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Late Activist Acie Byrd Lauded at Memorial

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By Margaret Summers
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

A prince of a man. A thoroughgoing progressive. A revolutionary. Speaker after speaker used these and other accolades to describe the late D.C. activist Acie L. Byrd Jr.

Roughly 450 people gathered Friday at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast to mourn Byrd’s death and celebrate his life. Byrd, 77, died May 13 after a long battle with cancer.

“Acie joined my first campaign for Congress, and helped me get elected in the first place,” said D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Originally from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, Byrd became a student leader at the University of Maryland and Howard University. Prior to college, Byrd served three tours of duty in the U.S. Navy. While serving in the Pacific, Byrd was one of the quarter-million enlisted personnel exposed to radiation from U.S. nuclear testing, suffering permanent nerve damage.

“Acie took that experience and ran with it,” Norton said. “An example and a leader, he co-founded the International Alliance of Atomic Veterans, and joined the National Association of Atomic Veterans. His activism contributed to [the advent of] the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996, the treaty bans all nuclear testing. It has not been ratified by every country.

Byrd formed the Task Force on Radiation and Human Rights, and worked as the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign field coordinator. He chaired D.C.’s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Committee under Mayor Marion Barry, and promoted a nuclear test referendum approved by D.C. voters in 1985.

“Where are the Acie Byrds of today?” Norton said. “Acie’s lasting legacy is the selfless universality of his brand of activism. Let’s try to remember him by becoming ‘Acie Byrd Progressive Activists.’”

Matt Cary, director of the D.C. Office of Veterans Affairs, read a tribute and condolence message to Byrd’s family from Mayor Vincent Gray. “May you find strength in the love of family and friends,” it said in part.

Cary said he and Byrd participated in then-Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and years later worked on the first Obama-Biden campaign by organizing Veterans and Military Families for Progress. Carey and Byrd produced special programs on WPFW-FM every Memorial Day and Veterans Day which focused on veterans’ issues. Byrd helped found the radio station and participated in its programs as a political commentator.

Carey said Byrd was committed to social change.

“One of his last [comments] was, ‘It’s not how long you are on this Earth, but what you do while you’re here,’” he said at the service.

Sonia Metzer, a longtime personal friend of Byrd’s, noted that his political work was generally conducted behind the scenes.

“He understood that not everyone has to lead from the front,” she said. “He worked for the rights of immigrants and trade unionists, for D.C. statehood, for veterans’ rights, and against the denigration of women.”

Metzer said whenever anyone asked Byrd how he felt, he always answered, “reasonably well,” explaining that he would only be reasonably well “as long as African-Americans aren’t free.”

Speakers remembered Byrd as a tireless advocate for D.C. statehood, and a founder of Stand Up for Democracy in D.C.

“He never hesitated to support statehood,” said Anise Jenkins, the organization’s executive director.

Byrd, along with statehood advocates Josephine Butler and Julius Hobson Jr., worked on the 1982 D.C. statehood referendum.

Byrd was also lauded for his work to end the death penalty in D.C., create a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and end apartheid and minority rule in South Africa.

D.C. attorney Alan Gregory said his friendship with Byrd began when Gregory attended the University of Maryland.

“Acie mentored thousands of students. His spirit will live on through their legacy,” Gregory said.

Several speakers said they became activists under Byrd’s guidance.

“He took this then-23-year-old under his wings and allowed her to soar,” said veteran Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile. “He has been involved in so many movements and done so much for D.C. and the nation. His work speaks for itself.”

Byrd’s family requested that his supporters send contributions in his memory to WPFW-FM.

Major Report Urges Reform of U.S. Capital Punishment System

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By Michelle Tullo
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call

WASHINGTON – Innocent people will be executed in the United States if the country’s capital punishment system is not reformed, warns a new report.

These reforms include improving the use of forensic science, taping confessions, and providing better trained counsel to defendants. These suggestions were among 39 recommendations released May 7 in a report by the Constitution Project, a nonpartisan group working to improve the U.S. criminal justice system.

The report’s authors, collectively known as the Death Penalty Committee, include both supporters and opponents of the death penalty. The publication comes as the United States, one of just 43 countries that haven’t outlawed capital punishment, is in the midst of one of its largest national discussions on the issue in years.

More than 30 states in the United States continue to allow the death penalty, despite findings that the capital punishment system appears to be biased against minorities—and despite dozens of known cases of innocent people being sentenced to death. Since 1973, over 140 people have been exonerated from “death row,” but critics say it is impossible to tell how many of the 140 who have been executed may have been innocent.

“Most disturbingly, there is evidence that defendants have been put to death despite significant questions regarding their innocence, undermining confidence in the entire criminal justice system,” the report states.

“There can no longer be any doubt that innocent people do get convicted of horrific crimes, spend years in prison and even face execution. Wrongful convictions undermine society’s confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to perform its most basic function—to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent.”

The report came a week after a botched execution in the Midwestern state of Oklahoma. A prisoner named Clayton Lockett was scheduled to die by lethal injection, but the deadly chemicals were erroneously injected into his flesh.

The procedure reportedly drug out for almost half an hour, during which the conscious Lockett writhed in pain, according to his lawyer.

The Death Penalty Committee is recommending a single-dose injection, rather than the three drugs that Oklahoma and most other states currently use. The committee would also require that the federal government approve the drug or drugs used—a potentially important new issue given that states across the country are currently experimenting with new drugs, after pharmaceutical companies have started refusing to supply their products for lethal injections.

The horrific story has re-ignited a broad public conversation here. Yet advocates that work with the issue say that, while it is good to have the public’s attention on this issue, the more important concerns involve judicial mistakes.

“Despite the Oklahoma execution, I think the more important recommendations [in the new report] have to do with mistakes of innocence,” Richard Dieter, the executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, a clearinghouse, told IPS.

“Recommendations about improving the quality of counsel, the forensics, the DNA testing, the testing of evidence, the videotaping of suspects who are sometimes pressured into confessing something they did not want to do … these are the kinds of things that could help prevent wrongful convictions on death row and possibly wrongful executions.”

Fatal mistakes

A federally funded study recently found that a minimum of four percent of prisoners on death row in the United States are innocent, according to research published May 5 in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although small, any number above zero represents an innocent person sentenced to death, like Anthony Graves. Mr. Graves was convicted in 1994 for murder and sentenced to death based on testimony supplied only by the other convicted murderer, Robert Carter.

Before his own execution, Mr. Carter repeatedly admitted that Mr. Graves was not involved, but the process of re-investigation took years. Finally, in 2010, Mr. Graves was exonerated and released.

“We’re never ever going to stop killing innocent people as long as we have the penalty,” Mr. Graves said May 7 at a panel discussion here.

“But if this,” he continued, holding up a copy of the Constitution Project report, “had been in place before I went to trial, I probably would not have gone to death row.”

Potentially of help to Mr. Graves would have been a report recommendation on videotaping custodial interrogations. Following such a procedure, proponents say, would reduce the risk of false confessions—and provide juries with the context of confessions provided.

Another series of suggestions detail how to improve the use of forensic science in providing evidence.

Mark White, a former governor of Texas and co-chair of the Death Penalty Committee, described the forensics police department in Houston, where “leaks in the ceiling contaminated samples and people were not qualified to do the sampling.”

According to a 2011 study, over 50 percent of the first 250 people exonerated by DNA testing were convicted based on forensic mistakes.

Another problem are inadequately trained attorneys.

Mark Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia, described how he was appointed fresh out of law school to represent a defendant on trial for his life. Mr. Earley said he also witnessed incompetent representation repeatedly during his time as attorney general, when he oversaw 36 executions in three and a half years.

“For someone who is a ‘small government’ conservative, why did I believe the government always gets it right?” he asked.

“It’s not about being for or against the death penalty. But it’s about saying that if there is a death penalty, the trial process should be fair.”

Slow reform

Some say the political climate in the U.S. is ripe for reform on the issue of capital punishment. Following the botched execution in Oklahoma, President Barack Obama requested that Attorney General Eric Holder review the application of the death penalty throughout the country.

“In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems – racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty … situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence,” Mr. Obama told reporters. “And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.”

Experts in the field say that reform is likely, but only after a long and slow process.

“Unfortunately the death penalty is immersed in a political ballet,” the Death Penalty Information Center’s Dieter told IPS.

“I think the death penalty is actually declining by dramatic levels, and that will probably continue. It is not serving people well: it is expensive and it is picking out those who happen to be poor and minorities.” (IPS)

Malcolm X's Influence on Today’s Youth

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Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” Malcolm X stated during the Organization of Afro-American Unity’s founding forum at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on June 28, 1964.

A caravan of grassroots activists trekked to the grave sites of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, N.Y., this past Monday morning to commemorate his 89th physical day anniversary. There they were met by other admirers, some of whom had traveled from all over the country.

“This is a sacred ceremony paying respect to a martyr that died in the revolution,” said moderator James Small at the beginning of the commemorative event, which was begun by Malcolm’s sister Ella Collins in 1965. “He gave his life on behalf of those of us who now live. One of the reasons for coming is to say thank you and show respect to that spirit.”

He also acknowledged the freedom fighter’s devoted wife: “Although it is Malcolm’s birthday, you can’t have a Malcolm X without a Betty Shabazz.” The participants agreed and responded, “Ashe!”

Pam Africa, the minister of confrontation for the MOVE Organization, then stepped up to speak: “Each year, the seeds of wisdom and freedom [are] in this place. It’s really good seeing the youth that’s here today, and you will take back these seeds. Today will make you grow into the men and women that you must be, uncompromising. That seed that brother Malcolm and sister Betty has planted, it continues to grow!”

Collins’ granddaughter, Lisa Collins, also addressed the youth in attendance: “My grandmother would always ask me, ‘Who are you and what are you going to do with your life?’ and that question I want to leave with all of you. When I was young, I didn’t understand then, but I understand now who I am and to whom I belong and where I am going. We are a people that need to be unified.

“To the young people, do not be seduced by radio, television and everything you see … because it’s all a facade. You have to know the truth … Know who you are. As adults, [it’s our obligation to] pass that information on to make sure that there can be revelation, so that there’s transformation, so that there’s demonstration, so that there’s tangible evidence in the life of each and every one of us!”

Imam Talib said, “To the youth, you have the responsibility to take the baton from us, because we’re not going to be here forever.”

At the conclusion of the event, homage was also paid to Malcolm and Shabazz’s grandson Malcolm Shabazz at his nearby burial spot.

Upon their return to Harlem, participants joined the December 12th Movement as they orchestrated their 22nd annual “Shut’em Down” Black Power economic boycott of businesses along 125th Street from 1-4 p.m. in observance of Malcolm X. All businesses complied except for FedEx/Kinko’s at 207 W. 125th St.

“Some think that they’re above the people because they never felt the wrath of the people!” declared the December 12th Movement’s Omowale Clay. “A negro manager at Kinko’s refused to honor the tradition, causing the crowd to erupt in repeated call-and-response chants of ‘Boycott FedEx!’”

“I’m glad they didn’t close … I want all the stores on 125th Street to understand what happens when you disrespect our heroes!” he warned. “All these stores didn’t close because they love Malcolm X … they closed because of the power of the people! United, there’s nothing we can’t do!”

The empowering act left an undeniable mark on a few impressionable youth, who commented, “I love Malcolm X too, but they’re wildin’ out!” When they learned the purpose of the boycott, they responded, “OK, I see!”

“Starting today, there’s going to be a boycott of FedEx until we drive them out of business for disrespecting Malcolm X!” Clay proclaimed. “Nowhere in the world is there such an outward demonstration of love for Malcolm than on the streets of Harlem! Black power!”

Democrats May Block Obama's Judicial Nominees

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By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Democrats and civil rights advocates continue to express concerns over two of President Barack Obama’s federal judicial nominees for Georgia’s northern district who have suspect civil rights backgrounds.

In a package deal with Republican United States senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson from Georgia, President Obama nominated Julie Carnes and Jill A. Pryor to the United States Eleventh Circuit Court, Leslie Abrams to the United States court of the Middle District of Georgia, and Michael Boggs, Mark Cohen, Leigh May, and Eleanor Ross to the court of the United States Northern District of Georgia.

If confirmed, Abrams and Ross would become the first Black women to serve lifetime appointments as federal judges in Georgia.

But Democrats and some progressive groups have objected to the nominations of Boggs and Cohen.

Last week, the United States Senate judiciary committee held a hearing for the nominees where Democratic senators grilled Michael Boggs, who is currently a judge on Georgia’s appeals court, over his voting record while he served in the Georgia state legislature.

When questioned about his votes against removing the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag, Boggs said that although he found the Confederate symbol personally offensive, he said that his constituents wanted the opportunity to vote on any changes to the state flag.

Boggs also voted for legislation requiring doctors to list how often they provided abortion services. When senators questioned him about the public safety concerns associated with publishing such a list following decades of violence against doctors who performed abortions, Boggs said that at the time of the vote, he was unaware of that history.

The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, a pro-choice advocacy group, said that they also found “personhood” legislation that Boggs supported during his time as a state legislator that the group said “is one step away from overturning Roe v. Wade.”

A day before the hearing on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said, “Here you have the architect and the attorney that defended photo ID voter suppression laws in Georgia, the very same laws the president is fighting all across the country” nominated to the federal bench in Atlanta where most of the Black people are.

To have this being done by the first African American president is shameful, it’s painful, and it hurts deeply.”

Scott continued: “The president should have stood up to those Republicans and said, ‘No, I can’t do this to my people. You wouldn’t do it to George Bush. You wouldn’t have done it to Bill Clinton. Why are you doing it to me?’”

George State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who championed the law to change the state’s flag, said he doesn’t hold the vote over the Georgia state flag or any one vote against Boggs.

Brooks, who has served in Georgia’s House of Representatives for more than 30 years and was president of Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials (GABEO for two decades, said that Boggs voted with him “90 percent of the time,” helped him secure funding for the Morehouse College School of Medicine and worked to the reform the state’s criminal justice system.

Brooks also said that Cohen’s civil rights record has been misrepresented in the media.

When White students sued the University of Georgia over the school’s freshman admissions policy that used race as factor, Cohen scored a court victory in 2001 for affirmative action proponents who supported the university’s program, according to Brooks.

Nearly a decade later, then Georgia state Attorney General Thurbert Baker, asked Cohen to defend Georgia’s photo identification law for in-person voting that many voter’s rights advocates say discriminates against Blacks and the poor. Brooks said it was a move that likely provided Baker, who is Black, political cover.

Brooks called Boggs and Cohen friends and said that he had no reason to oppose their nominations.

“This isn’t the perfect deal, but I trust the president,” said Brooks. “If [the president] had a different hand of cards, the package would look different, but he’s doing the best that can do under these circumstances.”

Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that President Obama held his nose and nominated Boggs and Cohen and assumed that the civil rights groups and Democrats in the Senate would go along with his decision.

“The problem with that is that the advocacy groups believe that the president should fight harder to get the nominees that he wants. The president has a lot of power to make horse trades with people on things other than appointments,” said Berry. “There are always things that Senators want.

Obama made the deal but some think the price is too high, said Berry.

In an interview with BuzzFeed, an online news portal, Majority-leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that he can’t support the Michael Boggs nomination.

“Unless I have a better explanation, I can’t vote for him,” said Reid “This is a lifetime appointment. He’s said some things and made some decisions I think are not very good.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an initial critic of the nominations, had been unusually quiet recently, which some saw as an indication he may be reversing his position. Through his press secretary, he turned down requests from the NNPA News Service for comment.

Georgia Rep. David Scott had some strong words for Lewis.

He tweeted Sunday, “if this is true, then Rep Lewis is a turncoat who has betrayed African Americans, women and gays.”

However, Lewis broke his silence Monday afternoon.

“I have tried to refrain from making public statements out of respect for my colleagues and the Senate process,” he said in a written statement. “I believe it is important to allow each candidate to be evaluated according to his or her own merits and to allow the Senate judicial nomination process to take its course. This willingness to permit due process is all that I have indicated in any conversation I may have had with my colleagues. I did not at any time indicate my support for the Boggs nomination or say that he had the backing of the African American community in Georgia.”

Lewis said, “Based on the evidence revealed during this hearing, I do not support the confirmation of Michael Boggs to the federal bench. His record is in direct opposition to everything I have stood for during my career, and his misrepresentation of that record to the committee is even more troubling. The testimony suggests Boggs may allow his personal political leanings to influence his impartiality on the bench. I do not have a vote in the Senate, but if I did I would vote against the confirmation of Michael Boggs.”

Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said she would rather see the seats empty instead of having Boggs and Cohen in the pipeline later for higher appointments.

“I don’t believe that castor oil taste better when you put orange juice in it,” said Berry. “If it’s bad medicine it’s bad medicine. I hope that the Democrats will refuse to support these two people.”

Charter Schools Present Post-'Brown' Challenge

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By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – In 1954, Lucinda Todd was one of 13 plaintiffs in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional. Last week, her granddaughter Lucinda Noches Talbert, stood on the steps of Supreme Court and continued making the argument for equal public education under the law.

“I’ve seen what happens to communities when schools are closed. What once was the heart of the community becomes a rotting eyesore of the community, forcing children to faraway schools,” she told a crowd of parents, students, labor union members, activists, and concerned citizens who had gathered to rally for what they called educational justice. “To my grandmother, the Brown case was about equality, access to opportunity, and access to the American Dream. We still have not realized my grandmother’s dream.”

Speakers included American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association President, Dennis Van Roekel, and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

In the 60 years since Brown, a perfect storm of factors has eroded public education, most visibly through school closings and the charter school boom, particularly in communities of color. As of fall 2014 in New Orleans, for example, all but five of the city’s 89 public schools have been closed or converted to charters. Houston has closed 32 public schools since 2003. Washington, D.C. has closed 39 since 2008. Chicago closed 49 public schools last year alone, and 111 in total since 2001.

The case against closings is presented—and storm of factors dissected—in a new report titled “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” It is presented by Journey for Justice Alliance, a national network of 36 grassroots organizations led by parents, youth, and ordinary community members working for community-driven school improvement.

“This is institutional racism…and Journey for Justice is your mirror,” said Jitu Brown, national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, as he officially released the report during the rally. “We will not sit by while you steal our schools, and steal our children. This is not going to be a report that’s going to sit on somebody’s desk. This report is going to be backed by boots on the ground.”

The report points out that charter schools were intended to be community-based alternatives, but instead have manifested as corporate franchises.

“The core premise of charter schools was that they were to be given increased freedom from rules and regulations in exchange for improves academic achievement and yet we now have over 20 years of data demonstrating that they are no more effective, on average, than public schools, (even if we judge them by the extremely-limited, standardized-test-based metrics they prefer),” it states.

There’s also the trend toward charters refusing special education, disabled, and English-language-learning students. In 2012 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that charter schools were enrolling significantly less children with these characteristics and that about half of charter schools reported having insufficient resources to serve students with disabilities.

Charters usually appear in communities of color, using public dollars and competing with established public schools. Charters promise newer facilities and alternative education methods, and public school enrollment falls.

Detroit Public Schools, for example, is the district serving the highest ratio of children of color in the country, according to the report (98 percent of students). Between 2005 and 2012, enrollment has fallen 63 percent; at the same time, area charter schools saw an enrollment increase of 53 percent.

In the Houston Independent School District, where 92 percent of students are of color, enrollment is down only 11 percent—but charter schools have seen a nearly 200 percent increase in students.

According to the report, lack of enrollment is one of three common reasons for closing a public school; bBudget cuts and low academic performance are the other two reasons.

Neighborhood school closures often affect the surrounding community.

“Residents lose community services housed in schools, such as pre-K programs, before- and after-school programming, adult education classes, and health clinics,” the report explains. “Property values in the neighborhood often declines, residents moves away, and new residents become much harder to attract because a boarded-up school is a sure sign of neighborhood instability and deterioration.”

Jacqueline Edwards, a mother and grandmother from Newark, N.J., who travelled to the rally by bus with approximately 75 other parents and community members, has felt these effects.

“Our students have to go into communities they don’t know, and it’s dangerous. We have a lot of sex offenders in our area, abandoned buildings, and dangerous traffic,” she explains. Newark has closed 13 schools in five years, with 11 more expected, according to the report. Edwards’ 12-year-old daughter and 9 year-old son attend Newark public schools.

“When they closed the 15th Avenue School, my two kids were in that school, and were diverted to [South 17th Street School], which was a significant distance from my home,” she says. “We relocated so their school was just around the block, but what if next year it’s going to be something different? My daughter will have to go two miles walking to school. It’s not fair.”

The students themselves were front and center at the rally, both at the makeshift podium and in the crowd.

Aquila Griffin was one of several teens who took to the microphone to rail against the school closings that affected her attendance at Dyett High School in Chicago. Griffin described having to take the mandatory physical education and art classes online, being without college-prep Advanced Placement classes, and having only two years of Spanish to choose from while better-resourced schools studied Spanish, French, Mandarin, and German, and enjoy music and art classes.

Students from organizations across the country were also present, such as Boston Area Youth Organizing Project, which seeks to promote social change through social and political youth empowerment. Kaylia Green, a high school senior and member of the BYOP, felt her public school education had been inadequate.

“I’m from Miami, and the schools there are worse. Boston schools are not as [segregated], but their education is off. I’m a senior and I don’t feel prepared for college,” she shared. “I feel like I’m being spoon-fed. I’m going to go to college and do what I’ve got to do because education is everything, but…I’ll just go to my resources and get the help I need.”

Her friend Andy Juerakhan was also present, despite being, in her words, “pushed out” of school.

Juerakhan, who has been trying to resume his education, says he was repeatedly (and unfairly) suspended from school, which led to chronic truancy on his part. With his record and dwindling public school options (Boston has closed 18 schools in the last six years), he is unable to find a school that will allow him to enroll.

“When you don’t come to school enough, the school basically forces you to drop out. Since I’m a push-out, getting back into school has been one big process. Sometimes schools won’t take you just because you’ve been out,” he says. “I’ve tried the Re-Engagement Center but there’s only so much they can do. I have to get a lawyer…I’ve been to three [school] interviews, and they didn’t accept me. It’s not school anymore, it’s like prison.”

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