January 31, 2013
LAWT Contributing Writer
President Obama is joined by African Americans this week who are voice their concern over the escalating rate of gun violence which is sweeping across the nation leaving school children, teachers and African Americans either dead or wounded.
More than 40 people died in the city of Chicago during the month of January – including 15-year old Hadiya Pendleton, a student at King College Preparatory High School who had recently performed with her school’s marching band at President Barack Obama’s 2nd inauguration. Pendleton was shot in the back on Jan. 29, while seeking shelter from rain with some friends in a park not far from her school.
Chicago and Sandy Hook, Conn. – where a gunman opened fire and killed 26 people at an elementary school in December – have been on the nation’s radar non-stop as gun violence across the country continues to claim the lives of children, women and men. They were also on Obama’s mind as he announced his plans to reduce gun violence during a White House briefing on Jan. 16.
The president announced 23 Executive Orders that would go into effect right away including: launching a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign; providing law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations; providing incentives for schools to hire school resource officers; and developing model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.
Executive Orders are limited, discretionary powers allowed to the president. Although they carry the full force of law, they are not laws in themselves, since Congress is the body charged with creating federal law in the United States.
Currently, federally-licensed firearms dealers are required to run criminal background checks on gun buyers, but it is believed that close to 40 percent of all gun sales are made by private individuals who are exempted from that requirement. Many of those private sellers take advantage of gun shows – large, periodic and temporary exhibitions of various firearms, military paraphernalia, and collectibles – to sell their guns since they do not engage in the activity full time. The president has called on Congress to close this loophole.
President Obama has also called on Congress to reinstate a ban on military-type assault weapons that expired in 2004, and to ban the possession of armor-piercing bullets and automatic handgun magazine clips that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, also known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, was part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. That act, which stood for 10 years, banned the possession of certain semi-automatic firearms, termed assault weapons, by name such as the Colt AR-15, the AK-47, and Uzis. The act also defined an assault weapon has having a minimum set of features such as a folding or telescopic stock; a pistol grip; a flash suppressor, or a grenade launcher. Semiautomatic handguns with an ammunition magazine that attached outside of the pistol grip, such as the Tec-9 were also considered to be assault-type weapons (regular or non assault-type, semiautomatic handguns have magazines that attach in the pistol grip, such as a Glock).
The president made several other recommendations that would free up resources for local police to better track weapons involved in criminal activities and provide for increased access to mental health services. Adam Lanza, the man police say went on the Sandy Hook shooting spree, was rumored to have suffered from a mental illness although a psychiatric profile of the young man has not been made available yet.
Critics of Obama such as the National Rifle Association and others have used the recent Executive Orders and recommendations as a rallying cry that the federal government is slowly chipping away at Americans’ right to own firearms.
A sampling of African-American opinion shows both support for common sense gun policy and a cautionary nod to what has been called the racist roots of gun control.
“We have to find a way to reduce the availability of military-style assault weapons. These aren't legitimate hunting weapons. They pose a unique threat to our community and to law enforcement,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson who represents the 10th District. “The City Council went on record last week supporting Senator Dianne Feinstein's legislation which would reinstate the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. I support that legislation, and I hope the Congress will too,” said the councilman.
Before she was elected to Congress Karen Bass (D-CA-37) worked and taught as a physician assistant for 10 years at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine program. During this time period she co-founded the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment after witnessing first-hand what the violence of crack cocaine and gangs were doing to South Los Angeles. She commended Obama for his leadership “in compiling thoughtful recommendations” on ways to reduce the plague of gun violence and stated, “We live in a society where children, particularly those growing up in urban areas are exposed to mass gun violence on a daily basis and the time has long passed for us to take action. Commonsense reforms such as universal background checks and ensuring health insurance plans cover mental health benefits are proposals that all Americans – including NRA members can get behind.”
In her weekly column posted on Jan. 25, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote, “The reason gun deaths are a huge epidemic in the United States is simple: It’s the guns and the permissive gun laws that protect them … Although the U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the global population, Americans own an estimated 35 to 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world.”
“Our nation is saturated with guns and the National Rifle Association wants more and more,” she said.
That is certainly one view.
Harry Belafonte, well known entertainer and social justice activist, recently remarked to the Associated Press that the Black community was not as involved in the gun control debate as it should be. “The African-American community ... where is that community? Where is that voice? … What really concerns me is the ingredients of the discourse,” he said.
As part of that discourse, Prof. Akinyele Umoja says a look to the past is in order. “The recent debate concerning gun control is complex, particularly as it relates to African descendants in the United States. As with almost every other issue in the US, the race dimensions of gun control cannot be dismissed.”
As a youth and a community activist, Umoja spent many days and nights pounding the streets of Compton and South Los Angeles. Now as an associate professor and chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, he believes that the issue of gun control for the Black community has to be seen as an issue of self-determination, self-reliance and self-defense.
Much of the debate around gun control in the mainstream press has centered around the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution which states, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
“Slave-holding society fought to prevent enslaved Africans access to weapons to resist and increase potential for insurrection,” said Umoja. “After emancipation, Blacks sought arms not only to hunt, but to protect themselves from white supremacist terror. Gun ownership was associated with citizenship and liberty and as a means to protect those principles,” he said. Umoja is also the author of the book, “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement,” due to be released this April.
“Black people will never disarm in a political and social environment where Black life is still challenged and not valued,” he said. “The Black community must advocate for policies that take weapons out of the hands of unstable elements (e.g. checks for mental illness), but we must also be vigilant to make sure these policies are not utilized in a manner to weaken the capacity of our community to defend itself from white supremacists.”
The concern over white supremacist violence is a real one. Earlier in January, The Atlantic Magazine wrote about a West Point report on the “dramatic rise in the number of attacks and violent plots originating from individuals and groups who self-identify with the far-right of American politics.” The article went on to describe the far right as “Christian fundamentalists, Militia movement groups, Skinheads, neo-Nazis, and violent anti-abortionists” that had been cited in the military academy’s report entitled Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America's Violent Far-Right.
Back in 2009, Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s quarterly investigative journal Intelligence Report, wrote that “[President] Barack Obama’s election has inflamed racist extremists who see it as another sign that their country is under siege by nonwhites … the idea of a black man in the White House, combined with the deepening economic crisis and continuing high levels of Latino immigration, has given white supremacists a real platform on which to recruit.”
Jeffrey Everett, a member of the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, was quoted in the award-winning film “41st and Central: The Untold Story of the L.A. Black Panthers,” as saying that the group had a rule: “Don’t give up your piece’ (gun). Umoja said that one of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s famous lyrics was, “when other folks give up theirs, I’ll give up mine.”
In some quarters of the Black community in 2013, it appears that still seems to be the case.
January 24, 2013
By JIM KUHNHENN
President Barack Obama devoted one word — “deficit” — to the issue that brought Washington to the brink of fiscal crises time and again during his first term.
But it was the paragraph that followed in his inaugural address that foreshadowed what’s to come — more hard bargaining and more last-minute deals driven by Obama’s own conviction that he now wields an upper hand.
“We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” he said. “The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
This was the language of his re-election campaign.
And while his speech contained no reference to either political party, his pointed rejection of “a nation of takers” was an implicit reminder of Mitt Romney’s infelicitous declaration that Obama’s support came from the 47 percent of American voters “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
In keeping with the objective of inaugural addresses, Obama chose to draw attention to the aspirations he hopes will define him rather than the conflicts that have characterized his relations with a divided Congress. He conceded that “outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time,” but forged ahead with a call for training more math and science teachers, for building roads and even for funding more research labs.
If there was a way to reconcile such spending with demands to stabilize the nation's debt, he didn't mention it.
“Inaugural addresses are intended for the ages, not for a particular moment,” said Matt Bennett, a former aide to Al Gore and a vice president of the Democratic-leaning group Third Way. “We will have to wait for the State of the Union, which is addressed directly to Congress, for a clearer sense of what he wants to do in the near-term and how he wants to get it done.”
Obama’s State of the Union address is scheduled for Feb. 12.
Obama and his aides approached the inaugural speech with a belief that the president had replenished his political strength with his re-election and with his end-of-year deal with Republicans that raised upper-income tax rates on some of the wealthiest Americans.
What's more, Obama delivered the speech as House Republicans were backing off earlier threats to withhold an extension of the nation’s borrowing limit if not accompanied by sharp reductions in government spending. Instead, House leaders planned a vote Wednesday to raise the government debt ceiling for three months to avert a first-ever default on U.S. obligations.
The White House welcomed the move, even though Obama as recently as last week had rejected the idea of a short term increase. “We shouldn’t be doing this on a one- to three-month time frame,” he said in a White House news conference. Yet, on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that while the bill still faces concerns in Congress, if it reaches Obama’s desk the president “would not stand in the way of the bill becoming law.”
The GOP bill would take the biggest potential crisis off the immediate horizon. But Obama and congressional Republicans still face two other fiscal deadlines: March 1, when steep automatic spending cuts in defense and domestic programs are scheduled to kick in, and March 27, when the current authority to keep government operating runs out. And then, on May 18, another debt limit crisis will loom.
“It’s a matter of how you interpret it,” said Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist for Vice President Joe Biden. “If you believe the Republicans will make the debt ceiling crisis a quarterly event, then this is a bad outcome. The White House playbook is that there are now enough Republican grownups in the room they can hammer out deals.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, set a hopeful tone, declaring that the inaugural was a chance to “renew the old appeal to better angels.” On Tuesday, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s Republican leader, urged Congress and Obama to make spending and the debt their top priority and called for an overhaul of entitlement programs.
“It’s nice to say, as the president did yesterday, that these programs free us to take the risks that make our country great,” he said on the Senate floor. “But if we don’t act to strengthen and protect them now, in a few years they simply won’t be there in their current form.”
During negotiations last month aimed at avoiding a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, Obama presented Boehner with a proposal that would have reduced spending on Medicare and other entitlement programs by $400 billion; reduced non-entitlement programs by $200 billion over 10 years; and lowered cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients and other beneficiaries of government programs.
But Obama also wanted some increased spending and still wants more tax revenue through changes in the tax code that would force the rich to pay more, proposals Republicans reject.
Even an ally like Bernstein pointed out that when it comes to spending outside of defense and entitlements, Obama has an incompatible goal of reducing the budget as a share of the economy to the lowest levels since President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration.
“It is very hard for me to square those tight budget constraints on the non-defense discretionary side of the budget and many of the aspirations I heard today,” Bernstein said. “That said, I think they are exactly the right aspirations.”
And there was little about finding common ground in Obama’s speech.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said.
It was not meant as a self-critique.
January 24, 2013
By HENRY C. JACKSON
Nearly 50 years ago, white supremacists planted a bomb in a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four young girls preparing to worship, an act of terror that shocked the nation and propelled Congress to pass that historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Lawmakers now want to honor those victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow.
Birmingham Reps. Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Spencer Bachus, a Republican, announced the bipartisan effort Tuesday to award the medal to the four slain children: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 when they were killed, and Denise McNair, who was 11.
Sewell said the bombing was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
“I wouldn’t be here, my mayor wouldn’t be here, were it not for the struggle and sacrifice of those freedom fighters,” Sewell said during an event at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
She was joined by Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, who says he knew Denise McNair well. His brother was her classmate and their families were friends.
At that time, “everybody in Birmingham — they had some kind of connection or relationship,” to the victims, he said.
The four girls were among a group of 26 children entering a church basement on Sept. 15, 1963, when dynamite equipped with a timer detonated. Twenty-two others were injured when the massive explosion blew a hole through a wall in the church, shattering most of its windows.
The grisly images from Birmingham drew national attention and deepened tumult in Birmingham, a city already rife with racial tension. In the aftermath, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a eulogy for the “martyred children.”
The bombing proved to be a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Within a year, Congress passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But it took more than a decade before any of the bombing’s perpetrators were successfully brought to justice.
In 1977, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, asking the FBI for help. That led to the murder conviction of Robert Chambliss, a known Ku Klux Klan member. Eventually, two others — Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry — were convicted for roles in the bombing, Blanton in 2001 and Cherry in 2002. A third suspect, Herman Cash, was identified by federal investigators but had already died when the FBI announced its case.
The push for a Congressional Gold Medal, which will be led by Sewell and Bachus in the House and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in the Senate, is part of a yearlong effort to commemorate Birmingham’s role in the civil rights movement.
Bachus, who couldn’t attend Tuesday’s event, said recognition from Congress is the right way to honor the four girls whose deaths “led to a permanent change in our society.”
January 24, 2013
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN Associated Press
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted Friday January 18 on charges that he used his office for personal gain, accepting payoffs, free trips and gratuities from contractors while the city was struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. The charges against Nagin are the outgrowth of a City Hall corruption investigation that already has resulted in guilty pleas by two former city officials and two businessmen and a prison sentence for a former city vendor. The federal indictment accuses Nagin of accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and truckloads of free granite for his family business in exchange for promoting the interests of a local businessman who secured millions of dollars in city contract work after the 2005 hurricane.
The businessman, Frank Fradella, pleaded guilty in June to bribery conspiracy and securities-fraud charges and has been cooperating with federal authorities. Nagin, 56, also is charged with accepting at least $60,000 in payoffs from another businessman, Rodney Williams, for his help in securing city contracts for architectural, engineering and management services work. Williams, who was president of Three Fold Consultants LLC, pleaded guilty Dec. 5 to a conspiracy charge.
The indictment also accuses Nagin of getting free private jet and limousine services to New York from an unidentified businessman. Nagin is accused of agreeing to wave tax penalties that the businessman owed to the city on a delinquent tax bill in 2006. In 2010, Greg Meffert, a former technology official and deputy mayor under Nagin, pleaded guilty to charges he took bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering city contracts to businessman Mark St. Pierre. Anthony Jones, who served as the city’s chief technology officer in Nagin’s administration, also pleaded guilty to taking payoffs. Meffert cooperated with the government in its case against St. Pierre, who was convicted in May 2011 of charges that include conspiracy, bribery and money laundering.
Nagin, a former cable television executive, was a political novice before being elected to his first term as mayor in 2002, buoyed by strong support from white voters. He cast himself a reform-minded progressive who wasn’t bound by party affiliations, as he snubbed fellow Democrat Kathleen Blanco and endorsed Republican Bobby Jindal’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2003. Katrina elevated Nagin to the national stage, where he gained a reputation for colorful and sometimes cringe-inducing rhetoric.
During a radio interview broadcast in the storm's early aftermath, he angrily pleaded with federal officials to “get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.” In January 2006, he apologized for a Martin Luther King Day speech in which he predicted New Orleans would be a “chocolate city” and asserted that “God was mad at America.” Strong support from black voters helped Nagin win re-election in 2006 despite widespread criticism of his post-Katrina leadership.
But the glacial pace of rebuilding, a surge in violent crime and the budding City Hall corruption investigation chipped away at Nagin's popularity during his second term. Nagin could not seek a third consecutive term because of term limits. Mitch Landrieu, who ran against Nagin in 2006, succeeded him in 2010. Aaron Bennett, a businessman awaiting sentencing in a separate bribery case, told The Times-Picayune that he introduced Nagin to Fradella specifically to help the mayor get Home Depot granite installation work for a business that he and his sons founded. Fradella's company received millions of dollars in city contracts for repair work at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and in the French Quarter after Katrina, the newspaper reported. Some of the allegations in the indictment have been the subject of state ethics complaints. In April 2010, the Louisiana Board of Ethics charged Nagin with two possible violations of state ethics law.
One charge involves Nagin’s “use of a credit card and/or gifts” from St. Pierre and his technology firm, NetMethods, while the company was working for the city. NetMethods paid for Nagin and his family to travel to Jamaica in 2005 and to Hawaii in 2004, according to newspaper reports. In the other charge, the Ethics Board says Stone Age LLC, the Nagin family’s business, was compensated for installation services provided to Home Depot while the home improvement retailer was negotiating tax breaks from the city.
Nagin has largely steered clear of the political arena since he left office. On his Twitter account, he describes his current occupations as author, public speaker and “green energy entrepreneur.” He wrote a self-published memoir called “Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After the Storm.”
Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, didn’t immediately return cellphone calls seeking comment on the indictment.