jennifer's blog

Reasons to rethink the 'war on drugs' part 283749837

The Daily News today reports another awful twist to the ongoing saga of the abusive field Narcotics Field Unit.

Three women have come forward to say that they were sexually assaulted by an officer in that unit named Tolstoy (and Daily News calls to households involved in the unit's 2007 and 2008 raids found twelve women who told them of sexual misconduct by an officer). The women say that Tolstoy took them aside to a private enclosed space during raids at their homes, and assaulted them there where they were basically powerless.

As disturbing as that is, I was most struck by the treatment of two of the women by the Police Department. The article states,

Internal Affairs investigators had shown them a series of about 80 photographs of officers, some clearly dating back years, the women said.

The sheer number and outdated images made it impossible for them to identify Tolstoy, the women said.

"I felt like they were hiding him," Rodriguez said.

Gonzalez's attorney, Jeremy Ibrahim, a former city prosecutor, said that the typical number of images used in a photo array is seven.

"To show 80 photos that are outdated is not a legitimate investigative technique," said Ibrahim, who accompanied Gonzalez to Internal Affairs. "It's clearly unfair to the victim.

Step back and think about this for a second. What's the rationale for showing a ton of pictures in this situation? When these women came to give a complaint, the Department clearly had records showing who worked the raid. It's not some mystery that requires them to dig into the vaults for every possible image.

The women failed to make an ID through the police photo array, presumably damaging their complaints, but later immediately recognized Tolstoy when they saw the video of the unit robbing and vandalizing a West Oak Lane corner store released as part of the Daily News series.

"That's him," Rodriguez said, as she covered her mouth and sobbed the instant she saw Tolstoy on the screen.

"I'm 150 percent sure," she said. "I'll never forget that face. Never. I don't erase people's faces. Especially not that one."

Gonzalez, when she saw the video, was just as certain.

"Oh, my God, that's him," she cried, as soon as she saw Tolstoy on the video. "My heart is racing right now. Just to see him come through that door [on the video] like that makes me shake all over. It brings back a lot of bad memories."

Gonzalez recognized Tolstoy by voice alone. "That's him talking right now. I know it. It still disgusts me."

She said that after seeing the video she told the Special Victims Unit and Internal Affairs investigators that she had identified Tolstoy.

At one of these raids, police found three ounces of marijuana and a hunting rifle (case pending), at another 47 packets of cocaine (case pending, and the article implies that this may have been planted by the police), and at the third, a small amount of prescription pills (case pending). None of these three women assaulted were arrested in the raids, and none of them had prior criminal records. As we all know by now, the validity of many of these raids has been called into question and the FBI has come in to review the unit's activities.

On June 17th, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) is hosting a talk by Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. His talk is titled, "Is the War on Drugs Really Over?"

We are at a crucial moment: the Obama administration has indicated that they want to radically rethink the 'war on drugs', focusing on addiction treatment and away from the policies that have led to mass incarceration and further destruction of communities. And Pennsylvania has its own medical marijuana bill newly introduced by our representative Mark Cohen.

Nadelmann is an expert in this area, and this is a great chance to see him and learn about the need and prospects for drug policy reform. June 17th at 7:30 pm at 123 South Broad Street (the Justice Roberts Library). $10 for non-members.

TODAY! 'Employee Free Choice Act' Town Hall

Green Jobs, Good Jobs and the need to pass the Employee Free Choice Act

Town Hall Today at the Arch St Meeting House
6:30pm - 8:30pm

The Sierra Club and the Blue Green Alliance along with our partners in labor, faith and community groups are hosting a Town Hall meeting to discuss the importance of passing the Employee Free Choice Act and the impact it will have on Philadelphia’s diverse community and the Green Jobs of the future.

The Sierra Club and the Blue Green Alliance, along with all of our partners would love to have you there.

Thursday May 28, 2009, 6:30pm - 8:30pm

Arch Street Meeting House, 4th and Arch Sts., Philadelphia

Speakers include: State Rep Tony Paton Jr., Philadelphia CLUW President and AFSCME Health and Safety Director Kathy Black, Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter Chair Dennis Winter’s, Clean Air Council’s Katie Feeney, with more to confirm.

For more info email

Awful: Pennsylvania teenagers acquitted in the murder of an illegal immigrant

On May Day, a day that has been dedicated in recent years to organizing around immigrants' rights and solidarity,

An all-white jury on Friday acquitted two Pennsylvania teenagers of all serious charges against them stemming from the fatal beating of an illegal Mexican immigrant last summer.

That's the kind of sentence that sounds like some Bob Dylan lyric and not this state, in 2009. But it is. The article about the verdict is here and a post Helen Gym earlier wrote about the death of Luis Ramirez is here. And it's murder: every time I type 'beating' or 'fatal beating' or 'beating death' I think about how it's the fact that this happened in a place where the police waited for public pressure to bring any charges at all, where the white jury refused to convict on any serious charge--that's what keeps this a beating death and not murder in the newspaper headlines. It's a sad careful accuracy that reflects how in this community the death of an illegal person is not taken to be the death of a person.

It's hard to think of what else to say, but please think about donating or supporting the work of Juntos, Community Justice Project, Immigrant Solidarity Network, and others.

Something new in the DA race

Yesterday at City Hall, Seth Williams unveiled a policy paper that really makes me proud to support him. You can read it here.

In it, he pledges to use the DA's office to protect consumers against fraud and predatory business practices. He'd use a underutilized tool, the state Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (or "CPL"), which gives the DA the power to levy fines and penalties and ultimately shut down abusive businesses. Potentially, the DA can wield the same regulatory power as the state Attorney General.

This is a big deal. People in neighborhoods all over Philadelphia are victimized by scams and frauds, and only particularly large or widespread problems get the attention of the US Attorney or the State Attorney general, who must deal with severe resource constraints. But the DA is right here, already in these neighborhoods, and the CPL will allow them to quickly respond to problems with relatively low administrative costs (it's a civil tool with a lower burden of proof than a standard criminal fraud prosecution).

The plan also will build important ties between the DA, the community, other branches of government, and nonprofit legal services. There's a legacy of conflict from Lynn Abraham's tenure, which this plan will help wash away.

And since one of the most intractable problems in dealing with crime in Philadelphia is the lack of trust between many communities and law enforcement, this plan can start helping bridge that mistrust. That's crucial.

Mostly I am proud of the vision this plan reflects: justice isn't just retribution, justice is a process. The first line of the plan states,

"There is a clear and compelling link between financial stresses individuals face and crimes that are committed. If the City of Philadelphia is going to reduce crime -- and not just increase arrests and convictions -- it must do more to address the victimization of its residents by abusive business practices that can lead to crime, but ultimately weaken our community."

This is progressive thinking. It's thinking that acknowledges root causes, and sets out to do something about them. It's a vision of the DA's power that is constructive and not merely reactive. And I think it shows a very important humility that has been lacking from the DA for years now: dealing with crime is a difficult process of trying to piece together neighborhoods that are broken. It's a little bit of what Obama invoked in that now-old speech:

For alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief — I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper — that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.

And I'm glad there is some of that sensibility being brought into this election.

Eubanks and Roca for Judge - fundraiser May 6!

Benefit for Joyce Eubanks and Angeles Roca for Judge!

May 6, 2009 5:00 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.
The Law Firm of Lawrence Krasner
251 S. Camac St.
Philadelphia, PA

These women will be an asset to the bench when elected: Joyce Eubanks spent her career at the Public Defenders, defending the rights of marginalized people, and Angeles Roca ran a storefront practice at 7th and Girard, handling many difficult family law cases. We need women with their perspectives and experiences in the court system.

Twenty days left!: Seth Williams to announce new endorsements and policy tomorrow at City Hall

Tomorrow on the Fourth Floor of City Hall at 11AM, Seth Williams will be holding a pretty exciting press conference.

He'll announce the endorsement of important Philadelphia progressive groups spanning from gay rights to poor people's organizing: Liberty City Democratic Club, ACORN, Americans for Democratic Action, Neighborhood Networks, and Philly for Change. These endorsements are a major vote of confidence from a lot of different and important constituencies, and I think reflect Seth's attention to how crime and the criminal justice system affect people's lives in different ways beyond a simple binary of victim and perpetrator.

He'll also unveil a new policy paper, dealing with economic justice. The proposal shows a great vision of how the DA's office has power to positively affect the lives of many more Philadelphians than it has in the past.

Also: stay tuned for another YPP-sponsored benefit for Seth coming up on May 8th. Email to get on the host committee!

National Constitution Center as Colosseum: Notes from Last Night's DA Candidates' Debate

Well, I left last night's DA candidates' debate wanting to vote for Dave Davies. Just kidding (mostly). I left convinced that Seth is the clear best choice.

On one hand, that's no great shock. I've been committed to Seth's campaign since the beginning. But the reasons I think I made the right choice were clear last night.

As many people have noted, the candidates (with one glaring cop-loving and judge-baiting exception) have adopted a lot of Seth's progressive rhetoric. In part, that's great: for my whole conscious life we've lived with a DA who can't see past the death penalty, and it is truly great to see the city collectively recognizing that we can't kill or jail our way out of our problems with crime and social breakdown.

But it makes it harder to draw lines between the candidates when they all throw out "community courts," or "community-based prosecution," or "smarter not tougher." The most frustrating moments were those when everyone (save McCaffery) throws out one of these ideas but aren't forced to say what it actually means or, more importantly, how they'd implement the policy change. This is crucial when it comes to something everyone (except McCaffery) agrees on: get the right people in jail and the wrong people OUT. There's been some level of awareness that this needs to happen in Philadelphia for a while, not least because of the federal court order telling us. But the problem is in making it happen.

I'll throw out some of the high and low points below, but I want to state clearly that this is a crucially important decision for all of us, and we have to put someone in office who we can trust to do the right thing, to act in the interest of blind justice for all citizens, high or low. Too often last night the policy seemed beside the point, as everyone recognized that they were playing a political game (I see your labor unions and raise you the black clergy and the FOP). Seth at times sounded like he knew you should vote for him, because he was clearly the best, and you were supposed to just figure that out. None of these guys should act so entitled.

But Seth is the only one of these men who appears to have an abiding, long-term interest in the criminal justice system and in figuring out how to fix its many flaws. And he's the only one who really voices a personal stake in, and passion for, using the power of the DA's office for good. That's what puts meaning behind the progressive catch-phrases.

So here are my notes on the debate, and I would be delighted if anyone else had different impressions they could put up.

1. I love Dave Davies. My number one favorite moment: when he forced everyone to say right then and there whether they would pledge as DA to never campaign on behalf of other politicians. After the half-awkward answers, Davies immediately says, 'actually, this is such a political position, prove to me you have the political skills to succeed at it.'

2. I love Dave Davies part 2. This could also be titled, Dave Davies clearly reads YPP. Davies' first real round of questions forced everyone to answer for their worst bit of publicity. For Michael Turner (who was generally very well spoken and who appeared well-meaning), Davies asked him if the fact that he left his short time at the DA's office for a civil career defending large companies against plaintiffs claiming personal injuries due to asbestos didn't, well, maybe raise questions about Turner's sense of public service.

3. McCaffery really loves the police and his entire lengthy family history. And he is still trotting out his big plan to create a website in order to shame lazy judges. Aside from some recognition of the particular problems posed by drug addiction in the criminal justice system, McCaffery was the only candidate that did not adopt any progressive stance on administering the DA's office. In fact, when Davies asked each man to say what they would change from the old system, McCaffery, after an encomium to Lynne Abraham, said that he would not substantially change anything (except to shift slightly more resources to cracking down on juvenile crime through truancy laws, great) because she was just such a perfect DA.

4. Grady is a dude who owns his past: "Why say alleged? I did it. I punched him." His heart really seemed in the right place, but he seemed kind of, um, intense and barely contained at times. It's not his fault that he has to lean down and forward to get to the microphone, but the direct-eye-contact closing statement was kind of intimidating, like something from a gangster movie.

More seriously, Grady did seem to deeply feel the issues facing the DA (check out this article he wrote about his experiences campaigning). But when he told us all at the end of his closing to consider his background as showing he was clearly the most qualified, that seemed to come out of nowhere, as it is not at all clear to me that he has the experience to make him ready to take on that office. I hope he channels his passions into other forms of public service after all this.

5. I spoke about why I left the debate thinking Seth was the clear choice. But Davies (validly) and McCaffery (dishonestly) touched on the accounting issues in the background of the ballot challenge. Davies said that the Daily News investigation of Seth's finances showed no evidence of self-dealing, but that there was what could be phrased 'an accounting mess.' He asked whether this cast doubt on Seth's ability to manage an office and budget the size of the DA's. Seth stumbled in answering, first with a flat joke ("I'm not running for controller") and then by general denial. Seth and the campaign need to continue to take responsibility for sloppy accounting practices and simply do a good job going forward: all on-time filings, all expenses neatly accounted for.

McCaffery's claim that they challenged Seth to make him return money to the campaign that he or family members had gotten as unreported 'salary' was shameful, since after everything that claim is still completely unsubstantiated, and it is a critically serious charge.

6. When asked about their stance on the use of statistical risk analysis methods in sentencing, a couple of the candidates were confused in their answers and conflated various policies and methods. However, it deeply disquiets me that only Dan McElhatton seemed to question at all the utility and basic fairness of these methods. The future DA must be scrupulously careful to balance cutting-edge social science methods with a commitment to basic constitutional rights, which include punishing people for the crime they commit, not who they are. I would like to hear a pledge that only evidence of past criminal activity and/or rehabilitation be used, and not factors related to age, race, gender, or economic background.

7. Hey, Seth promised to prosecute the priests.

Congratulations, Professor Pritchett, I mean, Chancellor Pritchett is reporting that Rutgers Camden will name Wendell Pritchett it's new Chancellor. Congratulations!

As we mentioned when Wendell Pritchett took leave from Penn Law School to serve as Mayor Nutter's Director of Policy, he brings both administrative skills and a deep and ethical engagement with fair housing, redevelopment, and a wide range of urban issues.

Now he'll be running an important university in one of the poorest cities in the country. It's a pretty incredible match.

'Secret History: The Philadelphia Story'

The magical Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia has a show running this weekend at the Painted Bride Arts Center--and tickets are available at half price through the Philly Fun Guide, just $5-7.50 (code: villagefun).

This oral history production, part of Ping Chong & Company's 'Undesirable Elements' series, explores the first-hand experiences of urban and suburban teenagers living in the Greater Philadelphia Region and how violence has shaped their lives. Individual histories are interwoven into a script that is performed by the actual teens, giving voice to personal stories too often left unspoken. The Village of Arts and Humanities has partnered with People’s Light & Theatre in the selection of students for this project.

I spent afternoons one year in college doing homework with kids up there (I had this one craaaazy professor--hi Professor Newman! you are the best--who had us connecting William Blake and the rise of market capitalism in 18th century London with contemporary Philadelphia), and it's hard to even say how cool it is. Kids gathering together and learning to dance and write and make things, cleared lots and fields with eerie beautiful mosaic angels staring down, and an ever-expanding cluster of reclaimed properties and spaces. Definitely a show to make it out to, and listen hard to.

The strong mayor could get stronger: Council to hear bill expanding mayor's emergency powers tomorrow

A City Council committee is set tomorrow to hear a proposed bill expanding the Mayor's power to declare states of emergency.

The idea that the mayor could declare 'public health' emergencies in gun-violence-plagued neighborhoods--and use those emergency declarations to limit free movement and impose curfews--was an innovation of Michael Nutter the mayoral candidate.

The idea was met with varied response: some wanted anything done that could increase safety, others saw huge opportunity for abuse and a further widening of the distrust that separates the police from the communities that they need to serve.

Aside from that, local civil rights lawyers were sure it was probably unconstitutional. Emergency declarations are usually based on civil disorder that is temporary and fixed: not ongoing and diffuse. The couple mayors around the country who tried lost in court. And recent experiments with similar aggressive checkpoint-style policing in the high-crime Trinidad neighborhood of Washington DC were met with community fury and yet didn't even net many useful arrests.

But then the idea to try something like this here was basically dropped. Ramsey came on to the scene and quietly brushed all emergency talk aside, saying that the police had the tools they needed and just had to get back to basic police work.

Nonetheless, tomorrow City Council is hearing a bill introduced by Donna Reed Miller expanding the mayor's emergency powers:

Bill 080795 State of Emergency

There are several worrying things in this bill:

What constitutes an emergency? The traditional definition, and that in the existing law, is "civil disturbance." But now civil disturbance is replaced by "emergency or other significant civil disturbance," and emergency is defined as basically anything that could result in substantial harm to people or property. There's no clear trigger, no clear parameters.

And there is no real mechanism defining the duration of the emergency: the initial declaration lasts for two weeks, but can be indefinitely extended in two-week increments. It doesn't appear that anyone has to approve these extensions--the mayor may simply declare them.

Is this necessary? Do we really need new tools--tools that require that we trust the mayor, his administration, and the police to wield them carefully and fairly? Tools that in the future another mayor could easily abuse? Like Ramsey said when he first came to town, we have the tools we need, we just need to use them better.

Hear, hear: Judge Fox's Order

This is great, courageous stuff:

The decision to close these eleven branch libraries is more than a response to a financial crisis; it changes the very foundation of our City. Two of the libraries scheduled to close, Haddinton and Holmesburg, will result in a reversion of the property back to the original grantor because of deed restrictions. No one questions the economic crisis which has rocked both the City and the Nation. However, we are a Nation of hope. A "crisis" evokes something temporary. Defendants argued there were more than enough libraries in Philadelphia. "Philadelphia has more libraries than any other city in the country." Our library system is more than a century old yet in three short months an economic crisis results in permanently closing eleven branches. This court does not envy the Mayor and the tough decisions he has had to make in this financial crisis. Yet, as this court is bound to follow the law, so is the Mayor. The permanent closing of neighborhood branch libraries is changing the very structure of the Free Library of Philadelphia and not just responding to a "financial crisis."

The whole order is posted below the break.

Preliminary injunction = granted!!

Just in from the courthouse:

Judge Fox granted the preliminary injunction halting library closures and reportedly said that we are a strong city, will get through this budget crisis, and that the City must follow the law.

So now the mayor wants to save the libraries! --- by privatizing them

At a press conference this afternoon, Mayor Nutter said that the city wants to preserve all the essential functions of the 11 branch libraries slated for closure by privatizing them.

The city hopes to transfer management of 11 library branches scheduled to be closed in less than three days to private foundations, wealthy individuals, companies and community development corporations, Mayor Nutter said in a press conference today.

The specific services offered at each former library would vary from site to site depending on the sponsor, and Nutter said the city only has tentative agreements in place for five of the 11 branches.

It was not immediately clear which of the 11 branches are on track to be saved, and the mayor did not identify the organizations, companies and individuals who have stepped up to support.

But his hope is that, in time, each of the 11 libraries will be converted into community “knowledge centers” that offer similar or perhaps even superior services to those now available at the branches: retaining book collections, computers, and perhaps even trained (though not city employed) librarians.

Because privatizing essential government services has worked so well when we tried it in running the Iraq war, or closer to home, the school district.

And because in this economic climate CDCs, foundations, and wealthy individuals are swimming in so much more money than is the city (those high-rolling CDCs!). So we are going to hand off running these facilities to a collection of totally decentralized and unaccountable people, with no particular expertise in running libraries? We are so totally down the rabbit hole.

Elsewhere in wonderland this morning, testimony began in support of the suit to halt branch library closures. There was a packed room, and Judge Idee Fox gamely served as ringmaster.

Hearing the plaintiffs speak and be cross-examined underlined the surreality of this whole thing. I'm not just talking about when a woman stated that she is a poet and goes to the library to read poetry and take notes and write, and the city's lawyer opened cross-examination by demanding, "you said you are a poet, are you published anywhere?" Or when another woman had to carefully explain to the city's lawyer how her spinal condition meant that her ten-year-old son has to carry all the books they both check out, and since a more-distant library means fewer trips, that means fewer books they can read each week. Those were sadly comic moments.

But the city kept asking if people could use the internet 'in the same way' at the next-closest branch, or if they could meet their neighbors 'in a rec center' or 'walking along the street'. And the plaintiffs all calmly explained why that's just not the same thing. I felt bad for the city's attorneys, because this cannot be a fun position to defend.

Judge Fox seemed to get this, and apparently the mayor agrees. This afternoon at his press conference announcing the grand new privatization plan, Mayor Nutter said:

“Libraries are much more than repositories for books. We know this. They are the absolute complete nexus of community life.”

Tomorrow lawyers for the Council Representatives who have also filed suit to halt the closings will put on testimony, and the City will respond. Hearings begin at 9:30 am in courtroom 426, in City Hall.

Library suit filed!!

The Inquirer has a write-up.

No City Council members are plaintiffs, but the Philadelphia residents (library users all) who filed the complaint have other powerful allies.

AFSCME District Council 47, which represents municipal white- collar workers including library staff, is co-plaintiff. The Black Clergy of Philadelphia is not a plaintiff, but is supporting the lawsuit. The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs is veteran community services lawyer Irv Ackelsberg.

Nicely, the focus is on the plaintiffs--that is, on the impact of the proposed closings on them and so many other people in neighborhoods adjacent to the selected libraries.

The 28-page complaint marshals a host of arguments against closing the libraries and attacks the city's rationale for selecting the 11 branches that are to be shut down.

Much of the suit focuses on the direct impact to the plaintiffs, who include Tanya Westbrook of the Logan section.

A single mother with two school-age sons, Westbrook accompanied Ackelsberg to City Hall to file the lawsuit. She said that she and her children have relied on the Logan branch both for schoolwork and in her own attempts to find a new job.

Westbrook said it was the neighborhood's "greatest asset." She said it saddened her to hear that any libraries would be closing.

"It was even more disheartening to see, 'Oh, my God, they're closing our library.' It was so personal," Westbrook said.

Books for everyone: Buy, buy, buy, buy, buy

Robin's Bookstore is closing after over 70 years in business. It's a huge bummer in a season of bummers (we're having a real "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" fall, huh?).

Just last month we heard Larry Robin speak at the Free Library's Banned Books Week program, telling stories of him facing down the DA over threatened confiscations of Henry Miller books. Robin's is an institution, and provided a huge service to the city: it was central, was a general-purpose bookstore that also had a particularly deep selection of both fiction and nonfiction African-American titles, had books at a range of price levels, and was consistently supportive of progressive (and radical!) political activity.

I didn't actually believe it was closing when my sister's boyfriend told me at Thanksgiving. It seemed impossible when the store had weathered so much. But it seems like it's going to happen: books at 20% off now, going to 50% on January 5th, and the store closing on January 31st.

We all know that independent bookstores are barely hanging on. Amazon discounts are pretty huge. I buy some new hardbacks at a discount online during the year, and feel guilty about it. But at the holidays I go to Robin's and Joseph Fox and buy stacks of books at full price. I totally owe it to them for having great staff and displays that make me want ten times as many books as I came in for.

So: go to Robin's and buy holiday presents there. Buy piles of them. Stock up on children's books for the next ten birthdays of all the kids in your family. Etc. You might not be able to keep the store open, but you can help Larry Robin out just a bit after all the years the bookstore has been there for us.

And after the holidays please please please think twice before going to Barnes and Noble or Borders. There's Joseph Fox in Rittenhouse, probably the best-stocked bookstore I've ever been to and they'll order anything for you in a couple days. Bookhaven in Fairmount, with cats and endless corridors of every used book ever. Brickbat on Fourth and Bainbridge, a small selection of all interesting perfect books. Giovanni's Room on Pine Street, with great queer titles and an awesome kid's section. Wooden Shoe for radical literature and zines on Fifth above South. And more.

The story of Robin's is also the story of how if one person, one bookshop, doesn't stock things, you really might not be able to get them anywhere. It was true with now-classics that were once subject to obscenity prosecution. It's been true more recently with some of the African-American and political titles Robin's carried. And it's true about the many books filling up our independent bookstores that don't warrant shelf space at the chains.

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