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NYPD Officer Due in Court in Stairwell Shooting

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In this Jan. 29, 2015, file photo, Attorney Scott Rynecki, left, and Kimberly Ballinger, the domestic partner of Akai Gurley and mother of his daughter, hold a news conference in New York. Officer Peter Liang will appear in court Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in the November shooting death of Gurley, according to Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley's family. Liang, who fired into a darkened stairwell at a Brooklyn public housing complex, accidentally killing Gurley who had been waiting for an elevator, has been indicted in his death, a lawyer said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

In this Jan. 29, 2015, file photo, Attorney Scott Rynecki, left, and Kimberly Ballinger, the domestic partner of Akai Gurley and mother of his daughter, hold a news conference in New York. Officer Peter Liang will appear in court Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in the November shooting death of Gurley, according to Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley’s family. Liang, who fired into a darkened stairwell at a Brooklyn public housing complex, accidentally killing Gurley who had been waiting for an elevator, has been indicted in his death, a lawyer said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

COLLEEN LONG, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Criminal charges will be unsealed against a rookie police officer who fired into a darkened stairwell at a Brooklyn housing complex, accidentally killing a man who had been waiting for an elevator.

Officer Peter Liang was indicted by a grand jury in the November shooting death of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, according to Scott Rynecki, an attorney representing Gurley’s family, and Liang’s union. It wasn’t clear what charges the grand jury considered; it could be a misdemeanor official misconduct, or manslaughter, a felony. He was expected in court Wednesday afternoon.

Patrick J. Lynch, head of Liang’s union, said the officer, who has less than two years on the job, deserves due process.

“The fact that he was assigned to patrol one of the most dangerous housing projects in New York City must be considered among the circumstances of this tragic accident,” Lynch said.

The case was closely watched following the mass protests and calls for reform of the grand jury system nationwide after a Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man, and a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer in the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.

Gurley was black. Liang is Asian-American.

Rynecki said the shooting was unjustified, regardless of whether it was intentional. Gurley’s domestic partner and mother of his toddler daughter filed a notice of claim that she was planning to sue the city in his death.

“This is the first step for justice,” Rynecki said.

Liang and his partner were patrolling the Louis Pink Houses, a public housing development in Brooklyn’s gritty East New York neighborhood, on Nov. 20. The New York Police Department assigns rookie officers as reinforcements in parts of the city that have seen increases in crime. The housing project, where Gurley was getting his hair braided by a friend, had been the scene of a recent shooting, robberies and assaults.

The officers had descended onto an eighth-floor landing when, 14 steps away, Gurley and the woman opened a door into the seventh-floor landing after giving up their wait for the elevator so he could head to the lobby. The lights were burned out in the stairwell, leaving it “pitch black” and prompting both officers to use flashlights, police said after the shooting.

Liang, 27, for reasons unclear, also had his gun drawn, police said. He was about 10 feet from Gurley when, without a word and apparently by accident, he fired a shot, police said.

Gurley was struck in the chest. He made it down two flights of stairs after he was shot, but collapsed on the fifth-floor landing and lost consciousness, according to the woman, described as a both a friend and a girlfriend. He was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died, police said.

Police officials pieced together the details of the shooting from radio reports and interviews with the woman and the second officer, but they have not spoken to Liang and won’t until after the criminal proceedings are completed. Liang was placed on desk duty after the shooting and may be suspended without pay when the charges are unsealed.

The indictment comes at a time of uneasy peace between the nation’s largest police force and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s City Hall. A rift widened between the police and the mayor after the Garner grand jury’s decision when the police unions expressed outrage that de Blasio spoke of warning his own son, who is biracial, to be wary when dealing with police.

And when two officers were killed in an ambush weeks later, the police union leaders blamed de Blasio for fostering an anti-police atmosphere that they believed contributed to the slayings. Hundreds of officers repeatedly turned their backs on the mayor — including at the cops’ funerals — and participated in a work slowdown.

Tensions have eased somewhat in recent weeks, and de Blasio released a carefully worded statement late Tuesday after Liang’s indictment.

“No matter the specific charges, this case is an unspeakable tragedy for the Gurley family,” the mayor said. “We urge everyone to respect the judicial process as it unfolds.”

The last officer to be indicted in New York was Richard Haste indicted on a manslaughter charge in the death of Ramarley Graham on Feb. 2, 2012, in the Bronx after a suspected drug bust gone awry. The case was tossed on a technicality, and another grand jury declined to indict the officer.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire and Kiley Armstrong contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Activism

40 MLK Freedom Center Students Study Myth of 1st Thanksgiving, Role of Gratitude in Civil Rights and Social Change

Yolo County’s Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation members partnered with the Oakland-based Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center for its annual ‘Days of Gratitude’ this Thanksgiving weekend in Guinda, CA. From November 26-28, students from the San Francisco Bay Area, Yolo County, Sacramento and Kent and Tacoma, Washington, spent time with Yocha Dehe Language and History Associate, Dillon McKay and Cultural Resources Manager Laverne Bill to learn about the importance of Native Sovereignty and the role of cultural values in American democracy.

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Dillon McKay (in tan shirt wearing blue mask), Laverne Bill (in Blue shirt with abalone shell necklace), Martin Luther King Jr, Freedom Center Executive Director Dr. Roy D. Wilson (in black jacket and blue mask) with Freedom Center students.
Dillon McKay (in tan shirt wearing blue mask), Laverne Bill (in Blue shirt with abalone shell necklace), Martin Luther King Jr, Freedom Center Executive Director Dr. Roy D. Wilson (in black jacket and blue mask) with Freedom Center students.

3-Day Intensive with members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation called Days of Gratitude

By Scott Horton, communications manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center

While many Americans took a long weekend after enjoying a day and a meal with family and friends, 40 high school students got together to dig deep into understanding the myth of the Thanksgiving story and learn the truth about Native American history and culture from members of Yolo County’s Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

Yocha Dehe members partnered with the Oakland-based Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center for its annual ‘Days of Gratitude’ this Thanksgiving weekend in Guinda, CA. From November 26-28, students from the San Francisco Bay Area, Yolo County, Sacramento and Kent and Tacoma, Washington, spent time with Yocha Dehe Language and History Associate, Dillon McKay and Cultural Resources Manager Laverne Bill to learn about the importance of Native Sovereignty and the role of cultural values in American democracy.

McKay and Bill spoke to the group about many aspects of Yocha Dehe culture, including preservation of its language and oral history, governance, dance, food and agriculture, cultural resources/archaeological sites and the roles of tribal members in community.

Dillon emphasized that, “Our cultures may be diverse, but we share values. We all have one thing in common: we all want to make this a better place.”

Bill added, “We’re no longer living in a world where we are isolated from each other based on our color or our culture—we’re are evolving from that–and people need to understand each other. Your family and your community raised you to be who you are and to express yourself through your culture and heritage.”

The Freedom Center’s dynamic ‘Days of Gratitude’ course accomplishes three significant goals. First, students, staff and community members study the history of “Thanksgiving,” deconstructing false narratives. Secondly, the group studies Native Sovereignty and self-government. Thirdly, participants dig deep into the psychological, political, economic and cultural value of gratitude and particularly its fundamental role in the Civil Rights Movement and in making positive social change.

“We are honored, humbled and deeply grateful to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and to Dillon McKay and Laverne Bill,” said Dr. Roy Wilson, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center. “They generously shared their cultures, histories, traditions and explained the concept of native sovereignty and self-governance. We have much to learn as a democracy from their generational examples of sovereignty, community and civic engagement.”

In addition to spending November 26 with McKay and Bill, the students and staff studied the role of gratitude as a fundamental principle of self-transformation, and civic engagement as part of traditions of nonviolent social change and civil rights.

For more information about the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, visit www.mlkfreedomcenter.org.

Scott Horton is the communications manager for the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center.

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Activism

With Union Contract OK’d, Moe’s Books Workers Get Improved Wages, Benefits 

Despite some mixed feelings from workers about the owner’s reactions to the union, both workers and ownership expressed optimism about what they think the Moe’s Books union can do for the future of the four-story store with over 200,000 mostly used books. “If customers see the positive impact of shopping at independently owned stores that do all they can to support their workers,” said Moe’s Books owner, Doris Moskowitz, “then this agreement will only make Moe’s Books’ future stronger.”

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Moe’s Books Union members Phoebe Wong (left), Owen Hill (center), and Bradley Skaught (right) pose inside the Berkeley bookstore on November 30. Photo by Zack Haber.
Moe’s Books Union members Phoebe Wong (left), Owen Hill (center), and Bradley Skaught (right) pose inside the Berkeley bookstore on November 30. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

Workers at Moe’s Books in Berkeley agreed to their first union contract with store ownership on November 23. The agreement has given them a $20 minimum wage, dental insurance, more paid vacation days, a new procedure for filing grievances, and job security protections.

“I think this is a good, solid contract, and a good starting point for improving worker/owner relations,” said Owen Hill, who’s worked at Moe’s for about 35 years. “I wish we had this 10 years ago, but better late than never.”

Moe’s Books owner, Doris Moskowitz, told this publication she’s happy with the contract as well.

“I feel great about the agreement,” said Moskowitz. “Supporting our workers is part of Moe’s 60-year legacy, and we are proud to continue in that tradition.”

In early March about 95% of eligible Moe’s workers agreed to form a union by joining with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The move was part of a growth in bookstore unionization spurred by COVID-related issues.

Workers at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle and Bookshop Santa Cruz each formed unions in 2020. This year, bookstore unionization has expanded as workers at Printed Matter in New York City formed a union in October, while workers at three different Half Price Books locations in Minnesota are awaiting election results in mid-December to certify their unions.

Immediately after its formation, Moskowitz recognized Moe’s Books Union, but she had mixed feelings about it. In early April, she told Berkeleyside she “deeply respected” the workers’ decision to unionize but that the move had also left her “very sad and confused.” Following initial negotiations related to COVID safety measures, the union and Moskowitz began its first contract negotiations. In total, both sides came to 35 agreements during 16 bargaining sessions over eight months.

“The bargaining process was long, tiresome, and sometimes tense,” said Hill. “But mostly people were respectful and tried to come to an understanding.”

According to Bruce Valde, an organizer with the IWW who works with Moe’s Books Union, the eight months it took to agree to the contract was comparatively quick. In his experience, it usually takes workers and ownership a year to a year-and-a-half to agree to a first union contract. Valde called Moskowitz’s choice to immediately recognize the union “wise” and lauded the workers’ collaboration in clearly stating their requests.

“I think the workers diligence in actually forming our positions was excellent,” said Valde.

Since the new contract has passed, all union members will soon be getting a 10% raise in their salaries, or a $20 an hour wage if the 10% bump doesn’t already exceed that wage.

They’ll also get a 3% wage increase during the second and third year of the contract.

Additionally, the contract has stipulations related to respecting employees’ gender and gender expression. Harassment violations now specifically include ownership or management commenting in an ostracizing manner on workers’ gender expression, including clothing choices or hairstyles, or not making a concerted effort to correctly use workers’ pronouns.

While the union members unanimously agreed to the contract and Moskowitz told this publication “I feel like it is a win-win” situation, workers claimed along the way that the owner wasn’t always respectful of the union. In late September, union members and supporters held an informational picket at the store to support their demand for the $20 minimum wage that was eventually granted, but also to share information with the public about how they thought the owners were practicing “union busting.”

Around this time, the union filed unfair labor practice claims to the National Labor Relations Board, one of which was related to their accusation that Moskowitz was offering promotions for the sole purpose of removing people from the union by placing them in management positions.

Barry Bloom, who works as a book shipper, claimed Moskowitz asked him if he’d agree to be the supervisor of the shipping department, a position that would prevent him from joining in the union. He was the only member of the shipping department at the time, and she didn’t offer him a raise.

“My immediate reaction was to wonder ‘who would I be supervising?’” Bloom said. “I pretty much instantly saw it as a union-busting tactic.”

Moskowitz denied the accusation of union busting, saying, at the time “We have not made any job offer or offers of promotions in order to encourage any employee to break from their support of the union.”

Soon after agreeing to the new contract, Moskowitz taped a statement to the front window of the store, expressing that she was proud of the contract and Moe’s openness to organized labor. The statement, which was posted to Moe’s instagram and Facebook accounts, also encouraged other businesses, specifically large bookstores, to allow workplace organizing.

“If a small, independent used-book seller can accomplish this while keeping the doors open during a global pandemic,” the statement reads, “there is no reason for more lucrative companies to claim labor organizing will shut down their business or harm their employees.”

Two days after the statement appeared on Moe’s books social media sites, Moe’s Books union’s Twitter account put up a post stating “There’s a little revisionist history going on over at the boss’s social media site.”

While largely happy with the contract, Moe’s Books worker Phoebe Wong told this publication she’s uncomfortable with the owners’ actions immediately following its ratification.

“I’m really pleased and so proud of the work everyone put into doing the contract,” said Phoebe Wong. “But it’s been a long fight. And, to be honest, it makes me a little queasy to see ownership touting pride because it seems pretty dishonest considering the pushback we got.”

Despite some mixed feelings from workers about the owner’s reactions to the union, both workers and ownership expressed optimism about what they think the Moe’s Books union can do for the future of the four-story store with over 200,000 mostly used books.

“If customers see the positive impact of shopping at independently owned stores that do all they can to support their workers,” said Moskowitz, “then this agreement will only make Moe’s Books’ future stronger.”

“Moe’s now offers good wages, good benefits, and job protection,” said Hill. “I think we have a lot to offer to workers, and that we will be able to employ top quality people. I don’t think I’m being too dramatic when I say that the union saved the business.”

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Activism

Leaders Push Pardons, Payouts for “Port Chicago 50” Black Sailors U.S. Navy ‘Unjustly’ Punished

According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), authored by former state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport vessels loading ammunition bound for the war in the Pacific at the Port Chicago naval base on the Sacramento River in California were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.

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African American sailors of an ordnance battalion preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1943. The explosion occurred a year later. U.S. Navy photo.
African American sailors of an ordnance battalion preparing 5-inch shells for packing at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1943. The explosion occurred a year later. U.S. Navy photo.

By Antonio‌ ‌Ray‌ ‌Harvey‌ | California‌ ‌Black‌ ‌Media‌

A growing chorus of Black leaders and activists in California is calling on the federal government to pardon 50 Black sailors they allege the U.S. Navy wrongfully punished nearly 80 years ago.

Advocates are pushing for payments to the families of sailors who died in the 1944 explosion in Port Chicago that was the underlying cause for the Navy taking action against the servicemen.

They say the sailors’ families deserve more than an apology or posthumous pardon. They should get monetary compensation as well.

“The 50 African American sailors at Port Chicago who took a stand against discrimination should be remembered as heroes,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13).

In July of 1944, Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a few miles from the city of Martinez, was the scene of the largest explosion on the mainland of the United States. The blast shook the San Francisco Bay Area and the disturbance was felt as far away as Nevada.

About 320 sailors were killed instantly in the explosion. More than 200 of the midshipmen and commissioned officers were young African Americans.

Another 390 military and civilian personnel were injured, including 226 African American enlisted men. Only Black sailors were assigned the dangerous job of loading ammunition with no prior training in weapons handling.

“The Port Chicago tragedy is another painful reminder of how our nation must confront its history of systemic racism,” Lee said.

The people killed or injured in the disaster were loading highly explosive bombs, anti-submarine weapons, torpedoes, shells, and naval mines totaling 4,606 tons of ammunition onto the merchant ships SS Quinault Victory and SS E.A. Bryant.

According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), authored by former state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport vessels loading ammunition bound for the war in the Pacific at the Port Chicago naval base on the Sacramento River in California were suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.

“What I am pushing for is that everything of public record where Black folks were wronged needs to be righted,” Rev. Amos Brown, vice-chair of California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans, told California Black Media (CBM). Brown is the pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the city’s NAACP branch.

“We must do our due diligence and get all the facts on this explosion. It’s definitely a case where Black folks had been wronged and injured. There was a culture of negligence here and was prevalent when it came to Black folks,” Brown added.

The exact cause of the Port Chicago explosion is still unknown.

People familiar with the explosion say incidents leading up to the disaster unfolded in a culture rife with negligence and racism.

A string of injustices followed it, as well. After the explosion, the Black sailors working at Port Chicago were ordered to continue loading ships under the supervision of an all-white crew of officers. Many of the surviving Black sailors felt that their commanders had not addressed the safety problems that triggered the blast but still asked them to continue loading ammunition.

Soon, the Black sailors, who had been trained for U.S Navy combat, decided to stage a protest. Afraid their lives were at risk, they stopped working. In September 1944, the Navy charged 50 of the Port Chicago sailors with disobeying orders and initiating a mutiny.

A court-martial was convened to try the men who staged what was called “the largest mutiny in the history of the Navy.” It was held for several weeks on Treasure Island outside of San Francisco.

The Black sailors were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison. Forty-seven of the 50 sailors were released in January 1946 while the remaining three served additional months in incarceration.

Only one member of the Port Chicago 50, Freddie Meeks, received a Presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in December 1999. Meeks, who was discharged in 1946, passed away in 2003 in Los Angeles.

“I knew we had a good president and I figured he would do the right thing, and he did the right thing with this pardon,” Meeks, 80, said in an Associated Press article published Dec. 24, 1999. “I’m not bitter because it’s something happened so long ago, you just outlive it, that’s all.”

Brown, 80, says the Port Chicago disaster was the result of carelessness, disregard for humans’ safety, and racism.

“All of the evidence is there,” Brown told CBM, speaking via phone from his San Francisco home.

People’s World, a publication that provides news and analysis of labor and democratic movements, reported that discrimination even played out in the compensation awarded to the families of those killed.

The Navy paid out $5,000 to white families but only $3,000 to Black families, the 2009 article reported.

Brown made the statement about the Port Chicago incident after learning that a group of Democratic lawmakers is attempting to revive an effort to pay the families of Black service members who fought on behalf of the nation during World War II for benefits they were denied or barred from receiving.

The federal legislative effort would compensate surviving spouses and all living descendants of Black WWII veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth with housing and educational benefits through the Government Issue (GI) Bill.

The site of the disaster is now called the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, dedicated in 1994 to recognize the sailors who perished in the deadly blast. The memorial, managed by the National Park Service, is located at the Concord Naval Weapons Station near Concord.

Last summer, in honor of the 77th anniversary of the Port Chicago Disaster, U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) and Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11-Walnut Creek) introduced a House Resolution, recognizing the victims of the explosion.

The resolution called for the exoneration of the 50 African American sailors they say were unjustly court-martialed by the Navy.

“By calling for the exoneration of the Port Chicago 50, our resolution would bring justice to these sailors and recognize their courage as well as honor the service and sacrifice of the victims of this disaster,” DeSaulnier said.

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