Like so many of the post-Katrina initiatives, the Women's Health and Justice Initiative, an organization fighting for reproductive justice in New Orleans, is the product of the immense dedication, creativity, and energy of a small group of individuals.
On Monday, May 26th, the Wanderlust Bicycle Caravan rolled out of New
Orleans, multicolored flags waving in the wind as passersby look on,
awestruck at the sight of so many women on bikes. We wound our way
through neighborhoods still devastated from Katrina, riding to bear
witness to the beauty and resilience of the New Orleanians who are
fighting to save their city, to recreate their communities in the face
of overwhelming odds and government inaction. The story of the
recovery from Katrina, and the lack thereof, has been well documented,
but there was something profoundly moving about standing in the empty
field next to the canal where three years ago, the levee broke,
unleashing utter devastation on the Lower Ninth Ward. Even today, it
is virtually empty. We were told that roughly 10% of the residents of
the Lower Ninth have returned, and it is like a ghost town, new hopeful
houses sitting lonely on otherwise deserted blocks. A few blocks in
from the levee the Common Ground Collective has a big sign outside that
says something along the lines of "Shame on you, tourists. Get out of
your cars and help."
We talked that evening about feeling called out by that sign,
feeling shamed. But we also talked about the importance of bearing
witness, of carrying the story of New Orleans to the people who think
that Katrina is over. If I learned anything from being in New Orleans,
it is that Katrina is still very much alive and present in the lives of
every single resident, whether they’ve lived there their whole lives or
whether they came down to help after the storm and fell in love with
the singular, joyful beauty of New Orleans. Leg 1 of the Wanderlust Tour!
In some ways, Katrina revealed stark inequalities that existed
covertly before the storm, and the recovery has led to some amazing
initiatives. The Women’s Health and Justice Initiative is a women of
color led reproductive justice organization that provides trainings,
does community organizing, and provides reproductive health care
services through the New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic. Like so many of
the post-Katrina initiatives, the WHJI is the product of the immense
dedication, creativity, and energy of a small group of individuals. In
the words of Shana Griffin, the Interim Director of the WHJI:
The purpose of the clinic is to improve low-income and uninsured
women of color’s healthcare access and to promote a holistic and
community-centered approach to primary healthcare. At the same time
we look at the oppression and violence that have impact on the health
status of women and to improve those situations. It’s more than
providing healthcare services, it’s also about challenging the
conditions that limit our access and our opportunities, such as
poverty, racism, gender-based violence, imperialism, and war. We see it
as more than just a clinic — we want it to also be an organizing
center that can meet immediate needs while also working for racial,
gender, economic, and environmental justice. We see our clinic as a great opportunity to talk to people and
discuss why these services and this approach is needed. We have the
power to reinvent ourselves and create institutions that are equitable
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You can read the entire interview here. These initiatives are always in need of support, and you can find ways to support the Health Clinic and the WHJI here.
Orleans, the Wanderlust riders rode out to Mobile, Alabama, through the
place where the eye of the storm passed — our own small tornado of women on
bicycles. We’ve learned lots over the past four days about ourselves,
about traveling in a group, changing flat tires, not leaving cream
cheese over night, and believing the signs that say "bikes prohibited
in tunnels." That sign precipitated our first accident, when a front
tire eating grate loomed suddenly in front of us and we stopped short,
bikes flying in the air as riders tumbled on top of each other. Luck
was in our favor on so many levels – no one was badly injured, Becky
was driving the SAG wagon behind us and managed to not run over the
pile of bicycles, and the bike shop we went to to get the bikes fixed
happened to have a spare derailleur hanger to replace Elizabeth’s
cracked hanger, without which she could not have kept riding.
Right now we’re sitting on a dock stretched out over the Tensaw
River, at Hubbards Landing fish camp, and we plan to spend the day
building our community, strengthening our connections with each other
and sharing our stories. Last night we realized that we’ve been
spending so much time biking and eating that we haven’t had a lot of
time to just breathe, let alone get to know each other, so that’s what
today is for. To keep up with the Wanderlust ride on the road, you can
check out our blog at wanderlustwithrhonda.com.
Freddie Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Last year, Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers' trials have been completed without convictions.
The bench trial of Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking Baltimore Police Department officer involved in the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, began on Thursday, July 7. Rice faces involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment; the state dropped a misconduct charge after acknowledging Rice was not directly involved in Gray’s arrest. The closing arguments in his trial are scheduled for this Thursday; the judge is expected to share his verdict Monday.
The Rice trial started just as the public began grappling with the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—and the subsequent murder of five police officers at a Dallas protest.
Castile and Sterling, both Black men, died during encounters with police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, triggering nationwide protests against police brutality and implicit racial bias that have continued into this week.
And just like the days following Gray’s death, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook were flooded with images, videos, and hashtags demanding justice.
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Gray, 25, died from spinal cord injuries in April 2015, a week after police arrested and took him into custody. Activists and some Maryland legislators accused police of giving Gray an intentional “rough ride,” when inmates or persons in custody are transported in police vans without a seat belt and subjected to frantic driving, ultimately causing them injury. Last year, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby brought criminal charges against six of the officers involved with his arrest. Since then, three officers’ trials have been completed without convictions—and as activists on the ground in Baltimore wait for more verdicts, they are pushing for reforms and justice beyond the courtroom.
The first police trial, which involved charges against Officer William Porter of involuntary manslaughter, second-degree assault, reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office, ended in a mistrial in December 2015 after jurors failed to reach a verdict.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Barry Glenn Williams acquitted Officer Edward M. Nero of all charges in May. Mosby had charged Nero with misconduct, second-degree assault, and reckless endangerment for putting Gray into the police van without a seat belt.
But many viewed the trial of Caesar R. Goodson Jr., who drove the van, as the most critical of the six. Last month, Judge Williams announced that Goodson, too, had been acquitted of all charges—including second-degree depraved-heart murder, the most serious of those brought against the officers.
Kwame Rose, a Baltimore activist, told Rewire he was not surprised.
“The judicial system of America shows that police are never held accountable when it comes to the death of Black people,” said Rose, who was arrested in September and December during peaceful protests related to Gray’s death.
During Goodson’s trial, Williams said there were several “equally plausible scenarios,” that could have transpired during Gray’s arrest. He also rejected the state’s argument that police intentionally gave Gray a “rough ride,”according to a New York Times account.
Ray Kelly, community relations director for the No Boundaries Coalition of West Baltimore grassroots group and a community interviewer for the West Baltimore Community Commission on Police Misconduct, said he was disappointed by the Goodson verdict. However, he noted that he was heartened by Mosby’s decision to bring criminal charges against the officers in the first place. “It’s a small change, but it is a change nonetheless,” Kelly said in a recent interview with Rewire.
In addition to the charges, Gray’s death eventually sparked a major “pattern or practice” investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Local activists, including the No Boundaries Coalition, which issued in March a 32-page report that detailed police misconduct in Baltimore and helped to trigger the DOJ, expected the findings of the DOJ investigation in late June.
However, the document has yet to be released, said Kelly, who is a native of the same West Baltimore neighborhood where Gray was detained.
Kelly is expecting a consent decree—similar to the ones in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio—and a continued partnership with federal officials in the near future.
For Kelly, the trials—and the lack of convictions—have proved what leaders in groups like the No Boundaries Coalition have been saying in their advocacy. One of those messages, Kelly said, is that the community should continue to focus less on the judicial process for theoretically punishing officers who have committed wrongdoing and more on initiating policy changes that combat over-policing.
Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots group, seemed to echo Kelly’s sentiment in a statement last month. Two days after the Goodson verdict, Baltimore Bloc activists said it was a reminder that the judicial system was not broken and was simply doing exactly what it is designed to do.
“To understand our lack of faith in the justice system, you must first recognize certain truths: the justice system works for police who both live in and out of the city; it works against Black people who come from disinvested, redlined Black communities; and it systematically ruins the lives of people like Keith Davis Jr., Tyrone West and Freddie Gray,” Baltimore Bloc leadership said, referencing two other Baltimore residents shot by police.
The American Civil Liberties Union, citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Illinois v. Wardlow, said in a May blog post that police had legal case for stopping and arresting Gray, but also said the action constituted racially biased policing and diminished rights for Black and Latino citizens.
“The result is standards of police conduct that are different in some places than other places. It is a powerful example of institutionalized and structural racism in which ostensibly race-neutral policies and practices create different outcomes for different racial groups,” ACLU leaders said.
Right before issuing its statement in May, ACLU released a briefing paper that said at least 21 individuals had been killed in police encounters across Maryland in 2015. Of those fatal encounters, which included Gray, 81 percent were Black and about half were unarmed.
The ACLU said it was impossible for the agency to determine whether any officers were disciplined for misconduct in most cases because the police refused to release crucial information to the public.
The ACLU began compiling information about police custody deaths after learning that Maryland officials were not tracking those cases. In 2015, state politicians passed a law mandating law enforcement agencies to report such data. The first set of statistics on police custody deaths is expected in October, according to the ACLU. It is unclear whether those will include reports of officer discipline.
In line with those efforts, activists across Maryland are working to bring forth more systemic changes that will eliminate over-policing and the lack of accountability that exist among police agencies.
Elizabeth Alex, the regional director for CASA Baltimore, a grassroots group that advocates on behalf of local, low-income immigrant communities, told Rewire many activists are spending less energy on reforming the judicial process to achieve police accountability.
“I think people are looking at alternative ways to hold officers and others accountable other than the court system,” Alex said.
Like the No Boundaries Coalition, CASA Baltimore is part of the Campaign for Justice, Safety & Jobs (CJSJ), a collective of more than 30 local community, policy, labor, faith, and civil rights groups that convened after Gray’s death. CJSJ members include groups like the local ACLU affiliate, Baltimore United for Change, and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.
CJSJ leaders said the Goodson verdict underlined the critical need for “deep behavioral change” in the Baltimore Police Department’s culture. For the past year, the group has pushed heavily for citizen representation on police trial boards that review police brutality cases. Those boards make decisions about disciplining officers. For example, the city’s police commissioner might decide to discipline or fire an officer; that officer could go to the trial board to appeal the decision.
This spring, recent Baltimore City mayoral candidate and Maryland Sen. Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore), helped pass an omnibus police accountability law, HB 1016. Part of that bill includes a change to Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights (LEOBR) giving local jurisdictions permission to allow voting citizens on police trial boards. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed the changes into law in May.
That change can only happen in Baltimore, however, if the Baltimore Fraternal Order of the Police union agrees to revise its contract with the city, according to WBAL TV. The agreement, which expired on June 30, currently does not allow citizen inclusion.
In light of the current stalled negotiations, Baltimore Bloc on July 5 demanded Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young instead introduce an amendment to the city charter to allow civilian participation on trial boards. If Young introduced the amendment before an August deadline, the question would make it onto the November ballot.
Kelly, in an interview with Rewire, cited some CJSJ members’ recent meeting with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis as a win for Baltimore citizens. During that meeting, held on June 29, Davis outlined some of his plans for implementing change on the police force and said he supported local citizens participating on police trial boards, Kelly said.
This year, the Baltimore Police Department has also implemented a new use-of-force policy. The policy emphasizes de-escalation and accountability and is the first rewrite of the policy since 2003, according to the Sun.
The ACLU has welcomed the policy as a step in the right direction, but said the new rules need significant improvements, according to the Sun.
For example, the policy requires reporting to the department when an officer flashes or points a weapon at a suspect without shooting; the data will be reviewed by the police commissioner and other city officials. However, it doesn’t require the same from officers who use deadly force.
Notably, the policy requires officers to call a medic if a person in custody requests medical assistance or shows signs that they need professional help. Gray had requested a medic, but officers were skeptical and didn’t call for help until he became unresponsive, according to various news reports.
Rose, who recently received legal assistance from the ACLU to fight criminal charges related to his arrests last year, said citizens should continue to demand accountability and “true transparency” from law enforcement.
In the meantime, with four trials—including Rice’s case—remaining and no convictions, many are looking to see if Mosby will change her prosecution strategy in the upcoming weeks. Roya Hanna, a former Baltimore prosecutor, has suggested Mosby showed poor judgment for charging the six officers without “adequate evidence,” according to the Sun.
Meanwhile, Baltimore City’s police union has urged Mosby to drop the remaining charges against officers.
The trial of Officer Garrett E. Miller is slated to begin July 27; Officer WilliamPorter, Sept. 6, and Sgt. Alicia D. White, Oct. 13. All officers charged pleaded not guilty.
Baltimore Bloc, citing its dissatisfaction with her performance thus far, demanded Mosby’s removal from office last month.
Kelly, who counts Baltimore Bloc among his allies, has a different outlook. Calling’s Mosby’s swift decision to charge the six officers last year “groundbreaking,” the Baltimore activist said the ongoing police trials are justified and help give attention to police misconduct.
“She should follow through on the charges ….We need that exposure,” Kelly said. “It keeps the debate open and sparks the conversation.”
People who work in New York and have a sick family member or a newborn child would be allowed to take paid time off under a bill passed Tuesday by the New York State Assembly.
The bill’s Democratic supporters believe that the legislation, which has long been in the works, may finally pass the Republican-controlled state senate and be sent to the governor’s desk.
A 03870, sponsored by Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Queens), would allow the state’s workers to take paid leave because of injury, sickness, or pregnancy. People benefiting from the program would receive up to two-thirds of their regular pay, which would be funded through a “disability benefits fund” and an employee contribution of 45 cents per week.
The bill was passed by a 97-48 vote, mostly along partisan lines with one Republican voting in favor and one Democrat voting against.
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Republicans were critical of the legislation and charged that people who work would abuse the benefit. Assemblyman Andy Goodell (R-Chautauqua) raised concerns that it may hurt companies and corporations.
“We need to be very careful that we don’t put ourselves in a situation where we punish those employers,” Goodell said, reported the Associated Press.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) last week appeared with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during the launch of the “Strong Families, Strong New York” campaign for paid family leave.
“There are times in life when family comes first—like when a child is born, a loved one is sick, or a parent is dying—and I believe everyone deserves the right to be there in those times,” Cuomo said, reported United Press International.
Cuomo during his state of the state address in January said that the legislature should “pass family leave this session,” and endorsed 12 weeks of paid family leave “paid for by employees.”
However, the legislation passed by the assembly differs from Cuomo’soriginal proposal. The governor’s plan would have provided workers with up to one-third of their regular pay, and be funded entirely by the workers through a weekly payroll deduction of 60 cents.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) told Politico New York in January that lawmakers would work to bring the bill closer to the governor’s proposal in the assembly.
“It’s a little different than what we believe paid family leave should be,” Heastie said. “That’s been a signature thing we’ve passed as a conference, and we’ll look to have it look like the way we prefer it to be.”
Amy Traub, senior policy analyst at Demos, a public policy organization, told the Public News Service that the vast majority of people who work in New York would benefit from paid family leave.
“There are 6.4 million New York workers who don’t receive paid family leave from their employers,” Traub said. “That’s a tremendous proportion of the state’s workforce that just don’t have this critical family support.”
Rhode Island, New Jersey, and California have implemented similar family leave laws to the proposal that was passed by New York Democrats, and those laws have greatly benefited people who work while having a minimum impact on businesses, according to a policy study co-authored by Traub.
The study found that when paid leave is available, mothers are less likely to drop out of the labor force when they have a baby, and that their family’s income increases. “We also find that paid leave improves child health outcomes, including reducing infant mortality rates, and it’s associated with better health outcomes among new mothers, as well,” Traub told the Public News Service.
People who work are guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid family leave under federal law.
Eric Williams, campaign director for the New York Paid Family Leave Insurance Campaign, told the Public News Service that there may be the votes to pass the bill in the the state senate, where the Republican majority has repeatedly blocked similar legislation.
“The majority leader and the labor chair said they’re open to seeing a paid family leave bill done,” Williams said. “So, we want to work with everybody and get a strong bill passed that works for all workers around the state.”
Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Suffolk County) told WRVOthat he’s open to discussing paid family leave and prefers Cuomo’s original proposal to have the program funded by people who work. “It’s a good start,” Flanagan said. “A lot of our members care very deeply about that.”
The bill has been referred to the New York State Senate Labor Committee, where it awaits further action.