June 27, 2013
By JULIE PACE
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — President Barack Obama opened a weeklong trip to Africa on Wednesday, a three-country visit aimed at overcoming disappointment on the continent over the first black U.S. president’s lack of personal engagement during his first term.
However, the highly anticipated trip threatens to be overshadowed by the deteriorating health of beloved former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Air Force One touched down in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on Wednesday evening. The president, who is traveling with first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha, is also scheduled to visit South Africa and Tanzania.
The president is expected to be greeted warmly during his trip, despite the underlying sense of disappointment. American flags dotted the roadways as Obama’s motorcade sped through this coastal city, and signs welcoming Obama and bearing his picture hung on homes and businesses.
Obama’s father was born in Kenya and several of his relatives still live there. But despite his family ties to the continent, Obama spent just one day in Africa during his first four years in office and has focused instead on strengthening U.S. ties with Asia and Latin America.
“Africans were very excited when President Obama was elected and they expected deeper engagement than in the past, both in regard to policy and also in terms of actual visits to the continent, given the president’s African heritage,” said Mwangi Kimenyi, an Africa analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Africans have been gradually disappointed, especially when they look at the focus on Africa by previous presidents, in particular President Clinton and President George W. Bush, who did quite a bit there.”
Few major policy announcements are expected during Obama’s trip. Instead, the president will focus on promoting democratic institutions, boosting opportunities for Africa’s vast youth population and promoting the continent as a growing market for U.S. businesses.
The White House defended the purpose of the trip despite its low policy expectations.
“Presidential trips to regions of the world like Africa bring enormous benefits in terms of our relationship with the countries visited and the countries in the region,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One. “The trip itself will not be the end point of our engagement, but will enhance it, deepen it and further it.”
The president will make two stops at sights that highlight the continent’s harsh racial history: Senegal’s Goree Island, which was the center of Atlantic slave trade and Robben Island, the apartheid-era prison in South Africa where Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years in prison.
The White House is closely monitoring Mandela’s health, which has added a degree of uncertainty to Obama’s travel itinerary. The 94-year-old anti-apartheid leader has been hospitalized for about three weeks with a reoccurring lung infection and South African officials have now deemed his condition critical.
Obama advisers have been reluctant to publicly discuss what impact his condition might have on Obama’s trip. There had been no formal plans for the two men to meet, though Obama aides did leave open the possibility of the U.S. president meeting with Mandela’s family.
“Ultimately, we want whatever is in the best interest of his health and the peace of mind of the Mandela family,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The president had no public events planned Wednesday after his arrival. He was scheduled to spend Thursday meeting with Senagalese President Macky Sall, then meet with civil society leaders at Goree Island.
Top White House economic advisers and U.S. business leaders were traveling with Obama, underscoring the trip’s focus on boosting American economic ties with Africa. Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies last year were in Africa, according to the World Bank.
While the U.S. has been slow to ramp up its trade with Africa, China, along with India, Malaysia and Brazil, have been building robust economic relationships on the continent. Chinese officials say Beijing’s trade with China totaled $200 billion last year. The U.S. Trade Representative said American trade with Africa reached $95 billion in 2011.
June 27, 2013
SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — A friend who was on the phone with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin moments before he was fatally shot by George Zimmerman testified that she heard the Miami teen shout, “Get off! Get off!” before his telephone went dead.
Rachel Jeantel, 19, recounted to jurors in Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial how Martin told her he was being followed by a man as he walked through the Retreat at Twin Lakes townhome complex on his way back from a convenience store to the home of his father's fiancee.
Jeantel is considered one of the prosecution's most important witnesses because she was the last person to talk to Martin before his encounter with Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012.
She testified that Martin described the man following him as “a creepy-ass cracker” and he thought he had evaded him. But she said a short time later Martin let out a profanity.
Martin said Zimmerman was behind him and she heard Martin ask: “What are you following me for?”
She then heard what sounded like Martin’s phone earpiece drop into the grass and she heard him say, “Get off! Get off!” The phone then went dead, she said.
Zimmerman, 29, could get life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder for killing Martin. Zimmerman followed him in his truck and called a police dispatch number before he and the teen got into a fight.
Zimmerman has claimed self-defense, saying he opened fire after the teenager jumped him and began slamming his head against the concrete sidewalk. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic and has denied that his confrontation with the black teenager had anything to do with race, as Martin’s family and its supporters have claimed.
Jeantel’s testimony came after two former neighbors of Zimmerman testified Wednesday about hearing howls and shouts for help in the moments before the shooting.
Jayne Surdyka told the court that immediately before the shooting, she heard an aggressive voice and a softer voice exchanging words for several minutes in an area behind her townhome at the Retreat at Twin Lakes.
“It was someone being very aggressive and angry at someone,” she said.
During the struggle, she said, she saw a person in dark clothes on top of the other person. Martin was wearing a dark sweatshirt and Zimmerman wore red clothing. Surdyka said she saw the person who was on top get off the body after the shot was fired.
Surdyka said she heard cries for help and then multiple gunshots: "pop, pop, pop." Only one shot was fired in the fatal encounter.
"I truly believe the second yell for help was a yelp," said Surdyka, who later dabbed away tears as prosecutors played her 911 call. “It was excruciating. I really felt it was a boy’s voice.”
During cross-examination, defense attorney Don West tried to show there was a lapse in what Surdyka saw. Defense attorneys contend Martin was on top of Zimmerman during the struggle, but after the neighborhood watch volunteer fired a shot, Zimmerman got on top of Martin.
West also challenged Surdyka about her belief that the cry for help was a boy’s voice, saying she was making an assumption.
The other neighbor, Jeannee Manalo, testified that she believed Zimmerman was on top of Martin, saying he was the bigger of the two based on pictures she saw of Martin on television after the fight. Manalo also described hearing howling, but she couldn’t tell who it was coming from, and then a “help sound” a short time later.
Under cross-examination, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked why Manalo had never mentioned her belief that Zimmerman was on top in previous police interviews. He also got her to concede that her perception of Martin’s size was based on five-year-old photos on television that showed a younger and smaller Martin.
Martin’s parents have said they believe the cries for help heard by neighbors came from their son, while Zimmerman’s father believes the cries belong to his son. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys believe they could show whether Zimmerman or Martin was the aggressor in the encounter. Defense attorneys successfully argued against allowing prosecution experts who claimed the cries belonged to Martin.
Jeantel on Wednesday testified that she believed the cries were Martin's because “Trayvon has kind of a baby voice.” The defense attorney challenged that, claiming she was less certain in a previous deposition.
Jeantel, 19, also explained that she had initially lied about her age — she claimed to be 16 — to protect her privacy when she was initially contacted by an attorney for Martin’s family to give a recorded statement over the telephone about what she knew about the few moments before Martin’s encounter with Zimmerman. She was expected to finish her testimony on Thursday.
While being cross-examined, Jeantel had several testy exchange with West, including one moment when she prompted the defense attorney to ask his next question: “You can go. You can go.”
Before the February 2012 shooting, Zimmerman had made about a half dozen calls to a nonemergency police number to report suspicious characters in his neighborhood. Judge Debra Nelson on Wednesday ruled that they could be played for jurors.
Prosecutors had argued that the police dispatch calls were central to their case that Zimmerman committed second-degree murder since they showed his state of mind. He was increasingly frustrated with repeated burglaries and had reached a breaking point the night he shot the unarmed teenager, prosecutors say.
Defense attorneys argued that the calls were irrelevant and that nothing matters but the seven or eight minutes before Zimmerman fired the deadly shot into Martin’s chest.
Seven of the nine jurors and alternates scribbled attentively on their notepads as the calls were played.
June 20, 2013
By JASON STRAZIUSO
In tweets, songs, telephone calls, cards and more, messages of love have come from across South Africa and the world for 94-year-old Nelson Mandela, giving the family comfort and hope as he remains hospitalized in serious condition with a lung infection, his wife said Monday June 17.
One of Mandela's daughters, Zenani Dlamini, gave what appeared to be the most positive update yet on his situation as she looked at well-wishers’ cards hanging outside the hospital.
“He’s doing very well,” she told reporters without giving any more details.
As the anti-apartheid hero spent a 10th day in the hospital, Graca Machel expressed the family’s gratitude for the support “from South Africans, Africans across the continent, and thousands more from across the world ... to lighten the burden of anxiety; bringing us love, comfort and hope.”
Machel already has experienced the loss of a husband. Mozambican President Samora Machel, her first husband, died in a plane crash in 1986. Machel and Mandela married in 1998, marking Mandela's third marriage and her second.
People have carried “get well soon” placards outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria where Mandela is being treated. They have prayed for him in churches across this nation of roughly 50 million. Schoolchildren have come to his home in Johannesburg to sing. Even though he was not there to hear them, the voices gave solace to his family, she said.
“The messages have come by letter, by SMS, by phone, by Twitter, by Facebook, by email, cards, flowers and the human voice, in particular the voices of children in schools or singing outside our home,” Machel said in a statement. “We have felt the closeness of the world and the deepest meaning of strength and peace.”
President Jacob Zuma said on Sunday June 16 that Mandela remains in serious condition but that his doctors are seeing sustained improvements. Zuma also said that Mandela is engaging with family during visits.
The leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, Mandela spent 27 years in prison during white racist rule. He is vulnerable to respiratory problems since contracting tuberculosis during his long imprisonment. The bulk of that period was spent on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town where Mandela and other prisoners toiled in a dusty stone quarry.
He was freed in 1990 and became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate divorced his second wife, Winnie, in 1996. However in recent years she has joined him and Machel at family events. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has been a frequent visitor to Mandela during his latest hospitalization. This marks Mandela’s fourth hospital stay since December.
Mandela “once said: ‘What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made in the lives of others,’” Machel said. “I have thought of his words on each occasion the world stood with him, making a difference to him, in his healing.”
June 27, 2013
By Kenneth Miller
Assistant Managing Editor
The landmark legislation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been dealt a severe blow by the nation’s highest court forty-eight years after it was enacted, sparking outrage from the president, Black elected officials on Capitol Hill to Blacks leading the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations.
“I am deeply troubled by the Supreme Court decision striking critical protections within the Voting Rights Act. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court struck Section 4, a provision which outlines the formula federal officials have used to determine which states must clear new voting laws with the Department of Justice. This decision ignores the persistence of discrimination in voting and weakens a vital tool that has protected the right to vote for all Americans for nearly 50 years,” voiced Congresswoman Maxine Waters (CA-43).
President Obama, whose historical victory in 2008 was cited in the ruling, was equally disappointed.
“I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act - enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress - has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” he said in a recently released statement.
“As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists. And while this decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.”
Said Congresswoman Karen Bass, one of the president’s most avid supporters throughout his term, “The Supreme Court’s decision is an outrage that will only give legal cover to those who have been vigorously committed to undermining the rights of people of color to vote. It is simply incomprehensible and a slap in the face to people of color to think that the court would open the door to even more discriminatory behavior by gutting a key provision of the Civil Rights Act which has traditionally served as a critical check on these types of antics.
“It’s hard to find the legal rationale for such a decision so we are left to conclude that the court isn’t interested in justice for all Americans and would rather force a conservative ideological agenda at the expense of protecting the voting rights of people of color. Congress must now act and pass legislation to ensure the right to vote is protected for every American and it is up to the people of this country to rise up and make sure that Washington does its job and protects their rights as American citizens...”
“I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling to limit the Voting Rights Act,” said Senator Diane Feinstein.
“The law successfully countered a century of aggressive limitations on minority voting. I believe Congress should move quickly to introduce new legislation to preserver voting rights for all Americans.”
Senator Barbara Boxer also weighed in stating, “The Supreme Court’s decision flies in the face of the clear evidence we continue to see of efforts to suppress the vote in minority communities across the country. It is devastating that the Court’s conservative majority would strike down a central provision of the law that has protected the voting rights of all Americans for nearly a half century, and was reauthorized by Congress almost unanimously just seven years ago. I’ll be working with my Senate colleagues to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that every American can participate fully in our democracy.”
“The Supreme Court’s decision this morning is deeply disappointing and a devastating blow to the preservation of voter rights and protections,” added Congresswoman Janice Hahn.
“The Voting Rights Act has proven to be critical time and time again in protecting the right to vote, free from discrimination. I wish that the Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary, but the fact is, this persistent discrimination is not a thing of the past. We have seen far too many cases, in just the last election, of efforts to block fellow Americans from casting a ballot.”
Speared by defiant conservative and Reagan appointee Associate Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia, the new ruling will free nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
The court divided along ideological lines, and the two sides drew sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and the nation’s progress in rooting out racial discrimination in voting. At the core of the disagreement was whether racial minorities continued to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination.
Los Angeles NAACP President Leon Jenkins blasted the court.
“Just because the court rules something doesn’t make it right. For the Supreme Court to say that the Act is outdated and unnecessary, it’s just not true. A good example would be... let’s take last year’s election when Barack Obama ran. An African American was poised to win the election for the mayor’s race, I believe it was in Alabama and they cancelled the election,” said Jenkins.
“Let’s take Florida. The only reason they moved Sunday voting is because that’s when black people went to the polls. These are blatant attempts to control the Black vote.”
States that are covered by Section 4 include: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Virginia. Certain counties in California, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota are also covered.
The Voting Rights Act was created to protect disenfranchised Blacks, mostly in the South who endured unfair voter tests given to them by the state.
“Look at the redistricting in Texas,” Jenkins continued.
“They got five new seats. Those new seats were a result of the rise in population of Hispanics and African Americans. When they redid those seats, they ended up giving African Americans and Hispanics just two out of five of those seats and they kept the others for themselves (white conservatives). They went through surgical maneuvering in order to put minorities in one or two districts.”
In 2006, the Voting Rights Act was renewed with amendments and after similar concerns arose in 2009, but Congress did nothing.
The Voting Rights Act was instrumental in the federal court blocking voter ID laws in both Texas and South Carolina because of the effect it would have on minority voters. South Carolina’s voter ID laws were later approved after an agreement was made to lessen its effect on minority voters. The court also blocked early-voting laws in Florida that tried to limit early-voting days to almost half as many days. Because of the statistic that African Americans were more likely to vote early than Whites, the limitation was struck down.
According to statistics provided by the NAACP, 362 restrictive bills that were introduced in 2011 and 180 restrictive bills in 2012 would restrict the number of people that were able to vote nationwide. These statistics were important to show the need of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and to paint a picture of how it will be without that formula.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act does still exist, but according to Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote for the majority, “In practice, the other section of the law - Section 5 - is dormant.” Chief Justice also wrote that striking down Section 4 “in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2. We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”
Twenty-four year old Sentinel intern Shonassee Shaver remembers that historical election of 2008 and how it impacted her life.
“It was the first time I participated in the voting process, Barack Obama versus John McCain. The lines were long and people where in a frenzy about the opportunity to elect the first Black president,” Shaver said.
“I know now that I participated in history, but my immediate concern is for those who may not have the same opportunity after the Supreme Court ruling.”
“According to a recent Census Bureau report in 2012, African-Americans voted at a higher rate (66.2 percent) than non-Hispanic Whites (64.1 percent) for the first time since the Census Bureau started publishing voting rates by eligible citizenship population in 1996. These gains can be attributed to the many activists and public officials who mobilized their communities to push back against stringent voter suppression laws that were being adopted in Republican-led state legislatures across the country. These policies and measures included voting restrictions effecting college voters, the elderly, and ex-felons,” added Rep. Waters.
Rep. Waters pointed to 2006, “I was proud to join an overwhelming majority of both Democrats and Republicans who recognized that protecting the fundamental right to vote remains an urgent priority. Counting the votes in both the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, Congress voted by a margin of 488-33 to reauthorize the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the court struck down. The conservative majority of the Supreme Court decided that its five votes outweighed the voice and the will of the American people.
“This decision requires that Congress act swiftly and with urgency to protect voters and address the persistent threat of voter discrimination. Despite partisan gridlock in Congress, we proved in 2006 that protecting the right to vote is a bipartisan goal. I am committed to working with my colleagues to ensure that the right to vote remains a reality for everyone.”
Nicole Williams contributed to this report.
June 20, 2013
By ANGELA DELLI SANTI
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — In an accelerated election for a new U.S. senator from New Jersey, the Democratic field is Cory Booker vs. everyone else.
The Newark mayor’s name recognition and deep-pocketed pals would give him an advantage in any statewide race. But the charismatic Booker — who clearly has national political ambitions and has spent significant time raising his profile on social media and giving speeches around the country — may be more familiar to talk show viewers than to New Jersey voters. His ride to Washington got bumpier when the election was moved up a year because of Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s death this month.
Booker, 44, hasn’t raised as much money as he hoped. He hasn't finished his second term in Newark, something he promised to do when he decided not to challenge Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election bid. And he didn't have time to try to discourage other Democrats from competing against him in a party primary.
Booker is still the odds-on favorite to win the Aug. 13 primary, which is akin to coronation because a Republican hasn’t held the seat for more than 40 years. One recent poll had him up by 40 points among other Democrats. It also showed him well ahead of the likely Republican challenger, former Americans for Prosperity state director Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 general election, which will settle the seat for a year.
As few as 200,000 voters could decide the outcome, an anticipated turnout so low it adds to the uncertainty.
It’s almost certain that Booker, a Stanford graduate and Rhodes scholar who grew up in the New York suburb of Harington Park, N.J., will be criticized during the primary for his fast-paced ambitions. One opponent, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, offered a glimpse of what is to come by proclaiming, “I don’t bring a sense of entitlement” to the race. Oliver, who like Booker is black and from Essex County, could peel away minority and female votes that would otherwise go to Booker.
The two others in the race, Rep. Frank Pallone, a 24-year veteran of Congress with deep ties to organized labor, and Rep. Rush Holt, an astrophysicist and son of a former senator, both have voting records more liberal than Booker’s. Additionally, the powerful public teachers union could come out against him because of his push for charter schools, school vouchers and other urban education reforms the union opposes.
Booker’s mere entry into this race meant backpedaling on his publicly stated intent to finish his second term as mayor of New Jersey's largest city, which expires next June. Asked about the turnabout during his campaign kickoff at a downtown dot-com, Booker acknowledged that his campaign plans had been upended.
“The reality is we have put so much into the pipeline here in Newark,” he said. “The momentum is clear. There is about $1 billion worth of development projects rolling into the city. As much as you might think I am necessary to complete those projects, this momentum will continue, and I will continue to be a part of it.”
Though he swears his allegiance to his adopted city, critics say he cares more about building his national brand than fixing the city’s systemic problems of crime and joblessness.
“Our infamous name for him is ‘Mayor Hollywood,’ because he's never here,” said Newark community activist Donna Jackson. “Or we call him ‘Story Looker,’ because every time you look around, he has another story.”
Critics see the rescue of a woman from a burning house and subsequent tweets about the experience (he has 1.4 million Twitter followers) as self-promotional, and say his investment in the downtown has come at the expense of neighborhoods where blight and crime persist. Critics say his trip to California the day after announcing his Senate candidacy for a fundraiser hosted by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is more evidence that he has already put Newark, and New Jersey, in his rearview mirror.
Supporters say Booker has reinvigorated the city.
He has attracted hundreds of millions in philanthropic money — including a $100 million grant from Zuckerberg to improve city schools — cleaned up parks and revitalized a once-moribund downtown that now boasts Panasonic’s headquarters, a sparkling new hotel, loft apartments with exposed brick walls, and increased commerce, including a trendy restaurant specializing in gourmet mac and cheese.
Don Katz, founder and CEO of Audible.com, an audiobook producer and Amazon subsidiary that relocated its headquarters to Newark six years ago, sees a vibrant city that abounds with cultural, culinary and entertainment options, and says he has never regretted moving the company from suburban Wayne to urban Newark.
He said he found Booker to be “an incredibly articulate visionary” whose ideas for urban transformation through the political system resonated with Katz. Both are also like-minded on school reform; among Katz’s 600 employees in Newark are interns and graduates of Newark charter schools.
Booker is aware of his detractors but is undeterred by them, beginning with former Mayor Sharpe James, who won re-election against the up-and-coming-councilman in 2002 after a bruising battle documented in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Street Fight.”
“I’ve heard it,” he said, “too much Twitter from the mayor, too much exposure. There’s not a criticism I haven’t heard over the years. I’ve heard it all. But there’s one thing everyone has to admit about my life as a professional, from my days working in housing high-rises here in Newark as a tenants’ rights attorney to my time as mayor, is that I do not run from challenges. I run toward them.”