Category Archives: Civil Rights

Cops Cash In on Sex Trade Arrests With Little Evidence, While Black and Brown Residents Pay the Price

Court.rchp.com editorial note: Behavior by other police departments can provide insight into our local police force. A state audit released four months ago revealed that about 1,200 police officers were paid around $14 million in overtime pay; which averages more than $11,600 per officer. Eight employees doubled their salary using overtime, and an additional 99 earned at least an extra 50% of their base salary with overtime. Keep those figures in mind as you read the following article.


by Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien

One summer night in 2015, a community college student was driving home through East New York in Brooklyn when two women on a street corner waved for him to stop.

He thought they might need help, so he pulled over and cracked his window. But the pair had something else in mind. “Do you want to have some fun?” he recalled one of them saying. “Whoa, no thank you!” he responded, and drove off, laughing to himself. It was like something he’d seen only on TV.

The 21-year-old, who is Black, made it a few blocks before police yanked him out of his car and began to search him. Terrified and unsure of what was happening, he insisted they had the wrong guy. Officers yelled at him to “shut the fuck up.”

The women were undercover police officers. He was under arrest for patronizing a prostitute. The police put him in a van, where he sat handcuffed for hours as it filled with other Black and brown men.

It was one of the New York Police Department’s biggest stings since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the direct outcome of a strategy he and top cops have touted in recent years to combat human trafficking: Officers should arrest “the true criminals” like “johns” and “pimps,” while making sure people forced into prostitution get the help they need to get out.

On the ground, the reality has been different from the rhetoric. Teams of NYPD officers have descended on minority neighborhoods, leaning into car windows and knocking on apartment doors, trying to get men and women to say the magic words: agreeing to exchange sex for money. These arrests are based almost entirely on the word of cops, who say they are incentivized to round up as many “bodies” as they can.

Some of their targets were selling sex to survive; others were minding their own business. Almost everyone arrested for these crimes in the last four years is nonwhite, a ProPublica data analysis shows: 89% of the 1,800 charged with prostitution; 93% of the 3,000 accused of trying to buy sex.

Of the dozens of cops, lawyers and other experts ProPublica interviewed for this story, not a single one believes arrest figures for patronizing a prostitute accurately reflect the racial makeup of those who buy sex in New York City.

“I know for a fact that white men are the key demographic,” said Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who, along with her colleagues, has interviewed more than 600 young people who trade sex in the city. In one study, 65% said their main clients are white.

People living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs over crimes they swore never happened. But facing multiple court hearings and the threat of jail time, they took quick deals to move on with their lives. A former officer who worked undercover told ProPublica she participated in false arrests. Others acknowledged the system could let them slip through.

The problems became clear in interviews with 36 current and former officers and dozens of defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys; weeks of observing court proceedings; and a review of hundreds of pages of sealed court records.

ProPublica delved into the work of one officer, identified in official documents as Undercover 157, whose cases are replete with allegations of false arrest and sexual misconduct that were never aired in court. Defense attorneys filed complaints with the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD almost three years ago, which still considers it an “ongoing matter.” In a statement, the NYPD defended the undercover officer as a veteran “with approximately 1,800 successful buys and no complaints against him at the NYPD or with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.” (The department later clarified this meant no active complaints.)

Even for a department accused in recent months of acting with impunity, those policing New York’s sex trade appear to operate in an extreme vacuum of accountability. The CCRB, originally created to investigate police misconduct against communities of color, does not address allegations of false arrest and is still trying to gain authority to examine those involving sexual abuse.

In the rare instances when defendants sue, the cases are often settled before officers have to testify.

Since 2014, the city has paid more than a million in taxpayer dollars to at least 20 people who claimed they were falsely arrested in prostitution or “john” stings. Last year, it paid $150,000 to five young Latino men who said they were laughing off a proposition when they were arrested and $20,000 to a West African taxi driver who said in a sworn deposition that he was walking home when a woman asked if he’d walk down the block with her. He told ProPublica he thought she was afraid of walking alone, so he agreed. He was then arrested.

The undercover officer in his case netted 10 arrests in three and a half hours the night she encountered him, earning her four hours of overtime pay.

Eighteen current and former officers who policed the sale of sex in New York City said overtime has motivated them for years. The hours add up over the drive to the precinct, the questioning, the paperwork. “You arrest 10 girls, now the whole team’s making eight hours of overtime,” retired Sgt. Stephen Antiuk said.

“That’s what it was all about, making money, from the lieutenant to the sergeant on down,” retired Detective John Kopack said. “You want to eat? You guys want to make some money tonight? Make some arrests, do what you got to do.”

The NYPD did not respond to ProPublica’s detailed questions about overtime or the specific incidents in this story. Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokeswoman, said the department “maintains heightened vigilance and robust oversight over all of its undercover operations.” NYPD spokesman Al Baker said police shifted their prostitution strategy in 2017, leading to fewer arrests of sex workers, more of “johns” and a greater focus on “pimps.” He noted that selling sex is still illegal and the department “deploys officers where residents report crime” without consideration of race or ethnicity.

As New York City’s crime rate fell to record lows in recent years, the NYPD continued to draw criticism for its outsized presence in minority neighborhoods, arresting tens of thousands of Black and Latino people on minor, nonviolent infractions. This dynamic inspired calls over the summer to “defund the police,” a slogan that depicts the department as an occupying force, disproportionately ensnaring people of color in the criminal justice system.

The statistics for arrests involving the sale of sex reflect a particularly stark example of this trend.

While complaints about prostitution have long been scattered across neighborhoods of all races, arrests for buying sex are not. ProPublica found that in majority Black and Latino areas, police have arrested over three times as many alleged sex buyers as in whiter neighborhoods despite comparable complaints about prostitution and arrests of alleged sex workers in each.

Michele Alexander, who is Black, sometimes worked undercover out of a precinct in Jamaica, Queens, before she retired in 2012. “When are we going to Manhattan?” she recalls asking her supervisor, after working too many sex buyer stings where the men all looked the same. “Negroes aren’t the only ones who buy vagina.” As punishment, she said she was reassigned to an early morning tour monitoring a Manhattan subway station.

Paul Lichtbraun, a retired captain who oversaw vice in Manhattan and the Bronx until 2017, said his unit often focused on buyers, but when it received complaints about prostitution inside high-end Manhattan hotels, they’d only go after sex workers. “If I start arresting their paying customers, [the hotel’s] going to ask me to leave,” he said. “Are there always people who get off in this world? Of course there are.”

Then, there is the community college student, stopped in a majority-Black neighborhood in Brooklyn that saw more buyer arrests in the past few years than all of Manhattan and Staten Island combined. Refusing to take a plea deal, he trekked to and from court for seven months. The prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges.

The young man sued for false arrest and won a $15,000 settlement. But he lost something more fundamental, his ability to trust.

“When I see people on the street, asking for a jump or whatever, I just keep going,” he told ProPublica. “Can you imagine if it was really two girls on the corner waving for help? You just lost one guy who would stop.”

Whether police target sex workers or their clients, operations look much the same. Field teams of anywhere from eight to 16 officers are dispatched with the aim of securing verbal agreements of sex for money.

They often start with community complaints called “kites.” When there are none to follow, there are “strolls” or “tracks,” dark stretches in industrial sections of East New York or along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens where sex is bought and sold, noon and night. Massage parlors can be easy targets; words need not be spoken. Money lands on a table, there is a gesture in the motion of manual sex, a subtle nod in return.

Sometimes, no money is involved at all. “There has to be an exchange of a benefit,” said former Sgt. Louis Failla. He told the story of an undercover who once “made a deal with a crack prostitute on the street for a hamburger and fries from McDonald’s.” He always found it “humorous,” he said, “what these women would do just to get a few dollars.”

Current and former undercover officers told ProPublica there’s an art to convincing their targets they aren’t cops. Some dirty their fingernails or rub newspaper on their knees to make it look like they’ve been providing oral sex on the street. One said that if a woman insisted he touch her breasts, he would do so, but he would never squeeze.

Sometimes, officers go in to arrest a woman and find she’s completely naked. Antiuk, the retired sergeant, laughed while describing the perks of the job. “The undercover can have a nice, cold beer and watch a girl take her clothes off — and he’s getting paid for it.”

Once the deal is made, the undercover signals that it’s time for the arrest. While backup officers can sometimes hear the incriminating conversations through a wireless device, they are not required to record. Some teams have come in after getting a signal from the undercover officer, having heard nothing of the exchange.

That trust can be exploited.

Jazmia Inserillo, who retired as an NYPD officer in 2016, told ProPublica she participated in false arrests as an undercover officer without her backup team listening in. Sometimes, a young man would stop to flirt but hadn’t agreed to pay for sex before he was arrested. Once, a man pulled up and told the undercovers, “I know you the police,” she recalled. “And because he’s just talking, they just give the signal.”

Twice, men were clearly lost and stopped to ask for directions. “You’re not lost. You know what you came here for,” Inserillo remembers her partner saying one night. “What do you want, you looking for a blowjob?”

The man said he was looking for a street but couldn’t find it in the dark. As the three went back and forth, Inserillo remembered her partner lifting her back leg and leaning into the car, a signal to a backup team to initiate an arrest. “This girl puts her foot up while I’m in the middle of talking to him about cross streets,” Inserillo said.

“And I look up at my lieutenant trying to signal no. But he didn’t really understand because we didn’t have a signal for no.”

She said she’d brought up another bad arrest to a supervisor, but he ignored it.

John Hart, who was her lieutenant at that time and is now a deputy chief, told ProPublica no one in his unit ever mentioned false arrests to him. Inserillo later filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a different superior officer over an unrelated incident, saying she endured retaliation for reporting him. She won a $112,500 settlement.

The department has had the equipment to covertly record agreements between undercover officers and targets for at least 20 years, but it does so inconsistently. Some officers told ProPublica their supervisors required them to record; others said they never taped a single arrest.

“Almost none of these cases ever go to a courtroom, so that’s the reason recording was not a priority,” said Lichtbraun, the retired captain. “In vice, they weren’t always recorded. Frankly, they very often were not.”

In 2016, a civil rights attorney asked a federal judge for an injunction that would forbid the department from making buyer arrests without recording them. Gabriel Harvis was representing a Black man arrested outside of a post office after being propositioned while getting a package from the trunk of his car. The man insisted he declined the sex offer, sued for false arrest and won $85,000. But the case settled before the injunction could be considered.

Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors there did not know operations were sometimes recorded until ProPublica contacted them earlier this year. The office has handled more than 2,000 prostitution and patronizing cases since 2015.

Now that the office is aware of the recordings, Yaniv said, “we sometimes use and disclose them in cases we prosecute — those against pimps and traffickers. As in every case, if the police account raises questions or if we receive any information alleging problems with the arrest, we investigate further.”

The NYPD did not answer questions about when officers make recordings or why they choose not to. “For obvious safety and evidentiary reasons, the NYPD never discloses specifics of our tradecraft or investigatory methods in undercover cases.”

One officer, known only as Undercover 157, has developed a reputation among defense attorneys for the stories they hear about him from their clients. In multiple cases, the defendants said they never agreed to sell sex for money and thought the man with the confident smile and well-kept dreadlocks was courting them for a date.

One woman told her lawyers he had been texting her for days when she got into his car one cold, winter afternoon after he offered to drive her to the pharmacy to get asthma medication for her daughter. She said he took her to a hotel parking lot instead, near the shelter where she was staying, and offered her $100 for oral sex. She said she declined at least twice but was arrested anyway.

A young man thought the stranger was interested in him when they locked eyes out in East New York. They traded numbers and, for three straight days, exchanged heated, flirtatious messages that made no mention of money. When they met for a hook-up, his sexting companion asked if he wanted to get something to eat first. He declined; the man shoved a fistful of dollars at him, saying, “Here, take this to eat later.” Then a squad car pulled up.

In early 2018, these stories along with four others were submitted in two letters from the Legal Aid Society to the NYPD inspector general. “These incidents demonstrate a serious lack of training, protocol and supervision of Undercover 157, the units he is working with, as well as the supervising officers’ abandonment of any duty to review his arrests or monitor the outcomes of his arrests,” the letter said.

In addition to the letters, ProPublica obtained records of arrests made by Undercover 157 between 2015 and 2019 from more than 80 sealed court cases.

Seventeen women complained to their attorneys of inappropriate touching or worse. One said he penetrated her vagina with his finger, then washed his hands before officers arrived. Another said she performed oral sex on him and was arrested the next time she saw him. A third said she was in “only panties” as they danced and smoked marijuana for about 15 minutes and that he touched her vagina. A fourth, who sells sex to support her heroin addiction, told ProPublica he asked her to get completely naked and grabbed her buttocks. “He didn’t have to go to that extent,” she said.

The records show just how difficult it can be to investigate such claims. Only three of the complainants agreed to meet with the inspector general. Nearly three years later, Legal Aid is still waiting for the inquiry to conclude.

None of these allegations were ever aired before a judge. In New York City, prostitution cases are processed in Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which is supposed to help rather than punish people in the sex trade. But it functions a bit like a conveyer belt, where defendants quickly agree to counseling sessions to provide “exit strategies” out of the sex trade. If they complete them and avoid arrest, their charges are dismissed and cases are sealed.

Three former prosecutors who worked in the court told ProPublica they juggled so many cases that even if an arrest seemed flawed, they were unlikely to report it.

Cases against people accused of trying to buy sex in New York City fly through misdemeanor court at a similar clip. They almost always end with plea deals for more minor offenses like disorderly conduct or are simply dismissed. From 2015 through 2019, the court processed more than 4,100 of these cases. Only one person took his to trial. He won.

Two defendants have tried to force Undercover 157 to answer for his arrests in recent years.

In 2017, a woman accused of prostitution made the rare decision to take her case to trial. Undercover 157 was announced as the first witness. But on the day he was set to testify, prosecutor Abraham Jacob Jeger revised his initial offer: If the defendant was not arrested for six months, the charge would be sealed and dismissed, no counseling necessary. The detective never had to take the stand.

In an emailed response, Jeger said he and his supervisors made “a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it was not worth revealing this undercover’s identity” to those in court. He referred further questions to the Queens District Attorney’s Office, which said it could not comment on sealed cases.

In a 2018 case, Jillian Modzeleski, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, filed a unique legal motion called a Gissendanner, which would allow the defendant access to Undercover 157’s disciplinary records if a judge found them “relevant and material” to the case. She cited the pattern of false arrest allegations against him and his fellow officers.

Before a judge could rule on the motion, the Brooklyn DA dropped all charges. The DA would not comment on cases in this story because they are all sealed.

The NYPD also declined to discuss the detective’s cases. “We do not speak about ongoing investigations or matters in litigation. We are making only a slight exception in your case by noting that the narrative, as you presented, is not entirely accurate,” said Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, referring to an extensive summary of the false arrest and sexual misconduct allegations in this story. “We are unable to comment further.”

The department initially said Undercover 157 was an officer “with no complaints.” But the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau had indeed gotten one in November 2014:

An undocumented woman from China reported that the detective undressed her and touched her breasts and vagina at an informal massage parlor in Queens. She told investigators that when the backup team arrived, they handcuffed her and walked her through the massage parlor naked. She said she begged them to let her get dressed, but they refused. One took a photo of her.

ProPublica spoke to three attorneys involved: Lauren Hersh, who helped set up the meeting with investigators; Rosie Wang, who interpreted and kept notes; and Leigh Latimer, who represented the woman on the prostitution charge and spoke with her again last week. Court records identify the undercover officer behind her arrest as 157.

Wang said the investigators asked the woman to pick the detective out of a photo array. It had been a year since her arrest and she was unable to do so. Five months later, IAB got in touch to set up a second interview. The woman declined, saying she was tired of revisiting the traumatic experience. The department, which confirmed its investigation when ProPublica asked about it, said it closed the complaint without disciplining him.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services later granted her legal status as a trafficking victim, finding that she had been forced into sex work at the massage parlor.

ProPublica reporters were unable to learn the name of Undercover 157 to investigate him further, but they spoke with four former cops who worked with the detective. All were skeptical about the allegations. One said the detective was regarded as a “superstar” because of how good he was at convincing people to engage. But another, who trailed him as a “ghost” on dozens of arrests, said the detective rarely used a radio and usually texted or sent a signal through another wireless device instead. He said he couldn’t hear what transpired between Undercover 157 and his targets. “I was a ghost with no ears.”

After months of reporting, ProPublica was able to listen to a recording of an operation in which the defendant claimed she was falsely arrested by Undercover 157. It was made in late 2018, after the Legal Aid complaints and attempts to bring the detective to court. The audio evidence refuted her story, but it raised other questions.

Her attorney had no idea the recording existed; it was never shared before the woman’s case was sealed and dismissed. “The fact that these secret tapes exist means that the NYPD has broken the law by concealing evidence,” said Modzeleski, her attorney. “This revelation demands an investigation.” The department did not answer questions about the recording or whether it will investigate the failure to turn it over.

The recording offers a rare window into how such arrests unfold.

In October 2018, Undercover 157 knocked on the door of an East New York apartment six weeks after someone complained that the woman inside was selling sex. The 27-year-old single mother had lived there for eight months after years of instability and stints in a shelter. Through the door, he tried to convince her to do business.

“Excuse me,” she replied, “I said no. I do not know you. I have children here. No.”

In the recording, she could be heard saying ‘no’ or ‘bye’ or telling him to leave 12 times. At one point, the conversation went silent and she seemed to step away. His loud knocking resumed. “Yo!” he called out. She replied, “Stop knocking on my door.”

He persisted, feigning exasperation until she gave in. It’s unclear from the recording who brought up money first, but eventually, she asked him how much he had. He increased his offer until she agreed to let him in, raising the cash in front of her peephole at her request.

An infant could be heard crying in the background as he asked for anal sex. She told him she didn’t want to be hurt. “Are you going to be rough?” she asked.

She checked on the baby, who was now screaming. Then came another knock on the door, a banging this time.

The backup team stormed in. One shouted at her to get on the floor. She was so panicked, she said, she urinated on herself.

At least five cops were involved in the arrest. She was charged with prostitution and endangering the welfare of a child. The city’s child welfare agency removed her children and she lost custody for two months.

Almost every officer interviewed for this story said their work did little to reduce the amount of sex sold in New York City, improve the lives of those selling it or help catch criminals who force people into it.

At best, officers said, low-level prostitution arrests can temporarily assuage community complaints about noise and public sex acts, but the trade just reemerges elsewhere. “If you’re always putting a team of 10 detectives and some bosses on a corner once a week, it’s just a waste of funds,” retired Detective Efrain Collado said.

He joined vice to gain investigative experience and make a positive impact, but he became disillusioned during repeated assignments to arrest women outside three large homeless shelters near vice’s Brooklyn North headquarters.

It felt like he was kicking desperate people when they were down. “It’s a waste of time,” Collado said. “A revolving door.”

Several current and former officers described vice as a neglected stepchild within the department. With only sporadic attention from the top brass and limited opportunities to pursue traffickers, they said it draws rookies looking to make detective and keeps washouts no one else wants.

“We’re considered bottom feeders — put us in the back room in the basement,” said Antiuk, the retired sergeant. “The morale goes to a point where it becomes how many arrests are we going to make and how much overtime are we going to get. You didn’t give a shit about some of these girls.”

Former Det. Ludwig Paz is serving a prison sentence of up to 12 years for running a prostitution ring involving as many as eight locations. He recruited several officers, including his former vice partner, to help protect it. Failla, the former sergeant, was fired last year after he was implicated in the scheme; he said he was an unwitting participant, passing on intel Paz used to protect his operation.

It was the latest in a long line of scandals involving the NYPD and the sex trade. Officers have been caught exploiting or protecting the trade about once or twice a decade going back to the 1972 Knapp Commission, which found that bribes from brothel operators and other criminals were widespread in the department and that a number of locations offered half-priced sex to police in exchange for protection.

Two competing measures are being discussed by state legislators, aiming to end prostitution arrests and the trouble that surrounds them.

“Full decriminalization” would remove criminal penalties for buying or selling sex. Supporters argue that sex for money is a victimless crime so long as the transactions take place between two consenting adults. They say laws primarily impact poor people of color and only make life for sex workers more dangerous.

Kopack, who worked on trafficking investigations and street-level enforcement, echoed the sentiment, saying the threat of prostitution arrests can make life easier for traffickers, because those they exploit are less likely to seek help. “They get the shit beaten out of them, but they know if the cops come, they’re going to get arrested.”

The “Equality Model” would keep penalties in place for buying sex but decriminalize selling it. Proponents believe that while sex workers should be treated as victims, not criminals, the government should still aim to abolish the sex trade, which they say can too easily lead to rape and other abuses. If buying sex is legal, they argue, more men will do so, which would increase trafficking.

Trafficking, sex with minors and various forms of coercion or promotion would remain illegal under either policy. The full decriminalization bill is stuck in New York Senate and Assembly committees. Lawmakers who support the “Equality Model” say they plan to introduce counter legislation in the next year or so.

De Blasio hasn’t taken a position on whether the law should be changed, but he had to confront the issue after the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco.

The 27-year-old transgender woman had been arrested for allegedly agreeing to perform oral sex on an undercover officer and then failed to show up at the court designed to help sex workers, resulting in a bench warrant. She was arrested on a separate charge and sent to Rikers Island because she couldn’t afford the $500 bail set for having missed appearances on the prostitution charge. She had a seizure in a solitary cell and died.

Seventeen corrections officers were disciplined after a report showed how guards left her unattended while she needed medical attention. Her family sued and won a $5.9 million settlement. Decriminalization activists, members of the LGBTQ community and public officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed the death on a system that targets and traps people who are already poor and marginalized.

When a reporter from The City, a local nonprofit news organization, asked de Blasio about the case in September, he made news with his response: “To the question of whether sex workers should be arrested, my broad answer is no.”

In response to questions for this story, de Blasio’s spokeswoman Avery Cohen did not take a position on the criminalization of sex work or respond to questions about racial disparities in enforcement. She underscored that sex workers are no longer “the key targets of arrest” and said, “Whether it’s through state legislation or through city policy, we are working to end exploitation and aid survivors of human trafficking. The NYPD Vice Unit will conduct itself in a way that reflects this goal.”

Prostitution arrests began to decline in 2017 when New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill promised to shift resources toward traffickers and buyers. “Make no mistake, this is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world, but the NYPD will not allow it to fester,” he said, announcing the addition of 25 vice officers to “conduct initial screening in trafficking cases.”

But two officers who worked in vice at the time told ProPublica that the promise belied the way it was carried out. The department sent its least experienced officers, so-called white shields who occupy the lowest rank. According to the two officers, the new additions went after sex workers and their customers, not traffickers.

A separate anti-trafficking unit, which had fewer than 10 members, regularly had to turn down leads. With the unit short on personnel, Collado said, even experienced anti-trafficking detectives like himself had to focus mostly on “low-hanging fruit” rather than genuine trafficking networks. Arrests where the top charge is sex trafficking have increased only slightly in recent years, peaking at 55 in 2018, according to city data on violations of New York state law.

“There are no resources and there is no real investment,” said Anila Duro, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the federally funded Human Trafficking Task Force at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, citing conversations with current officers.

Baker, the NYPD spokesman, countered that assessment, defending the department’s emphasis on trafficking and portraying vice as a unit of dedicated officers doing meaningful work. He confirmed that the 25 investigators were white shields but said they were “specially trained to investigate complaints of human trafficking and to conduct enforcement and build strong cases.” He said the move increased vice’s staffing to 114, but it’s now down to 96 because the department has had to respond to other pressing matters, like upticks in violent crime, protests and the coronavirus pandemic. Since April, there have been just 22 arrests for prostitution and 87 for patronizing.

He also emphasized the work of two federal partnerships dedicated to trafficking, one with the FBI, which includes nine NYPD officers, and another with the Department of Homeland Security, which he said has seven. He said that the vice human trafficking unit still includes nine officers. Combined, that equals 25, which he said “represents a stable commitment to the vision articulated in 2017.”

Baker said there have been over 4,500 emergency calls regarding prostitution since 2016 and there are approximately 30 “tracks” that “generate complaints routinely from residents.” He sent statistics showing that prostitution-related arrests overall have decreased, but that those of “pimps” now account for a larger proportion, from 8% in 2015 to 12% in 2019. As evidence of the department’s anti-trafficking work, he pointed to severalbusts from recent years, including the arrest of a man last week for allegedly trafficking underage girls across county lines.

Collado said his experience in vice’s anti-trafficking unit did not reflect a real commitment to pursuing criminals who force people into prostitution. He said that in his two years on the unit ending in 2018, he only got to work on one serious investigation. It stalled, partly because it was left only to him and one other detective. The case involves dozens of women. He said his partner is still working on it, two years after Collado retired.

“You’re not going to get traffickers the way they’re doing it,” Collado told ProPublica. “Change has got to come from the top.”

This year, amid a national outcry over police violence, the conversation turned to reducing budgets as a way to force reform. Overtime pay might be a place to start cutting, according to advocates and even some officers.

“When people are screaming, ‘Defund the police,’ I got no problems with that because they are wasting fucking money,” said Sgt. Steven Lee, who briefly worked as an interpreter during prostitution arrests and positioned himself as a whistleblower in a recent state Assembly race.

Units that involve a lot of arrests, like vice and narcotics, are known destinations for overtime pay. “It’s called collars for dollars,” said Failla, invoking a term for a practice that has dogged the department for decades. “The more bodies you put in the van, the more overtime there was.”

Elizabeth Velazquez, who retired in 2019, said she started doing “john” stings early in her career to supplement an otherwise modest salary. “That was the point of doing the operation,” she said. “I was a single parent. I needed to pay my mortgage.”

Many officers told ProPublica their colleagues have come to rely on padded paychecks to support lifestyles they otherwise could not afford. They may buy houses or cars on take-home pay that could shrink if they make fewer arrests.

Some squeeze all they can out of overtime because it factors into pension payouts, often based on the years in which they took home the most money. It can pay dividends for the rest of their lives.

The city has pledged to reduce police overtime spending and abuse in recent years, but data and documents suggest limited success. Detectives can still easily add 30% to their salaries through overtime. A typical third-grade detective makes almost $35,000 a year in extra pay, atop an average base salary of $97,000.

In the last three fiscal years, the city has budgeted over $600 million a year for overtime. The department exceeded that figure by at least $100 million each year.

In an interview, one high-ranking NYPD official described overtime as an instrument to encourage all sorts of arrests, used by supervisors under pressure to produce numbers. “Take away overtime and show me how much loyalty you have left.”

Another said that in units like vice, this can discourage officers from launching more complicated investigations that might have more long-term impact. “They go for the low-hanging fruit. Easy collars,” he said. “That’s where they make their money.”

As pressure mounted to reduce police funding following protests this spring, de Blasio and the City Council agreed in June to cut the overtime budget by more than half. Even so, the city’s Independent Budget Office estimated that in fiscal year 2021, the NYPD will spend almost as much on overtime as it usually does, overshooting its budget by $400 million. That’s more than the city Health Department spent in fiscal year 2019 on emergency preparedness, addiction treatment, communicable diseases, immunizations and HIV prevention combined.

The NYPD did not respond to questions about what it’s doing to reduce overtime spending.

Antiuk, who retired three years ago, told ProPublica he is still “living off the royalties from back in the day,” referring to the vice overtime that boosted his pension. In his last 18 months on the job, records show, he made about $85,000 in extra pay.

He laughed as he remembered comparing his wages to those of a “really pretty Spanish girl” he had arrested.

“I make more money than you,” he recalled her saying to him in a hotel room. To which he replied: “Oh yeah? Well, you must be rich, because I’m doing really well.”

That was about all there was to show for his three years helping run vice in the Bronx, Antiuk said.

“I’ll tell you the truth straight up, man. It was a joke.”

About the Data

To help understand how the New York Police Department’s priorities changed over time and which demographic groups were most affected by the policing of prostitution, we analyzed NYPDdata, looking at arrests where the top charge was either prostitution or patronizing a prostitute in the third degree. (Patronizing a prostitute in the first or second degree is a felony charge involving a minor, and those arrests are uncommon. We also restricted our analysis of court data to cases where prostitution or third-degree patronizing was the top charge.) We analyzed the race of people arrested on these charges between October 2016 and September 2020.

Then, using public data on the number of prostitution-related 311 and 911 calls in each police precinct, we compared those complaints to the number of arrests in each precinct. (We restricted our analysis to the period between July 2017 and December 2019, in order to reflect the department’s strategic shift in early 2017 and avoid the possibility of the coronavirus pandemic muddling results). We found that the number of prostitution arrests was indeed strongly correlated to the number of complaints in a given area. Patronizing arrests, however, were only loosely correlated with complaints.

We factored in the racial demographics of each precinct using statistics prepared for us from census data by Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council. We then conducted what’s called a regression analysis, which let us hold one factor constant and then see if the precinct’s demographics are tied to the number of patronizing arrests. We found that demographics did make a significant difference. If we compared precincts with a similar number of complaints, the precinct with a higher percentage of Black and Latino residents usually had significantly more buyer arrests. Similarly, when we compared precincts with a similar number of arrests for prostitution, the same pattern was evident — the neighborhood with a larger Black and Latino population had more arrests for people buying sex.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a much more radical message than a dream of racial brotherhood

by Paul Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

Martin Luther King Jr. has come to be revered as a hero who led a nonviolent struggle to reform and redeem the United States. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Tributes are paid to him on his death anniversary each April, and his legacy is honored in multiple ways.

But from my perspective as a historian of religion and civil rights, the true radicalism of his thought remains underappreciated. The “civil saint” portrayed nowadays was, by the end of his life, a social and economic radical, who argued forcefully for the necessity of economic justice in the pursuit of racial equality.

Three particular works from 1957 to 1967 illustrate how King’s political thought evolved from a hopeful reformer to a radical critic.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses marchers during his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. AP Photo

 

King’s support for white moderates

For much of the 1950s, King believed that white southern ministers could provide moral leadership. He thought the white racists of the South could be countered by the ministers who took a stand for equality. At the time, his concern with economic justice was a secondary theme in his addresses and political advocacy.

Speaking at Vanderbilt University in 1957, he professed his belief that “there is in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.” He urged them to lead the region through its necessary transition to equal treatment for black citizens. He reassured all that the aim of the movement was not to “defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”

King had hope for this vision. He had worked with white liberals such as Myles Horton, the leader of a center in Tennessee for training labor and civil rights organizers. King had developed friendships and crucial alliances with white supporters in other parts of the country as well. His vision was for the fulfillment of basic American ideals of liberty and equality.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

A handwritten copy of ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail.’ AP Photo/Richard Drew, file

By the early 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, King’s views had evolved significantly. In early 1963, King came to Birmingham to lead a campaign for civil rights in a city known for its history of racial violence.

During the Birmingham campaign, in April 1963, he issued a masterful public letter explaining the motivations behind his crusade. It stands in striking contrast with his hopeful 1957 sermon.

His “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” responded to a newspaper advertisement from eight local clergymen urging King to allow the city government to enact gradual changes.

In a stark change from his earlier views, King devastatingly targeted white moderates willing to settle for “order” over justice. In an oppressive environment, the avoidance of conflict might appear to be “order,” but in fact supported the denial of basic citizenship rights, he noted.

“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. He argued how oppressors never voluntarily gave up freedom to the oppressed – it always had to be demanded by “extremists for justice.”

He wrote how he was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” They were, he said, a greater enemy to racial justice than were members of the white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist radicals.

Call for economic justice

By 1967, King’s philosophy emphasized economic justice as essential to equality. And he made clear connections between American violence abroad in Vietnam and American social inequality at home.

Exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, King stood at one of the best-known pulpits in the nation, at Riverside Church in New York. There, he explained how he had come to connect the struggle for civil rights with the fight for economic justice and the early protests against the Vietnam War.

He proclaimed:

“Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over.”

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, right, talks with civil rights leaders at the White House in Washington, Jan. 18, 1964. AP Photo

He angered crucial allies. King and President Lyndon Johnson, for example, had been allies in achieving significant legislative victories in 1964 and 1965. Johnson’s “Great Society” launched a series of initiatives to address issues of poverty at home. But beginning in 1965, after the Johnson administration increased the number of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, King’s vision grew radical.

King continued with a searching analysis of what linked poverty and violence both at home and abroad. While he had spoken out before about the effects of colonialism, he now made the connection unmistakably clear. He said:

“I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”

King concluded with the famous words on “the fierce urgency of now,” by which he emphasized the immediacy of the connection between economic injustice and racial inequality.

The radical King

King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 serves as the touchstone for the annual King holiday. But King’s dream ultimately evolved into a call for a fundamental redistribution of economic power and resources. It’s why he was in Memphis, supporting a strike by garbage workers, when he was assassinated in April 1968.

He remained, to the end, the prophet of nonviolent resistance. But these three key moments in King’s life show his evolution over a decade.

This remembering matters more than ever today. Many states are either passing or considering measures that would make it harder for many Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote. It would roll back the huge gains in rates of political participation by racial minorities made possible by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, there is a persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites.

Only sustained government attention can address these issues – the point King was stressing later in his life.

King’s philosophy stood not just for “opportunity,” but for positive measures toward economic equality and political power. Ignoring this understanding betrays the “dream” that is ritually invoked each year.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Progressive prosecutors scored big wins in 2020 elections, boosting a nationwide trend

by Caren Morrison, Georgia State University

Despite the broad political polarization in the United States, the 2020 election confirmed a clear movement across both red and blue America: the gains made by reform-minded prosecutors.

Running on progressive platforms that include ending mass incarceration and addressing police misconduct, candidates defeated traditional “law-and-order” prosecutors across the country.

Elected prosecutors – often called state’s attorneys or district attorneys – represent the people of a particular county in their criminal cases. Their offices work with law enforcement to investigate and try cases, determine which crimes should be prioritized and decide how punitive to be.

After decades of incumbent prosecutors winning reelection based on their high conviction rates or the long sentences they achieved, advocates for criminal justice reform began making inroads into their territory a few years ago. They did so mainly by drawing attention to local races and funding progressive challengers.

Despite criticism during her first term, progressive prosecutor Kim Foxx won reelection as Cook County state’s attorney by a 14-point margin. Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

Birth of a movement

During her 2016 run for state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois, Kim Foxx vowed to bring more accountability to police shootings and reduce prosecutions for nonviolent crimes.

She won, becoming the first Black woman to serve as state’s attorney in Chicago. It was also the first high-profile sign that this progressive prosecutorial approach was working.

Her victory was followed by the 2017 election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in Philadelphia. Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, had never prosecuted a case when he ran for office – a move that the city’s police union chief called “hilarious.”

But Krasner’s campaign platform – addressing mass incarceration and police misconduct – responded to a city saddled with the highest incarceration rate among large U.S. cities, nearly seven out of every 1,000 citizens. Krasner won with 75% of the vote.

As a criminal procedure professor and a former federal prosecutor, I have watched the desire for reform only grow since then.

Progressive candidates have pledged to transform a criminal justice system that has bloated prisons and disproportionately targeted people of color.

Black Lives Matter protests have also focused attention on how prosecutors make decisions – whom they prosecute and how severely, particularly in police violence cases.

Movement gains steam

Despite criticism of her first term – including her decision to drop the charges against actor Jussie Smollett for faking a hate crime – Foxx won reelection on Nov. 3 by a 14-point margin. It was a sign, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, that Cook County “doesn’t want to go backward on criminal justice reform.”

That sentiment is echoing across the country.

In Orlando, criminal justice reformer Monique Worrell beat a law-and-order “independent conservative” in the race for state attorney.

In Detroit, Karen McDonald won her race for Oakland County prosecutor by promising “common-sense criminal justice reform that utilizes treatment courts and diversion programs, addresses racial disparity, and creates a fair system for all people.”

And in Colorado, Democratic prosecutors flipped two large Colorado districts that had been held for decades by Republicans.

“I think people are starting to realize, ‘Why don’t I know who my DA is?‘” said Gordon McLaughlin, the new district attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District, who campaigned on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. “It’s brought criminal justice into the main conversation.”

Police accountability

One prominent issue on voters’ minds is how prosecutors’ offices choose to handle police violence.

In Los Angeles, George Gascón, a former police officer, ousted Jackie Lacey. Lacey was the target of sustained criticism from BLM activists, who protested in front of her office every Wednesday for three years.

George Gascón, candidate for Los Angeles district attorney, speaks during a drive-in election night watch party at the LA Zoo parking lot on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

They complained that, during her eight years in office, Lacey criminally prosecuted only one of the approximately 600 officer-involved shootings. They added that Lacey, a Black woman, sent 22 people of color to death row.

Gascón vowed to hold police accountable for officer-involved shootings. During the campaign, he pledged to reopen high-profile cases, including two where people were shot for not complying with an officer’s directions.

Mass incarceration and cash bail

Progressive prosecutors are likely to have the most impact by diverting people away from the criminal justice system in the first place.

Many have been motivated by what they see as “the criminalization of poverty” – a phenomenon in which the poor compile criminal records for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or effective legal counsel.

Alonzo Payne, the new district attorney for San Luis Valley, Colorado, was outraged that poor people were forced to stay in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bond.

“I decided I wanted to bring some human compassion to the DA’s office,” he told the Denver Post.

Reforming the cash bail system and reducing mass incarceration is a goal shared by all of the newly elected prosecutors this election cycle, including Jose Garza, an immigrant rights attorney, in Austin, Texas.

Looking ahead

It seems that progressive policies are here to stay in some of the nation’s largest cities, but reformers didn’t enjoy success everywhere.

Candidates Zack Thomas in Johnson County, Kansas, and Julie Gunnigle in Maricopa County, Arizona, lost their races. And incumbents withstood reformist challengers in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Nonetheless, progressive prosecutors are increasingly winning races – and staying in power – by using the criminal justice system in more equitable ways.

Worrell, in Orlando, is a good example. She ran the Conviction Integrity Unit in the district attorney’s office, investigating innocence claims from convicted defendants.

Her reform message resonated a lot more with voters than the message of her opponent, Jose Torroella, who pledged to be “more old-fashioned” and more “strict.” Worrell won the race with nearly 66% of the votes.

“Criminal justice reform is not something people should be afraid of,” Worrell said. “It means we’re going to be smart on crime, rather than tough on crime.”The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

African-American GIs of WWII: Fighting for democracy abroad and at home

by Maria Höhn, Vassar College

Until the 21st century, the contributions of African-American soldiers in World War II barely registered in America’s collective memory of that war.

The “tan soldiers,” as the black press affectionately called them, were also for the most part left out of the triumphant narrative of America’s “Greatest Generation.” In order to tell their story of helping defeat Nazi Germany in my 2010 book, “Breath of Freedom,” I had to conduct research in more than 40 different archives in the U.S. and Germany.

Two U.S. soldiers on Easter morning, 1945. NARA

 

When a German TV production company, together with Smithsonian TV, turned that book into a documentary, the filmmakers searched U.S. media and military archives for two years for footage of black GIs in the final push into Germany and during the occupation of post-war Germany.

They watched hundreds of hours of film and discovered less than 10 minutes of footage. This despite the fact that among the 16 million U.S. soldiers who fought in World War II, there were about one million African-American soldiers.

They fought in the Pacific, and they were part of the victorious army that liberated Europe from Nazi rule. Black soldiers were also part of the U.S. Army of occupation in Germany after the war. Still serving in strictly segregated units, they were sent to democratize the Germans and expunge all forms of racism.

A soldier paints over a swastika. NARA

It was that experience that convinced many of these veterans to continue their struggle for equality when they returned home to the U.S. They were to become the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement – a movement that changed the face of our nation and inspired millions of repressed people across the globe.

As a scholar of German history and of the more than 70-year U.S. military presence in Germany, I have marveled at the men and women of that generation. They were willing to fight for democracy abroad, while being denied democratic rights at home in the U.S. Because of their belief in America’s “democratic promise” and their sacrifices on behalf of those ideals, I was born into a free and democratic West Germany, just 10 years after that horrific war.

Fighting racism at home and abroad

By deploying troops abroad as warriors for and emissaries of American democracy, the military literally exported the African-American freedom struggle.

Beginning in 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, African-American activists and the black press used white America’s condemnation of Nazi racism to expose and indict the abuses of Jim Crow at home. America’s entry into the war and the struggle against Nazi Germany allowed civil rights activists to significantly step up their rhetoric.

Langston Hughes’ 1943 poem, “From Beaumont to Detroit,” addressed to America, eloquently expressed that sentiment:

“You jim crowed me / Before hitler rose to power- / And you are still jim crowing me- / Right now this very hour.”

Believing that fighting for American democracy abroad would finally grant African-Americans full citizenship at home, civil rights activists put pressure on the U.S. government to allow African-American soldiers to “fight like men,” side by side with white troops.

The military brass, disproportionately dominated by white Southern officers, refused. They argued that such a step would undermine military efficiency and negatively impact the morale of white soldiers. In an integrated military, black officers or NCOs might also end up commanding white troops. Such a challenge to the Jim Crow racial order based on white supremacy was seen as unacceptable.

The manpower of black soldiers was needed in order to win the war, but the military brass got its way; America’s Jim Crow order was to be upheld. African-Americans were allowed to train as pilots in the segregated Tuskeegee Airmen. The 92nd Buffalo Soldiers and 93rd Blue Helmets all-black divisions were activated and sent abroad under the command of white officers.

Despite these concessions, 90 percent of black troops were forced to serve in labor and supply units, rather than the more prestigious combat units. Except for a few short weeks during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 when commanders were desperate for manpower, all U.S. soldiers served in strictly segregated units. Even the blood banks were segregated.

‘A Breath of Freedom’

After the defeat of the Nazi regime, an Army manual instructed U.S. occupation soldiers that America was the “living denial of Hitler’s absurd theories of a superior race,” and that it was up to them to teach the Germans “that the whole concept of superiority and intolerance of others is evil.” There was an obvious, deep gulf between this soaring rhetoric of democracy and racial harmony, and the stark reality of the Jim Crow army of occupation. It was also not lost on the black soldiers.

Women’s Army Corps in Nuremberg, Germany, 1949. Library of Congress

Post-Nazi Germany was hardly a country free of racism. But for the black soldiers, it was their first experience of a society without a formal Jim Crow color line. Their uniform identified them as victorious warriors and as Americans, rather than “Negroes.”

Serving in labor and supply units, they had access to all the goods and provisions starving Germans living in the ruins of their country yearned for. African-American cultural expressions such as jazz, defamed and banned by the Nazis, were another reason so many Germans were drawn to their black liberators. White America was stunned to see how much black GIs enjoyed their time abroad, and how much they dreaded their return home to the U.S.

By 1947, when the Cold War was heating up, the reality of the segregated Jim Crow Army in Germany was becoming a major embarrassment for the U.S. government. The Soviet Union and East German communist propaganda relentlessly attacked the U.S. and challenged its claim to be the leader of the “free world.” Again and again, they would point to the segregated military in West Germany, and to Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. to make their case.

Coming ‘home’

Newly returned veterans, civil rights advocates and the black press took advantage of that Cold War constellation. They evoked America’s mission of democracy in Germany to push for change at home. Responding to that pressure, the first institution of the U.S. to integrate was the U.S. military, made possible by Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981. That monumental step, in turn, paved the way for the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Hosea Williams, World War II Army veteran and civil rights activist, rallies demonstrators in Selma, Ala. 1965. AP Photo

The veterans who had been abroad electrified and energized the larger struggle to make America live up to its promise of democracy and justice. They joined the NAACP in record numbers and founded new chapters of that organization in the South, despite a wave of violence against returning veterans. The veterans of World War II and the Korean War became the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Medgar Evers, Amzie Moore, Hosea Williams and Aaron Henry are some of the better-known names, but countless others helped advance the struggle.

About one-third of the leaders in the civil rights movement were veterans of World War II.

They fought for a better America in the streets of the South, at their workplaces in the North, as leaders in the NAACP, as plaintiffs before the Supreme Court and also within the U.S. military to make it a more inclusive institution. They were also the men of the hour at the 1963 March on Washington, when their military training and expertise was crucial to ensure that the day would not be marred by agitators opposed to civil rights.

“We structured the March on Washington like an army formation,” recalled veteran Joe Hairston.

For these veterans, the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations of President Barack Obama were triumphant moments in their long struggle for a better America and a more just world. Many never thought they would live to see the day that an African-American would lead their country.

To learn more about the contributions of African-American GIs, visit “The Civil Rights Struggle, African-American GIs, and Germany” digital archive.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

How to track your mail-in ballot

Court.rchp.com Editorial Note: Missouri is one of only four states that do not provide any state wide mail in ballot tracking, however, in the St. Louis area, tracking is available.

  • St. Louis City:  Go to STLCityBallotTracking.com, Enter the “Ballot Track ID” from your ballot stub. You may also scan the square QR code on the stub and the code will take you right to the results. Once the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners has received your ballot, they’ll let you know by updating your ballot tracking page with a third green checkmark.
  • St. Louis County:  Go to MyBallotTracking.com and enter your “Ballot Track ID”.
  • St. Charles County:  There are a few steps to tracking your ballot in St. Charles County. First, visit sccmo.org/410/Election-Authority and then scroll down just a little to the “Nov. 3, 2020 General Election Information” list. Then click the second option which is “Track your Absentee by Mail ballot.” Then enter your information in their tracking system and you should be able to track your ballot from there.
  • Jefferson County:  There is no tracking website, but if you call the County Clerk’s office and give them your name and address, they’ll look you up and confirm that your ballot has been received. Their phone number is 636-797-5486 and once you get the voice recording press “2” on your phone for the Voter Registration and Elections Department.

by Steven Mulroy, University of Memphis

Many voters who want to participate in the election by mail are concerned about when they’ll receive their ballot – and whether it will get back in time to be counted.

The pandemic has caused interest in mail-in voting to surge to record numbers this presidential election.

At the same time, recent changes at the U.S. Postal Service have caused slowdowns in mail delivery. The Postal Service itself has warned states that ballots mailed by election officials close to Election Day may not reach voters in time. A federal court has issued a nationwide order giving election-related mail priority in Postal Service processing.

Nevertheless, anecdotal reports abound of voters who applied for absentee ballots and are still waiting for them weeks later.

And on Oct. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court accommodated potential mail delays by ruling that Pennsylvania may count ballots that arrive through the end of Friday, Nov. 6 – three days after Election Day.

Different states have different rules about who can cast their ballots by mail; I was involved in a nonpartisan lawsuit that expanded access to voting by mail in Tennessee.

Fortunately, almost everyone who is allowed to vote by mail can stay on top of where those ballots are. In 44 states and the District of Columbia, a unified system allows all voters to see when their request for a ballot by mail was received, when the ballot was mailed to them and when the completed ballot was received back at the local election office.

Two other states provide online tracking for members of the military and civilian citizens who live overseas – groups that have special mail ballot protections under federal law. In the remaining four states without a statewide ballot-tracking system, some counties and municipalities may have their own online versions – or may be able to update voters who contact the office by phone or in person.

The Postal Service, election officials and other experts recommend that people conservatively allow a week for the ballot to arrive at their home from the election office, and a week for it to get back so it can be counted. It may take less time, and in some places you can speed things up by using an official drop box to return your ballot without relying on the mail.

In either case, you can keep an eye on your ballot to make sure it has arrived and been accepted for counting. And if it hasn’t arrived yet, or has been rejected for some reason, you’ll know to contact local election officials to see what to do so your vote can count.The Conversation


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them.

Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.

by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.

The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.

I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.

My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.

My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.

In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.

Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.

A Long History of Spying

In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.

The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.

In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.

Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”

A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.

Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.

It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.

Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)

In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.

But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.

And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.

In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.

“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.

Nagging Suspicions

I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.

In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.

It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.

In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.

A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.

I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”

My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.

I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.

Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.

I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.

He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.

“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.

The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.

“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.

“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”

I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.

But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.

I took side streets home.

Why Were You Following Me?

After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.

I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?

Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.

Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.

Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.

Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.

In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.

In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.

The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.

My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.

In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.

And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.

The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.

A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”

We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.

After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

Birthed by HBCU students, this organization offers important lessons for today’s student activists

by Jelani Favors, Clayton State University

April 15, 2020 marks 60 years since the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, perhaps better known as SNCC, and usually pronounced as “snick.” SNCC became one of the most important organizations to engage in grassroots organizing during the modern civil rights movement and radically transformed youth culture during the decade. Jelani Favors, an associate professor of history and author of a book on how historically black colleges and universities ushered in a new era of activism and leadership, discusses SNCC’s legacy and what lessons it can offer today’s activists.

What role did SNCC play in the civil rights movement?

The founding of SNCC in April 1960 represented an important paradigm shift within the modern civil rights movement. SNCC encouraged black youth to defiantly enter spaces that they had been told to avoid all of their lives. The founding in 1960 resulted in a wave of SNCC activists being sent into the most hostile environments to register voters and mobilize African Americans for change. In doing so, SNCC ushered in the direct action phase of the movement.

Previous generations of activists had embraced lawsuits, such as the 1944 Smith v. Allwright against racial discrimination in voting, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case against racial segregation in public schools. Previous generations also embraced non-direct protest tactics, such as boycotts, to bring slow change. But the sit-ins – popularized by black college students who would later form SNCC – placed black bodies on the line in ways that other tactics had not. They clogged “five and dime” stores across the South, effectively shutting them down, dramatizing the movement for black liberation as the entire world looked on through television and media coverage.

Black youth courageously courted the danger that often accompanied breaking the color line in the racially segregated South. Their actions resulted in violent clashes that fully displayed the immorality of white segregationists and simultaneously captured the nobility and courage of black youth. Perhaps most importantly, SNCC radically transformed youth culture in America. The organization took a generation of youth that Time magazine had previously labeled in 1951 as the “silent generation,” and ushered in a decade – the 1960s – that would be widely characterized and defined by the militancy and dissent of young Americans.

How did historically black colleges and universities help form SNCC and its agenda?

Black colleges served as the incubators for this militancy. For generations, historically black colleges and universities – also known as HBCUs – exposed students to a “second curriculum” that was defined by race consciousness, idealism and cultural nationalism. These concepts not only blunted the toxic effects of white supremacy, but they also empowered youth and deliberately fitted them with a mission to serve as change agents within their respective communities and professional fields. It was not happenstance that the origins of SNCC were rooted within the crucial intellectual and social spaces that were carved out within HBCUs.

The overwhelming majority of students who convened in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 15, 1960 were from southern black colleges where the sit-ins had unfolded. And it was also no mistake that they met at Shaw University, an HBCU located in Raleigh. After all, the woman who had the vision to bring those students together – Ella Baker – was a 1927 graduate of Shaw.

For generations, black college alumni like Baker worked within religious institutions, civil rights organizations, labor unions and special interests groups. Their work within these spaces was largely informed by the “second curriculum” they had been exposed to as HBCU students. SNCC was therefore part of a long tradition of radicalism that was cultivated and produced within black colleges. This exposure equipped them with the necessary intellectual and political tools they would use to take on white supremacy and Jim Crow – the system of legalized segregation in the South.

What is SNCC’s legacy?

SNCC had a relatively short lifespan compared to other civil rights organizations. By the end of the decade their operations were defunct. Much of this was due to both external and internal pressures. Nevertheless, SNCC distinguished itself as “the most powerful energy machine” for the freedom struggle. I argue that SNCC was the most important and effective civil rights organization of the 1960s.

Unlike most other organizations, SNCC eschewed “top-down” operations that fostered elitism and “helicopter” tactics in which organizers would swoop in to inspire local folks and then leave them to manage local struggles on their own. SNCC’s objectives were completely opposite. They entered into the most dangerous, racially hostile and violent regions of the country, such as Albany, Georgia, the Delta region of Mississippi, and Lowndes County, Alabama. Once there, they set up operations that listened to and empowered local people, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Unita Blackwell and countless others.

The relationship between SNCC and local people was reciprocal. SNCC activists learned and lived among the black proletariat – sharecroppers, farmers and day laborers. These people’s wisdom, shrewdness and practical knowledge of how to survive and navigate the worst of the Jim Crow South proved invaluable as SNCC took the fight for black liberation into the rural communities and remote areas of the South. Their blueprint became the template for local organizing for the Black Power Movement and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, their actions played a crucial role in expanding the ballot to millions of Americans who had been marginalized by racist policies and violence.

What lessons can today’s student activists learn from SNCC?

Both SNCC’s victories and defeats are very informative on the history of black social movements. Internal debates are both necessary and healthy for activist organizations. However, by 1964 SNCC’s ability to function as a cohesive unit was under serious threat. Disagreements concerning the infusion of young white activists in the organization and field operations, arguments concerning the use of non-violence as a tactic, and debate over other competing ideological tenets, such as Marxism and Black Nationalism, greatly impaired the organization’s ability to keep a unified front.

Perhaps most challenging were the external threats to SNCC’s existence. The potency of SNCC drew the attention of federal and state agencies that wanted to curb its influence and power. SNCC activists were constantly under surveillance. They lived their lives under the looming shadow of intimidation from law enforcement and the threat of being infiltrated. Today’s student activists can and should be wary of arguments that are unproductive and those who seek to derail their organizations with their own toxic agendas.

In spite of these challenges, SNCC presented a model that empowered local communities and radically transformed American democracy. By listening to and learning from aggrieved populations and empowering local folks to carry out their own agendas, today’s student activists can extend the radical tradition established by SNCC.

We'll Never Turn Back (1963) | SNCC Film feat. Fannie Lou Hamer


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered

by Latisha Nixon-Jones, University of Oregon

The unknown is frightening. And with the spread of a deadly and communicable disease – the coronavirus is both – individual liberties may be temporarily sidelined to protect the larger community.

Indeed, history has shown us that whenever the United States has encountered a biological threat, the government invariably weighs individual freedoms against the compelling need to protect the rest of us from a widespread epidemic. More often than not, a clampdown on civil liberties occurs. 

As a disaster law scholar, I study vulnerable populations during various stages of disaster response. In the age of coronavirus, people are asking me questions about their rights. Here are some answers.

1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?

The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders. This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate. However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.

That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.

In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.

Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

Quarantined individuals do have the right to challenge the quarantine order.

You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Federal, state and local governments have the power to enforce quarantines. 

2. Who can enforce quarantines?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?

At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.

You must contact your doctor to get approval to be tested. If you don’t have a doctor, contact your public health authority. Currently not everyone can be tested due to the shortage of tests.

The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.

But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.

4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?

According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”

A state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.

The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens.

There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.

The power to declare a federal state of emergency is given to the president under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergency, according to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Librarians could be jailed and fined under a proposed Missouri censorship law

Nicole Cooke, University of South Carolina

A bill pending in Missouri’s legislature takes aim at libraries and librarians who are making “age-inappropriate sexual material” available to children.

The measure, championed by Ben Baker, a Republican lawmaker, calls for establishing review boards who would determine whether materials in libraries contain or promote “nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” In addition, the boards, which would be comprised of parents, would root out materials lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Librarians who defy the review boards by buying and lending such materials would be subject to misdemeanor charges, fines upward of US$500, and a potential jail sentence up to one year.

As a librarian, and now as an educator who teaches aspiring librarians, I see this bill as the latest chapter in a long history of books being banned from public and school libraries.

A sign of the times. 

Censorship and book banning

Often, efforts to censor and muzzle libraries originate with members of the public rather than public officials or school leaders.

Censoring and banning library materials and programs is nothing new. Many classic books have been challenged and banned, including classroom favorites like “1984” by George Orwell, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

The children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole, was challenged and banned from libraries around the country for many years after its publication in 2005. The picture book is based on a true story of two male penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo who adopt and care for an egg and then keep caring for their daughter, Tango, after she hatched.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is also regularly challenged and banned.

Separately, opponents of the storytime program known as “Drag Queen Story Hour” at libraries and other community venues, have held protests to ban and condemn such events aimed at children. The objections voiced by protesters stem from their belief that drag performers are evil and amoral and that exposure to drag queens will, in their view, cause children to become gay.

The Missouri bill is not the first of its kind. State lawmakers in Colorado and Maine both tried to pass similar legislation in 2019. Both efforts failed.

The drag queens who read to kids in libraries are attracting protesters. 

A profession

American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, the Missouri Library Association, and PEN America – a nonprofit that defends free expression – are among the literary and library groups that have voiced their objections.

Many of the drag queens who read to kids are planning a protest against the measure on March 7. Baker has said his concerns about these readings were a factor in inspiring him to draft the bill.

Librarians are professionals. Librarians working in K-12 school libraries also earn certification as school library media specialists. Librarians have expertise in children’s literature, collection development, child development, psychology, readers’ advisory, reference services and other specialized skills needed to serve children and young adults in a variety of settings.

In short, librarians are more than capable of selecting and purchasing quality books and other materials for people of all ages.

To imply otherwise, as I believe the proposed Missouri measure would, is to insult these skilled educators. If it should be enacted, I would consider it a potential threat to information access, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

KKK Murder of Colonel Lemuel Penn

Lemuel Augustus Penn (September 19, 1915 – July 11, 1964) was the Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, a decorated veteran of World War II, the father of two daughters Linda, 13, Sharon, 11, one son Lemuel Jr., 5. and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, who was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, nine days after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Article about Lemuel Penn’s murder.

Lemuel Penn joined the Army Reserve from Howard University and served as an officer in World War II in New Guinea and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star. Penn was driving home, together with two other black Reserve officers, Major Charles E. Brown and Lieutenant Colonel John D. Howard, had just completed reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and were driving home to Washington, D.C. The veterans had been spotted in Athens by local Ku Klux Klan members who followed them to a nearby bridge and shot at the car, killing Penn at the age of 48.

Their Chevrolet Biscayne was spotted by three white members of the United Klans of America – James Lackey, Cecil Myers, and Howard Sims – who noted its D.C plates. Howard Sims – one of the killers – then said "That must be one of President Johnson's boys", evidently motivated by racial hatred. The Klansmen followed the car with their Chevy II with Sims saying "I'm going to kill me a nigger".

Penn was shot to death on a Broad River bridge on the Georgia State Route 172 in Madison County, Georgia, near Colbert, twenty-two miles north of the city of Athens. Just before the highway reaches the Broad River, the Klansmen's Chevy II pulled alongside the Biscayne. The Klansman, Cecil Myers, raised a shotgun and fired. From the back seat, Howard Sims, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, did the same.

After authorities arrived at the scene, rural lawmen poking flashlights into the car and shined them on Penn’s body, lying on the floorboard. “What’s been goin’ on here?” one officer drawled suspiciously at Brown and Howard. Then came the long hours of questioning, by local officials first, then state officials, and finally federal officials. There seemed to be a tone in the questioning that somehow Penn, Brown, and Howard had caused trouble, and that this was their retribution.

President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged the full resources of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) toward solving the murder. Over the course of the next several weeks, FBI agents combed for clues in and around Athens, gathering ample evidence of criminal activity conducted by local Klan members. After weeks of investigation, state prosecutors brought first-degree murder charges against two local white men, Cecil Myers and Joseph Howard Sims. Despite considerable evidence indicating their guilt, an all-white jury in Madison County acquitted both men on September 4, 1964.

Georgia Penn, Lemuel Penn's Wife

Slightly more than a year later, Penn’s wife Georgia died at the age of forty-nine. Friends said it was from the grief after her husband’s death.

An army caisson, drawn by six grays, approached the Arlington National Cemetery gravesite to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” played by the army band. The caisson was the same one that had carried President John E Kennedy’s body to his grave seven months earlier. The music changed to “Abide With Me ” as the casket was lifted over the grave. 

The grave marker of Lemuel Penn at Arlington National Cemetary.

Penn's murder was the basis of the Supreme Court case United States v. Guest, 383 US 745 (1966), in which the Court affirmed the ability of the government to apply criminal charges to private conspirators, who with assistance from a state official, deprive a person of rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Federal prosecutors eventually charged both for violating Penn's civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On June 27, 1966, criminal proceedings began against Sims, Myers, Lackey, and three other local Klansmen, Herbert Guest, Denver Phillips, and George Hampton Turner. Two weeks later, Sims and Myers were found guilty of conspiracy charges by a federal district court jury; their four co-defendants, however, were acquitted. Sims and Myers were sentenced to ten years each and served about six in federal prison. Howard Sims was killed with a shotgun in 1981 at age 58. James Lackey died at age 66 in 2002. Cecil Myers died in 2018 at the age of 79.

Marker in Georgia at the site of Lemuel Penn's murder.

The historical marker erected by the Georgia Historical Society, the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee, and Colbert Grove Baptist Church at Georgia Highway 172 and Broad River Bridge on the Madison/Elbert County Border states:

On the night of July 11, 1964 three African-American World War II veterans returning home following training at Ft. Benning, Georgia were noticed in Athens by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The officers were followed to the nearby Broad River Bridge where their pursuers fired into the vehicle, killing Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn. When a local jury failed to convict the suspects of murder, the federal government successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn's murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

 The Ballad of Lemuel Penn by Edward David Anderson