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Obama, in Oklahoma, Takes Reform Message to the Prison Cell Block

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A Secret Service police officer stands outside El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, the president will meet separately Thursday with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A Secret Service police officer stands outside El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

EL RENO, Okla. (New York Times) — They opened the door to Cell 123, and President Obama stared inside. In the space of 9 feet by 10 feet, he saw three bunks, a toilet with no seat, a night table with books, a small sink, prison clothes on a hook, some metal cabinets and the life he might have had.

In becoming the first occupant of his high office to visit a federal correctional facility, Mr. Obama could not help reflecting on what might have been. After all, as a young man, he smoked marijuana and tried cocaine. But he did not end up with a prison term lasting decades like some of the men who have occupied Cell 123.

As it turns out, Mr. Obama noted, there is a fine line between president and prisoner. “There but for the grace of God,” he said somberly after his tour. “And that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.”

In visiting the El Reno prison, Mr. Obama went where no president ever had before, both literally and perhaps even figuratively, hoping to build support for a bipartisan overhaul of America’s criminal justice system. While his predecessors worked to toughen life for criminals, Mr. Obama wants to make their conditions better.

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Community

Students, Community Organizations Ask Judge to Order Mental Health Services, Internet Access

Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

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Sigmund/Unsplash

Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

The May 3 request for immediate relief comes six months after the plaintiffs sued the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Now, they are seeking a preliminary injunction to force the state to respond. Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith has set June 4 for a hearing.

“The state cannot just write big checks and then say, ‘We’re not paying attention to what happens here,’” said Mark Rosenbaum, a directing attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. Public Counsel and the law firm Morrison and Foerster filed the lawsuit on behalf of 15 children and two organizations: The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition, which is based in Los Angeles. 

In their initial, 84-page filing, they claimed the state had shirked its responsibility to ensure that low-income Black and Latino children were receiving adequate distance learning, with computers and internet access the Legislature said all children were entitled to. Instead, they argued, children “lost precious months” of learning, falling further behind because of poor internet connections, malfunctioning computers and a lack of counseling and extra academic help.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic was unavoidable, these harms were not. Yet for most of this period, state officials constitutionally charged with ensuring that all of California’s children receive at least basic educational equality have remained on the sidelines,” the plaintiffs argued.

Angela J., of Oakland, whose three children are plaintiffs in the case, elaborated on the difficulties they encountered during a year under distance learning in a declaration filed with the latest plaintiffs’ motion. 

Although she is president of the PTA, her school has been uncommunicative and unresponsive to requests for technical help and lesson plans, she wrote. Her children are falling behind and “suffering emotionally,” she said. Her third-grade twins are supposed to be doing multiplication and division but are struggling with subtraction. “They are supposed to be able to write essays, but they can barely write two sentences.”

The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition have stepped in with technical help and support for hundreds of families that district schools should have provided, the plaintiffs’ motion said. The Community Coalition hired tutors and partnered with YMCA-Crenshaw to provide in-person learning pods with 100 laptops on site. The Oakland Reach hired 19 family liaisons, started a preschool literacy program and offered online enrichment programs for students.

Months passed, infection rates declined, schools made plans to reopen, and then in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature appropriated $6.6 billion in COVID-19 relief that school districts can put toward summer school, tutoring, mental health, teacher training and other academic supports. By June 1 — less than a month from now — districts and charter schools are required to complete a report, after consulting with parents and teachers, on how they plan to spend the money.

But the plaintiffs argue in their latest filing, “this funding comes with no oversight, assistance, or enforcement to ensure that the funds will be used properly to address the issues relating to digital devices, learning loss, and mental health support.” And there’s no requirement that districts begin this summer to address the harm that the most impacted students have felt, the statement said.“Schools are indeed ‘reopening’ to one degree or another, but absent a mandate that all students receive what they need to learn and to catch up, or any guidance from the State that would help them do so,” the filing said.

In a statement, California Department of Education spokesman Scott Roark acknowledged that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who “are vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities,” and cited the department’s work obtaining hundreds of thousands of computers, expanding internet access and providing guidance to educators on distance learning for highest-needs students.

“As we work to return children back to the classroom, we will maintain a laser focus on protecting the health and safety of our school communities while providing the supports needed to ensure learning continues and, where gaps persist, is improved,” the statement said.

In passing legislation accompanying the state budget last June, the Legislature laid out requirements for distance learning that school districts must meet to receive school funding. They included providing all students with access to a computer and the internet. 

Missing, however, was an enforcement requirement, like the monitoring that’s used to verify that students in low-income schools have textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified classroom teachers. That system was set up in 2004 through a settlement of Williams v. State of California, in which low-income families sued the state over its failure to assure safe and equitable conditions in schools.  

At the time, Rosenbaum was a lead attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, which brought the lawsuit with Public Advocates and other civil rights organizations.

Despite efforts by Thurmond and districts over the past year to get technology in place, Thurmond estimated in October that as many as 1 million students lacked devices or sufficient bandwidth to adequately participate in distance learning from home. Between federal and state funding, districts have plenty of money to buy computers, and the Legislature is considering several bills to fund internet access statewide (see here and here). 

They won’t solve the immediate challenge, but they could become relevant if there were to be a settlement in this case, as in the Williams lawsuit.

Among their requests, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to:

  • Determine which students lack devices and connectivity and ensure that districts immediately provide them;
  • Ensure that all students and teachers have access to adequate mental health supports;
  • Provide weekly outreach to families of all low-income Black or Latino students to aid in transitioning back to in-person learning through August 2022;
  • Provide a statewide plan to ensure that districts put in place programs to remedy the learning loss caused by remote learning.

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Activism

San Francisco Proposes Art Installation to Honor Black Lives, History of African Americans

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent.

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Dana King/ Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco, CA. – Mayor London N. Breed today announced the City of San Francisco is planning a new public art installation to honor Black lives and the history of African Americans. The installation is planned to be located in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse next month, in time for Juneteenth.

The installation, ‘Monumental Reckoning,’ by Bay Area sculptor Dana King, honors the first Africans stolen from their homeland and sold into chattel slavery in the New World. The installation consists of 350 sculptures representing the number of Africans initially forced onto the slave ship San Juan Bautista for a journey of death and suffering across the Atlantic in 1619. A handful of these original 350 ancestors became America’s first enslaved people.

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent. Protestors toppled the statue on Juneteenth 2020.

“The art and monuments that we choose to display in our city and the civic art that fills our public spaces must reflect the diversity of our community, and honor our history,” said Breed. “This powerful public art installation in Golden Gate Park will help us not only commemorate Juneteenth, but also serve as an example of how we can honor our past, no matter how painful, and reflect on the challenges that are still with us today.”

Monumental Reckoning would allow visitors to commune with the figures. The phrase “Lift Every Voice” would shine from atop the nearby Spreckels Temple of Music through a second, connected piece by Illuminate the Arts. These are the first three words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song written by civil rights champion James Weldon Johnson which was first performed in 1900—the same year the Spreckels Temple of Music opened. 

For more than a century, Johnson’s song of unity has been sung as the Black national anthem. U.S. Representative James Clyburn is currently leading an effort to have the song named America’s national hymn.

“I’m excited to see the new monument go up in Golden Gate Park to honor Black lives and the rich history of African Americans,” said Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton. “I think this is a perfect example of trying to right a wrong. Rather than uplifting individuals with oppressive histories, this is an opportunity to honor diversity and our community through public art.”

The installation was approved by both the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee this week. It is currently under review by the Planning Commission. “Lift Every Voice” will also need to be approved by the City’s Historical Preservation Committee before it can be installed. If approved, Monumental Reckoning would open to the public on June 19, or Juneteenth 2021, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. The art piece would remain in place through June 20, 2023.

“The memory of African descendants deserves to be told truthfully and publicly,” said King, Monumental Reckoning’s creator. “Monumental Reckoning fulfills both objectives with the installation of 350 ‘ancestors’ who will encircle the Francis Scott Key plinth in Golden Gate Park. The ancestors stand in judgement, holding history accountable to the terror inflicted on the first group of enslaved people brought here in 1619 to the last person sold to another, all victims of chattel slavery. Even though the business of enslavement ended long ago, it still resonates generationally for African Americans and forms the bedrock from which systems of oppression proliferate today.”

Fundraising, community outreach, and ongoing support for the installation is being provided by the Museum of the African Diaspora. Creative and programming support would be provided by The Black Woman is God, which is an annual group exhibition of Black women artists curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. The project celebrates Black women as essential to building a more just society and sustainable future and reclaims space historically denied to Black women artists.

“What Dana King’s powerful installation communicates and commemorates is a sober cultural gut-punch long overdue, and I hope it’s the beginning of many such visual testaments in the public realm that venerate the origin stories of our most marginalized and disenfranchised populations,” said Ralph Remington, San Francisco’s Director of Cultural Affairs. “We almost never see images of Black people represented in our public monuments, or in the American telling of history. So, it’s no surprise that in a society rooted in white supremacy, people of color remain invisible and undervalued in our mythology, symbols, architecture and national narrative. While the City examines the historic works in our Civic Art Collection and the future of monuments in San Francisco, this installation will help build and advance a discourse about who and what we venerate in our open spaces.”

 “We are incredibly proud to host this powerful piece,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “Monumental Reckoning prompts frank discussion about the legacy of slavery, while charting a course between past, present and future. We are grateful to have these crucial conversations in Golden Gate Park—a beloved public space that belongs to everyone.”

This story was produced by the San Francisco Mayor’s office.

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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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