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Congress Votes to Ban Cell Phones in Prison

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Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspapers –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Inmates in federal prisons will have a tougher time using cell phones and wireless devices after both chambers of Congress recently voted in favor of a bill restricting their use behind bars.

Congress voted July 20 to close a loophole in federal law by restricting the use or possession of cell phones and classifying them as contraband. Officials said that with these devices, prisoners conduct a large amount of unlawful activity including credit card fraud, ordering gang hits and running drug operations. Currently, when inmates are discovered with the devices, the hardware is confiscated but the inmates are rarely punished.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the Senate measure, said a recent report found that correctional officers are the major culprits in smuggling cell phones into prisons. She said that in her state, inmates pay up to $1,000 for a phone. In one case, a correctional officer made $150,000 in one year just from selling the devices to prisoners, she said. according to the Associated Press.

With the new legislation, those convicted of selling cell phones to inmates would face up to a year in prison.

“It’s a simple process,” Ojore Lutalo, an inmate of New Jersey State Prison told NPR. “It’s not a big deal getting a cell phone. You have to understand that that is possible due to the level of corruption among the prison staff. If it wasn’t for their corruption, it wouldn’t be possible.”

Many officials agree with Lutalo and say that unlike drugs and money, cell phones cannot be smuggled through the mail and inmate visits because they would be picked up by metal detectors. “It’s a huge issue, and it’s a complex issue,” Bill Sondervan, a former Maryland prison official told NPR. “I had 8,000 employees in 27 prisons. I couldn’t be everywhere. And the way you really do that is through trying to instill in your staff that we’re all in this together.”

Prison officials have examined ways to block the phones’ service, but believe it may interfere with their radios and other critical devices.

In spite of the hesitation to implement ways to block the phones’ service, EDO, a Maryland defense intelligence company, was commissioned by the FBI to create technology that monitors cell phone usage, and devised a system that detects radio frequencies and notifies officials.

In addition to this technology, The (Salinas, Calif.) Californian found that many prisons across the country have enlisted cell phone-sniffing canines that can find stashed wireless devices as they do other contraband.

United Auto Workers, Rainbow/PUSH to Join for March in Detroit

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By Diane Bukowski, Special to the NNPA from the Michigan Citizen –

DETROIT (NNPA) — A rising tide of hope for the future has hit Detroit as Rainbow/PUSH leader Jesse Jackson and prominent union, church and community representatives kicked off a campaign to rebuild the nation’s cities, provide jobs and education, enact a moratorium on foreclosures, and end the wars in the Middle East.

United Auto Workers President Bob King and Jackson are the key leaders of the Jobs, Justice and Peace campaign, which was unveiled at a recent press conference. They announced that a march in Detroit on Aug. 28, the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington, D.C., will kick it off. King hosted a Freedom Walk of 125,000 in Detroit that June, where he first gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Jackson said Detroit is again “ground zero” for the crisis faced by the nation’s cities. In addition to the march in Detroit, Jackson said the coalition is calling on people across the nation to march at their local unemployment offices.

“It’s a good day to be alive in Detroit,” Rev. David Bullock said. Bullock, pastor of St. Matthews Church, is a Rainbow PUSH leader and also heads the Highland Park branch of the NAACP. He and King helped lead a march on Chase Bank sponsored by the U.S. Social Forum in June.

“I represent the Facebook, Twitter and hip hop generation, which sometimes says marches are out of style,” said Bullock. “But marches won civil rights laws and created the benefits we have in our world now. It is time to demand good-paying jobs, an end to seniors being held in bondage to the pharmaceutical companies and an end to people deciding whether to turn their lights on or eat. People must come out of their churches, union halls and homes to take the streets again.”

Speakers targeted the nation’s banks, corporations and war as the culprits responsible for the misery of its people.

“The government bailed out the banks with our tax dollars, but the banks never reinvested in our country,” Jackson said. “Instead, they say to urban American ‘austerity and deficit reduction,’ and have foreclosed four million more homes this year.

“The public sector is under attack, public education and public housing are being cut, but Congress just voted $6 billion more for the war in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. bailed out GM, but they are closing plants at home and shifting them overseas.

“Detroit has an unemployment rate of 35 percent and up. We need an urban policy, an economic recovery, reconstruction from the bottom up. We have millions of talented workers ready to rebuild our national infrastructure.”

King said, “We stand strongly with the local and national movements for moratoriums on foreclosures. We cannot stand by while people are thrown out of their homes because of the global economic situation created by the U.S., while bankers get billions of dollars in bonuses.”

Attorney Jerome Goldberg is a leader of Michigan’s Moratorium NOW! Coalition against Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs.

“It was exciting to hear the president of the UAW support a moratorium on foreclosures,” he said after the press conference. “Taxpayers have given the banks $400 billion to pay off the full cost of foreclosed mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This campaign represents a fundamental change in the stance of the UAW, initiated by the election of leaders like Bob King and Cindy Estrada. This is a great time to begin as 400,000 unemployed people nationally are about to lose their unemployment benefits because Congress refused to extend them.”

King also expressed support for the public sector.

“How is America to be competitive if we lay off teachers and public workers?” King asked. “The UAW, AFSCME, SEIU, the Steelworkers and the Teamsters, all workers must come together to demand their First Amendment rights to organize into strong unions, which are the greatest anti-poverty tool of all.”

Al Garrett, president of Michigan AFSCME Council 25, which represents 60,000 state, county, and city workers, beamed during the press conference about the call for solidarity.

“The public workforce in Detroit and across Michigan has been decimated by this economy,” Garrett said. “But the silence has been deafening. We are elated to see the UAW and Rainbow Coalition recognize our plight. We pledge all our resources to make this campaign happen.”

For further information on the Jobs, Justice and Peace campaign, contact Michele Martin at UAW Solidarity House, 313.926.5292, or the Rainbow PUSH Coalition at 773.373.3366.

New Stop and Frisk Law Signed, Questions Still Linger

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By Nayaba Arinde, Special to the NNPA from the Amsterdam News –

“People are tried of getting stopped,” Governor David Paterson told the Amsterdam News in an exclusive interview. “It is disturbing that you have parents, grandparents and relatives sitting around the dining table trading stories about being stopped by the police.”

Speaking as the paper was going to press last week, he added that the new legislation signed into law July 14 “means that the personal data of individuals stopped, questioned and frisked will no longer be able to maintained by the police department and used against people who did not do anything wrong and to monitor them as if did.”

In the wake of last year’s record number of 575,304 people stopped and frisked by the NYPD - 87 percent of them being Black or Latino - last week’s historic signing at the governor’s Manhattan office came with lots of fanfare.

But, when the Amsterdam News asked how the community could be assured that the database will truly be discarded, Paterson replied, “That’s a very good question. Nobody has asked me that profound question before. Ask the police department. I would assume that police would comply.”

The police department did not respond to AmNews requests for comment.

“First of all, it’s the law—it’s not a recommendation,” declared State Senator Eric Adams, who introduced the stop and frisk legislation in the senate. “We are making it clear that if they violate the law, they will be in trouble; it would be a very serious action. The commissioner wanted to just do a policy change internally, and we said no because he could just change it or the next commissioner could change it. That’s why we wanted it to be a law.”

The former police officer, who retired a lieutenant before becoming an elected official, revealed that sources in the police department have said they issued an internal memo stating that the database will no longer be used.

“They can keep the data on those who were issued a summons or arrested, but for the majority: These were innocent Americans that they were keeping personal information on. They are only going to keep the data about the ethnicity and the location where a person was stopped to monitor profiling. It’s unfortunate that we have to treat the NYPD like a mischievous child, but we have had to because of what has been going on.”

Asked if he had any response, post-signing, from the NYPD, Paterson said, “I spoke to them, and the mayor disagrees, but Commissioner Kelly was shrill and guaranteed that there will be an increase in murder, rape and robberies. But, he had no evidence—not at all—that the police department has been able use this data in stopping crime.”

Paterson said that statistical and factual distortions are not helpful and that Kelly cited 170 cases in which information “helped solved crimes when, in fact, these were names and addresses of people already in the system.”

Paterson said regarding the police using the database: “Let’s say there was a mugging in the area, they could go to the database, and find someone who fit the description.”

But in reality, with the stop and frisks, Paterson noted only “one out of every 2,000 people had a gun. Over 90 percent of the people stopped were found to be not doing anything at all.”

But once someone’s name and information had been collected and stored, the governor stated that people were open to further scrutiny.

Paterson balked at Commissioner Ray Kelly’s response that folk can’t say they didn’t do anything wrong because they were initially stopped because a police officer had a suspicion that they were doing something wrong.

The governor said that he has asked the Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights to monitor the situation.

Despite the hopefully positive effect on the majority Black and Latino communities who endure the bulk of these unproductive stop and frisks, Paterson said the “biggest beneficiary is the New York City Police Department, who were starting to gain the reputation they had 20 years ago.”

This legislation could prevent a deteriorating police-community relationship.

With a 20-year decline in the crime rate, even the Police Benevolent Association said the database did not help stop crimes, said the governor.

The question about whether or not all the intel in the database will actually be thrown away is a heavy one.

“Nobody has covered that issue,” said Paterson. “Certainly, lawyers that I have known have said that they have gotten information back on their clients, but the data stayed in the system. I can’t monitor the NYPD, but I will assume that the commissioner will comply with the law and that data will be expunged.”

He said it was interesting that “Kelly wondered out loud why people aren’t as upset about crime as being stopped by police.” It’s really no mystery; it is “because the majority of people stopped and frisked are innocent.”

Echoing the cry of community activists over the decades, Paterson stated, “Police practices need to be looked into further.”

Sweeping Wall Street and Finance Reform Passes Senate, Heads for Obama Signature

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By Pharoh Martin, NNPA National Correspondent –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - The U. S. Congress last week finally passed the most sweeping legislation on bank and Wall Street reform in 70 years. The financial reform bill provides tougher regulations on banks and financial institutions and additional protections for consumers, many of which directly benefit African-Americans.

The bill was a response to the severe downturn of the U.S. economy during which “too big to fail” institutions like AIG and Lehman Brothers nearly uprooted America's whole financial system two years ago with underhanded business practices. Under the new legislation, the federal government now has the power to break up large failing financial companies and banks. It establishes an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion to ensure diversity, and introduces a new oversight agency that will regulate the industry and establish consumer safeguards.

The financial reform bill cleared the senate with 60-39 vote two weeks after the House passed the legislation. It now goes to President Obama's desk ot be signed into law.

"It’s designed to make sure that everyone follows the same set of rules, so that firms compete on price and quality, not on tricks and traps," Obama said at a press conference on the White House south driveway. "It demands accountability and responsibility from everybody. It provides certainty to everyone from bankers to farmers to business owners to consumers. And unless your business model depends on cutting corners or bilking your customers, you have nothing to fear from this reform.”

The president called the resolutions in the reform bill the strongest consumer financial protections in history.

"For all those Americans who are wondering what Wall Street reform means for you, here’s what you should expect. If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, a student loan, a mortgage, you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print. It’s a big step for most families, and one that’s often filled with unnecessary confusion and apprehension. As a result, many Americans are simply duped into hidden fees and loans they just can’t afford by companies who know exactly what they’re doing."

According to Obama, the bill will crack down on abusive practices of unscrupulous mortgage lenders and will ensure that consumers who are denied loans and insurance receive a free credit score.

Provisions of the bill also include:

-The creation of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion;

- Additional assistance for homeowners;

- More funding for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which helps homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure and provides low interest loans to unemployed homeowners who are having a difficult time keeping up with their mortgage payments. Under the legislation, the program will receive an additional $1 billion in funding and an additional $2 billion in funding from the Treasury Department;

- Safeguards that ensure fair access, treatment and regulations for racial minorities, women and low-income workers, including ensuring diversity in hiring and job promotions at federal financial regulatory agencies and in their contracting with the creation of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion.

National Urban League President and chief executive officer Marc Morial praised the congress for passing the legislation.

“The bill, passed by the Senate and sent to President Obama, will help protect America’s families from predatory lending practices and guard against the risky practices that landed the nation in its current financial crisis,” Morial said in a statement.

Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by the financial crisis, and stand to gain the most from provisions like the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the additional investments in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, as well as the creation of the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion, Morial noted.

Three Republicans voted for the bill. But those that did not held that the legislation represents more government overreach that will lead to less jobs. The House Republican leader John Boehner called for its repeal.

“Obstructionists in the Senate are working overtime to protect the wealthy and influential at the expense of average Americans who are struggling to get by,” Morial said. “We desperately need to change the legislative culture and work together to stabilize our economy and support the working class.”

Oscar Grant's Family Vows to Fight 'Garbarge' Verdict, Sentencing This Fall

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By Stephon Johnson, Special to the NNPA from the Amsterdam News –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 on a train platform. Mehserle shot Grant in the back while he was handcuffed on the ground.

The ruling sparked outrage among many in the Black community and beyond. Grant’s family, local activists and even the mayor of Oakland had something to say after the verdict.

According to the court’s public information office, Mehserle’s sentencing has been pushed back to the fall (October or November), with no exact date given.

“We will continue to fight for our equal rights,” said Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant’s mother. “Certainly, we have seen how this judicial system has worked. To my family in Oakland, this battle is not over. We will be a people who are heads and not tail. We will be a people who are first and not last. We will be a people who are respected. Equal!”

Many questions arose in the aftermath of the verdict. Los Angeles, where the trail was held, is 25 percent white, but the jury in Mehserle’s trial was 75 percent white. According to Grant’s family attorney John Burris, potential Black jurors weren’t selected if they had had encounters with police, positive or negative, but white jurors who had relatives or friends in law enforcement were allowed on the jury.

Judge Robert Perry had instructed the jury to leave when the video of the incident in question was broken down. He didn’t want the tears of Grant’s friends in the audience to impact the jury. But the jury was allowed to stay in court when Mehserle broke down and cried on the stand. Also, guards would not let Grant’s family in the courtroom when the jury had reached a verdict. While local political officers and the mainstream media didn’t report these things, some were more prepared for the aftermath of the verdict. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums discussed his feelings hours after the Grant verdict.

“This community has waited with bated breath for this moment in anticipation of this verdict and have come to this moment with pain, passion, anger, fear and hope,” said Dellums. “Many voices in the community are crying out for justice. Why so much attention on this particular case? This is not the first young African-American male that has lost his life to this kind of tragedy.”

Mehserle wrote a letter dated Sunday, July 4, just four days before the jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, that mainstream media labeled an “apology” to the family of Oscar Grant. In the letter, Mehserle stated that Grant’s death with follow him everywhere he goes and pleaded for forgiveness.

“Please try to get this message to the public,” Mehserle wrote. “I have and will continue to live every day of my life knowing that Mr. Grant should not have been shot. I know a daughter has a lost father and a mother has a lost son. It saddens me knowing that my actions cost Mr. Grant his life. No words express how truly sorry I am.

“For now and forever, I will live, breathe, sleep and not sleep with the memory of Mr. Grant screaming, ‘You shot me,’ and putting my hands on the bullet wound, thinking the pressure would help while I kept telling him, ‘You’ll be okay!’”

But Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, didn’t buy Mehserle’s words. While speaking to the media upon the Grant family’s return to Oakland, Johnson noticed something missing from Mehserle’s letter.

“This letter—let’s be clear—was not address to us,” said Johnson. “He states in the very beginning of the letter, ‘Please let this message get to the public.’ I didn’t see my name or my sister’s name at the top of that letter. It’s very painful that the media portray this as a letter of apology to the family of Oscar Grant. This letter is not titled to us. Let’s be clear.

“This is a letter that was perfectly designed to influence the judge, as well as the jury, to affect his sentencing,” said Johnson. “It’s garbage.” Johnson also stated that the surveillance video of the incident showed Mehserle putting his knee in Grant’s back after he was shot.

“He states that because of the public and death threats on his life [that] he wanted to have some dialogue and couldn’t and he was forced to leave the state [of California],” said Johnson. “He can write this letter after he’s served 14 years in prison, and maybe we’ll believe him.”

Minister Keith Muhammad, who’s worked alongside and counseled the family of Oscar Grant, expressed a similar reaction to Mehserle’s letter.

“While we understand the process of atonement, the very first step in atonement is to be truthful,” said Muhammad, “to point out what is wrong and ultimately deal with the party that you have offended. A letter to the press is not a letter to the family of Oscar Grant. That is a political letter.

“This apology should have been delivered on January 1, 2009,” Muhammad said.

Hope may be on the horizon in the form of federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice has decided to step in and investigate the case as a civil rights crime. Any federal time Mehserle receives from a civil rights conviction wouldn’t be served until he completes his time for involuntary manslaughter. The last time the Department of Justice intervened in a high-profile case was the Rodney King trial.

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