Bobbi Murray

A New Supreme Court Case Could Drastically Drain Unions' Resources

Should Mark Janus prevail in his Supreme Court case, public-sector employees in California and other states who now pay agency fees instead of union dues will be able to  opt out of any payment at all—even though they can still benefit from collective bargaining contracts and turn to the union with grievances, enjoying a free ride that drains union resources.

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Tax Blues: April Can Truly Be the Cruelest Month

Tax time is nerve-wracking enough for people with good-paying jobs, but for low-income taxpayers April can be loaded with additional traps, making it the cruelest month indeed. Many low-to-moderate income people eligible for Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) file early in January in expectation of the usual 21-day turnaround for a refund check. The money helps fill in gaps, pay a few bills and may be the largest lump sum the recipient gets all year.

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Looking Back: When California Budgets Shrank and Classrooms Exploded

Parents manage a huge pile of details to guide their children’s education, from lunch logistics to transportation to homework—all while holding down jobs and the home front.

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Charter Schools Are Frequently Dogged by Corruption Scandals - Why Is It So Hard to Hold Them Accountable?

The original concept of charter schools emerged nationally more than two decades ago and was intended to support community efforts to open up education. Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers union, lauded the charter idea in 1988 as way to propel social mobility for working class kids and to give teachers more decision-making power.

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Labor Plays Hardball

The polished hallways of the County Federation of Labor downtown are completely still, as a computer blinks silently and unattended beneath a photo of the late labor leader Miguel Contreras. Then, the doors at the far end of the hall abruptly fling wide, and several people emerge. Among them is Martin Ludlow, immaculately dressed and radiating energy.

The executive secretary-treasurer of the L.A. County Fed is engaged in an animated discussion with a colleague. He reaches for a cell phone, then shakes a visitor's hand and points the way to his office. On his desk there, amid neatly stacked piles of paper, sits a replica of a baseball with a base inscribed with the words: Sometimes You Have to Play Hardball.

For Ludlow, that time is now. In the coming months, he must balance two Herculean tasks. California unions are in the fight of their lives against three November 8 special election ballot initiatives backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The central battle will be over Proposition 75, designed to hamstring labor fundraising for political organizing and campaigns. But labor also opposes Proposition 74, which would subject teachers to a five-year probation period and short-circuit a right to a hearing before being fired; and Proposition 76, which would change the state constitution to give the governor unprecedented power over the budget and change funding levels for education.

Voter-rich L.A. will be critical to defeating the initiatives, and Ludlow is charged with rallying troops. Meanwhile, he's got to keep his eye on another front. As the county's top labor leader, and a national figure, Ludlow is pivotal in the historic fight to prevent the national union movement from imploding. In an event analogous to California seceding from the U.S., seven big unions (and millions of members) have now split from the 50-year-old AFL-CIO. The labor movement is at a crossroads: to either re-emerge with new vigor, or wither away.

Of balancing the two fights, Ludlow says bluntly, "It's difficult. I don't think the two work hand-in-hand necessarily easily. You just have to do it."

The November elections are most immediate, but the split that rocked the national AFL-CIO has reverberations -- and dangers -- for Los Angeles. The dissident Change To Win coalition -- formed earlier this year by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) with hotel and garment workers, grocery workers, and the Teamsters -- had grown impatient at the pace of reform under AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. They wanted union funds focused on union recruitment, and opposed the AFL-CIO's emphasis on funding political campaigns for candidates that often were only lukewarm allies.

The coalition broke away from the AFL-CIO in July. And last week, at a national meeting in St. Louis, the divorce became final. Change To Win, an alliance of unions that now numbers seven, formally became a labor federation separate from the AFL-CIO.

And L.A. was in the house in a big way.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of the Los Angeles local of UNITE HERE -- the hotel and garment union -- and an advocate of aggressive local organizing, addressed some 500 delegates. "She was very well received," enthuses Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. Also out in force were reps from L.A. locals of the SEIU, the lead breakaway union. And that's where it gets sticky for L.A.

Close to one-third of the member locals in the County Fed are SEIU. UNITE HERE is also influential. But the national AFL-CIO sets the rules for the local labor councils like the L.A. County Fed. It remains to be seen whether the AFL-CIO will permit the breakaway unions to work with those that stayed.

If the AFL doesn't allow it, that means here in L.A. the County Fed would be unable to work with SEIU locals that make up a large chunk of its membership. Even now, SEIU 1877 is ratcheting up an organizing drive that would unionize some 10,000 security guards. A ban would also preclude work with UNITE HERE, which just won a yearlong strike with support from Ludlow, and is engaged in a battle to unionize the Glendale Hilton.

The County Fed's budget would also take a serious hit, cut by perhaps as much as 40 percent. To date, relationships in Los Angeles between Change To Win locals and those still AFL-CIO-affiliated remain cordial. All have committed to working together to defeat antiunion ballot measures.

There is enough at stake for the entire union movement that the AFL-CIO is unlikely to crack down on local relationships. Representatives from state and local labor organizations and the AFL-CIO have met to discuss how to advance a labor agenda and hold the national movement together through local organizing campaigns.

Labor councils and community affiliates in some 15 cities are so convinced that local organizing is the way forward that they have formed a new national network, the Partnership for Working Families. "From the central labor council and state federations' perspective, they want to keep it intact, so there are negotiations going on at different levels," explains UCLA's Wong.

Ludlow was part of a delegation of local representatives that met with the AFL-CIO's Sweeney. "We made it very clear that we believe that the national labor movement can stay robust at the local level. But we have to be allowed to do it."

The AFL-CIO has taken the positive step of issuing "solidarity charters" that will allow unaffiliated unions to work with AFL unions. But there are some poison pills to be negotiated away before Change To Win unions consider participating. One provision would require non-AFL-CIO to pay 10 percent more in dues to the local councils or state federations they work with; the other provision would preclude officials from breakaway unions to hold office in the local body.

"We're adamantly opposed to the solidarity charters," says Tyrone Freeman, president of the SEIU home care workers union and a Change To Win enthusiast. He doesn't believe the AFL-CIO has much leverage in enforcing such agreements. "The finances of all the labor councils are generated by the locals. Resources from the national federation are limited to nonexistent."

Ludlow is less defiant, or at least more low-key. The AFL-CIO will either support their affiliates working locally with Change To Win affiliates - or not. He sees the Change To Win federation as having opened up the potential for that national labor movement to grow and flourish. He wants to bring another delegation of local labor leaders to meet with the AFL-CIO executive board to persuade them to allow AFL-CIO unions to work with Change To Win unions on the local level without penalty.

"If [they] don't do it, then clearly central labor council leaders and state federation leaders are pushed to be creative around how they restructure and refinance," he says. "That's a lot of unnecessary energy in my opinion. I'd rather focus those hours and those creative brainstorming sessions on how we organize the unorganized."

Dirty Business

On Friday, July 8, some 150 striking workers from the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 crowded a picket line at the Boeing facility in El Segundo, Calif.

The picketers — dressed in purple SEIU T-shirts — sought shade where they could find it. Many had shown up at dawn, and by noon the heat was taking a toll. But when a truck pulled into the long driveway, a current of energy surged through the crowd. Picketers jumped to their feet, waving signs and chanting "Si se puede!" as they crossed back and forth in front of the vehicle, blocking its way.

Just two days before, 700 janitors had voted to strike against the contractors providing cleaning services at Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrup Grumman aerospace facilities.

The truck's driver, a young Latino man, watched from his cab with a bemused expression. Five police cruisers arrived, hanging back while the driver consulted with someone via cell phone. When the conversation was finished, he grinned, backed his rig up, and retreated back down the driveway.

The picketers chanted louder, clapped, and cheered as the truck turned back out onto Imperial Highway. Their energy rejuvenated, the picketers continued singing and chanting as a school bus arrived to deliver them to the next action site. One of the women grabbed a bullhorn and leaned out the bus window. "Go and clean out the building, please," she called to onlookers, many of them Boeing employees. "I'll pay you $6.25. Clean the restrooms, please! But no vacation!" Howls of laughter from her colleagues sounded over the bus engine's thrum.

High morale is a crucial element here, because the strike could prove tough. For one thing, the lines of the conflict are slightly blurred. The most visible target for picket lines are the multibillion-dollar aerospace companies where the janitors work. But the dispute is actually with three cleaning contractors — Aramark Corporation, Somers Building Maintenance Corporation, and Servicon Systems, Inc. — retained by the aerospace giants to maintain their facilities.

There's little doubt that strikers face financial hardship while walking a picket line, even with the modest strike benefits provided by the union. Erica Romero, who has worked the night shift at the Northrup facility in Redondo Beach for the past four years, says she makes $7.65 an hour, with no paid sick days or health insurance; some of her colleagues make a dollar less an hour.

With her paycheck-to-paycheck existence, she's not sure how long she can stay out on the picket line. But she's adamant that she deserves better than she's been getting. "We're not asking for anything big, just a decent salary, nine or ten dollars an hour. That's just."

Dick Davis, chief negotiator for the three cleaning contractors, says that management has offered a $2.75-an-hour raise over three years -- about ninety cents a year. He says that the profit margins for the cleaning contracting companies are very thin. "Everybody perceives that their employer is making a ton of money, but that's not true."

The union strategy is to pressure the client aerospace companies, which enjoy lucrative government contracts and hire the subcontractors. "The client companies pit the contractors against each other and the lowest bid gets the work," explains Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877, the janitors' union. The hope is that Boeing, Northrop, and Raytheon officials will sit down at the negotiating table to work out a solution, since, in the union's view, they ultimately hold the purse-strings that could be loosed to provide the janitors a raise.

A Northrup spokesman would only say that it's company policy to not interfere in subcontractors' labor relations; Boeing referred us to Davis, the negotiator for the cleaning contractors, and Raytheon did not respond to calls.

The union is using an array of tactics to get all parties to the negotiating table. The ongoing actions at the corporate facilities continue, and political pressure may be building as well. The amount of business aerospace companies do with state and federal officials make them vulnerable to a word from those quarters. Garcia has had conversations with U.S. Rep. Jane Harman and state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, whose districts include a lot of aerospace companies, and California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez is sure to make a few key phone calls.

Davis, speaking for the cleaning subcontractors, thinks that the strike hasn't got as much support as the union claims, saying that the companies know who shows up at work and who doesn't. Union spokeswoman Beth Trimarco counters that picketers come out before their shifts, and may be too intimidated to avoid work. "At any given time there are something like 400 workers out at the actions," says Trimarco.

Porfirio Corona, who was out at last Friday's picket line, wouldn't guess how long the strike will last. Corona, an 11-year employee of the Aramark Corporation, doesn't look forward to going without a paycheck. He usually brings home about $1,000 monthly. He and his wife are both diabetic; the disease has blinded her, and she's on Medi-Cal. Corona has no health care coverage, and doesn't look well. But, he says, "I'm going to hang in there until the end. I hope the union wins."

A Law and Order Kind of Guy

Talk to David Soares and you get a sense of a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, not the sort that would create a seismic shift in public policy. But Soares' Nov. 2 victory in the race for District Attorney of New York's Albany County seems to have jarred loose changes that once seemed impossible; reforms in the state's so-called Rockefeller drug laws, which are so harsh that an international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, called for reform.

In mid-November, after 30 years of inaction in the face of public pressure, the New York State legislature changed the laws significantly, reducing the 15-to-life mandatory sentences for some offenders and allowing some 400 already-incarcerated to apply for re-sentencing under the new guidelines. While it's far from the full repeal many hope for, reform advocates praise the move as a first step toward more wide-ranging reform. They also credit the election of the soft-spoken Soares, 35, with the break in the decades-long legislative logjam.

Soares ran against his boss, Paul Clyne, the incumbent DA and outspoken supporter of the Rockefeller drug laws who fired his assistant DA in June, just minutes after Soares announced his challenge. The race between the two turned largely on their differences over the issue.

Reform was but one piece of Soares' platform, but one that evidently struck the deepest nerve. The New York state laws, enacted in 1973 and named for then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, removed judicial discretion and imposed dizzyingly steep sentences – a first-time offense for the possession for sale of two ounces of a narcotic substance or just simple possession of four ounces could yield 15 years-to-life. The recent law change would reduce the sentence range to eight to 20 years.

The racial inequities in the laws' application are also striking: whites use drugs at rates comparable to African-Americans and Latinos, but only 4.9% of those serving time under Rockefeller statutes are white, while 48.7% are black and 45.5% Latino, according to statistics complied by the New York City Legal Aid Society.

And the cost – the 17,000 individuals imprisoned under the statutes run the state of New York a $550 million-plus annual bill.

Those were the arguments that Soares, Albany County's first African-American district attorney, makes for reform and that he feels resonated with those who supported his campaign. Bottom line: "This is a law that doesn't work; it's ineffective," he says. The issue mobilized his base for different reasons. "You can look at the disproportionate impact that the Rockefeller drug laws have on different communities and that's in and of itself enough to get those folks involved and passionate," he says. In more conservative quarters, the cost of keeping drug laws in place make calls for reform make sense.

Measured Approach

Soares doesn't come off like a firebrand – he talks like a lawyer, sometimes even like a cop, and refers to himself as law enforcement. He is, after all, a DA. He sounds downright law-and-order as he recalls a conversation with a district attorney down-state from Albany who disagrees with much of Soares' reform position, particularly that judges should have discretion on sentencing.

"The fear is always going to be that you take down a mid-to-upper level drug kingpin and that drug kingpin, through his counsel, puts together a little story and the judge gives him a slap on the wrist," Soares says, seemingly sympathetic. But ultimately, he doesn't buy it; at least in Albany County. "Judges are subject to recall," he notes.

With such a measured approach, Soares seems an unlikely figure to galvanize the ardently pro-reform grassroots network that carried him into office in a three-way race. (His former boss, Clyne, dropped out the final weekend after polling in the single digits.) But there he was on election night surrounded by a jubilant crowd of supporters.

His candidacy helped create the perfect storm to at long last get reform moving, just as advocates thought it was dead again, according to Karen Scharff, director of Citizen Action of New York and co-chair of the Capital District Working Families Party, which put grassroots muscle into Soares' campaign.

"It was very clear as the race [that elected Soares] was coming up that the legislature was going to kill Rockefeller drug law reform," Scharff says. The Assembly had a majority supporting reform, she explains, but that body, along with the Senate and the governor, couldn't agree on a plan, in large part, by Scharff's analysis, because of the adamant opposition of the state district attorney's association.

That's why reform advocates had long thought that "the best way to see it moved is to have a DA lose opposing drug law reform," Scharff says. They were evidently right – Soares, after explicitly running on Rockefeller law reform, won on November 2 and the legislature's final vote to moderate the laws came a mere month later. Three Senate opponents of reform had been defeated in the same elections, by candidates backed by philanthropist George Soros, funder of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The message had clearly come through – stall on reform at your political peril.

Giving Back

Despite his pivotal role in shaking loose changes in the law, Soares was not always particularly interested in drug policy.

"Those issues involving narcotics – I can't say it's the reason I became a prosecutor," he says. A graduate of Cornell and then Albany Law School at Union University, Soares also matriculated elsewhere: the "tough community," of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, a mill town of some 70,000 residents.

"I got out and I wanted to do something in my life, in my community, to give back," he says. He had come to the Albany County DA's office first as a law school intern, and fell in love with the work. "As a prosecutor, you really have an opportunity to impact communities with your work."

He arrived at his position on drug policy over time in the prosecutors office. "You start to process more and more cases and you think you're doing a fantastic job and cleaning up the streets, but then you realize – wait a minute. There are more police officers than when I started, there are more prosecutors today than when I started. There are more judges today than when I started. What are we doing?"

He wanted to see changes, but instead, he reflects, "I had locked up mothers and daughters, on the same court calendar on the same day." There was something terribly wrong, he concluded.

The real series of epiphanies occurred after he was appointed Albany's first community prosecutor. He started "thinking more like a problem-solver than a case-processor. You start looking for solutions."

Soares took a deliberate, tedious approach to lowering the crime rate in his area. He figured he couldn't solve the problems of the entire city – he would focus on 20 square blocks. He got aerial views to use as a map, and began a painstaking assessment of the area, using color-coded pins to map out the results. "What I discovered was, there was something in the neighborhood of 86 parolees, there were 30-something probationees, there were certain folks receiving Section 8 housing vouchers, there were social service recipients there, churches, a number of civic organizations." He even kept track of licensed and unlicensed dogs.

And Soares did what few DAs would ever do; he attended community and church meetings, notebook and mind wide open, and he listened. "After they get past the venting, people will really start to communicate with you and tell you what the problems are," he says.

Soares could also see the problems for himself. "It's pretty obvious why drug dealers look to those neighborhoods to go in and conduct their trade. It's the dark streets, it's the vacant buildings, it's the high grass with abandoned cars there." As a DA, he could pick up the phone, get cars towed and lots cleared.

"We've got to stabilize the environment, sort through the people you have removed to make sure you're providing treatment for those that need it, and then providing incarceration for those who are trafficking, dealing with those sentences appropriately," he enumerates. "These things have to be moving along the same track."

He's taken with a program in Brooklyn that provides an alternative to prison. "Folks are getting treatment on the inside, they're in for two years and it's treatment as well as education and vocational support. They have to go through it all before they can come out."

Two years, Soares says, is a long enough time to ensure a measure of success for the person coming back out onto the street. And that's where Soares' approach of improving life in the community comes into play in keeping a drug offender clean and moving forward.

A Laboratory For Reform

Soares' experience as community prosecutor is the prism through which he views his new role as Albany County DA. He hopes to make the county a laboratory for reform. Buy-in from those who elected him is key, including Albany County's African-American community, approximately 5% of a white-majority county. Meanwhile, his supporters join him in looking for further reforms in the Rockefeller drug laws. The first step is incremental, says Michael Blain, policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, "But it's been nowhere. Incremental is good." He calls the sentence reductions "half of phase one."

The four phases, Blain says, are sentence reduction, judicial discretion – that is, putting sentencing in the hands of judges instead of locking them in by law; retroactivity and treatment. There is some measure of retroactivity in the recent reforms – some 400 of those already serving time under the laws can now apply for relief.

States like California, Michigan and Pennsylvania have changed drug policy to emphasize treatment or allow more judicial discretion.

Dan Cantor, social policy director of the Working Families Party, sees more Rockefeller drug law reform in the future, but thinks that substantial change will only come with a new governor. He's pleased with the base the Soares campaign built around the drug policy reform issue.

"This is one of those rare cases where you say, let's turn a campaign about a candidate into an issues campaign," he says. It's clear Cantor has an eye on mobilizing that base for the governor's race in 2006, when Democrat Eliot Spitzer will take on incumbent George Pataki. Spitzer, Cantor says, is good on the reform issue.

Soares is hopeful that what he does in Albany can offer a blueprint for a viable drug policy to the rest of the state and country. "We need to continue exploring the opportunities we have to bring this issue to the consciousness of more folks," he says, "and start treating some of these issues as issues of public health."

Negotiating Three Strikes

When an ebullient Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger held a Nov. 3 news conference to comment on the elections and all the ballot initiatives that his star power had helped make and break, among the broken was Proposition 66, the initiative to reform California's Three Strikes law.

The measure was defeated handily, 53 percent to 47 percent, when it had once looked like an easy winner. The reform measure enjoyed a 41-point lead in some polls until the governor took a last-minute central role in crushing it. For one thing, he pulled in former Governor Pete Wilson, who wrangled an Orange County billionaire to pour in $1.5 million. Then the movie action-hero-turned-governor also starred in a seemingly endless loop of scare-tactic television commercials – using a configuration of "facts" so skewed that a superior court judge had ruled they couldn't be used in the official ballot arguments.

So it was a little surprising that Schwarzenegger announced at his post-election press conference an interest in changing the controversial California law, which, unlike any other in the country, counts any felony – not merely those considered by law to be serious or violent – as a third strike requiring a 25-to-life sentence.

"I'm going to have conversations with Attorney General Bill Lockyer and you know, with the legislators," the governor declared to the assembled press corps, promising to "look into the Three Strikes system and see if there is anything that ought to be adjusted." And indeed, last week a spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed that initial conversations between the offices of Lockyer and Schwarzenegger had begun.

But the attorney general's spokesman was emphatic about just how preliminary the discussion has been thus far. It's just one indication of just how difficult it may be to get Three Strikes legislation "adjusted," as the governor puts it. Any changes – from tinkering to turning the statute upside-down – must again go on the ballot, because Three Strikes was initially passed as a statutory initiative.

"That presents a unique sort of problem," said Nathan Barankin, Lockyer's communications director. "The legislature can't just pass a bill the governor signs. Any changes would have to be ratified by the people."

But even getting reform through the legislature – the first step toward the ballot – could be tricky, given how gun-shy politicos are about being seen as weak about crime. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg has carried reform legislation that tracks closely with Proposition 66 reforms for several sessions now, and each time the bill has been killed by inaction. Legislative timidity was doubtless ratcheted up by the results of the election and the way it has increased Schwarzenegger's political influence.

Despite fear-mongering by the opposition, Proposition 66 would not have flung open prison doors for child molesters and thugs, as the Schwarzenegger commercials warned. The initiative would have amended the law so that the third strike had to be a violent or serious felony – averting injustice in the future, as supporters saw it.

Another reform crucial to those already incarcerated: Proposition 66 would have permitted third strikers an appeal process that could enable them to be tried for the crime that constituted the third strike instead of receiving an automatic life sentence on strike three. "You'd go back to the same court, and it's set aside as a strike, and the person can be sentenced for the real thing," Goldberg explained in a phone interview. "It could be a third strike, or not," depending on the crime.

This last detail – providing a chance at a new trial and reduced or altered sentence for those already doing 25-to-life under the Three Strikes law – is non-negotiable for Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, or FACTS. "There's no way we can support anything that doesn't include retroactivity," said Geri Silva, FACTS's executive director.

It's also the part most likely to be jettisoned if Three Strikes reform ever does wend through the legislature to the ballot. Assemblyman Mark Leno, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee and a Proposition 66 supporter, doubts that any reform will be retroactive to permit a chance at resentencing for three-strikers now behind bars.

Schwarzenegger's press office had no comment on which way he leans on this matter, but his position will be critical. "You only have a chance of passing it if the governor has given even behind-the-scenes signals that he'll sign something," Leno said in a phone interview. Whatever passes the legislature before going to the ballot will not get there without a consensus led by the governor. "I don't think we're going to get anything retroactive through the legislature," Leno said.

But Goldberg expressed optimism both on the prospects for reform and getting retroactivity into the mix. "The fact that it took over $8 million in the last few days and scaring everyone, shows we have momentum," she said. The political opening may even be provided by Schwarzenegger, who, Goldberg argued, wants to maintain a moderate image. The initial strong support for Proposition 66 may have made him want to get out in front of some reform.

One wild card remaining is the powerhouse California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison guards union, which was central to the passage of the three strikes initiative in 1994 and funneled over a million dollars into defeating Proposition 66.

Their history suggests that they may obstruct any moves at reform, but it may be better for them politically to go along with any changes the governor tries to advance. They are further on the defensive as the prison system comes under increasing scrutiny for a series of apparent human rights abuses, from inmates forced to fight gladiator-style by armed guards to the inmate who bled to death in his cell while guards allegedly watched the Super Bowl and ignored his screams. The scandals have put the union under the microscope, accused by lawmakers and rights advocates of abetting a code of silence that covers for the perpetrators. CCPOA didn't return calls for comment.

FACTS' Silva says that the coalition that backed Proposition 66, which includes the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization for drug law reform founded by billionaire George Soros, is considering its next move.

"All the players are out there," says Silva, "all talking, all meeting so we can come together on something that includes retroactivity so that third strikers in for nonserious, nonviolent crimes can get resentenced."

"There could be a way to modify the law where there'd be broad consensus," said Barankin, of the attorney general's office. But could there be a consensus if a new initiative didn't provide a chance at resentencing for those already imprisoned? "We're getting way ahead of ourselves here," Barankin cautioned, "because no one has put pen to paper on this."

The Drug War Goes Prime Time

Sergeant Joe Friday would probably flip in his fictional grave at the sight of HBO's new cop show, which just concluded its first season last month.

The Wire looks at the war on drugs as it is waged in the inner cities of Baltimore by an inter-agency team of federal agents and local police officers. The cop genre has come a long way from the strait-laced corn served up on Dragnet, the mother of all TV police dramas, but The Wire may pioneering a sub-genre of its own. Created by David Simon, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and co-written by ex-police officer Ed Burns, The Wire challenges some of the core assumptions that underlie the typical cop show.

While most such series allude to the broader politics that drive law enforcement, Wire takes the next step. Here the agencies are portrayed not as zealous guardians of the public good, but rather as political entities pursuing their vested interests - whose actions often have unjust and cruel consequences. As Simon told Salon magazine when the series debuted in June, "Once you're at war, you have an enemy. Once you have an enemy, you can do whatever you want...I'm not supportive of the idea of drugs, but what drugs have not destroyed, the war on them has."

Here is the story set-up in brief: D'Angelo Barksdale, a young lieutenant in a large Baltimore drug organization run by his uncle, Avon Barksdale, is acquitted on a homicide charge after the star witness is intimidated into recanting her story. Detective James McNulty is brought in by the presiding judge to assess just how the case went south and finds out that the Barksdales appear to be linked to quite a few murders. The deputy commissioner then calls for a task force to wipe out Barksdale's operation; it includes federal agents, the tenacious McNulty, hot-shot undercover cop Shakima Greggs and another savvy detective, Bunk Morehead.
Corrupt cops, burnt-out cops, even homicidal cops are not new in Hollywood. But The Wire is different in that we see how department politics affect the execution of the drug war. The series makes clear, for example, that the task force is intended as a public relations measure after the botched homicide prosecution. "Keep the papers off it, make an arrest or two," directs one higher-up. The policemen also don't always show great commitment to their job. Two officers balk and get testy with McNulty when he dispatches them to cross-check some records, a basic, ground-floor tactic in a thorough investigation.

Kevin Zeese, founder of Common Sense for Drug Policy, hasn't watched The Wire regularly, but welcomes its realism about the conduct of the war on drugs. "All these shows with a more realistic portrayal open the conversation to a more sensible level of discourse about the issue instead of one based on emotion," he says. Traffic, the surprise Hollywood blockbuster directed by Steven Soderbergh, did portray the futility of the drug war. But Zeese says, "It didn't show how blacks are treated differently by the criminal justice system at every step of the way."

What is most unusual about The Wire is that the series depicts both sides of the drug war. Darnell M. Hunt, professor of sociology, says The Wire takes an unconventional approach to its depictions of African- Americans. Hunt, who is also Director the UCLA Department of African-American Studies, and is conducting a five-year study of the depictions of African-Americans on prime-time television, loves the show.

"It's rare to see African-American characters portrayed across the spectrum like that -- in terms of sexuality, motivations. I'm not one who typically likes these kinds of shows, but I am struck by the nuanced, very interesting portrayals," he says.

The law enforcement task force is racially mixed. McNulty (played by Dominic West) is Irish- American, while his colleagues Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Morehead,(Wendall Pierce), and Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) are African-Americans. Greggs is revealed as a lesbian when she arrives home and is greeted by her sweetheart, who is also African-American. Morehead is a genial and dedicated veteran, while Daniels is a careerist, for whom the badge often trumps race. When two white members of the task force get liquored up and harass and humiliate the African- American residents, Daniels advises them get their story straight to avoid an investigation. "He did not piss you off," he says of the black teenager the two cops beat up. "He made you fear for your safety and that of your fellow officers."

And the people selling the drugs are just as complex and fully drawn. "Even the quote-unquote bad characters are humanized in ways you don't usually see on television," Hunt says. "This show just strikes me as being the most balanced and realistic portrayal of people involved in drug culture." We watch D'Angelo (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) as his qualms about the violence of his trade increase; we see his Uncle Avon (Wood Harris) in an apron as he cooks at a community event and cuddles D'Angelo's toddler son. "In one episode, we saw one of the (drug syndicate) lieutenants in the organization going off to a junior college to take a business management course," Hunt says. "It was to get better at managing his drug business, but it was an unexpected twist, there was a feeling of reality about it."

The series also makes clear the fact that a drug economy is the logical outcome of the overwhelming problems facing the inner cities. Series creator Simons told Salon that the government has created "war zones where the only economic engine is the self-perpetuating drug trade...they've spent 34 years taking neighborhoods and basically divesting them from the rest of America. We've embraced a permanent war of attrition against the underclass, and it can't work."

But despite its innovative style and message, there are those who find the cop/drug war genre objectionable in general. "I saw one episode for maybe 10 minutes and then shut it off," says Anthony Papa, visual artist and activist working to reform drug law.

"I don't think it neutralizes it just because the cops are corrupt," Papa says. Someone who knows nothing about drug sales or use would look at The Wire "and see the violence and would support the war on drugs," Papa says.

Papa has personally experienced the harsh reality of the drug war -- he served 12 years of a two 15 years-to-life concurrent sentences for passing 41/2 ounces of cocaine in an envelope. Governor George Pataki granted Papa clemency after his art work, done in prison, was displayed in New York's acclaimed Whitney Museum and at the Outsider Gallery.

For Papa, The Wire is just the latest example of long history of Hollywood racism. He points to the fact that the drug dealers are all African-American. "Most drug users I know are white. I've worked in mid-town Manhattan, around Wall St., where people were using drugs. I never saw the police raid Wall Street," Papa says. Virtually everyone depicted as part of the drug trade in The Wire is black. In the pilot, the one white addict gets killed after passing a phony $20 bill, in a scam devised by his African-American lover -- reinforcing the notion that blacks are dangerous to whites. But it doesn't come off with the same volatility as the scenes in the film Traffic where the white drug addict daughter of the "drug czar" is seen turning tricks with African-American customers to feed her habit. "It's like [the ongoing HBO prison series] Oz -- it's all about exploitation of the marginalized and disenfranchised," Papa says.

"Most drug dealers are white, many people in the drug trade are white, and if you didn't already know that, you wouldn't know it from watching the show," agrees Hunt. But in defense of the series, Hunt says the plot is based on the real-life case of a drug organization and its young leader in Washington D.C.

The Wire's shortcomings, however, are important because the view of African-Americans is still defined by media images. "In an ideal world we'd have enough variety in representations out there that no one show would have to represent the racial experience," Hunt says. So while The Wire's unconventional approach to writing and depiction of the mixed motives of the drug warriors make it a landmark show, its failings reveal just how much further we still need to go.

Orphaned By the Drug War

"I live a sad life," says Mattie White. "Every time I think it's going to be okay, it's not, and I just get sad again."

And there is no happy ending in sight for Mattie, who at 51 is raising her granddaughter Roneisha, 8, and grandson Cashawn, 5, while their mother, Kizzie White, 25, serves a 25-year sentence in a Gatesville, Texas, prison. Kizzie was arrested in 1999 for selling cocaine as part of a large-scale and now highly controversial sting operation in Tulia, Texas. Cashawn's father was also arrested as part of the same bust, and is now serving an 80-year sentence. Her kids ended up with Mattie.

A Tale of Injustice

Kizzie was one of 46 defendants -- 37 of them black -- who were rounded up in a mass arrest that netted roughly one out of every eight residents of Tulia's small African- American community. There are an estimated 300 black residents in Tulia. Three of Mattie's kids were arrested: Kizzie, Kareem (sentenced to 60 years), and Donnie (sentenced to 12 years). "I just couldn't believe it -- all these people locked up like this," says Mattie White, who manages the Tulia 46 Relief Fund. "Ain't no 50 people selling drugs, ain't no 30 people selling drugs (in Tulia)."

And Mattie has no doubts of her daughter's innocence. To her knowledge, Kizzie never used or sold drugs. "They didn't find no drugs," she says of the bust.

The massive drug sweep was based on the word of one officer, Tom Coleman, who is now accused of being corrupt, and a tiny bag of cocaine. The ACLU -- which, along with the NAACP of Texas, filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Justice in Oct., 2000 -- called the 18-month-long Tulia sting "a blatant, racially-motivated act of police and prosecutorial misconduct."

Reform advocates see Tulia as a high-relief example of the way the war on drugs is prosecuted nationally. "Drug abuse cuts across class and race lines, but drug enforcement is located in low-income communities of color," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Washington DC-based prison reform organization and author of the book, "Race to Incarcerate."

Mom is in Jail

Like Kizzie, most women of color in prison are doing time for minor non-violent drug offenses, which account for the rapidly growing rate of female incarceration. A Sentencing Project report shows that the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose a breathtaking 888 percent from 1986 through 1996, fueled by the escalating war on drugs. Drug offenses accounted for nearly half of all female convictions. And 80 percent of these female inmates had children.

Significantly, a large percentage of women sentenced for drug offenses are African-American and Latina; in New York, a staggering 91 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug offenses are black or Latina, as are 54 percent in California.

And they are overwhelmingly poor. According to sociologist Dorothy Ruiz, "Eighty percent of imprisoned women report incomes of less than $2000 in the year before the arrest and 92 percent report incomes under $10,000." Kizzie, who worked at a meat processing plant making a paltry $8 an hour until a month before her arrest, was actually better off than most others.

A vast majority of women convicted for drug offenses are involved with holding and using small amounts of narcotics, while others get caught for conspiracy, that is, being involved with men who use and sell. Both men and women can serve long sentences thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing, but women usually end up serving more time for lesser offenses. Kizzie, for example, was imprisoned on charges of delivering cocaine on three occasions and marijuana on one. According to Mattie, her daughter would be facing 52 years behind bars but for the judge's decision to run the sentences concurrently.

"The only way you can escape mandatory minimum is by cooperating, and that means giving someone else up," says Monica Pratt, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But a woman is more likely to be a low-level user than a drug kingpin and therefore has little to trade for a lighter sentence, while her boyfriend who may be more deeply involved can cut a better deal.

When women are imprisoned, it also affects three generations of family: the grandmother, mother and children. Rather than turn the kids over to the child welfare system, the grandmother often steps forward to take care of kids.

Living With Grandma

Mattie still lives in Tulia, a seven-hour drive from her daughter, and juggles two physically demanding part-time jobs -- as a prison guard and an in-home care worker for infirm women -- while she raises two active young children.

"It's a stressful job for grandmas to raise grandkids -- the kids think they can get away with everything," she says. Mattie admits that she sometimes lets some things slide because she feels sorry for the kids, who only see their mother two or three times a year. Compassion and the sheer exhaustion of cooking, cleaning and otherwise caring for the children makes it hard to keep constant tabs on the children. "We teach them right from wrong, though," White says firmly.

Mattie is one of thousands of African-American grandmothers being squeezed by a cruel effect of the war on drugs: the spiraling incarceration rate for African-American women, who make up fully half of the female prison population. With the mothers behind bars, grandmothers become the primary guardians of the children left behind. Fifty-three percent of the children of incarcerated parents are cared for by their grandmothers. The result is a crushing emotional, physical and financial burden imposed on older women of color, the enormity of which is only beginning to be assessed.

"Female incarcerations place three generations at risk and destroy families, leaving lasting scars on children as well as putting an enormous financial and health burden on grandmother caregivers," Ruiz writes in a recent paper published in the Western Michigan University, School of Social Work Journal.

These grandmothers often suffer from number of health problems, such as depression, insomnia, hypertension, back pain, and stomach pain, caused by physical and emotional stress. Mattie suffers from high blood pressure, and was hospitalized twice in June with a stomach ailment that doctors linked to stress. The women also tend to suffer social isolation as they juggle their various responsibilities. But the grandmothers often tend to under-emphasize their health problems to avoid being seen as too infirm to take care of kids who often have nowhere else to go.

The financial burden is often severe, as well. Many have worked low-wage jobs all their lives and, unlike surrogates in the foster care system, do not receive monetary support from the government. The arrangement can be precarious for both the caretakers and the children. Mattie talks about shuffling grandkids between other relatives while she works (her husband is also out of the house on the job). She often worries about the health of granddaughter Roneisha, who doesn't get to sleep until after Mattie gets home after 10 at night. "She's a sick little girl," she frets.

In Mattie's eyes, the entire White family is a victim of the drug war and its agents. "He (Coleman) messed up a bunch of people's lives, not only the ones in prison, but their children and the grandparents that are looking after them," she says.

A Bleak Future

Unless Kizzie is cleared of all charges, her release from prison won't put an end to the White family's problems. If she can't find a job, she will be ineligible for welfare. Persons with felony convictions for drug use or sale permanently lose all welfare benefits under changes instituted to welfare laws in 1996. As a result, grandmothers often retain responsibility for kids during a lengthy transition period after the mothers leave prison.

If the family lives in public housing, there is a substantial risk of losing their home if the returning ex-offender is still addicted -- one offense by a relative and the whole family, including the grandmother and the children can be thrown out. "It's a complex problem. They're using drugs, and some of these women are terrible mothers. But it's not the kids' faults. The long-term goal should be to re-unite the kids with a drug-free mother," Mauer says.

Pratt points out that there is virtually no drug rehabilitation until the last few months in prison, and, at the federal level, it is left to the discretion of prison officials. "So you go to prison, going cold turkey, not learning any new behavior patterns, drug treatment at the very end of your sentence, if at all. What support do you have to stay clean?" Pratt asks.

But there is hope in Kizzie's case, at least. Randy Credico, of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which is involved with the Tulia 46, says Kizzie could be released from prison if state officials find evidence of official misconduct. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn opened a state investigation into the bust in August.

Credico says, "The Attorney General could vacate the sentences, or could take over the cases and drop them and give them a new trial in a new city." The defendants could also receive a pardon or clemency, but that would require them to admit guilt, which Credico says is highly unlikely.

For now, Mattie White continues her balancing act. Her grandkids are getting more used to not having their mom around. "They stopped asking me when she was coming home, will she be back before my birthday, that kind of thing," she says. "But when they see other kids' parents getting out, they feel sad."

To learn more about the effects of the drug war on people of color, visit the Web site of the Breaking the Chains conference, taking place this weekend in Los Angeles.

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