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News :: Environment

Uranium found in water at Baptist Childrens Home

RICHMOND - Steve Pellei, technical services administrator for the state's Office of Drinking Water, said Wednesday he believes health officials have learned some things from their experience of dealing with uranium in water for two Dinwiddie subdivisions.

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News :: Peace & War

Native tells of life in Iraq

At the end of March, Americans were horrified by the news images of two civilian contractors' corpses, charred and mutilated, dangling from a bridge over the Euphrates River. As the details of the story unfolded, it was discovered that they were working for Blackwater Security Counseling, a division of Blackwater USA, a private security firm that has contracts with the U.S. government to provide security for missions in Iraq.

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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Ehrenreich on Abortion

July 22, 2004

Owning Up to Abortion

bortion is legal - it's just not supposed to be mentioned or acknowledged as an acceptable option. An article in The Times on Sunday, "Television's Most Persistent Taboo," reported that a Viacom-owned channel is refusing to run the episodes of a soap opera in which the teenage heroine chooses to abort. Even "Six Feet Under," which is fearless in its treatment of sexual diversity, burdens abortion with terrible guilt. Where are those "liberal media" when you need them?

You can blame a lot of folks, from media bigwigs to bishops, if we lose our reproductive rights, but it's the women who shrink from acknowledging their own abortions who really irk me. Increasingly, for example, the possibility of abortion is built right into the process of prenatal care. Testing for fetal defects can now detect over 450 conditions, many potentially fatal or debilitating. Doctors may advise the screening tests, insurance companies often pay for them, and many couples (no hard numbers exist) are deciding to abort their imperfect fetuses.

The trouble is, not all of the women who are exercising their right to choose in these cases are willing to admit that that's what they are doing. Kate Hoffman, for example, who aborted a fetus with Down syndrome, was quoted in The Times on June 20 as saying: "I don't look at it as though I had an abortion, even though that is technically what it is. There's a difference. I wanted this baby."

Or go to the Web site for A Heartbreaking Choice, a group that provides support for women whose fetuses are deemed defective, and you find "Mom" complaining of having to have her abortion in an ordinary abortion clinic: "I resented the fact that I had to be there with all these girls that did not want their babies."

Kate and Mom: You've been through a hellish experience, but unless I'm missing something, you didn't want your babies either. A baby, yes, but not the particular baby you happened to be carrying.

The prejudice is widespread that a termination for medical reasons is somehow on a higher moral plane than a run-of-the-mill abortion. In a 1999 survey of Floridians, for example, 82 percent supported legal abortion in the case of birth defects, compared with about 40 percent in situations where the woman simply could not afford to raise another child.

But what makes it morally more congenial to kill a particular "defective" fetus than to kill whatever fetus happens to come along, on an equal opportunity basis? Medically informed "terminations" are already catching heat from disability rights groups, and, indeed, some of the conditions for which people are currently choosing abortion, like deafness or dwarfism, seem a little sketchy to me. I'll still defend the right to choose abortion in these cases, even if it isn't the choice I'd make for myself.

It would be unfair, though, to pick on the women who are in denial about aborting "defective" fetuses. At least 30 million American women have had abortions since the procedure was legalized, mostly for the kind of reasons that anti-abortion people dismiss as "convenience" - a number that amounts to about 40 percent of American women. Yet in a 2003 survey conducted by a pro-choice group, only 30 percent of women were unambivalently pro-choice, suggesting that there may be an appalling number of women who are willing to deny others the right that they once freely exercised themselves.

Honesty begins at home, so I should acknowledge that I had two abortions during my all-too-fertile years. You can call me a bad woman, but not a bad mother. I was a dollar-a-word freelancer and my husband a warehouse worker, so it was all we could do to support the existing children at a grubby lower-middle-class level. And when it comes to my children - the actual extrauterine ones, that is - I was, and remain, a lioness.

Choice can be easy, as it was in my case, or truly agonizing. But assuming the fetal position is not an appropriate response. Sartre called this "bad faith," meaning something worse than duplicity: a fundamental denial of freedom and the responsibility that it entails. Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights. The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away.

Thomas L. Friedman is on leave until October, writing a book.

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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Kerry Discovers Black Voters by Greg Palast

Greg Palast Commentary - July 19, 2004

by Greg Palast, author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy."

Monday July 19, 2004

Like Christopher Columbus blinking in shock at first seeing an American Indian, John Kerry has just discovered African-American voters.

On Thursday afternoon, Kerry landed at the NAACP convention, stepped off his slow-moving campaign boat and announced that he was exploring for one million missing Black voters.

Let me explain -- because the New York Times won't. In the 2000 elections, 1.9 million ballots were cast which were never counted --"spoiled" is the technical term. Ballots don't spoil because they are left out of the fridge. There's always a technical reason: a stray mark, or my favorite, from Gadsden County, Florida, writing in Al Gore's name instead of checking a box.

According to data from the US Civil Rights Commission and the Harvard University Law School Civil Rights Project, about half the nation's spoiled ballots -- one million -- were cast by Black folk. Just as African American communities get the worst schools, the worst hospitals, they also get dumped with the worst voting machines, which eat, mismark, mangle and void ballots.

Poof! A million Black votes gone, zapped, vanished.

And the nasty secret is that for years that suited many white leaders of local and state Democratic organizations -- Zell Miller of Georgia is a case in point -- who feared Black voters as much as they feared Republicans.

But change is coming, and not because John Kerry and the men who think for him have changed. Change is coming because African-American leaders are getting uppity about the Democratic Party taking or leaving the African-American voter as the mood and arithmetic pleases.

Here's how Senator Kerry got the message: Two weeks ago, when I was in Chicago, Jesse Jackson asked me to join him for breakfast at the Marriott Hotel. To my surprise, he'd also invited Senator John Edwards. Jackson had made copies of my editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle on the missing one million votes ... and wouldn't let the wannabe Veep touch his bagel until he'd read every word.

Just when Edwards thought he could have a sip of coffee, Jackson required him to watch the segment of our BBC television special, "Bush Family Fortunes," with the latest analysis on the non-count of Black votes in Florida. In the 2000 race, 95,000 African-American votes were dumped in the Florida swamps, marked as spoiled.

Edwards, succumbing to hunger, caffeine deprivation and Reverend Jackson's intense interrogation, caved in and promised to take the message of the missing Black votes to the white side of his party.

Congresswoman Corrine Brown joined us. When she read the story and saw the film, she was ready to spit bullets. She was especially upset that British television covered the story while, in the USA, the Black story was blacked out.

The film clip would get the Congresswoman in hot water. This past Thursday morning, in Washington, she again watched a preview of the BBC film and then marched down to the Capitol and denounced the Republican Party for stealing the election in Florida. For telling this truth she was censured by a straight-up party-line vote in the House of Representatives and her remarks stricken. (I would note that the President's flat-out fibs about weapons of mass destruction remain on the record.)

Senator Kerry is no Corrine Brown. The man who would be President is first trying out the 'D' word in front of the friendly natives at the NAACP. But still, it's a first step: mentioning out loud the massive, systematic Disenfranchisement of the Black vote.

But the real change won't come until Kerry can say the 'D' word in front of say, a gathering of the members of his wife's country club. And until he confronts the boys holding the electoral lynching ropes in both parties.

I have a dream. I imagine John Kerry taking this message to the floor of the convention next week and proclaiming, "Three decades after Martin Luther King's murder, one million African-Americans cast ballots never counted. This will not stand!" Imagine it: At that moment, for the first time in a generation, the Democratic Party will have nominated a Democrat.

The preview of the updated investigative report, "Bush Family Fortunes," is included on Punk Voter (Volume 2) CD-DVD, which will be released on August 10. "Bush Family Fortunes - the DVD" will be released in September. Greg Palast is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. View his BBC television reports and read the article, "ONE MILLION BLACK VOTES DIDN'T COUNT IN THE 2000 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION," from the San Francisco Chronicle, at www.GregPalast.com.

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News :: Civil & Human Rights : Protest Activity

The volunteers with Food Not Bombs serve up Sunday meals with a message

Jul 18, 2004

Mark Sparks and about 20 other volunteers toiled over stovetops and cutting boards in the kitchen at Northminster Baptist Church on a Sunday afternoon.

As others prepared crowd-size containers of salad, mashed potatoes and bread for the weekly meal for hundreds of homeless people, Sparks stood over the grill, turning and seasoning vegetables for stir-fry, the day's main course.

"There's hungry people who need to be fed," Sparks said. "Every human being has the right to eat."

A line had already formed when Sparks and other Food Not Bombs volunteers pulled up at Monroe Park in an old van and unloaded tables and pamphlets as well as the meal they'd just prepared at the church.

Volunteers for Food Not Bombs range from high-schoolers to retired folks. Most are in their early 20s. They have come and gone through the years and different workers show up each week, but the meal is always there.

Food Not Bombs has missed a Sunday meal only twice in a decade.

Most of the tables the volunteers unloaded were reserved for the food, but one held literature that highlights upcoming protests and programs and explains the politics behind the meal.

The name says it all. For 10 years, Food Not Bombs has served meals to Richmond's homeless because members say they're tired of seeing the government concentrate its resources on wars instead of on providing for those in need.

"While people's attention is focused on a war, there are people here who are hungry, who are getting laid off," said Jen Catlin, 19, who has been volunteering for more than a year.

Catlin is a Northern Virginia native who just finished a year studying art at VCU and now has a job. She sees participation in the feeding program as an opportunity to serve the community and help people while advocating causes she's passionate about.

"It's such a simple idea, and it's such a good idea," Catlin said.

Feeding the homeless isn't the group's only goal. The meals they prepare are vegan - they contain no animal products. Catlin said that's partly because the food keeps better without dairy or meat ingredients and partly because of the group's commitment to animal rights. The organization is also aligned with the Palestinian movement, gay and lesbian rights, anti-globalization issues and other traditionally leftist causes.

Although Richmond has a reputation as a conservative city, its Food Not Bombs chapter is thriving with volunteers filtering in and out of the group throughout the year. Catlin said the flow of volunteers has helped make the chapter stronger by constantly introducing new ideas and new energy.

Food Not Bombs was established in 1980 in Boston with the aim of making a statement against U.S. political and economic policies. It now has hundreds of chapters in the United States and around the world.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, Richmond hosted an East Coast Regional Food Not Bombs gathering with people attending from as far away as Minnesota and Tennessee.

Workshops and discussions were designed to strengthen regional chapters and inspire others with the Richmond chapter's success and longevity.

Volunteers lend their time throughout the week, collecting food donated by local grocery stores and restaurants. Many of those food items have passed their buy/sell dates and otherwise would be thrown out. Food Not Bombs is able to use the food to prepare meals at Northminster, the Pace Center and sometimes in volunteers' homes.

Washing vegetables and steaming rice are social events as well as good deeds. Volunteers sit and share the meal as a way to get to know the people they serve. Anyone is welcome to volunteer or eat, regardless of their politics.

"We're not looking for converts. We're looking for free-thinking individuals," said Shawn O'Hern, 28.

O'Hern was active in Norfolk's Food Not Bombs chapter before he moved to Richmond in 1996 and became involved here.

The first Sunday he showed up to help in Richmond, 2 feet of snow was on the ground and only five people turned out to help with the meal. Of those, just three stayed to clean up, which meant that O'Hern was washing dishes until almost 8 p.m.

Even though it wasn't a strong day for volunteers, the line of homeless and hungry people was as long as usual, O'Hern said, adding that feeding them all was worth the extra effort.

"It's a constant reminder that my faith in the potential of humanity is not naive or idealistic," he said. "It's just a massive challenge to reach it."

Some members say Food Not Bombs has been criticized, not only by people who oppose its politics, but by people who say the program encourages homelessness and enables drunkenness, drug use and poverty, as well.

Monte Montenegro, a case manager at Freedom House, which provides the homeless with meals and shelter, said that shouldn't be a concern.

"Whatever these people's problems are, we've still got to be there for them. It's not enabling anybody," said Montenegro, who believes Food Not Bombs is doing a great service to the community, especially since many local shelters and kitchens aren't open on Sundays.

"They're taking up where we leave off," he said.

During the two years that Roslyn Hicks was homeless after a back injury rendered her unable to work, she visited Monroe Park each Sunday to share the meal. She hasn't been homeless in about a year and a half, but she still drops by to collect produce left over from the day's meal.

She said her experience with Food Not Bombs volunteers has always been positive.

"I think they're excellent. They don't realize they're helping a whole lot of people, any way they can," Hicks said.

But she conceded that she hasn't paid much attention to the group's politics.

O'Hern said it's been difficult for the group to balance the meal with the politics it represents. Members don't push the political message at meals because they know people are there to eat.

Political discussion is more frequent in the kitchen and at weekly meetings where members talk about their progress and any protests or programs they're considering participating in.

Catlin said her volunteer work has been instrumental in her development as an activist. But with homelessness and unemployment increasing in the city and around the country, she doesn't know if the organization's goals are being achieved on a broader level.

But O'Hern said the group is always making progress - by feeding people.

"The harsh reality of living on the streets is not made easier by some mashed potatoes," he said. "But it's made survivable."

Contact Jessica Wambach at (804) 649-6733 or jwambach@timesdispatch.com

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Commentary :: Elections & Legislation

The Ruling Class Dumps Bush

The ruling class has dumped George W. Bush, judging by the reversal of trends in campaign contributions beginning in March 2004.

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News :: Civil & Human Rights

Vandals of black Roanoke church convicted

ROANOKE - Two white men pleaded guilty today in federal court to violating the constitutional rights of members of a historic black church in Roanoke when they vandalized the church in January.

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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Mumia's Case: A Movement Update

July 16, 2004

The Mumia Case
Support from NAACP, But a Movement in Shambles


The NAACP, after years of ducking taking a public stand on the case of Pennsylvania death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, voted on an "emergency resolution" near the end of its annual convention in Philadelphia Thursday to call for a new trial for the black journalist/activist, and to urge local NAACP chapters to work toward that goal.

The resolution didn't come easily. Mumia supporters found that delegates who had hoped to introduce the measure had been decertified and barred from the convention, which met in the Philadelphia Convention Center. They also found that a planned panel on the death penalty, at which they had intended to raise Abu-Jamal's case, had been unexplainably cancelled. Only when MOVE activist Pam Africa and some other MOVE supporters threatened to picket the convention and even attempt to crash the delegates assembly, holding a white flag, did the organization-the nation's oldest civil rights group--relent. Even then, a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic effort was made to water down a draft resolution of support by removing the specific call for a new trial and making it a call for a review of all death penalty cases. Finally, with the help of several delegates, including David Graham Du Bois (a descendent of W.E.B. Du Bois) and Mayor John Street's son Sharif, NAACP Chair Julian Bond was persuaded to endorse and sign a resolution draft that made the specific call for a new trial.

The NAACP's endorsement of the call for a new trial is an important victory for Abu-Jamal, whose 23-year-old case is moving forward into the last stages of his appeal--this time in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. For while the venerable civil rights organization has supported Abu-Jamal in the courtroom-it filed an amicus brief in 2000 in support of his federal appeal-it had not until now put the organization on record as demanding for a new trial.

Abu-Jamal, though his attorney, noted the support which the NAACP has offered in his case over the years, and said, "I am humbled by and very
grateful for the NAACP1s support. The NAACP has taken stands through the
years on behalf of so many people who have been victimized in society because of their race. I hope this resolution will help many others in situations similar to mine."

His lead attorney, Robert R. Bryan, added, "I think to have the support of the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the U.S. is of enormous importance to this case. Along with my client, I am very grateful to the NAACP for taking this stand."

In fact, while support for the resolution on the floor-it passed with one dissenting vote--was overwhelming, the NAACP leadership had to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking such a public position on this case. This despite the fact that this case was so cruelly and obviously contaminated by racism (the presiding judge was overheard, on day one of the trial, saying he would "help them fry that nigger" as he left the courtroom, and 11 qualified black jurors were barred from serving by the prosecution's use of peremptory challenges, ultimately leaving Abu-Jamal facing a jury with only two black members in a city that was 40 percent black).

Perhaps more important, this episode is also evidence of how weakened Abu-Jamal's support organization has become. Only Pam Africa's tactical skill at holding NAACP leaders' feet to the fire by threatening them with an embarrassing incident on the day Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was speaking to the gathering managed to win the day and get the resolution to the floor.

Back in the mid to late 1990s, whenever there was a Mumia demonstration in Philadelphia, organizers could count on bringing out thousands, even tens of thousands of supporters, both local and bussed in from around the country. Today, Free Mumia demonstrations in Philadelphia-like the rally and march on Abu-Jamal's birthday back in April--are lucky to attract a few hundred people, half of them pulled in from New York and elsewhere.

What has happened?

The case, certainly, is as outrageous and compelling as ever. Abu-Jamal, who always has and continues to maintain his innocence, was convicted on the basis of the testimony of two key witnesses, a white taxi driver and a black prostitute, neither of whom was seen at the scene of the crime by any other witnesses (no one even recalled seeing the taxi, which was supposedly parked directly at the scene of the 1981 shootings of police officer Daniel Faulkner and Abu-Jamalexcept for the prostitute, who said she saw it after the shooting, but not before). Both of those witnesses had grave credibility problems, too. Robert Chobert, the taxi driver, had been driving his cab on a suspended license, and unknown to the defense, had asked the prosecutor if he could help him get his license back--a request for a favor that makes his entire testimony seriously suspect. Cynthia White, the prostitute and star prosecution witness, had been repeatedly arrested and questioned--or coached--by detectives, in the weeks following the shooting of police officer Daniel Faulkner, and her story of what happened had evolved over those weeks to conform with the story ultimately presented by the prosecution. Suspiciously, of all the witnesses picked up at the scene on Dec. 9, 1981, only White, supposedly the prosecution's key eyewitness, was not brought to the paddy wagon to identify Abu-Jamal as the shooter, suggesting that police knew she probably couldn't.

The other evidence that played a key role in convincing the jury to convict was testimony by a hospital security guard and a police officer that they had allegedly heard Abu-Jamal confess to killing Faulkner in the Jefferson Hospital emergency room--but both had waited two months to report this stunning alleged confession to detectives. Neither said a thing about what would have been dramatic evidence of guilt to police investigators at the time of the shooting investigation. In fact, the police officer who was guarding Abu-Jamal at the time the alleged confession occurred told investigators the day of the shooting that Abu-Jamal had made "no comment" during his entire time in the ER.

Some "open and shut" case!

As I wrote in my book, Killing Time, the prosecutor, Joseph McGill, also managed to purge 75 percent of the qualified black jurors from consideration during jury selection--exactly the percentage of black jurors he routinely managed to keep off juries during six other murder trials he handled as an assistant DA. That's a record of unconstitutional racial bias in jury selection that the NAACP should have been damned upset about, especially since it was ignored by the federal judge who considered Abu-Jamal's appeal in 2001. It's also the main basis for his appeal of his conviction before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, currently pending.

Why has there been so little public pressure for a new trial? Why weren't masses of people outside the NAACP demanding that the organization support Abu-Jamal? Because there's almost no one left to do it.

The throngs of people who used to come out to demand a new trial for Abu-Jamal have faded away as his case, over the past several years, was taken over by ideological lawyers and others who managed to convince Abu-Jamal to make his case a political attack on the entire legal system, instead of dealing with the key issues in his trial that offered the best chance to get him a new hearing.

They dredged up a whacked-out "witness," Arnold Beverly, who claimed he, and not Abu-Jamal, had shot Faulkner. Though Beverly's story was incredible, sounded coached, though no other witnesses had seen him at the scene, and though his story conflicted with the evidence presented in court by Abu-Jamal's own witnesses in key ways, Jamal's then attorneys, Eliot Grossman and Marlene Kamish, ploughed ahead, sowing dissension in their wake, viciously maligning anyone in or out of the movement who questioned the strategy or their tactics, libeling Abu-Jamal's prior attorney Leonard Weinglass (about whom they sketched wild and unfounded conspiracy theories), making factual errors in their filings, and needlessly annoying judges before whom they needed to plead his case. In the end, Abu-Jamal's defense fund dried up as key supporters like Ossie Davis and Michael Farrell backed away from this train wreck.

In the past year, Abu-Jamal has finally seen the light. Dropping his flakey and woefully inexperienced legal duo (neither attorney had any federal death penalty appellate experience at all), he has hired the San Francisco-based Bryan, an acknowledged death penalty litigator and appellate pro, for his lead attorney.

He has also dropped the Arnold Beverly appeal, though many of his more ardent backers seem still to have missed-or ignored--this important development.

For his part, attorney Bryan has been reaching out to people and groups that had backed away from the movement in recent years. "I'm convinced that Mumia is innocent. Not everyone agrees with that, but this movement is open to anyone who feels that there has been a miscarriage of justice and that Mumia deserves a new, fair trial," he says.

Unfortunately, Abu-Jamal has not yet spoken out publicly against the sectarianism and personal ego-tripping that have poisoned his splintered movement, so it remains in ruins, as the latest campaign to persuade the NAACP to support him, and the small turnout at the April demonstration, amply demonstrate.

Meanwhile there is still a massive, unified government and law-enforcement campaign to see Abu-Jamal executed. The Fraternal Order of Police, the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, and even Governor Ed Rendell, who was D.A.-and McGill's boss-when Abu-Jamal was prosecuted in 1982, are all committed to seeing him die.

Until Abu-Jamal himself insists on seeking to rebuild a broader coalition, and openly condemns the sniping and character assassination that has been going on in his name outside the prison, he will pretty much be fighting his legal battles alone, with his attorneys and a few highly energetic supporters, but without any mass base.

Which is pretty unfortunate for him, and also for the many thousands of others on death row and in prison, for whom his case could be a clarion call for reform of a criminally corrupted justice system.

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can't be Happening!" to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com

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