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Congressional Black Caucus Annual Leadership Conference Takes on HIV/AIDS

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By Candace Y.A. Montague, Special to the NNPA from the Black AIDS Institute –

All eyes were on Washington, D.C., as Black congressional representatives convened their 41st annual leadership conference. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) hosted four sessions that were noteworthy in the AIDS community.

HIV/AIDS at 30

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) hosted this discussion about the triumphs and trials that still exist as we mark the 30th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The panel, moderated by Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, strongly communicated the message that although we have made many strides in combating HIV and AIDS--including treatment advancements, lower rates of mother-to-child transmission, the end of the travel ban and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy--we have a long way to go to end the epidemic.

Panelist Roosevelt Mosby Jr., executive director of Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County (SMAAC) in California, said that we should start by acknowledging that HIV among young Black MSM is on the rise. "How can AIDS be stabilizing in the country but increasing among Black gay men?" he asked. "Something is wrong with that picture."

Other prominent obstacles include the high infection rate among Black women, stigma and access to affordable health care. "We have the tools to end AIDS," said Wilson. "The question is, will we use the tools effectively to end it?"

HIV Criminalization

The Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative sponsored a discussion about how people with HIV are often subjected to harsher punishment. In fact, 34 states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific statutes that criminalize HIV exposure and transmission. "The best this country can do is incarcerate people with a health condition," observed moderator Vanessa Johnson, executive vice president of the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA). "So I ask, 'What's going on?'"

Panelists suggested that austere punishments for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) provide bigots and the unenlightened with additional ways to discriminate against Blacks, gays and sex workers. Unfortunately, the knowledge that such penalties exist deters people from getting tested for HIV and having honest discussions with their partners about their sexual health.

In some jurisdictions, when a person is HIV positive, even no-risk contact such as biting, spitting and scratching can carry a heavier sentence than more severe criminal offenses do. Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, said that a more equal system must be implemented so that people serve the same amount of time regardless of HIV status.

From Civil Rights to LGBT Equality

The National Black Justice Coalition and National Education Association hosted a lively discussion about LGBT acceptance and issued a call for greater action nationwide against the bullying of gay youths. ESPN commentator L.Z. Granderson and Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh moderated the spirited and sometimes humorous discussion.

The panelists--including Cheryl Kilodavis, author of My Princess Boy--noted that family support is crucial for LGBT people. "We have a bigger problem than what someone is wearing or doing. This is about acceptance," Kilodavis said. Phill Wilson shared his own story about how difficult it was during his early 20s to reveal his sexual orientation to his parents just a few days before his wedding to a woman.

Bullying and transgender acceptance were critical topics during the discussion. Panelist Sirdeaner Walker's son Carl was bullied because students in his Springfield, Mass., school thought he was gay. Carl committed suicide a few days shy of his 12th birthday. "The schools need to communicate more with parents and especially the ones whose kids are doing the bullying," Walker said. "I did not know my son had been in a fight with some students until after his death."

Transgender citizens are often left off the LGBT-issue agenda. Valerie Spencer, founder of Transcend Empowerment Institute, discussed the difficulties of being a transgender female and said that transgender people deserve respect.

Reducing Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities

Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) hosted this session on the impact that race has upon health. Government agencies have implemented plans to address existing inequities. The Affordable Care Act and initiatives such as the National Strategy for Quality Improvement in Health Care and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy also offer signs of hope. But much needs to be done to ensure that all African Americans receive high-quality health care.

Panelists pointed out the lack of community health centers, poverty, reliance on public health insurance, poor preventive health services and lack of education as barriers to health care, and insisted that holding local and state representatives accountable will help ensure that racial health disparities will soon diminish.

Candace Y.A. Montague is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She covers HIV/AIDS news for the Black AIDS Weekly, the Examiner.com/dc and TheBody.com.

Caribbean Nations Press for Urgent International Economic Action

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By Tony Best, Special to the NNPA from the New York Carib News –

Even before the green shoots of economic recovery have had a chance to blossom the world is threatened with a double dip of recession and what’s needed is a new global financial system, better trade terms and a helping hand would pave the way for a return to economic prosperity in developing countries, especially those in the Caribbean. That’s how the island-nations and coastal states in Caricom want to see done globally. But as they grapple with the fallout from the international financial crisis, there is a another problem: threats to the environment which cry out for a sweeping program designed to reduce, if not eliminate the dangers traceable to climate change, such as sea-level rise, hurricanes, floods and broad threats to the environment.

Add those key crises to the list of major problems such poverty; sky-high energy and food prices; the growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases; the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli issue; a need to end the economic embargo against Cuba; the urgency of rebuilding of Haiti after last year’s devastating earthquake; curbing the flood of small arms and ammunition that’s fueling skyrocketing crime rates in developing countries and the Caribbean’s foreign policy priorities would become into sharp focus. Indeed, Caribbean states ranging from Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname, Grenada, Antigua & Barbuda, St. Vincent and Antigua to Barbados, St. Kitts-Nevis, Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas used the platform of the United Nations General Assembly to highlight those problems and emphasize the need for the international community to pay more attention to the major hurdles affecting the world’s smaller states.

Whether they were prime ministers, presidents or foreign ministers, Caricom officials argued for immediate action. “We must redouble our efforts to address the growing challenges of poverty and food insecurity, the rising costs of food and energy and climate change,” Dr. Ken Baugh, Jamaica’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs told the UN. “It is not good enough to engage in extensive deliberations, to make commitments and issuing Declarations without providing the means for their implementation, including financing, capacity building and technology transfer.” But of the issues which stand out, causing the most serious pain, the economic problems, plus the threat of increasing poverty stand out head and shoulders. Grenada is a case in point.

“The economic crisis continues to weigh heavily on Grenada; our population is experiencing high food and fuel prices; national revenues have decreased and debt continues to be high,” complained Tillman Thomas, the country’s leader. “The green shoots of recovery which others experience have not reached us. For us the economic crisis of 2009 still rages and we must find a way out of it.” Another Caribbean country which is at the economic crossroads is Suriname and its President Desire’ Delano Bouterse outlined the need for a complete restructuring of the international financial system, with the participation of all nations in the decision-making process. “The time has come to bring an end to the practice of decision-making by only a few countries with disastrous consequences for the majority of the peoples of the world,” was the way he put it. “For countries (such) as Suriname, with small open economies, it remains of vital importance to continue on the path of prudent macro-economic policies and economic diversification.”

Barbados couldn’t agree more.

The current economic downturn, said its Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, was a “painful reminder” of the inter-connected world in which people live. “When large economies like those of the United States and Europe are reeling, you may imagine the toll the worst crisis since the Great Depression is taking on small vulnerable societies like those that populate the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean,” said Stuart. The solution, he argued was the “urgent need for a new architecture of global finance that will render unlikely the prospect of our lurching from one crisis to another that avoids the massive social dislocations which we are now witnessing.” Jamaica listed a different pressing need, one that would alter the economic fortunes of the world’s developing lands.

It was the ability to “build capacities “through infrastructure development, institution building” while enhancing “productive capacity for competitiveness” and meeting international standards, said Dr. Baugh. For its part, St. Vincent & the Grenadines wants the UN General Assembly to play a more active role in the search for economic revitalization. In essence, said Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the island’s Minister, the world body must “re-assert its role in the response to the international economic crisis,” a debacle that was threatening, vulnerable and highly indebted middle income countries such as those in the Caribbean.

“We cannot afford to wait for the promise of incremental and cyclical upticks in the global economy,” said Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, the country’s Prime Minister, now in his third term in office after winning last year’s general election. “Small states need the fiscal and policy space to creatively spur development in ways that comply not with the checklists of discredited economic theorists, but with real-world particularities and people centered policies. International financial institutions have yet to grasp sufficiently this simple fact.” On Haiti, country after country urged donor nations and international institutions to do more to help rebuild the earthquake ravaged nation.

Like many other speakers from Caricom St. Kitts-Nevis’ Deputy Prime Minister, Sam Condor, called on the donor countries to fulfill “many goodwill pledges that have been made for assistance in the reconstruction efforts. Brent Symonette, Bahamas' Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, was equally emphatic in calling on the international community “to be generous in contributing to the Haitian Recovery Fund and very specifically we call on donor states to honor the pledges, some of which remain dishearteningly outstanding.” When the time came for Dr. Surujrattan Rambachan, Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, he spoke at great length about the need pressing regional and global issues to be “settled by peaceful means and for women to be given more opportunities to assume leadership position. He urged the UN to “continue to show leadership and work with the Arab League and other entities to resolve” the Middle East conflict, peacefully.

Death of Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai Recalls Kenya's Dismal Cancer Care

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

With the recent death of celebrated Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai from ovarian cancer, the country’s dismal record on cancer care stands out in harsh relief.

Despite rising numbers of cancer cases over the past 10 years, the country has no program or budget line for addressing the disease, according to a policy brief prepared this year. New cures and other improvements in the developed world are “yet to be realized” in Kenya, wrote Dr. Alice Musibi, medical oncology research officer of Kenya’s famed medical research institute KEMRI in a report.

“Increasingly, younger Kenyans seem to be more affected by cancer, unlike in the past, when it was considered a disease of the old,” Musibi wrote.

“People think that cancer is a disease of the elderly, the rich, the north and the west, but by 2020, 70 per cent of all new cancer cases will be in the developing world,” said oncologist David Kerr in an interview with Reuters.

"If you take a country like Ghana - it has 25 million people and four oncologists," Kerr said. "In Sierra Leone, there are none." In Kenya, there are three medical oncologists, four radiation oncologists, two surgical oncologists, and two gynecologic oncologists for the whole population.

Cancer now numbers among the top 10 causes of mortality among Kenyans with cancer of the esophagus, prostrate and Kaposi’s sarcoma most common among men and cervical, breast and esophageal cancer highest among women.

Currently, approximately 80,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed each year and 18,000 Kenyans die annually from cancer with only one public health facility providing radiotherapy services in the country, noted Dr. Ochiba M. Lukandu of the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation. Chemotherapy is available but limited.

Wangari, who was 71 at her untimely passing, was the first woman PhD in biological sciences in East Africa. She launched the Green Belt Movement to restore Kenya’s damaged ecosystem by planting trees dedicated to Kenya’s women leaders. “Africa, particularly African women, has lost a champion, a leader, an activist,” wrote President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

“(She) was a mighty woman, “ wrote Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice, "creative, fearless and full of love. We will miss her.”

Multiculturalism in America: The Struggle for Acceptance Continues

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By Tarice L.S. Gray, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

In 1966 boxing legend Muhammad Ali, just 24 years old, took a memorable stand against the Vietnam War. He’d been drafted by the government, but refused the call famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong…No VietCong ever called me nigger.” At the time, this nation’s Black citizens were struggling to gain the respect and acceptance promised by the land of opportunity. At just 24 years old, Ali’s act of “defiance” was an electric rallying cry for at least one minority group to overcome.

Decades later, minority groups are still struggling to find a multicultural embrace in America. Shortly after the horrific attacks on September 11, 2001, Muslims quickly became a visible target of intolerance. As the most adored Muslim-American, Ali participated in a 9/11 celebrity telethon, weeks after the attack, designed to foster understanding and tolerance of Islam and Muslims among other Americans.

Since that tragic day 10 years ago now, Muslims in this country have struggled with anti-Islamic rhetoric, threats, and exclusionary tactics that make the ideals of multiculturalism – namely acceptance and appreciation of another’s culture – seem unrealistic. But the Muhammad Ali Center, in Louisville, Kentucky is working toward improving the future of multiculturalism. Barry Alberts, its interim director, said that the center was built to honor Ali by, advancing the principles by which he lives. He said, they aim to help those who visit, “find their own greatness within and understand each other in a more compassionate and respectful way.”

That goal of the Muhammad Ali Center and, of course, numerous others becomes more and more critical as American society becomes more and more diverse. For example, census data shows that since 2000, Americans of African descent grew from 12.9 percent of the total population to 13.6 percent of the total population. During that time, Americans of Hispanic origin grew four times as fast as the total population of Americans: they now make up 16.6 percent of the overall population. Among religious orders, the number of Muslims jumped from 2.6 million to 6.2 million in 2010.

But the inexorable movement continues to provoke, resistance to inclusion, acceptance and change. Dominique Appollon, director of research for the Applied Research Center, in Oakland, California, believes that while younger Americans – who themselves are more diverse than older Americans – are much more accepting of diversity, past hurts can continue to haunt the progression of minority groups as a whole.

“You can have a seat at the table”, Appollon said. “But if your community wasn’t able to develop wealth because of past racist policies and continued potential racist effects of housing policies or banking or lending practices, ultimately you don’t have real fundamental change”.

As it stands now, the two largest American groups of color, African Americans and Latino Americans are also the poorest: the Census Bureau’s report on poverty shows roughly 27 percent of African Americans live in poverty, and approximately 26 percent of Latino Americans live below the poverty line.

Appollon said one challenge with trying to reduce such reducing concentrations of poverty among people of color is that many whites will mention central to overcoming such odds but “there’s always a Barack Obama … always an Oprah Winfrey. There’s always these exceptional individuals who the majority white population can point to and say ‘they made why can’t the rest of you?’ But those assertions you know ultimately ignore structural [barriers] that prevent truly equitable outcomes.”

In other words, multiculturalism is not just a matter of tolerance but of expanding access to the resources of the society.

The evolution of multiculturalism has not just been about acceptance, but about leveling the playing field. Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance – a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed and added, “people do not necessarily welcome change. I think right now the combination of the tremendous demographic change in the last decade [and] combined with the tremendous economic hardship [has been] is a recipe for fear and for scapegoating.”

But Costello believes money is only part of obstacle. Politics has also been a thorny opponent in many ways to accepting multiculturalism. Popular conservative host Bill O’Reilly famously caused a media frenzy when he said “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” Also Connecticut based conservative Rick Torres boldly announced during his congressional campaign “we are at war with Islam.”

Costello says the trickle down affect of anti-Muslim rhetoric feeds into our schools of our youngest most diverse Americans. She said that within the last year a school district in Texas, which was about to adopt both Chinese and Arabic as language electives, surrendered to political pressure to get rid of the latter.

She added the push back against multicultural policies is fueled by a chosen, but powerful few.” “Government is responsive to voters,” she explained. “Who votes in larger numbers than anyone else? The older you the more likely you are to vote. So in a sense the government is responsive to the least multicultural and least tolerant of its citizens, if we also accept that the youngest generation is the most tolerant; they unfortunately are not the most active politically.”

That’s why organizations like the Muhammad Ali Center, and publications like Colorlines and Teaching Tolerance are imperative to the evolution of multiculturalism in this country according to Costello. America has a storied past with multiple cultures. But the road to acceptance for European immigrants and Asian immigrants, as well as Latin American immigrants, African-Americans, Jews and Muslims has been more like an embattled journey than a paved way. Still Costello believes those groups must continue to push for a more tolerant and accepting society. In the end, she says it will be worth. “That long arc of history, it’s long but it does bend towards justice. The trend is that we’re going to get there.”

Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance writer and blogger for GrayCurrent.com

Georgia Remains Center of Death Penalty Controversy

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By George E. Curry, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

Ray Charles sings about Georgia being on his mind. But, as Troy Davis was laid to rest last Saturday in Savannah, Georgia is also on the minds of distraught death penalty opponents who saw him executed on the basis of questionable evidence and despite an array of witnesses who had recanted their original testimony.

Georgia has been at the epicenter of the death penalty debate for almost four decades. It was a case from Georgia – Furman v. Georgia – that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1972 that the death penalty was unconstitutional because it was being administered in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

After declaring a moratorium on executions, many states rushed to overhaul their capital punishment statues to comply with the new Supreme Court’s standard. In 1976 – Gregg v. Georgia – the court approved the modified death penalty statues of Georgia, along with those of Florida and Texas, while rejecting the approach adopted by North Carolina and Louisiana that required all people convicted of murder to be executed.

But it was the case of Troy Anthony Davis, an African-American from Savannah, that became Exhibit A in the re-energized movement to permanently outlaw the death penalty. His plight drew international attention as well as support from such unlikely sources as former President Jimmy Carter, conservative former U.S. Representative Bob Barr [R-GA] and former FBI director William Sessions.

Davis was convicted of murdering Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah policeman moonlighting as a security guard. According to prosecutors, McPhail rushed to the aid of a homeless man who was being pistol-whipped by Davis. However, no gun was ever found, there was no DNA test linking Davis to the crime and more than a half-dozen witnesses have recanted or changed their original testimony.

One of the witnesses, Antoine Williams, signed an affidavit saying, “…After the officers talked to me, they gave me a statement to sign and told me to sign it. I signed it. I did not read it because I cannot read.”

When it comes to the death penalty, race matters.

In 1990, a U.S. General Accounting Office report concluded, “In 82% of studies [reviewed], the race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (PDF), 76 percent of the murder victims in cases that resulted in executions were White, although only 50 percent of murder victims are White. Of defendants executed for murdering someone of the opposite race, 17 were White – including Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed in Texas the same night as Troy Davis for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas – and 254 were Black.

A study of 2,000 potential death penalty cases in Georgia led by Professor David Baldus of the University of Iowa found that the odds of receiving the death penalty in Georgia were 4.3 times greater if the defendant killed a White person than if he had killed an African-American. A report prepared for the American Bar Association found the multiplier was 4.4 in North Carolina and 5.5 in Mississippi.

While race matters, it’s not the only thing that matters.

A 2007 investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer found that judges on the U.S. court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which covers Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, voted consistently along party lines. Judge Nathaniel Jones, who retired from the circuit, told the Enquirer: “It’s a roll of the dice. When I look at a lineup of a panel in this kind of case, you can almost go to the bank on what the result is going to be.”

And the numbers support that view.

The newspaper figures show that federal judges appointed by George H.W. Bush voted 50-4 against granting inmates’ capital murder appeals. Appointees of George W. Bush voted 34-5 against granting such appeals. Reagan judges voted 39-13 against the requests. By contrast, Carter appointees voted 31-4 in favor of granting inmates’ appeals. Bill Clinton’s appointees were not as firm, voting 75-32 in favor of the appeals.

“Statistics like these do not prove that judges’ decisions are influenced by their political leanings, but the stark contrast in outcomes strongly suggests that judgments in death penalty cases are subjective and influenced by other factors that interject a high degree of arbitrariness into the process,” concluded a report by the Death Penalty Information Center titled, “Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty.”

Still other factors also determine the fate of murder suspects.

“The system is too fraught with variables to survive,” observed H. Lee Sarokin, a retired federal appeals court judge. “Whether or not one receives the death penalty depends upon the discretion of the prosecutor who initiates the proceeding, the competence of counsel who represents the defendant, the race of the victim, the race of the defendant, the make-up of the jury, the attitude of the judge, and the attitude and make-up of the appellate courts that review the verdict.”

The next execution in Georgia is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 12, exactly two weeks after Troy Davis was put to death in Jackson, Georgia. Both Angela Sizemore, the victim in that case, and Marcus Ray Johnson, the man convicted of murdering her, are White.

Don’t expect any all-night vigils in support of Johnson. Do not look for any signs proclaiming, “I am Marcus Johnson.” And don’t expect protests in Paris or anywhere else proclaiming Johnson’s innocence.

According to a summary of the case filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in the early morning hours of March 24, 1994 Johnson met Sizemore at Fundamentals, a west Albany bar. Sizemore had attended a memorial for an acquaintance the previous day and had been drinking so heavily that the bartender stopped serving her. Witnesses said Johnson was deeply upset that another woman had spurned his advances early in the evening.

A court filing said, “The bar owner and its security officer (who both knew Johnson) testified that they saw Johnson and Ms. Sizemore kissing and behaving amorously.” The couple left the bar around 2:30 a.m.

“In a statement, Johnson said he and the victim had sex in the vacant lot and he ‘kind of lost it.’ According to Johnson, the victim became angry because he did not want to ‘snuggle’ after sex and he punched her in the face…”

That’s not all he did.

“Johnson sexually assaulted Sizemore with the limb of a pecan tree, which was shoved into her vagina until it tore through the back wall of her vagina into her rectum,” the court filing recounted. “…Jackson also cut and stabbed Sizemore 41 times with a small, dull knife.”

Johnson’s trial lasted from March 23 to April 7, 1998. He was found guilty of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery and rape. He was sentenced to death on the malice murder charge, life imprisonment for rape and 20 years for aggravated battery.

In an unusual twist, the prosecutor was Gregory W. Edwards, who later became the first Black District Attorney in Dougherty County, and the presiding judge was another African-American, Willie Earl Lockette, now the Chief Judge on Dougherty Superior Court in Albany.

As of January, 3,251 persons were on death row. There were 103 in Georgia, including Troy Davis and Marcus Johnson. Nationally, 42 percent of those on death row are Black, although African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Latinos represent 12 percent of those awaiting execution.

The American Bar Association (ABA) called for a moratorium on all executions in 1997, a resolution that remains in effect.

“Two decades after Gregg, it is apparent that the efforts to forge a fair capital punishment jurisprudence have failed,” the ABA resolution stated. “Today, administration of the death penalty, far from being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency.”

Even Ray Charles can see that.

No peace, no peace I find
Just this old sweet song,
Keeps Georgia on my mind.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.

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