Tag Archives: civil rights

Widespread dearth of affordable housing squeezing more people into poverty

This article  was originally published in Homeward Street Journal produced in Association with Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee 

Gentrification: a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders.

Every year the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts out figures that relate to housing and wages, that is the wage a person must earn to afford rentals in communities across the country.

The report, called “Out of Reach” is appropriately titled. For at least the last 20 years, the crisis of unaffordable housing has been growing so that even renters with adequate jobs who think of themselves as middle class are finding themselves in trouble, and low income and extremely low-income renters are forced out onto the streets.

About this displacement, the Sacramento Housing Alliance says “our neighbors, friends and loved ones are making decisions that no one should ever have to make to pay rent—like going without medical and dental care, nutritional foods and adequate child care.

So when is a rental house/apartment considered affordable?  Most guidelines say:

a.   When an individual or family can pay for it out of their monthly income and still have enough money left for food, clothing, transportation and health care.

b.    When the rent and utilities cost no more than 30 percent of the household income. However, this means that a family of four with two working parents earning the minimum wage can only afford $700 in rent or mortgage payment and utilities.

Image from Owen G. Richard’s Flickr photostream
Image from Owen G. Richard’s Flickr photostream

Sacramento’s growing population is creating a demand for rental housing that is not being met. Rents are rising. What was a short time ago an average of $1,021 for a two-bedroom apartment has popped up to around $1,369 a month, according to the online real estate data base Zillow.com. Senior citizens on social security, people receiving unemployment insurance and people with disabilities receiving SSI are but a few of the population who are staring impossible rents in the face.

It is looking grim even for working families. If you take the recent statistic of what was considered fair market rent in Sacramento ($1,021 for a two-bedroom apartment), the affordable rent and utilities without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, a household must earn an annual salary of $40,840. In California the minimum wage workers earns $8 an hour. To afford the fair market rental for two bedrooms, a minimum wage earner must work 100 hours a week for 52 weeks a year.

Compounding the unavailability problem is Sacramento County’s recent decision to change an ordinance that required developers to include housing for low income and extremely low income people to be built in their future developments. Now developers pay fees into a housing trust for poor people en lieu of building more affordable housing.

And, it looks as though the city will soon enact a similar ordinance revision.

Carol White, a social worker with Family Promise of Sacramento, says families she sees are recently displaced and homeless predominantly because either their landlord has decided to sell their dwelling and has evicted them, or they have been living with others who then move out and they cannot make the rent.

“When you have been evicted from other places, it a big problem in terms of renting anything else. Most of the families we see all seem to have one or two evictions of this nature,” White says.

Family Promise is a non-profit group of approximately 13 Sacramento area church congregations who rotate hosting families at night in their churches and feeding them a warm dinner. During the day, they provide a center in the Loaves and Fishes complex to help them find housing and solutions to problems blocking permanent independence.

Director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance Darryl Rutherford says the calls to his office from desperate people who are finding it impossible to rent a place to live are increasing. “Rents are what the market will bear. Couple this with the low minimum wage, housing is getting out of reach for a lot of people,” he says. The median rent in Sacramento has increased 13 percent over the past year, he says.

HousingOutofReachAnother issue is the proposed development for Sacramento’s downtown area, Rutherford says. “Soon it will be catering to the few elite and ultimately shove the working poor out to the fringes.”

He says people will either move to where they can afford to rent or make do somehow. He is hearing of families doubling and tripling up in rentals and still having a hard time making ends meet.

Rutherford says that with the gentrification of downtown, a lot of small businesses that are not included in the economic development plan will be displaced as well. “Sacramento is definitely not going to meet its goals for sustainability. One can appreciate the focus on redevelopment of downtown but it should be with a minimum impact on the people there.

“You lose a lot of the fiber of the community, all the social connections of the neighborhood, when you drive people out to create condos, boutique hotels (as is the case of the Marshall Hotel on 7th Street which has been a 90-room single room occupancy hotel for low income people) and large hotels.”

“People are not seeing the larger picture in the need for affordable housing. They think it is for ‘those people’—the homeless or extremely poor. They do not think about themselves as being low income. If only more people would understand that we are fighting for the working class.”

A recent article in the Sacramento Bee quoted neighbors of the Loaves & Fishes’ Friendship Park area, where there are plans to expand homeless care facilities, as saying they were afraid that more people will be drawn to their part of Sacramento and cause sanitation and petty crime problems. But with the rapid displacement of people from ever more expensive places to live, a surge in homeless, near homeless, poor, and low income workers searching for cheaper housing is already a fait accompli.

Director of Counseling Programs Tommi Avicolli Mecca at the Housing Rights Commission of San Francisco says right now that city is seeing an epidemic of evictions in working class neighborhoods. “There is a mass exodus of poor and working class people. They are being forced to leave the city or become homeless.”

He says real estate speculators are coming from around the world and availing themselves of the Ellis Act to buy cheap rent control buildings, then evicting tenants. The Ellis Act provides loopholes for landlords in selling their buildings and circumventing municipal rent control provisions like San Francisco’s.

Avicolli Mecca says the new landlords typically divide up or re-rent the spaces for an astronomical fee. “Then we are seeing lots of condos being built. There is a need for affordable housing but the city is not paying attention here either.

“So now you have SROs turned into Air B&Bs or tourist rooms sold for tons of money by the night. We are no longer housing poor people in SROs.

“I live in a city that is supposed to be filled with the most compassionate, understanding and caring people in the world, I see a constant abuse of the homeless and displacement of the working class. Plus we are losing diversity. The African American population is down from 21 to 6 percent and Latinos and LGBT people are being pushed out of the Mission, particularly young people. The Castro is losing older gay men, some of whom have AIDS. Upscale tech types are moving into all these neighborhoods.”

Avicolli Mecca calls San Francisco “a war zone” with working class and strong communities being pushed out. “We are becoming a city of the rich.”

And the poor are going elsewhere. A flood of displaced people coming to the Sacramento area certainly is imminent if people do comparative shopping. A family in the San Francisco Mission’s upscaled buildings will have to earn $30,000 a month to afford their $10,000 a month apartment. In the Castro, the rents for newcomers will soon go as high as $8,500 a month.

“If San Francisco is not dealing with these problems in a caring and compassionate way, I don’t know how anyone can,” he says.

Nationally, says Out of Reach, the 2014 two-bedroom housing wage was $18.92, more than two and a half times the federal minimum wage, and 52 percent higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental at Housing and Urban Development-estimated fair market rent.

In December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition urged policy-makers to raise the federal minimum wage and combat income inequality. They also have pushed for funding of the National Housing Trust Fund to build, preserve and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable for extremely low and very low-income households. “The shortage of affordable housing must be addressed. Expanding the supply of affordable rental homes dedicated to the lowest income renters is a critical and fundamental part of any real solution,“ says the coalition.

“In both rural and urban America, renters are affected by the affordable housing shortage and rents are expected to continue to rise in coming years as the demand grows. Over half of all renters (53 percent) are cost burdened, paying over 30 percent of their income for housing, up from 12 percent” a decade ago.

“The lack of decent housing affordable to low income households has remained a pervasive national issue for over 25 years, affecting every single community across the United States.”

 

 

 

 

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Panhandling Ordinance Deprives Many of Income

Panhandler earning money to go to next migrant worker job.
Panhandler earning money to go to next migrant worker job.

This is my upcoming article for Homeward the Sacramento Street Journal September 2014.

As anyone who is looking for a job in this economy knows, it’s rough out there. There is a largely misunderstood section of the population that has been put in the position of asking other people for money for food, shelter and transportation. Oh wait, that is a job.

But, if you are down on your luck and soliciting money in public places for your own welfare, it’s called panhandling. If Sacramento County has its way, that way of earning your money will be essentially illegal.

While there is a challenge in court, the county is poised to enforce an ordinance that creates large buffer zones between solicitors and potential donors at places where solicitors commonly ask for money, food or work. At first blush, the ordinance seems to address the “safety and welfare of the general public” by making it illegal to solicit in an aggressive or threatening manner. As well it should. Most panhandlers would agree that people should not be followed after saying no to a solicitation. Nor should they be accosted at ATMs, have obscenities hurled at them or feel physically intimidated.

But this is a different matter than peaceable panhandlers who non-aggressively hold signs up and appeal for personal donations. However, the ordinance contains a clause under exemptions stating “Nothing in this …shall be construed to prohibit soliciting for charitable purposes in compliance with the requirements set forth in…this Code.” Sacramento attorney Mark Merin says that distinction makes the ordinance unconstitutional. “This ordinance is vulnerable because it has the exemption for charitable organizations. This is a free speech issue.”

Merin has petitioned the court to issue a preliminary injunction to restrain enforcement of the newly adopted ordinance. The complaint says that “a number of principles have emerged from the case law, which compel the conclusion that Sacramento County’s anti-panhandling law is invalid on it face.”

For one, Merin’s document reads, “solicitation of donations in public forums is a form of non-commercial speech fully protected by the First Amendment.” And, “Individuals who seek donations for their own personal needs and survival are entitled to the same degree of constitutional protection as persons who solicit for other causes. ‘Panhandlers’ and persons who ‘beg’—categories singled out by the Ordinance—are not relegated to some lower rung of the First Amendment.”

Merin, a well-known Sacramento civil rights champion, says any restriction that is content-based has to meet with strict scrutiny. A struggling mother is just as entitled to ask you for alms as a save-the-whales organizer is entitled to ask you to sign a petition, or a Girl Scout is free to ask you to buy cookies. “If the ordinance is to be selectively enforced, then it is unconstitutional as applied,” he says. “You can regulate panhandling. You can prohibit all solicitations in a city or county, but that would mean all solicitors, including for charities.”

People who violate the ordinance more than two times within a six month period will be found guilty of a misdemeanor. Merin details how expensive for taxpayers the legal process will be if people are arrested for solicitation, even if each person is kept in custody just 30 days. Tallying only the cost of police, jailors, court personnel and judges, the figure mounts easily to thousands, he says.

Sgt. Lisa Bowman, media relations representative for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department says they are aware of the litigation. She says the county has agreed to a 60-day period of non-enforcement so the police can “prepare people. Officers will give warnings, still just verbal advisements, until the period is up in September.”

Bowman said the department has had ongoing complaints about aggressive solicitation. “Also about people who stand in traffic. Those are a couple of major concerns.”

But the plaintiffs in Merin’s complaint include homeless people who rely on soliciting donations for their basic needs in the areas of the county affected by the ordinance. The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee also is a plaintiff because some members of the homeless advocates’ organization distribute their newspaper in exchange for donations for their own needs. All plaintiffs “will face the choice of risking criminal penalties or choosing to give up their First Amendment right to seek donations free from unconstitutional restrictions,” reads the complaint.

Merin not only wants to see the ordinance overturned, he would like to see attitudinal changes about solicitation so that people can be given an opportunity to take care of themselves. “A lot of them are out at least five hours a day in the same place. They make minimum wage if they are fortunate. This is not something they want to have to do. It is degrading for them.”

For Merin, the “much bigger issue is why we have panhandling,” why so many people are dependent on it for their livelihood and “put in the position of imposing on others. We don’t have a society that honors helping those who are less fortunate,” he says. “Programs for public welfare and public housing have been cut out, along with job training programs. Rich people don’t want to have to pay taxes. There is insatiable greed.”

The safety net is shredded, he says, and we are not a society that “gives things out. If you are poor, it’s your own fault. You are told to take responsibility for yourself. Tell a mother with three children and no place to go to take financial responsibility.”

Old people are especially vulnerable, he says. “I walk around my neighborhood and see at least 20 people sleeping in doorways who are elderly or infirm.”

Angie at Arden Fair shopping center, Sacramento.
Angie at Arden Fair shopping center, Sacramento.

One of these could easily be Angie, a 63-year-old panhandler who spends two or three hours a day at the exit from a Sacramento shopping center. She still lives in a house her father built near the shopping center. The home is no longer hers but she is allowed to sleep on a couch. Her husband bought a motor home two weeks before he died. It is no longer hers and she lost all her possessions.

She has no family left. Her sister, mother and brother died within two weeks of each other. “I have all the death certificates and took care of the funerals,” she says. “I have nobody to ask for help. I don’t like to ask for help out here but I have a hard time getting by every day.”

Angie is slight and in ill health but keeps smiling at the people lined up to leave the mall. She can’t spend too much time out on the pavement in the 95-degree heat because she has high blood pressure and has had a “slight stroke. I’m on my last leg.”

Another panhandler whom Angie identifies as a deaf man peddles up on his bicycle and hands her a fountain soda. He hangs around for a while, trying to see if she is OK.

“I mostly stay to myself,” she says. “There are others who come out here and get drunk and violent. I take them aside.” She tries to get across to them what harm they are doing other people who must make their living soliciting. “I cry and tell them about my family and why I am doing this.”

She says the police know her and don’t bother her. Except one who hassles her and gives her tickets. “If she would just talk to me, she might not be so bitter,” Angie says. She has done community service to work off her tickets, “picking up cigarette butts for 40 hours.”

In general, she says people who drive by are not mean spirited, although one person sprayed her with pepper spray. “But a lot of good people have been in the same boat and can relate.  They give me food and stuff. If it weren’t for the ones giving me a couple of dollars, I wouldn’t be here at all.”

A man who does not give his name, puts down his “Just Hungry, Thank you, God Bless” sign and sits in the grass near a Howe Street intersection. He panhandles to support himself and his wife who was “deemed incompetent” in 2008. He received guardianship and lives with his mother-in-law for now.

He cannot understand how it makes sense to arrest people for what he refers to as “signing.”

“It will clutter up the judicial system severely. I would rather see a felon behind bars than someone who has been signing.”

hungry-signSometimes people pick him up to do work for them. He is grateful but still is looking for a full-time job. It’s a circular problem because looking for a job cuts down on the time he must spend asking for money and then he is short of food. He dreams of buying a farm near Elk Grove where he could be self-sufficient.

Both his parents died not too long ago. He served in the Army, which he says did him a lot of good. “I spent a lot of time scrubbing pots and pans, but those years straightened my butt up.”

When asked what he would do if he could no longer solicit money, he starts to cry softly about the hardship on his wife. “I would be up shit creek,” he says. “Really bad. We wouldn’t be eating.”

A young man near a McDonald’s in the county holds a sign that is humorous if self-deprecating: “Dirty, Broke and Ugly.” Occasionally he flips to the other side: “Addicted to Food.” Although he is from Sacramento, right now he is trying to just pass through on his way to what he hopes is another migrant job. He has come from Northern California most recently and plans to check out jobs near Davis.

He stayed with his sister last night but doesn’t know where he will be tonight. Probably outside. He wants to get to the day shelter in Davis where he will be will be able to shower and do laundry.

He agrees with attorney Merin that not being able to sign is a freedom of speech issue and hopes the county rescinds its ordinance. People out here aren’t ugly to him, he says. “It’s the bureaucrats that are ugly.”

He has traveled 32 states doing migrant jobs. “But this is the toughest job I’ve ever had.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Locke, CA

Homeward_May_June2014This article on the history and impact of the Chinese immigrants on the Sacramento River Delta community of Locke,CA was originally published in the May/June edition of the Homeward Street Journal,  a voice for the Sacramento Homeless Community since 1997.  Download the full edition of Homeward here:  Homeward_May-June_2014

While Chinese Exploitation Appalling, Locke’s Immigrants Fared Better

The list of immigrant groups who have been discriminated against in the U.S. is long, and the conditions people from other countries have endured have been dismal. The Chinese who came to the United States in the late 1900s and early 20th Century endured their own series of setbacks and injustices. The story of the Sacramento River Delta town of Locke is a brighter spot in the Chinese immigrant story, although many of these workers suffered the effects of the same racial biases and ill treatment as their countrymen. Generally speaking, the town which these Chinese founded themselves against overwhelming odds, and which they came to pronounce Lock-ee (“happy living” in their dialect) is a more upbeat tale. In the mid-1800s, Chinese men came to the “Gold Mountain,” as they called America, during the California Gold Rush. At first they were accepted because they proved to be diligent workers and made themselves useful in every type of labor, from mining to farm work. The Transcontinental Railroad linking East with West would never have been accomplished in a timely fashion had it not been for Chinese men’s dogged work in constructing the railway. They toiled for low wages and experienced terrible working conditions. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 preventing any more Chinese from immigrating to America. It was the first time the United States had pinpointed a specific group of people to deny immigration.

Wong Lee with winter melons from his garden in the back of Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Wong was a long-time orchard worker and handyman for the Leary Ranch outside Walnut Grove, CA, in the Delta. He was born in China in 1900 and emigrated to America when he was 21 under his workman father’s sponsorship. He lived in labor camps. He saved enough money to go back to China in 1935 and marry and again in 1947 to purchase land. He lost those investments in the Chinese revolution in 1949. It was not until 1968 that he was able to send for his wife and two children, after 33 years of marriage. Photo courtesy James Motlow from the book Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.
Wong Lee with winter melons from his garden in the back of Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Wong was a long-time orchard worker and handyman for the Leary Ranch outside Walnut Grove, CA, in the Delta. He was born in China in 1900 and emigrated to America when he was 21 under his workman father’s sponsorship. He lived in labor camps. He saved enough money to go back to China in 1935 and marry and again in 1947 to purchase land. He lost those investments in the Chinese revolution in 1949. It was not until 1968 that he was able to send for his wife and two children, after 33 years of marriage. Photo courtesy James Motlow from the book Bitter Melon: Inside America’s Last Rural Chinese Town.

But Chinese workers who came to the Delta were invaluable in reclaiming what was marsh and swamplands and in making it into the profitable farming area it is today. In the last part of the 19th Century, California was given free land from what is now Rio Vista in the south of the Delta to Freeport in the north. The state “sold” it to farmers for minimum down payments with the stipulation that if they reclaimed the land they would not need to repay the loans. Developed land, of course, meant greater tax revenues in the state coffers. The crop most prevalent in California at the time was grain. Farmers wanted to grow and make money from more lucrative fruit and vegetable crops like pears, tomatoes and asparagus. A fertile reclaimed delta area would be ideal. Developers had to build levees. For this they mostly hired Chinese workers who had, opportunely enough, come from the Pearl River Delta area in Guangdong Province where the land had the same features as the Sacramento Delta. These men had the skills to both the build levees and farm the reclaimed land. Due to widespread anti-Chinese laws, they were not able to earn more than about $1 a day. Although they were pushed to work for less, the Chinese seemed to have agreed upon $1 as their minimum. It was double or triple what they might have earned in China, but it was constant hard labor and a solitary life. The Chinese men sent most of their wages back to their families whom they didn’t even know if they would see again. The family structure in China was of great importance and separation from their wives, children and other relatives was a great cause for dismay. Foregoing family life made them feel even more alienated from their culture. In addition to contributing the sweat of their brows, the Chinese in the Delta invented what was called a tule shoe for the horses used in building the levees. This was an oversized horseshoe, not unlike a snowshoe for humans, which disperses the weight. They wired the tule shoes to the horses’ hooves for packing down and leveling the dirt. They employed this method in reclaiming 250,000 acres of land. The Chinese then stayed on as farm laborers or tenant farmers throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, toiling in the orchards, fields and packinghouses. Chinatowns cropped up in various Delta towns. The town of Locke stands out in that it was established by the Chinese themselves, the only Chinese immigrant-built town in the United States that still stands. Speculators and farmers bought the marshland for $1-4 an acre, reclaimed it for $6-12 an acre and resold it for $20-100 an acre. Or they rented it to Chinese farmers for $8 to $10 an acre. Under the California Alien Land Law of 1913, “aliens ineligible for citizenship” prohibited Asians (who could not become citizens) from purchasing land and made land leases of fewer than three years illegal. While this had the effect of driving most of the Chinese who had made up almost 90 percent of the agricultural workforce out of California’s rural areas, the Sacramento Delta Chinese and the founders of Locke were an exception. In 1912, Bing Lee had leased land from Delta farm owner George Locke and built seven buildings in his pear orchard north of the town of Walnut Grove. Two years before, the railroad had built a spur, which led to the pear packing shed. Lee built six stores and a gambling hall. The town on the Sacramento River, originally known as Lockeport, grew to include boarding houses for the workers, a church, church school, post office, theater, restaurant, saloons, grocery stores, hardware, herb store, fish market, dry goods store, dentist, cigar stand, shoe repair, pool room and bakery. By 1915, the town boasted about 400 year-round residents, which swelled to about 1,200 at harvest time. In his book One Day, One Dollar Peter C.Y. Leung explains that “Locke people were the last wave of immigrants from China to California during the period of Oriental restriction and exclusion.” Because they had become the vital backbone to the region’s economy, they skirted some of the discrimination other Chinese in America endured. But they had worked hard for that “privilege.” As Leung recounts, they had built the hundreds of miles of levees that now still hold back 1,500 miles of inland waterways. The reclamation had required working in waist-deep water at a time when malaria was still endemic, cutting drainage ditches and building floodgates and levees. These men laid the foundation for the present Delta agribusiness as well as seeing it through planting, maintenance, harvests and preservation of crops. Most Locke permanent residents worked in the orchards. Leong says that in the winter months they wove baskets for the harvest, repaired ladders, milked cows and performed general orchard maintenance, keeping them busy 11-12 hours a day. Leung quotes one man’s diary as recording 3,414 hours’ work in one year. During the season, bilingual Chinese foremen oversaw crews to prune and cut blight from the trees and pick weeks. Later they harvested the fruit and worked in the packing sheds. In addition, during irrigation periods, the men stayed from dawn to dusk watching over the water flow. In the ‘20s, the manual labor was done by field hands and hauling by horses. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that trucks finally were used in the fields.

locke103e_web
In his 70s in 1976, Bing Fei Chow sits in his boardinghouse room in Locke, CA, in the Sacramento River Delta. Chow joined his older brother and uncle in the Delta in 1921 and worked 50 years as a farm laborer. He was part of what was referred to as “the bachelor society,” one of the Chinese immigrants who never saved enough money to marry. He says in the book Bitter Melon: “I wouldn’t say I’ve been happy here, because I had to leave friends and family in China. But I wasn’t unhappy. I don’t regret it either.” Photo courtesy of James Motlow

Throughout the Delta’s history there have been other immigrants workers, principally Japanese, Filipino and Mexican. Chinese workers were at a height during the Depression. Wages rose to $1.50 a day after the Depression. Wages rose after the U.S. entered World War II but were still modest. Out of perhaps $3,000 a year, Chinese men had to pay for board, clothing, furniture, taxes and to send money back to their families in China. Sometimes money saved was used to return for a visit to China or a dowry and wedding. Some Chinese in the Delta invested in tenant farming partnerships with other Chinese. When China became an ally in World War II, the U.S. repealed the exclusion acts in the Magnuson Act of 1943. This seemed a mere gesture however, since it set up a quota of 105 immigrants from China a year. The Immigrant Act of 1965 finally made it possible for Chinese to immigrate to this country and reunite with their families. Today there is a handful of Chinese American families farming in the Sacramento Delta, none of them living in Locke. Some Chinese American farmers did prevail, like Lincoln Chan, a Delta farmer who became known as the “pear king of California,” and farmed thousands of acres of sugar beets, safflower, corn, wheat and tomatoes. The Chinese immigrants who eventually established families in the area encouraged their children to obtain an education and leave the Delta for more promising work and lives. By 1980, the Chinese population of Locke had dwindled to about 90 Chinese Americans. Locke residents now include a few descendants, none of them engaged in farming. However, reminders of the retired Chinese inhabitants of the 1960s-1990s remain in the form of gardens where they grew Chinese vegetables for their own use. Most of the original buildings in the two-block core of the town are standing. The Locke Foundation is preserving the history of these workers. Photos and information about them is available at the Locke Boarding House Museum, a California Department of Parks and Recreation property.

Photos from a Bay Area family’s visit to Locke can be found in this blog post. 

The following sources were used for this article: Lawrence Tom, Brian Tom and the Chinese American Museum of Northern California; One Day, One Dollar: The Chinese Experience in the Sacramento River Delta, California by Peter C.Y. Leung; The Chinese-American Experience: An Introduction  by William Wei; and Bitter Melon by Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow Sally Ooms is a journalist and the author of the book Finding Home: How Americans Prevail. She was a resident of Locke during the 1970s and did her undergraduate thesis on the town for the University of San Francisco.

When the system of mass incarceration collapses …

            The is the final post in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color—people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prison, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination.

            “Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits—and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt—these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create—rather than prevent—crime.” – Michelle Alexander  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

People who have been convicted of felonies are hard pressed to re-enter society. What is to become of the thousands of young black men in the country who “are given as little as $10 gate money” after leaving prison? Criminal records will follow them for life. Ex-offenders are banned from employment in many jobs and professional fields by licensing rules.

Funding for education is on the wane. Alexander suggests that this is due to expanding prison budgets and says that what she calls the “new caste system” has created a situation in the U.S. where “young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.”

She says that while Jim Crow exploited African Americans, the War on Drugs and its attendant mass incarceration of black men marginalizes that segment of our population. Marginalization means that people are no longer of use to society so caging them and making money off prisons is one way to deal with them.

“In the era of colorblindness, it is not longer permissible to hate blacks,” she says. “But we can hate criminals.”

“Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what is means to be black.”

            “…the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”   –W.E.B. DuBois                          

So what is to be done about this racial caste system, particularly since the collective perception in the U.S. does not allow for the thought that there is racism at work? Alexander says that solutions are beyond the scope of her book, but posits that there are ways to begin.

The first is dealing with “our collective denial” which creates “a major stumbling block to public understanding of the role of race in our society, and it sharply limits the opportunities for truly transformative collective action.”

While she does not disparage the efforts of civil rights advocates in striving for reforms in felon disenfranchisement laws, crack sentencing penalties and racial profiling by law enforcement, not enough strides have been made.

Era-of_Colorblindness            “If we become serious about dismantling the system of mass incarceration, we must end the War on Drugs,” she says. “There is no way around it…there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war.”

As important, she believes, is that there must be a change within the culture of law enforcement. “Black and brown people in ghetto communities must no longer be viewed as the designated enemy, and ghetto communities must no longer be treated like occupied zones.”

Her list further includes:

  • Rescinding mandatory drug sentencing laws
  • Legalizing marijuana
  • Adopting meaningful re-entry programs
  • Retraining prison workers
  • Investing in drug treatment on demand
  • Reversing laws that cause discrimination against drug offenders for the rest of their lives

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done,” cautions Alexander, warning that, “All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus.”

She quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. when, in 1965 he described why it was more important to spearhead mass mobilization rather than lawsuits. He said, “We are trying to win the right to vote and we have to focus the attention of the world on that. We can’t do that making legal cases.”

Image courtesy of Friends of Justice
Image courtesy of Friends of Justice

Alexander says that, “The idea that we may never reach a state of perfect racial equality—a perfect racial equilibrium—is not cause for alarm. What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others.”

And, once again, we must listen to Dr. King’s words. He is still enlightening us: “It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”

 

“Legal Misrepresentation” and Seizures Abound

            The is the third part in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander has stated that “few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs.” In fact, she says, “the rules of the game are designed to allow for the roundup of an unprecedented number of Americans for minor nonviolent drug offenses.”

What then transpires once a person is arrested?  Alexander says that defendants are typically pressured by the threat of lengthy sentence into plea bargaining. The most astonishing revelation is that “Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer, and those who do meet with a lawyer for a drug offense often spend only a few minutes discussing their case and options before making a decision that will profoundly affect the rest of the lives.”

Once again, television and movies seem to be letting us down, portraying the public defender rushing in to represent the wrongfully accused. Everyone gets a lawyer of some ilk, right?

Convicted

While the Supreme Court ruled 40 years ago that poor people accused of serious crimes were entitled to counsel, it left it up to states and local governments to decide how legal services should be funded, Alexander says. But the War on Drugs brought out the “tough on crime” politicians and public defender offices are usually not on the top of the funding list.

The author’s statistics show that 80 percent of criminal defendants are unable to hire a lawyer because they are indigent. Public defenders have large case loads, sometimes “well over one hundred clients at a time…And some states deny representation to impoverished defendants on the theory that somehow they should be able to pay for a lawyer, even though they are scarcely able to pay for food or rent.”

“…in Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people go to court without representation every year because anyone who earns more than $3,000 per year is considered able to afford a lawyer…The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”

She also says that almost no one goes to trial. Most plea bargain. After the arrest, the prosecutor is in charge, she says. The prosecutor may dismiss charges or pile more on if they can be proven in court—“a practice known as overcharging.”

This is a major factor in defendants pleading guilty to crimes, even if they are innocent, rather than risk the results of a trial.

“The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs. In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine,” she says. “The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years.”

On top of that, she says that, “The number of snitches in drug cases has soared in recent years, partly because the government has tempted people to ‘cooperate’ with law enforcement by offering cash, putting them ‘on payroll,’ and promising cuts of seized drug assets, but also because ratting out co-defendants, friend, family, or acquaintances is often the only way to avoid a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence.”

Consequently, “thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence.” 

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized.”  Excerpt from the Fourth Amendment

Meanwhile, in 1984 Congress amended a law that had allowed the confiscation of property that had anything to do with drug manufacturing and storage equipment, along with the drugs and the transportation used to convey it.
The amendment made it possible for law enforcement agencies to keep and use the proceeds from asset forfeitures and to retain up to 80 percent of the assets’ value.

“Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars and homes of people suspected of drug use of sales…on mere suspicion of illegal drug activity.

“Once the property was seized, the owner had no right of counsel, and the burden was placed on him to prove the property’s ‘innocence.’” Because most of the people who had cash or property seized were poor, they couldn’t hire an attorney or pay court costs, so most people did not contest the seizure.

Naturally the system lent itself to enormous abuse, with whole task forces devoted to seizing whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. It wasn’t until 2000 that Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act which was supposed to address the abuses, but Alexander says the reforms were inadequate. It shifted the burden of proof onto the government but still allows absurdities like one case Alexander cites:

“A woman who knew that her husband occasionally smoked pot could have her car forfeited to the government because she allowed him to use her car. Because the ‘car’ was guilty of transporting someone who had broken a drug law at some time, she could legally lose her only form of transportation, even though she herself committed no crime.”

And, under the new law, drug busts motivated by desire to seize cars, houses and other property are still allowed and local agencies still can keep the seized assets. This ensures that law enforcement, profiting in this manner and from other federal incentives will support the continuance of the War on Drugs.

Coming up: Part  Four

What does the War on Drugs, and subsequent mass incarceration, mean for African Americans in the United States? What is the harm done by stigmas after prison and is there a way to start dismantling the system that promotes, under the guise of controlling crime, such enormous racial injustices?

   

Arrests: Warrantless and Unwarranted

            The is the second part in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

New Jim CrowMichelle Alexander says we may think we are familiar with how the criminal justice system works but she suggests that we have been led astray by television and movie police dramas.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the author says, “These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization and punishment, and the stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. A charismatic police officer, investigator or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime…”

Alexander says that the War on Drugs, as upheld over and over again by the U.S. Supreme Court, and at the same time weakening the Fourth Amendment with its interpretations, has led to sanctioning police stops and searches of U.S. citizens for little or no reason.

Her statistics show that since the War on Drugs was instituted in the 1980s, “convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States…Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,000 in 1980.”

Furthermore, “The percentage of drug arrests that result in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service or probation) has quadrupled, resulting in a prison-building boom the likes of which the world has never seen…By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation or on parole.”

Alexander is out to bust myths.

Among them is the belief that the War on Drugs has been aimed at pulling down the big drug lords. To the contrary, there have been comparatively few arrests and convictions of this nature, she says. The war is directed at smaller drug offenses, many times simply possession of a small amount of marijuana. She cites that since 2005, four out of five arrests are for possession and one out of five for sales, and that “most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.”

image courtesy of NewJimCrow.com
image courtesy of NewJimCrow.com

It becomes apparent that American citizens aren’t aware of how procedures for arrests have been loosened since the War on Drugs began. Alexander goes so far as to say, “Few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the War on Drugs…With only a few exceptions, the Supreme Court has seized every opportunity to facilitate the drug war, primarily by eviscerating Fourth Amendment protections against reasonable searches and seizures by the police.”

She points out that the Fourth Amendment was originally enacted within memory of English rule when arbitrary searches of colonial people and their property were the rule. This is frighteningly close to what we have come to allow in modern times, says the author.

Once police in the U.S. could not stop and search anyone without a warrant unless there was probable cause that the person was engaging in criminal activity.

Alexander says that in Terry v. Ohio in 1968, the Supreme Court modified the understanding of the Fourth Amendment by ruling that it was allowable for a police officer, upon witnessing unusual conduct, to be able to search a person whom he or she believes is dangerous or engaged in criminal activity.

Justice William O. Douglas was the sole dissenter against warrantless searches. Alexander says that in the years since the ruling, “stops, interrogations and searches of ordinary people driving down the street, walking home from the bus stop, or riding the train, have become commonplace—at least for people of color. As Douglas suspected, the Court in Terry had begun its slide down a very slippery slope. Today it is no longer necessary for the police to have any reason to believe that people are engaged in criminal activity or actually dangerous to stop and search them. As long as you give ‘consent,’ the police can stop, interrogate and search you for any reason or no reason at all.”

And, it is not common knowledge that you are entitled to say no to a search. Even if you do, Alexander points out that it is not likely anyone will say no when they are feeling threatened or vulnerable to a police officer who is speaking in a loud voice and maybe even has one hand on a weapon.

“For good reason, many people—especially poor people of color—fear police harassment, retaliation, and abuse,” particularly “after having your car torn apart by the police in a futile search for drugs, or being forced to lie spread-eagled on the pavement while police search and interrogate you for no reason at all…”

In pretext stops of vehicles, officers often are not motivated to enforce traffic laws but are interested in finding drugs. The Supreme Court has also sanctioned this type of enforcement in its rulings since the War on Drugs. In Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, “the Supreme Court held that the police may arrest motorists for minor traffic violations and throw them in jail…” Alexander relates. Thus “even if motorists, after being detained and interrogated, have the nerve to refuse to consent to a search, the police can arrest them anyway.”

One more technique police may employ if denied a vehicle search, is to bring in drug-sniffing dogs.

Alexander says that complaints are not filed because, even if people have been unduly and unfairly harassed, they are unwilling to get on the bad side of law enforcement officials.

Coming up: Part Three

            Once arrested, the next process is through the criminal justice system. Just as many misconceptions exist about police roles and accountability, so is the way in which people become imprisoned. In “Legal Misrepresentation,” Alexander takes us through the process with a realistic analysis of our trampled rights. She also details how and why private property often is seized and not regainable.

New Jim Crow

War on Drugs: Racism Beneath the Veil

New Jim CrowThis blog is the first in a four-part series with information extracted from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  by Michelle Alexander. Daily Kos calls the book “a timely and stunning guide to the labyrinth of propaganda, discrimination, and racist policies masquerading under other names that comprises what we call justice in America.” The Miami Herald calls it “a troubling and profoundly necessary book.”

War on Drugs: Racism Beneath the Veil

In his 1963 March on Washington speech (“I have a dream”), the Rev. Martin Luther King said, …”we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…” in this nation.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander­—a civil rights lawyer and advocate, and a legal scholar—turns a critical eye on our system of justice and pinpoints the root causes and continuation of the staggering bias against African Americans, in particular black men.

In this well-researched book, Alexander first startles with the statistic that “in less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase…” and that “one in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue.” She says further that “mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis).”

In a chapter entitled “The Rebirth of Caste” and a section called “The Birth of Mass Incarceration,” Alexander says that the “rhetoric of ‘law and order’ was first mobilized in the late 1950s as Southern governors and law enforcement officials attempted to generate and mobilize white opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.”

MLKShe says that “For more than a decade—from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s—conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition for civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime.”

Alexander says that after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the public debate shifted focus from segregation to crime. Pres. Ronald Reagan took advantage of disadvantaged white voters who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s acceptance of the act, she says. He did this by “condemning ‘welfare queens’ and criminal ‘predators’” with the inference that these were all black people, but without ever making any explicit reference to race.

One of Reagan’s campaign promises was to boost the federal government’s role in fighting crime. “After a period of initial confusion and controversy regarding whether the FBI and the federal government should be involved in street crime, the Justice Department announced its intention to cut in half the number of specialists assigned to identify and prosecute white-collar criminals and to shift its attention to street crime, especially drug-law enforcement,” Alexander cites.

Interestingly enough, she says, at that time fewer than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as a top priority for law enforcement officials to tackle. But law enforcement budgets soared on every level starting in 1981. According to the stats Alexander amassed, three years later the FBI’s antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million, the Department of Defense’s drug allocations from $33 million to $1,045 million in 10 years, etc., while antidrug funds for the Department of Education were cut to a fourth of what they had been.

The war on drugs hit at the same time that inner cities were collapsing due to the outsourcing of factory jobs to foreign countries and technology was replacing many skilled workers’ jobs. “The decline in legitimate employment opportunities among inner-city residents increased incentives to sell drugs—most notably crack cocaine,” Alexander says. She says that, while “no one should ever attempt to minimize the harm caused by crack cocaine and the related violence,” other countries faced with similar problems chose to set up drug treatment and prevention programs and enhanced education and economic opportunities. But Alexander says that for reasons “traceable largely to racial politics and fear mongering we chose war.”

In 1986, the House passed legislation that allocated $2 billion toward the anti-drug campaign and Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “Among other harsh penalties, the legislation included mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more severe punishment for distribution of crack—associated with blacks—than powder cocaine, associated with whites.”

Alexander notes earlier in the book that crack is “pharmacologically almost identical to powder cocaine, but it has been converted into a form that can be vaporized and inhaled for a faster, more intense (though shorter) high using less of the drug—making it possible to sell small doses at more affordable prices.”

Until recently, federal law has overseen the punishment of crack offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. “A conviction for the sale of five hundred grams of powder cocaine triggers a five-year mandatory sentence, while only five gram of crack triggers the same sentence,” the author details.

Courts from the lowest to the highest in the land have upheld the hundred-to-one ratio, along with other thinly veiled racially-based decisions made by police arresting people who appear to be on drugs or whom they think might be drug offenders. The War on Drugs has its own set of legal allowances, it seems, and very little of it has to do with adherence to the U.S. Constitution.

When the War on Drugs was instituted, Alexander says, “The results were immediate. As law enforcement budgets exploded, so did prison and jail populations. In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the United Sates was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of young African American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system.”

In her introduction, Alexander says that “the racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.

“These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crimes. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates…That is not what one would guess, however, when entering our nation’s prison and jails.

“In major cities wracked by the drug war as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These young men are part of a growing undercaste, permanently locked up and locked out of mainstream society.”

Next blogs during Black History Month: Further review of issues that Michelle Alexander brings to light in The New Jim Crow, including “the astonishing percentage of the American public” arrested for minor, non-violent drug crimes; the legal ways in which police are allowed to invade a citizen’s house, search it and arrest the occupants; the court cases and appeals that have denied any racial bias as the basis for decisions; the effect arrests, convictions for misdemeanors and felonies, and prison terms have on a person’s life; the deleterious effect pleading guilty in return for a reduced sentence can have on a person’s life; and Alexander’s examination of all-too-common debtor’s prison situations.

Four part series