Archive for July 15th, 2009

Anthony Papa: My Return to Sing Sing Prison: The Agony and The Ecstasy

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

I swore up and down to myself I would never return. But over a decade later, here I was back at the maximum security prison where I served a 15 to life sentence for a non-violent drug crime under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of New York State.

But this time I was lucky. I was not there to serve time for committing a new crime. Instead, I was there on a tour of the prison with my producer Brian Swibel and screenwriter Mike Jones. In October of 2004, my prison memoir 15 to Life: How I Painted My Way to Freedom was published. The book was a riveting account about making a single mistake and having my life being torn apart by the unjust drug laws of NYS. My memoir was soon optioned by Brian and his partner Barrett Stuart.

In March of 2009 screenwriter Mike Jones was hired to pen my story for the big screen. In order to make the script as good as it could possibly be, Jones wanted to see and feel the prison. At first, when the idea of going back to that hell hole was suggested, I panicked. A chill ran up and down my spine. I did not want to go back to the gulag that kept me captive for the most productive years of my life. This was the place that almost took away my humanity, but did not because of my discovery of my art. Through art I transcended the negativity of imprisonment and found meaning in my life through painting. In 1994 my self portrait, “15-To-Life” , appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art which lead to a burst of publicity and my eventual freedom though clemency granted by Gov. Pataki.

After a few days the initial fear of returning to Sing Sing disappeared. I realized how important it was and I agreed to go. Brian’s people contacted the NYS Commissioner of Corrections office and obtained permission for a tour of the facility.

The night before the scheduled tour I could not sleep. I called a friend who had done time with me at Sing Sing. “Rich” I said, “do you think Big Don from the law library is still there?” Don was the ultimate gangster. He was into everything, from drug dealing to extortion. Before I left Sing Sing back in 1997 he caught me on the way out as I waited for a van to bring me to the front gate. “Hey, man, I heard you’re leaving us” he said, not sounding particularly happy for me. He wanted me to do him a favor and needed my phone number. “Sure thing” I said, but gave him a fake number. “You sure it’s good?” he asked. “If not, your ass will be grass.” “Sure I replied, you think I would kid you? ” This is how I survived prison, by learning how to con a con. As I thought about Don, Rich told me Don had been transferred from Sing Sing years ago. I was relieved.

The next day I met Brian and Mike in midtown Manhattan and we drove up to Sing Sing. During the hour’s drive to the prison I tried to focus on the positive aspects of the tour and how it would help Mike tell the story. But dark thoughts entered my mind, causing me to invent dramatic scenarios that would put my life in danger. After all — Sing Sing had become a living nightmare to me and a place where I saw first hand the strongest of men become broken by its absolute paternal authority.

When we arrived at the prison my eyes focused on the guard towers that surround the facility. I painted those huge fearful towers many times as a prisoner along with the thousands of miles of razor wire that encompassed its exterior. As I entered the main gate my body tensed up. The years of emotional turmoil caused by living at the prison for 12 years appeared once again. I began to feel dizzy and nauseous. I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. Brian and Mike looked at me and asked if I was all right. I took some deep breaths and retained my composure.

We then met with the Deputy of Security who outlined the parameters of our tour. He explained where we could and could not go and made it clear that this was a dangerous maximum security prison. When he said this, Brian, Mike and I looked at each others’ eyes with a touch of fear. I thought about the daily stabbings by the predators that roamed the prison that took place when I was there.

Our escort was an old timer who had been a Correction Officer for over 26 years. He knew the gulag inside out and made sure we saw it through his eyes. During my 3 hour tour I saw more of the prison than during my 12 years of imprisonment. Absent from its cavernous presence was the overbearing noise and craziness of Sing Sing’s past. Where hundreds of men ran wild in the cell blocks from my past stay there, now there were few. The prison had been tamed by a new administration. Absent that day, during the tour, was the vice and corruption of its past. But still present was the unmistakable dehumanization of its occupants and the look of hopelessness in their eyes.

While in A-block, one of three main housing units that held almost 700 men, I ran into a prisoner I knew. A smile came to his face as he waved to me. He asked me why I was there. As I raised my hand to greet the prisoner, the tour officer interrupted, “no talking” he said. I froze. I then turned my back towards him as I left the housing area. We all left the prison emotionally drained.

For many years as an activist, it has been a lonely job to challenge the system. But now there is a new trend in the politics of imprisonment… Now we have political leaders like Virginia Senator Jim Webb speaking out; saying that the American system for the prosecution and incarceration of criminals not only needs reform, but has become a “national disgrace”.

There are over a half a million Americans currently behind bars on drug charges. Most of them are non violent offenders and many need treatment instead of being locked up in a cage. It is my hope that 15 to Life will eventually be made and become an important film that critiques the war on drugs and becomes a clarion call for reform of America’s drug laws.

We need people to join us and there is an opportunity coming up soon.

On November 12-14, The Drug Policy Alliance will co-host Working Towards a New Bottom Line: the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference at the Albuquerque Convention Center in New Mexico. The meeting serves as the world’s principal gathering of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. Activists, elected officials, scholars, students, drug treatment professionals, people in recovery and others will spend three days sharing, learning, connecting, and strategizing about drug policy reform issues.

Visit today for more information and to register for the conference.

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Shawn Rubin: My Letter to the President

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

Dear President Obama,

Earlier this week I listened to your speech before Ghana’s parliament. I heard you address the leaders and citizens of Africa through inspirational calls for action:

“You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people. You can serve in your communities, and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease, end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can. Because in this moment, history is on the move.”

I was excited to hear you bring to light African grassroots efforts to make change, and I hope you will continue to be an advocate for all struggling African social entrepreneurs who are working hard to improve the situation in their homes and communities.

I am writing to you today to tell you about one incredible Ghanaian man who lives less than than fifteen miles from where you delivered your historic address. His name is Meshach Bondzie, and in his community of Abeka, Ghana he is a lone warrior in Ghana’s fight to educate its impoverished youth.

For years Meshach lived through the challenges of not being able to afford his own education. Eventually, he was able to secure a secretarial degree by working and subsidizing his courses. Once his degree was completed Meshach was bothered by the overwhelming number of promising young men and women in his community who were wasting away without a chance at a high school education. In 2000, Meshach started his own school called the PROFESA Secretarial Academy to help bring free and reduced education to his home town.

As I’m sure you are already aware, Ghana does not supply free high school education to its citizens. According to Unicef less than 39% of Ghana’s students make it past the fifth grade. Most of Ghana’s struggling children are forced to stop school to sell water and other goods on street corners under the hot West African sun.

Meshach created PROFESA as a low-cost option for education. His school charges less than half of what Ghana’s poorly run public high schools charge, and most of the students who attend his classes do so on full or partial scholarship. Meshach is an inspirational teacher who does everything without a paycheck, without benefits, without supplies, and without any local support network.

When you ask Meshach how he does this his reply is, “You can’t waste your time here on this earth without doing anything. What you have to be able to do is impact life. To help people to stand on their feet.”

I hope that during your trip to Ghana you were able to meet and interact with other wonderful social entrepreneurs like Meshach Bondzie. I hope that you were able to tell them in person how appreciative we are of the work they are doing under such difficult circumstances. I hope you told the politicians of Ghana that there are promising grassroots efforts and grassroots leaders like Meshach who need their support.

I am writing to you as the founder of Longitude, a US based 501(c)3 non-profit that helps to support Meshach’s school and other underfunded social entrepreneurs around the world. During the four years that Longitude has been working in Ghana we have encountered tremendous political and governmental roadblocks that make Meshach’s work even harder. Every dollar that he has to give up in bribes to the local postmaster, the local land magistrate, or the local education director is money that could be spent on textbooks, teacher salaries or computers.

I heard you call on African leaders to abandon these crippling bribes during your speech, but I hope that you will continue to encourage the leaders of Ghana to support the grassroots NGOs that exist within their country. Tell them about Meshach Bondzie and the hundreds of students who he has helped to educate when the government has not been able to do so. Please plead with them to encourage their people to stand up and support leaders like Meshach in his service to Ghana.

Thank you for all your efforts and your support of Africa. Your speech was wonderful, but please stay focused on helping those grassroots Africans who are already taking steps to make a difference. These are Africa’s true leaders of the future. They are the ones who are doing the work for the benefit of the people not the benefit to their own pockets. Africa needs our help and our attention, but they will get farther once more Meshach Bondzies step up and receive the governmental support they so rightly deserve.

Thank you for your time,

Shawn Rubin

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Sarah Palin Fundraising Driven By Small Donors

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

Sarah Palin’s political action committee — SarahPAC — raised $733,000 in the first half of the year and is set to push past $1 million in the wake of the recent attention she’s gotten herself. On the one hand, this isn’t that impressive. Mitt Romney, for instance, has raised twice as much. Kay Bailey Huthcison, Palin’s sometime rival who is now running for governor in Texas, raised nine times as much. For somebody with a political celebrity dwarfed only by Barack Obama’s, that’s just not all that much cashflow.

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Coburn Evokes Ricky Ricardo While Speaking To Sotomayor: "You’ll Have Lots Of Splainin’ To Do" (VIDEO)

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

(AP) WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn evoked a 1950s TV show Wednesday in a quip responding to Sonia Sotomayor’s scenario about what he might do if she – hypothetically, of course – attacked him.

“You’ll have a lot of ’splainin’ to do,” Coburn said, to laughter from the crowd and Sotomayor. What he said – and how he said it – was a riff on a Hispanic television character, Ricky Ricardo, whose accent is now widely considered a broad parody.

In the famous 1950s TV show “I Love Lucy,” the Cuban bandleader Ricardo (played by the equally Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz) would often admonish his scatterbrained wife, Lucy, by saying she’d have some “’splainin’” to do. The phrase, “Lucy, you have some ’splainin’ to do,” has since become part of the popular culture.

Calling Coburn out for this might be going too far – those who know him say he often speaks like this – but it was hard not to notice his inflection and choice of words. At the very least, it suggests a tin ear – particularly when speaking to a woman who would become the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.

Yvette Melendez, a Glastonbury, Conn., woman attending the hearing, said she winced inwardly when Coburn made his comment but did not feel offended.

“I personally did not think it was appropriate,” she said. “But I’m sure he said it as a joke.”

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The Bernanke Market: Andy Kessler’s WSJ Op-Ed

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

Just about every policy move to right the U.S. economy after the subprime sinking of the banking system has been a bust. We saved Bear Stearns. We let Lehman Brothers go. We forced Merrill Lynch, Wachovia and Washington Mutual into the hands of others. We took control of Fannie and Freddie and AIG and even own a few car companies, pumping them with high-test transfusions. None of this really helped.

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Hector E. Sanchez: Illegal People: An Island of Rationality

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

At a time when leadership in Washington has been ambiguous on this important and volatile issue, the end of summer may see the beginning of a renewed national debate on immigration reform. Now more than ever, as the nation prepares to confront its own prejudices or sympathies, it is a critical time to examine the root causes of immigration in the context of globalization. For these reasons, David Bacon’s latest book Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants is timely and relevant. With a contextual focus on workers’ rights and the increasing wealth gap, Bacon’s book addresses several key issues that must be at the core of any immigration reform plan in order to be enduring and sustainable.

Bacon describes the migrant reality in an otherwise very difficult moment for these people in the U.S. — a time when the concept of migration has been dehumanized and analyzed in a sophomoric way, when racial attacks against immigrants and Latinos have reached historical highs, when anti-immigrant myths are finding a place in important parts of the American society, when hundreds of migrants are dying trying to cross the border, and a moment in which anti-immigrant groups in the nation have grown like never before.

Illegal People is a deep political analysis elucidating on migration and why it has increased in the context of globalization, while at the same time humanizing migrants, a much-needed approach. Bacon’s solid journalistic skills seamlessly depict the human face of pain, sweat, work and death of migrants behind his serious analyses and theories.

A key component missing in the immigration debate, mainly in Washington, is the connection between immigration and trade policies. This is a crucial mistake as the economic forces creating migration are being ignored. Migration and international trade are erroneously seen as mutually exclusive issues, but they must be analyzed as having a causal relationship because they are so directly related. Bacon’s work represents one of the few progressive analyses that make this crucial connection.

Bacon also includes an important point in the bi-national relations between Mexico and the U.S. — the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — to analyze the impact that these policies have had in the flow of migrants from the south to the north. He explains how the dumping of agricultural products in the Mexican market displaced farmers and pushed them out of their land and how consumer prices of basic products went up instead of down as promised (e.g., the price of tortillas more than doubled in the years following the implementation of such policies). A combination of all these factors increased poverty as well as the pressure to go to the north. Illegal People clearly proves that the best example of the failure of NAFTA is the drastic increase of “illegal” migration after it was implemented.

Another issue that is often ignored in the immigration debate is the systemic demand of the United States of cheap, “illegal” labor. The hostility of globalization forces corporate management to compete for the cheapest possible products at the expense of exploited workers, who are often displaced and suffer clear violations of labor and human rights.

A central concern in the immigration debate is the H-2 guest worker program. With a cool head and sound judgment, Bacon analyzes this topic and the webs of interest that are behind it. Bacon follows the foot steps of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Close to Slavery report and rightly makes the case that H-2 programs continuously exploit and abuse workers and treat them as disposable: guest workers are routinely cheated of much of their pay, they cannot protest, they do not get overtime, they get sanctions if they try to organize, they suffer from constant violations of health and safety laws and they represent the backbone of the system. On the other hand, employers benefit from such a system. They continuously get cheap labor and have uninterrupted workforce flexibility. The workers themselves have few or no rights and suffer limited access to benefits. If undocumented workers want to organize and form a union they have to consider the possibility of getting fired and also being reported, jailed and deported. This at least partly explains why U.S. agriculture is addicted to a vast reservoir of cheap, undocumented labor.

Jettisoning the values of basic human and labor rights just to satisfy corporate interests will only push this nation into a deeper crisis. Bacon argues what is needed is a progressive alternative to the big guest worker bills, in which there is a way for undocumented workers to gain permanent-resident status, enforce the rights of migrants in the workplace, and protect wages for all workers.

Bacon also brings light to an important issue that has been getting media attention with a sensationalistic approach: How unemployment and racism have pitted some minority groups against each other and against low income whites — but mostly against immigrants. Likewise, he provides an economic view and analysis on how the current system benefits from these groups competing for low wage jobs — while large corporations continue to reap higher profits.

This book helps dispel anti-immigrant myths and shows readers what the real causes of migration are. Americans must look at the issue of immigration without ideological predisposition. Bacon’s decades of experience as a union organizer, journalist and photographer give him a unique capacity to inject the point of view of the exploited. He is a peripatetic writer who faces the reality of immigrants by traveling from place to place to be able to understand their reality and portray their pain. He is not a sojourner who tries to superficially cover a story. Bacon’s book reflects a deep understanding of the history, culture and traditions of these communities and intelligently demonstrates that understanding in his book. He does not shy away from a clear goal, which is a commitment to social justice, particularly towards the most vulnerable group of people in the U.S., undocumented immigrants.

In the intricate debate of immigration, when nativist and jingoistic groups (e.g., CIS, NumbersUSA, FAIR) have carved out a space in the national debate portraying themselves as credible think tanks, the independent work of David Bacon and his book Illegal People represents an island of rationality in a sea of tumult.

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Thomas Frank: Poor, Persecuted Sarah Palin

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced her resignation two weeks ago it was after a series of strange, petty bouts with her detractors. Many “frivolous ethics violations” had been alleged against her, she noted. David Letterman had told an ugly joke about her daughter. A blogger had posted something that was probably not true. Someone had photoshopped a radio talker’s face onto a picture of her baby — a “malicious desecration” of the image, in the words of Ms. Palin’s spokeswoman.

Team Palin got duly indignant at each of these. They took special, detailed offense. They issued statements magnifying their wounds. And, finally, the governor resigned her office, a good woman cruelly wronged.

The culture’s fantastically unfair treatment of middle Americans is the main lesson that many will no doubt take away from Ms. Palin’s time in the national spotlight. In fact, it may be the only lesson. We don’t really know where the former vice presidential candidate stands on most issues. We know only that she is constantly being maligned, that when we turn on the TV and see her fair face beaming, we are about to hear that some liberal someone has slurred this noble lady yet again.

Indeed, if political figures stand for ideas, victimization is what Ms. Palin is all about. It is her brand, her myth. Ronald Reagan stood tall. John McCain was about service. Barack Obama has hope. Sarah Palin is a collector of grievances. She runs for high office by griping.

This is no small thing, mind you. The piling-up of petty complaints is an important aspect of conservative movement culture. For those who believe that American life consists of the trampling of Middle America by the “elites” — that our culture is one big insult to the pious and the patriotic and the traditional — Sarah Palin’s long list of unfair and disrespectful treatment is one of her most attractive features. Like Oliver North, Robert Bork, and Clarence Thomas, she is known not for her ideas but as a martyr, a symbol of the culture-war crimes of the left.

To become a symbol of this stature Ms. Palin has had to do the opposite of most public figures. Where others learn to take hostility in stride, she and her fans have developed the thinnest of skins. They find offense in the most harmless remarks and diabolical calculation in the inflections of the anchorman’s voice. They take insults out of context to make them seem even more insulting. They pay close attention to voices that are ordinarily ignored, relishing every blogger’s sneer, every celebrity’s slight, every crazy Internet rumor.

This has been Ms. Palin’s assigned role ever since she stepped on the national stage last summer. Indeed, she has stuck to it so unswervingly that one suspects it was settled on even before she was picked for the VP slot, that it was imposed on her by a roomful of GOP image consultants: Ms. Palin was to be the candidate on a cross.

Resentment was, for example, the most-noticed theme in her famous speech at the Republican convention in September, when she introduced herself to America by taking umbrage at those Democrats who “seem to look down on” small-town ways. Before long she had become a full-time victim of the media, deploring “the bitter shots” they took at her. She imagined that reporters were threatening her First Amendment rights by criticizing her. She found a fellow underdog in Joe the Plumber, and after reviewing his mistreatment by the media she made him part of her stump routine.

But the template was apparently set even before her big roll-out. In an essay in The Weekly Standard that was written before Ms. Palin’s celebrated debut in St. Paul, William Kristol somehow already knew that liberals “will ridicule her and patronize her. They will distort her words and caricature her biography. They will appeal, sometimes explicitly, to anti-small town and anti-religious prejudice.” And all this contempt will serve an important propaganda purpose, he continued, with Ms. Palin becoming a “powerful symbol” for “lots of Americans who are told every day that to be even a bit conservative or Christian or old-fashioned is bad form.”

Mr. Kristol’s magazine has beat the persecution drum ever since. Its current issue features a cover story about Ms. Palin’s suffering by Matthew Continetti, who is actually said to be writing a book titled, “The Persecution of Sarah Palin.” In the course of Mr. Continetti’s essay he admits to collecting insults of Ms. Palin, which he stores in a computer file that he says is seven pages long.

My advice to Mr. Continetti: Put your insult collection aside for a moment and ask instead why people like Ms. Palin savor insults in the first place. The answer may not endear you to Weekly Standard readers, but it will take you a lot further toward understanding the world we live in.

Read other articles in the Opinion Journal:
Universal Health Care Isn’t Worth Our Freedom
The Tragedy of Michael Jackson

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Maria Rodale: Free the Seeds!

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

Beware the biotech euphemisms for genetically modified seeds (a.k.a. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms). Anytime you hear people like Bill Gates and other unnamed politicians and business leaders talk about “better seeds” or “improved seeds,” you are hearing them unwittingly promote an evil plot to destroy the planet. While they think they are furthering the technology of our advanced civilization, they are actually furthering the speed of our demise.

In laboratories across the globe, seeds are being captured, submitted to intense and painful torture (too graphic to describe here), and held prisoner in a scheme for world food domination. These imprisoned seeds, injected with contaminated DNA, are then sent around the world with alleged goodwill under the guise of “feeding the world.” These seeds are programmed to corrupt pure, innocent plants via their pollen, spreading their DNA like a sexually transmitted disease, so companies that made those seeds can assert ownership over all seeds…under the claim of “intellectual property.”

Farmers, politicians, and technophiles have all fallen under the spell, and believe that humans must improve on nature in order to survive — and in the process have unleashed an insidious health horror. These DNA-doctored seeds (approved by the U.S. government under the “Generally Regarded As Safe” or GRAS loophole, which requires no scientific or health testing) are now inside virtually every human on earth. A day does not go by in which we don’t eat a genetically modified product (and sorry, but vegetarians eat them the most).

Doctors around the globe are calling for a ban on GMOs because what few studies have been done show the seeds are connected to alarming health problems…including ACCELERATED AGING! I am not making this up. The products of these seeds, once inside our bodies, in effect eat at us from the inside, causing intestinal distress, organ damage, allergic reactions, and many other horrible problems that we are only just discovering. And yet the seed companies involved have done everything in their power to prevent, suppress, and destroy any information regarding the effects of their little army of death.

There is only one way to protect yourself and your family from these horrible invaders. Eat organic. Buy organic and grow organic. Organic foods are the only safe haven for seeds that are still free of contamination. But it’s only a matter of time before all seeds are contaminated…unless we free them!

Free the seeds! Demand organic.

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Michael Wolff: I’m Against Sonia Sotomayor

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

Sonia Sotomayor has a set of views that could not offend or even interest anybody. Or Sonia Sotomayor has had the intensive standard course of media training. Or Sonia Sotomayor has been skillfully medicated.

Why oh why do we persist in having these hearings? Or why do we persist in believing–or hoping against hope–that these hearings will be revelatory (or at least great theater and politics)?

“Still, for all of the buildup, the second day of her confirmation hearings produced few of the anticipated fireworks…” says the Times.

Exactly who anticipated fireworks?

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Marshall Fine: Movie Review: Death in Love

July 15th, 2009 admin No comments

Boaz Yakin’s Death in Love is a fascinating mess — sprawling, passionate, conflicted, confused, contrary.

I wouldn’t expect anything less from Yakin, director of films as varied as Fresh, A Price Above Rubies and Remember the Titans. Even at its most preposterous or perfunctory, this film is never less than interesting.

Yakin’s subject is a family of unhappy, dissatisfied, controlling people in New York. The Holocaust serves as an overlay, a starting point — but these people are screwed up all on their own.

The matriarch is played by Jacqueline Bisset, an Eastern European emigre, who has a husband and two grown sons. In flashbacks, we see that, as a teenager, she was a prisoner in a concentration camp, where she was a candidate for bizarre medical experiments. But she escaped them by seducing the head doctor and becoming his mistress for the rest of the war. (The film is set in New York in the early 1990s; otherwise, Bisset — still stunning at 65 — would be about 20 years too young for this role.)

For the rest of this review, click here to reach my website:

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