It seems that no matter how much the economy worsens, how many people are laid off, how many lose their homes and can’t meet gas or utility payments, somebody, somewhere, always manages to present to us one more new sports franchise, a few more stadiums, several new arenas, a spate of new blockbuster movies and another schedule of hip-hop concerts.
It’s a very old game.
About 2,000 years ago, the term “Bread and Circuses” was introduced to describe the political strategy of the Roman leadership, leading up to Rome’s eventual “fall.” The idea was to skimp on serious commitments to public service, ethical behavior and economic inclusion, but to give the people, instead, diversions, cheap entertainment and distractions that would take their minds away from the very serious problems they were enduring. If you’ll recall, the gladiators, who provided the diversion, were very well taken care of — right up to the point when the crowd gave them the “thumbs down.”
Perhaps that partially explains why seven new arenas have been built for NBA teams since 2002, and why ten new NFL stadiums have been erected over the same period.
There’s always time, it seems, for another game, another round of playoffs, or a new, expanded, college athletics conference, to fill those 124 college football stadiums and the scores of university basketball arenas. Maybe the American people won’t notice that, in the process, the focus has shifted from addressing the legitimate needs of the voters, to fulfilling the greed and self-interest of the largest political donors — and a handful of very well-paid “gladiators.”
How long will it continue to be acceptable, for example, even to “distracted Americans,” to see that the top one percent of the population now controls 37.1 percent of the country’s wealth, and that the top 20 percent control 87.7 percent of the nation’s assets?
Indeed, it’s been reported that the total net worth of Forbes Magazine’s 400 richest Americans is greater than the collective net worth of the bottom 60 percent of the entire U.S. population. If you’re counting, that’s 400 very-well-off people who have more wealth than the bottom 187 million people in this country.
On that general theme and moving directly on to those who actually perform in the "circuses,” there happens to be an NBA All-Star center named Dwight Howard, who won the 2008 NBA slam dunk contest, while wearing a “Superman” cape, who set the record for rebounding leadership in consecutive seasons, and who, now, at 26 years of age, is feeling underpaid.
Used to be fun watching ol’ Dwight — right up to the point when he decided that his prospect of wining an NBA championship was being hampered by his remaining in Orlando, and that his current 5-year, $80 million contract was no longer enough to keep him interested. For most of last season, he played accordingly.
Despite all of that, people in the ever-supportive Orlando fan base, now have a website called “StayDwight.com,” where they can get the latest, positive news about their hero, and even make personal, online appeals that he not desert them.
I almost feel sorry for them. If you’re talking to friends in the Orlando area, tell them to save their breath. It’s over.
Through it all, the new, ultra-stone-faced Howard has only been successful in accomplishing two things: First, damaging his personal brand, which used to be “fun, carefree, hardworking and fan-friendly,” and secondly, convincing more and more fans that there absolutely must be no limit to the personal greed of NBA players, and other pro athletes.
Not surprisingly, sympathy for Mr. Howard and his fellow millionnaire colleagues is starting to dwindle.
How are people who have been unemployed, under-employed, or who work at a minimum wage, supposed to feel about Mr. Howard’s plight? How about those who have struggled to pay for university degrees and don’t have the jobs to show for it? Despite the carefully devised plans of the “circus” owners, are they supposed to continue to feel loyalty to a game that features nomadic, petulant, grossly overpaid superstars, and just keep on cheering?
But it’s not just Dwight Howard. The same Forbes Magazine, recently published its list of the world’s 50 highest-paid athletes. If you’ve got a strong stomach, check it out.
Sitting at the top is the presently incarcerated Floyd Mayweather, the boxing champion who earned $85 million from June 2011 to June 2012 — every dime of that from boxing, itself. Apparently, despite his success in his chosen profession, Mr. Mayweather was unable to attract a single product endorsement, over the past year.
Coincidentally, ranked immediately beneath Mayweather on Forbes’ list, as the second–highest-paid athlete, last year, at $62 million, was Manny Pacquiao. Rounding out the top five were Tiger Woods, at $59.4 million; Lebron James, with $53 million and tennis star Roger Federer with $52.7 million.
The overall list of 50 included athletes in football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, soccer, golf, tennis, motorcycle racing, boxing and, even, cricket. But, of course, it’s not just sports stars who get paid.
When you go to the movies — if it’s still within your family budget — you get to laugh and cry along with mega-buck stars such as Tom Cruise, who pulled down $75 million, over the past year; Leonardo DiCaprio and Adam Sandler, both of whom racked up $37 million, over the past 12 months; the Rock (Dwayne Johnson), at $36 million; and Will Smith, Johnny Depp and Sasha Baron Cohen (The Dictator, Borat, Ali G), at $30 million each.
Moving on to the corporate arena, the Huffington Post recently disclosed that David Simon, the CEO of Simon Property Group, took home a pay package worth $137 million, last year. That’s the equivalent of $43,963 per hour, or $732 per minute, or 342 times Barack Obama’s annual $400,000 salary, as president of the entire United States.
But there may very well be a problem on the horizon: Even with the inclusion of Simon’s outlandish compensation package, the top ten CEOs took home an average of just $50.4 million, as compared to $54.3 million for the world’s ten highest-paid athletes.
I have a hunch that the “circus owners” are not really comfortable with that.
In any event, with chemical and electrical engineers earning $60,000, directly out of college; with computer science majors starting at $48,000; math majors earning $46,000, at the outset; and English and biology majors starting at $40,000 a year, I want to be officially on the record as saying that I believe our country’s compensation systems are insanely out of whack and need to be changed —sooner, rather than later. But, only if we’re still interested in nation-building, and are not content to go the way of the Roman Empire and its coliseums.
Somehow, we have to begin to place a higher value, as a society, on saving a life, building a bridge, constructing a building, and working in public safety positions, including police and fire departments — as compared to singing, dancing, acting and dribbling a basketball. We can no longer justify paying as much as we do to people who perform in movies and arenas, and in CEO suites, at the expense of everyone else.
The gaps between the rich, and everyone else, are now much too large to ignore. We’re getting dangerously close to the “Let them eat cake” approach to managing an economy. You do remember how that turned out, don’t you?
In the meantime, I’m planning to cut way back on my own distractions. I’m staging a “personal protest,” first of all, by not planning to buy very many professional sports tickets in the projectable future.
At the end of the day, I must admit, I don’t care, really, where Dwight Howard ends up playing basketball, nor should you.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.
No surprise in substance regarding valid criticisms about news media coverage of the Wall Street Occupation inspired mushrooming protests against the rancid rip-offs by the rich excluding the views of Blacks participating in these demonstrations, particularly radical leftist Blacks.
Solomon Comissiong’s Your World News net-based radio program recently presented a segment from the Occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., specifically highlighting what he termed as “ignored perspectives” from Black and brown communities.
“Once again we made it a point to seek out and speak to some of the Black activists who were in attendance since the white liberal media continues to make a habit of overlooking the perspectives of activists of color, especially those from the left,” Comissiong said when introducing that segment.
Mainstream and conservative news media exclusion of Black voices — moderate much less militant — is disgusting.
In 2006, the National Urban League issued its “Sunday Morning Apartheid” report examining the exclusions of African-American guests from the major Sunday morning network news talk shows, detailing that Blacks comprised only eight percent of the 2,000+ guests during an 18-month period.
However, there remains that misplaced expectation that liberal/alternative media will be more inclusive.
Yet too much of this liberal/alternative media that defines itself as “different” from the mainstream media too often turns a blind eye to the voices of Blacks, browns and other persons of color.
Glen Ford at the net-based Black Agenda Report is one of the few to report on protests in Newark, N.J., around the themes of peace, jobs, equality and justice conducted by the People’s Organization for Progress.
Here are people of color in Newark holding protests on themes consistent with the so-called Wall Street movement but getting no echo in the white liberal sphere that wonders often why some persons of color hold skepticism about their politics.
Sadly criticisms voiced by Solomon Comissiong and others about biases in liberal/alternative media are long-standing.
The March 1827 first editorial in the first edition of America’s first Black-owned newspaper pointedly raised concerns about liberals who had “not hesitated to represent us disadvantageously without becoming personally acquainted with the true state of things.”
Yes, “We Are One” in shared economic pain today from robberies by the wealthy but we’re not all of the same voice.
Some have serious stuff that needs to get on the collective table that’s been historically and deliberately pushed aside. Without inclusion of that ignored stuff the shared pain animating the “We Are One” will continue to the detriment of us all.
News media ethics demand inclusionary coverage … a demand constantly ignored.
The Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code urges journalists to “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”
Supporting the “open exchange of views, even views [journalists] find repugnant” is a part of that Code.
Further that SPJ Ethics Code requires journalists to “Give voice to the voiceless” reminding them that “official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.”
The failure of too much of the American news media to adhere to its informational and ethical mandates is a national shame.
That shame sparks a criticism in the Manifesto issued by those behind the Wall Street occupation decrying the wealthy for “purposefully” keeping the American public “misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.”
Much of the news coverage of the escalating protests against excessive greed by the U.S. corporate mainstream media from right to center-left in presented political orientation is typically shallow.
Even the pseudo-left media outlet that conservatives love to lambaste as an ultra-liberal bastion — National Public Radio — failed to cover the first two weeks of the Wall Street protest occupation.
NPR officials, defending their derelict non-coverage posture, seized excuses so lame their lips should have burned for speaking such nonsense.
The handsomely paid executive editor of NPR news told NPR’s ombudsman that the decision to initially ignore the occupation arose from it not involving prominent people or large numbers of people.
And worse, the handsomely paid ombudsman who queried the editor because of public complaints bought the editor’s bunk. The ombudsman wrote that he didn’t see any need to exert his authority since the trigger for his involvement in addressing bad decision making is when a news coverage decision is “totally egregious …”
It seems that failure to follow NPR’s Ethics Code constitutes an arguably egregious breach if not a totally egregious breach.
NPR extols “fair” coverage meaning “that we present all important views on a subject …”
Challenging corporate/wealth misconduct is a core issue of our times across the U.S. and worldwide. Where’s the fairness in failing to cover an important challenge of this misconduct at the symbolic center of those perpetrating the misconduct?
NPR’s non-coverage posture is intellectually dishonest and ethically bankrupt.
A new book by former Philadelphia Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez provides salient insights (and facts) on race-related problems infecting American media.
In “News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media,” set for release later this month Gonzalez, a New York Daily News columnist and his co-author Joseph Torres state, “It is our contention that newspapers, radio, and television played a pivotal role in perpetuating racist views among the general population.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.
Every single American can recount with vivid accuracy where they were 10 years ago on Sept. 11. That day unfortunately will be a day just like Dec. 7,1941, — the day when the Japanese at Pearl Harbor attacked America.
Historians and layman alike all agree that both days changed America forever. Today, on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the question is rightfully asked as to whether or not we are safer now than we where before the tragic day where nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives. I believe we are.
Here’s why: Vigilance — Chances are that ten years ago when I was traveling though an airport or train station and heard over the public address system, “if you’ve seen an unattended bag, please notify the proper authorities immediately” and actually saw an unattended bag, I would have kept walking and never would have given it a second thought; Safety was important to me, but it was not on the forefront of my mind as it is today. Just last month when I was at the airport and saw an unattended bag, I watched the bag for about 10 seconds and was about to call the police before I felt a sense of relief when the owner of the bag walked over to retrieve it once they remembered that they had sat it down to get a drink from the water fountain.
When thousands of innocent people die horrible deaths like they did on Sept. 11, you remember and think about the little things like unattended bags. 10 years ago that sounded trivial. Today it does not.
Are we safer? I believe we are. And that’s not just my emotions talking. The facts support the emotion. Consider this: there has not been a successful attempt on American soil since Sept. 11 and that’s not for a lack of trying. According to published media reports, the United States government has thwarted several terrorists attempts including the famed shoe bomber Richard Reed (the person who was on a inbound American flight who tried to light his shoes on fire that was packed with explosives and blow up a plane), the “Lackawanna Six” which was a terrorist sleeper cell just outside of New York City among others.
In both cases preemptive measures stopped what could have been a horrific situation. The shoe bomber was stopped by vigilant passengers who saw something and said something and the sleeper cell was disrupted by the federal government proactively monitoring the activities of people who wanted to do us harm. Which begs the next question — have we successfully kept the terrorists on the run?
I feel that we have. According to reports, the terrorists that we have captured have given intelligence officials a treasure trove of information. Some terrorists have confessed to infighting, lack of leadership and conflicting messages that suggest that the al-Qaeda is now on the defense than ever before.
This is good news because it suggests that they have limited resources and direction to play offense with their enemies. Now, this isn’t to suggest that they still cannot exercise a decisive blow. They can and that’s the main reason why we must remain vigilant. Another reason why is because we owe it to our culture, our ideals, and the freedoms — all the virtues that we live by — which is by no coincidence all the things that al-Qaeda tried to destroy.
So on this day of football, Sunday dinners, church and on the anniversary of Sept. 11, let us take a moment to reflect on that tragic day, remember the innocent souls that where lost and be thankful that we live in a country that allows us to be the unique and special people we each are and is willing to keep us safe so that we can continue to be unique and special.
If you thought that “drug busts” were causing havoc across America, and in Black communities, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Soon, debt-related “busts” may make these things seem like child’s play.
We’re all painfully aware, by now, that the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country on earth, and that the number of persons in U.S. jails and prisons now stands at nearly 2.3 million people, or 25 percent of the world’s prison population, even though the U.S. constitutes only 5 percent of the global population.
Even more painful, for African Americans, specifically, is the curious fact that the Black incarcerated population, which stood at 905,800 in June, 2009, represents 43 percent of all incarcerated Americans, even though non-Hispanic Blacks represent just 12.9 percent of the U.S. population.
Those who’ve been following these issues know that nearly one in four of those incarcerated has been convicted of charges having to do with the use or possession of illicit drugs, and that, even though mainstream drug use outstrips that by Blacks, African Americans are 6.5 times as likely to be sent to prison as whites. That happens to be the case, even when Blacks and whites have been charged with the exact same non-violent crimes, according to Project America.
But hold on. Change is, apparently, in the air. Indeed, there have been early, growing indicators that — for budgetary and other reasons — some minor forms of drug possession and/or usage are actually being decriminalized, and arrests in that category are occurring less frequently. In fact, the state of Tennessee announced a plan a year ago to release 2,000 prison inmates two months early to save the state $5.7 million.
If you’re tempted to believe that this means that the racial disparity in arrest and incarceration rates in the United States is about to be eliminated, I have three words for you: Wake up and smell the coffee!
Sadly, just as prosecutorial interest in locking people up for drug-related offenses is going into decline, the fervor is being replaced by what may be an even greater interest in locking up Americans who don’t — or who simply can’t — pay their bills.
It’s not an entirely new phenomenon. In fact, it’s actually a concept that dates back hundreds of years, but was especially prevalent in medieval Europe, where they routinely incarcerated people who didn’t — or who were unable to — pay their debts. The jails used in these cases were called “debtors’ prisons,” and people were sentenced to serve terms that covered the amount of money they owed, by statute. They were frequently, also, forced to pay the government the cost of keeping them in bondage. If you think that kind of stuff only happened in the “Days of King Arthur,” maybe you should look into what’s going on in places across this country, such as Riverside County, Calif., where they moved last year to charge inmates in their county jails $142.42 per day.
History tells us that “debtors’ prisons” were not confined only to Europe. The practice of operating such facilities was transferred — lock, stock and barrel — to the North American Continent, and to the fledgling United States of America, among other places, where it continued up through 1833, when the Federal government, and most states, finally outlawed it.
Today, regrettably, even in the face of chronic unemployment and poverty levels, the concept of incarcerating people simply because they are “broke” and unable to pay, seems to be on the upswing.
According to the ACLU, Americans are now being imprisoned, even when the cost of locking them up winds up being greater than the total amount they owe. Take the example of a woman named Robin Sanders, who, according to NPR, was pulled over while driving, for having an excessively loud muffler. In the process of “running a check” on the woman, the officer discovered that there was an outstanding warrant for Ms. Sanders, resulting from the fact that she was late in paying a $730 medical bill. She was taken directly to jail.
Then there was the New Orleans construction worker who wound up serving five months in jail because he owed $498 of “legal debt.” Like the construction worker’s case, there is a growing pattern of people being incarcerated who have “legal financial obligations,” i.e., fines, costs and fees related to a previous criminal sentence.
There was, also, the amazing case of a homeless man who was arrested because he stole $39 dollars worth of food from a grocery store, and wound up being assessed $339 in fines. That resulted, also, in the homeless man spending 198 days in jail, because he was unable to pay his “legal financial obligation.”
So, what we have, now, are people, recently released from incarceration, who are immediately thereafter hit with expenses related to their legal defense, or incarceration, who are then re-incarcerated, because they don’t have jobs and can’t afford to pay.
And, please don’t forget the thousands of parents who serve time each year for non-payment of child support, even when they have no jobs or visible means of support.
The issue with debt payment, way more often than not, is not an unwillingness to pay, but an absolute incapacity to pay. And, by simple deduction, when we see that white poverty rates are at 14 percent, that the Hispanic poverty rate is at 35 percent, and the Black poverty level stands at 36 percent, we quickly realize that those with the greatest incapacity to pay are African Americans and Latinos.
If the definition of criminality in the U.S. has shifted, from “persons who have been apprehended with small amounts of illicit drugs,” to “persons who have been systematically excluded from the economic mainstream,” then it’s a safe bet that even more disproportionate percentages of Black people, than ever, will wind up in prison, in the years to come. If Americans are going to be arrested for being unable to pay their bills, then, given our relative lack of economic resources, it really is going to be a dangerous thing to be Black in America.
I think about this issue every time I see the soaring prices of gasoline, the runaway, inflationary spiral of the cost of food at the super market, the insanely high cost of utility bills, cable fees, traffic tickets, and, even ATM fees that are being charged to people who are withdrawing their own meager funds from the bank.
Somewhere, even now, there are some very highly educated “numbers crunchers,” in some very respectable offices, who are awarded shamefully high bonuses for recommending the most aggressive new fees and rate increases, for every single thing their institution supplies to the public. I’m sure these all sound like great ideas, at the time.
There appears to an assumption, somewhere, somehow, in these offices, that if these institutions charge it, the public will simply find a way to pay.
Here’s the unfortunate reality: Every day, increasingly, God-fearing, honest Americans — of all races — are being forced to decide between paying electric bills or buying food for their kids, between paying the increasingly high parking and traffic fines at the impoundment lot — or simply leaving their vehicles there, forever.
None of these decisions are a function of criminal intent. Rather, they are the by-product of people being faced with impossible economic choices in a country where no one seems to care anymore whether its citizens can afford the “cost of living.”
It seems that, in a more perfect world, at least one of the presidential candidates on the Republican side, or the incumbent on the Democratic side, would have more to say about this than they already have.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.
Overall spending with minority-owned business for 2011 surpassed the city’s goal of 25 percent, according to a report released from the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity.
It is encouraging news to hear that participation for minority, women and disabled firms in city, and quasi-government city agencies was reported at 25.6 percent for fiscal year 2011, representing an increase from 23.7 percent in 2010.
Minority-owned firms received $166 million or 24.4 of the $682 million awarded in city contracts, up from 20.9 percent in 2010.
Black-owned firms were awarded $73.8 million or 10.8 percent of the contracts awarded. By comparison, $54 million was awarded to firms owned by white women or 7.9 percent; $21 million for Asian-owned firms, about 3 percent of spending and $14.7 million or 2.2 percent of spending went to Hispanic-owned firms.
While African Americans received the largest share of minority-owned contracts and an increase in actual dollars spent the percentage was down from 2010 when African Americans captured 11.8 percent which translated to $69.2 million in spending.
Mayor Michael Nutter who set the 25 percent goal at the beginning of his term lauded the increase in the city’s spending with minority-owned firms.
“I am excited that we have exceeded our goal of at least 25 percent participation for minority-, women- and disabled-owned business,” said Nutter in a statement. “The Office of Economic Opportunity has done a tremendous job of encouraging businesses to join the city’s registry, and I would like to thank all of our city’s department for working hard to meet this goal. We are hoping to put our city’s business to work.”
The mayor should be commended for increasing the percentage of minority participation. The next step is to increase the actual dollar amount awarded to African American- and other minority-owned firms.
The increase in minority participation with the city is a clear example of what can happen at all levels of government as well what can happen in the private sector.
It is important to increase opportunities for minority-owned firms so every qualified business can play a role in the economic revitalization of the city and region.
It may not rank highly in polls of voters’ priorities compared to the jobs and the economy, yet immigration has taken on a central role in the 2012 presidential campaign drama.
Republican presidential debates have been a contest to see who can sound more ferocious toward illegal immigrants. But President Barack Obama can’t afford to enjoy watching his adversaries destroy one another. He’s catching heat from his own base, especially Hispanic voters, for being more punitive than he needs to be.
As a candidate, Obama promised to fix the nation’s immigration system with comprehensive reform — a mixture of, say, secure borders and employer sanctions with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who properly earn it.
However, as president, facing a fiercely uncooperative congressional Republicans, he has contented himself with a numbers game, racking up record numbers of detentions and deportations.
Since Obama took office, detentions and deportations have totaled more than a million, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That’s rapidly approaching the 1.57 million that President George W. Bush deported in two terms.
In the past decade, detentions and deportations have almost doubled, DHS says in its latest annual report, from 209,000 undocumented immigrants in 2001 to almost 400,000 in the fiscal year that just ended.
Unfortunately, with that increase in detentions and deportations there also have come an increase in forced family separations, a rise in complaints of sexual assault and other brutality in detention centers, and a sharp uptick of outrage from Hispanic voters, including supporters who wanted to believe Obama’s promises to fix the broken immigration system.
Even though the president’s stated deportation policy gives priority to murderers, sex offenders, drug traffickers and other hardened criminals, DHS figures show even more have been detained whose only known crime was their illegal status.
The latest annual DHS report says more than half of all immigrant detainees in the fiscal year 2010 had no criminal records. (Of 387,242 total detainees who were deported, only 168,532 were convicted criminals.) Of those with any criminal history, almost 20 percent were merely for traffic offenses.
One disappointed Obama supporter, Maria de Los Angeles Torres, director of Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, called the policy “shameful” in locking up thousands of men and women whose only crime was their illegal status.
“The deportation policy over the past two years has succeeded in criminalizing hard-working people,” she said in a telephone interview. “This policy, as my mother used to say in Cuba, has a first and last name — and it is Barack Obama.”
Although many Hispanic voters think voting Republican would be “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” said pollster Gary Segura of Latino Decisions in a recent PBS Frontline documentary on immigrant detentions, their disaffection could hurt Obama’s election turnout enough to make a difference in closely contested states.
“He got about 70 percent of the Latino vote in 2008,” Segura said. “But the percentage of Latinos saying that they’re certain to vote for the president for reelection hovers in the mid-40s.”
Politics aside, could Obama handle detentions and deportations in a better way? Yes, say immigration lawyers, who point out a list of alternatives available for a president that don’t require congressional approval.
They include prosecutorial discretion and several forms of temporary and humanitarian relief that can be awarded to individuals or groups that can restore some semblance of due process to a system that deprives detainees of almost all rights that those who are officially arrested and charged would have.
It’s hard to believe that President Obama, a former constitutional law lecturer and grassroots community organizer, would not be aware of these alternatives. Instead, with hostile Republicans in Congress giving him the border blues, he has chosen to look tough — even if it causes new problems for thousands of families on top of the rest of the problems he is trying to solve.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.
Whenever I see Kemba Smith or her parents, Gus and Odessa Smith, we embrace. Our hugs are long and say everything without either of us saying anything. In those deeply-personal moments, we celebrate what the family has overcome. And we mostly celebrate Kemba’s freedom and the long, bumpy road that led to it.
We got in our hugs last week at a forum Rep. Maxine Waters organized to honor women such as Kemba at the Congressional Black Caucus’ first annual Legislative Conference. Like thousands of young women, Kemba felt the brunt of the U.S. criminal justice system, a flawed system that unfairly punished women who had the misfortune of falling in love with a drug dealer.
As editor of Emerge, we placed Kemba on the cover twice. The first time was May 1996. It was the photo of a smiling Kemba in her white cap and gown, clutching her freshly-minted high school diploma. n large, bold letters were the words, “Kemba’s Nightmare: A Model Child Becomes Prisoner #26370-083.” The story, written by Reginald Stuart, was a riveting account of Kemba falling in love with Peter Hall while she was enrolled in Hampton University. Her association with the drug dealer led to her being sentenced to a mandatory 24 ½ years in federal prison with no chance for parole. She was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, lying to federal authorities and conspiracy to launder drug money.
Kemba, who was 22 years old at the time she was sentenced in 1994, became the poster child for a national movement against mandatory sentences. Elaine Jones, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, read our story in Emerge and agreed to represent Kemba. Eventually, LDF filed a petition for clemency, which was granted by President Bill Clinton shortly before Christmas in 2000.
Although the initial story on Kemba was published 15 years ago, we are still learning about the impact it had on others.
At the forum hosted by Waters, Serena Nunn, whose story is very similar to Kemba’s — and who, like Kemba, was pardoned by Clinton — said: “When Kemba’s story came out, I can remember being in prison in Pekin, Ill. ... I can remember being there, sitting on a bench with 10 other women and everybody just passing that magazine around. It was the same time Julia Stewart’s newsletter came out from FAMM [Families Against Mandatory Minimums]. Everybody there felt like there was starting to be this ray of hope, that people would get the word and realize that there were a whole bunch of us sitting in prison with these draconian sentences.”
Gus Smith told me about a graduate of the University of Maryland who wanted Kemba to autograph her diploma. When Kemba hesitated out of respect for what the document represented, the woman told her, “You don’t understand. I wouldn’t have this diploma if it hadn’t been for you.”
Today, Kemba Smith lives in Indianapolis. She had a son, Armani, during her first months of incarceration. After her release, she married Patrick Pradia and they have a 17-month-old daughter, Phoenix. She has written a book about her ordeal titled, “Poster Child.” The cover line notes, “It was easy falling in love with a drug dealer. The hard part was paying for his crime.” (The book can be ordered from www.kembasmith.com.)
Kemba acknowledges that it’s difficult to balance her role as a wife, mother, author and activist.
She dedicated her book to her supporters and to “all my brothers and sisters who are currently incarcerated under mandatory minimums, drug conspiracy and crack cocaine sentencing laws.” Kemba said, “My soul aches knowing that others should be home, too.”
Because of the work of CBC members, some others may come home, too.
Last year, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, a retroactive measure that increased the amount of crack cocaine that triggers mandatory minimums sentences. Approximately 12,000 federal crack offenders sentenced prior to November 1, 2010 may be eligible for reductions that average 37 months. However, the reductions are not automatic and will have no bearing on prisoners sentenced under state mandatory minimum laws.
Waters and Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree reminded supporters that while the federal law represents an improvement, the campaign to eradicate mandatory minimums must continue.
Kemba Smith vowed to remain a central part of that movement.
“I have to tell you about a friend of mine, Michelle West,” she told the audience, with tears in her eyes. “She is in federal prison. Michelle West is 50 and is serving two life sentences, plus 50 years on conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to commit murder. Basically, she is being charged for the crimes of her boyfriend.
“She had been separated from the abusive boyfriend for three years when the feds came after him. After being saved by her family many times, she finally got the courage to break away from him and taking her daughter [with her]. She opened her own beauty salon. When police came after her ex-boyfriend, Michelle got word that if she talked, her daughter would be killed. Police offered her a deal to be an informant. Michelle said, ‘It was my life or my daughter’s, and I chose to save my daughter.’ An informant who actually admitted to committing the murder named Michelle as an accomplice.”
Kemba continued, “The murderer never served a day. Michelle went to prison when her daughter was 10. That was 17 years ago. Michelle has had an exemplary record in prison and had never been in trouble with the law before this case. I am committed to continuing to share stories about Michelle and continuing to be a face for those who are left behind in prison.”
After Kemba’s words, I had to hug her again. — (NNPA)
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.
This has been a very difficult week for me, and probably for most Philadelphians.
Last weekend was one of the most brutally painful experiences in my 40-odd years as a Philly sports fan. I mean, it’s one thing to watch the Phillies — the mightiest team in major league baseball — wash away a historic season because they can’t make up one stinkin’ run on the St. Louis Cardinals.
But to literally add insult to injury, we were treated to the sight of all-star slugger Ryan Howard, who may have stunk up the Cardinals series worse than anyone; rupture his Achilles tendon in that last futile at-bat. Swung for all he was worth, missed the ball badly and corkscrewed himself into the dirt next to home plate. He’s out at least six to nine months, maybe a year, maybe forever.
Then Sunday we watched the Eagles go 1-4 by losing to the Buffalo Bills. To their credit, the Bills are, along with the Detroit Lions, one of this season’s early pleasant surprises.
My beloved Eagles, on the other hand, are awful. I’m not proud of it, but it had to be said. A defense known for 20 years as one of the league’s most dangerous is now incapable of tackling anyone. This supposed “wide 9” defensive setup the Eagles have adopted should be renamed “15 yards up the middle” — which is the usual result.
The defensive backs refuse to hit anyone for fear they’ll break a nail, the team lacks anything remotely resembling a middle linebacker, and Michael Vick completes most of his passes to guys who are not wearing green uniforms. In Vick’s defense, if there is any, the number of times he’s been thrown violently to the ground this season may be affecting his decision making skills. Pain will do that.
But this column is not so much about last weekend’s sports lowlights, or about the yearly humiliation of the Philly sports fanatic. It’s more about how these things prove a momentary distraction at exactly the wrong time, taking our eye off more important questions — like who the hell these “Occupy” people are and what they want.
It started in New York City as “Occupy Wall Street” a semi-directionless protest against the excesses of bankers and big business.
Sure, it was mostly the usual unwashed masses of college students, hippies and professional protesters — but this time there was a difference. Some strange bedfellows joined those protestors — tea partiers, libertarians and lots of suit-and-tie good government types were out there as well.
When the protests spread around the country, including here in Philadelphia on the west apron of City Hall known as Dilworth Plaza — they were welcomed as champions of the downtrodden, attracting local politicians and dignitaries eager to be seen as ‘regular’ people.
Now that the protests have entered their second week, you’ll notice a subtle but definitive attitude change.
Already there have been stories planted in the local press about how much the protest is costing Philadelphians in terms of police overtime and surveillance, and how the price tag may go up. According to these published reports, “Occupy Philadelphia” has cost taxpayers something in the neighborhood of $400,000.
Already there are blogs and comment boards leaning toward the “Go home and get a job, ya bunch of losers!” side. Somehow, and most brilliantly, the millionaires and profiteers have managed to get some regular middle class people to not only agree with their narrow worldview, but to preach it to others.
Soon enough, the protestors will be painted as interlopers, outside agitators and expensive unwanted houseguests — all in a massive marketing effort designed to spin doctor the protesters into irrelevance, and hopefully obscurity.
No mention though, you’ll notice, of how much the corporate bigwigs and bankers — you know, the ones the protestors are against — are costing those same taxpayers. No mention of how many Philly taxpayer dollars are burned on the altar of DROP, or paid out in pensions to felonious former police officers, or handed out to contributors and cronies like Halloween candy.
By my admittedly poor math, even if the “Occupy Philadelphia” protests continue to cost $400,000 per week, they have about 587,500 more weeks before it reaches the $245 billion it cost us to bail out the “too big to fail” banks in the first place.
Which makes the “Occupy” protests seem like a pretty good bargain.
As with other mass shootings, the killings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., triggered a familiar chain of reactions: horror, remorse, rage and a call for new restrictions on guns.
And in the recent past, at least, that call for action has been followed by little or no legislative action at all.
For example, after the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and 13 others injured, President Barack Obama delivered a moving nationally televised address but a call for new gun laws was conspicuous in its absence.
Instead, in an Arizona Daily Star op-ed he repeated his support for the Second Amendment and called for stricter enforcement of gun laws that are already on the books. That stance perfectly matches the position of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s leading gun owners’ advocacy group. But if NRA leaders were pleased, they are not about to show it.
Quite the opposite, there are too many votes to be won, money to be raised and new members to be enlisted by tagging Obama as “anti-gun” for the NRA or other gun lobbyists to be deterred by mere facts.
Remember the dramatic surge in gun and ammunition sales that immediately followed Obama’s election? They’re surging again, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms industry trade group, as owners fear the weapons won’t be available if Obama is re-elected.
“He’s his own stimulus plan for the gun industry,” said Arkansas Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, according to Politico.
Fear of what Obama might do is being fed by NRA leaders like Wayne LaPierre, who warned in February that Obama’s plan is to “get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom.”
The organization’s 2008 website, gunbanobama.com, is up and running with its headline, “Obama Would Be The Most Anti-Gun President in History” and a link touting, “If Obama Is Pro-Gun, Why Are Leading Anti-Gun and Anti-Hunting Groups Endorsing Him?”
One might just as easily ask, if Obama is so anti-gun, why did one of those endorsers, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, give Obama an “F” for his gun record the following year? The Brady Campaign and other gun control advocates continue to express frustration over actions and inaction by Obama that should bring the NRA delight.
Obama has signed a law that permits Amtrak passengers to carry guns in their checked baggage and another that allows visitors to national parks and wildlife refuges to possess concealed guns. He has not pushed for actions he supported in his 2008 campaign, including closing the so-called “gun show loophole” that allows unlicensed private firearm sellers to sell weapons at gun shows without conducting the background checks and reporting required of registered gun dealers.
Yet the NRA, which went after Obama with a $40 million advertising and direct-mail campaign last time around, has set aside at least that much for this go-round, Politico reports. Their biggest hot-button issue is Fast and Furious, the Republican-promoted controversy in which Obama invoked executive privilege to block the disclosure of some Justice Department documents to a House committee involving a botched gun-running investigation. If the operation was really part of an Obama plot to ban guns, as some of his critics charge, it would be a far-fetched way to do it.
In this way, the NRA, which likes to call itself the nation’s oldest “oldest continuously operating civil rights organization,” exhibits one of the worst attributes that critics often attribute to conventional civil rights organizations: manufactured outrage. If they don’t have a real enemy of gun rights in the White House, they hammer the administration with inflated accusations and unfounded predictions anyway.
But activist gun owners tend to come from the same demographic that gives the least support to Obama: older white men from rural or outer suburban communities. Even unfounded accusations carry convincing weight with people who already are inclined to believe them.
Do you believe Black people should work together in support of one another? Do you believe that Black people should better utilize more of our $900 billion-plus annual aggregate income to start and grow businesses? Do you believe Black people should share our information and experience with one another to build a brighter future for our children? If your answers are “Yes,” and I am sure they are, then you will join thousands of others in the Black Unity Movement.
The mission of the Unity Movement is to unite, educate, and economically empower Black people nationwide. Its goal is to unite a minimum of 2 million people who represent that enormous buying power and intellectual capacity, which will be used to open new businesses, create more jobs, educate our youth, and move billions of dollars into Black-owned banks.
The brainchild of Mike Moore of Cincinnati, the Unity Movement will provide a foundation of knowledge, contacts, and power from which Black people can move collectively toward the realization of the tremendous potential within our ranks. The Unity Movement, in conjunction with other such initiatives across the country, will create opportunities for Black people to leverage our intellectual resources as well as our financial resources to gain reciprocity in the marketplace. It will also provide an additional network of like-minded folks who are willing to share and work together toward a common goal.
Moore stated, “I truly believe we already have the knowledge and the economic means to create a better future for ourselves and our children. The only thing missing is the unity that brings us together.”
The current environment in this country, and the world, makes it incumbent upon each one of us to do whatever we can to help build a solid future for our children. They will need all the tools available to be able to survive and thrive in this global economy. They need to see us, the adults, acting in concert with one another and doing what we want them to do as they grow older. They need to see us connected and responding unselfishly to the demands of this world especially when it comes to sharing, collaborating and being willing to help one another.
Ever since the Million Man march in October1995, I have participated and helped establish several initiatives whose purpose was to empower our people, mainly economically but also educationally, socially, and politically. All but a couple of those initiatives eventually faded away, not because they failed to address many of our problems, but because we simply did not sustain them. Support and sustainability are keys to the survival of any movement, and no matter what we call it, no matter how enthusiastic we are at the beginning, and no matter how much we understand the need for any initiative, it will not last if we do not bring the commitment and dedication to support it and do whatever it takes to sustain it as well. The Unity Movement, just one of several initiatives up and running now in 2012, is certainly worth our commitment and participation.
All you have to do to join is go to the website and add your information. That’s it. Before we can accomplish the goals of the Unity Movement we must have critical mass, and Mike Moore has determined that number to be 2 million. So, please go to the site: myunitymovement.com and get on board.
One more thing: Let’s not get hung-up on the usual things that keep us from supporting something that someone other than “I” brought forth. I know brothers and sisters across this nation that are doing some fantastic things to help solve our problems, but with all the problems facing Black folks in this country and around the world, there are never enough answers, and there is definitely not just one answer. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “My thing is better is than his thing,” or “My thing was here first,” or “I was doing that years ago.” That’s a prescription for continued failure with the Black community of this country. There is room for more than one initiative and we can all walk and chew gum at the same time.
A little more love, a little more trust, and a little more respect for one another will bring the unity we need to move forward, no matter what the local, national, or international environment may bring. The Unity Movement will give us the boost we need to achieve that love, trust, and respect. It will also provide us with a knowledge base, an economic foundation, and an educational platform from which can launch other much needed initiatives. Get on board!
For more information go to myunitymovement.com or contact the Unity Movement at 1-888-93-UNITY. — (NNPA)
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his website, blackonomics.com.