million people, become the largest ethnic group in America by 2060. 

And so we’ve come to expect people seeking to divide us up. During a Zoom conference of attorneys general last week, a member of the audience had a question. “There seems to be an emphasis on attributing anti-Asian violence to white people,” said a white male to the panel. “And I’m just wondering if it is healthy to do that, or an effort to do that…when in some incidents, the attacks were committed by non-white people.”

Essentially, the man was saying, “Don’t blame white people,” implying that Blacks have often been perps in some high profile crimes against Asians. 

But it seemed more like a question to drive a wedge to break up our solidarity.

Fortunately, civil rights activists John Yang knew exactly how to answer that one. 

“Yes, there have been attacks on Asian Americans by people that are not white, no question about that,” he said. “But I would ask everyone to be really, really careful about what the actual statistics are, because the statistics show that the predominant number of people attacking Asians are Caucasian.” Then he referred to some high-profile cases in the Bay Area where Blacks attacked elderly Asians, once again pointing out it was the exception, not the norm.

It was the right response to avoid creating divisiveness and to let everyone know that the only way to end racism is to fight it together.

But he also said something that rang true to most Asian Americans. 

“Let’s be clear, there (are) elements of anti-Blackness in the Asian American community, that we do need to unlearn as well,” he said. Then he made it personal. “And that’s something that I’m going to call out on myself, and in our community, and we would ask everyone to do the same thing as we’re all learning together.”

It was a rare candid public moment that unveiled a sense of friction between Asian and Black communities that has existed since the days I wrote op-ed pieces in the 1990s in the Tribune. 

Heritage months are ways to benchmark our progress and see what urgently needs to be done now. 

Like the speaker said, a lot of it involves calling out where we have fallen short of the ideal.

That’s what Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month is really for—to learn the good, and unlearn the bad, together. 

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Bay Area

Newsom Announces New Round of Stimulus Checks, Budget Surplus of Nearly $76 Billion

If approved by the Legislature, the $600 payments announced Monday would go to income-eligible taxpayers who did not receive the first stimulus payment as well as additional $500 payments to families with dependents and families living in the state without legal permission.

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California residents who made up to $75,000 last year would be eligible for a $600 stimulus check under a budget proposal Gov. Gavin Newsom outlined Monday in Oakland.

     In a briefing at the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, Newsom said the state would spend some $12 billion on the payments, made possible by a projected general fund surplus of $75.7 billion. 

     Roughly $38 billion in total from that surplus would be used for pandemic relief programs like the stimulus checks, $5.2 billion to assist low-income renters pay off their back rent and $2 billion to help residents pay off unpaid utility bills. 

     “We think this is a significant, direct not only stimulus, but direct relief to millions and millions of Californians in need,” Newsom said.

     The state sent out initial $600 stimulus payments earlier this year as part of Newsom’s initial budget proposal in January.

     Those payments, which the Legislature approved in February, were targeted at residents who made less than $30,000 in 2020, received the California earned-income tax credit or filed their taxes with an Individual Tax Identification Number. 

     Just as with those initial payments, the $600 checks Newsom announced Monday would be dispersed to state residents regardless of their immigration status, as people living in the U.S. without legal permission were not eligible for the three federal stimulus payments issued over the last 15 months.

     If approved by the Legislature, the $600 payments announced Monday would go to income-eligible taxpayers who did not receive the first stimulus payment as well as additional $500 payments to families with dependents and families living in the state without legal permission.

     “I love saying Oakland, California, is the most unapologetic sanctuary city in America,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at the briefing. “I also commend Gov. Gavin Newsom for recognizing that our immigrant workers will be taken care of by the state of California.”

     The funding to assist with unpaid rent and utilities, Newsom said, is part of an effort to pay off all back rent owed in the state as a result of the pandemic. 

    The governor noted that the results of studies on the amount of back rent owed in the state have varied between $2.5 billion and north of $5 billion, but the proposal sets aside $5.2 billion for back rent out of “an abundance of caution.”

      Newsom is expected to tease out other portions of his May budget proposal revision this week before unveiling the full proposal on Friday.

     Newsom and the state legislature will then have until June 15 to approve the budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1. 

   

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