We must address the racist cruelty: Of eviction

Standing outside a Virginia courthouse, waiting for justice

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”
Heather Heyer

The pandemic turned the economy upside down and inside out, or so we are told. We are also told, still, that `we are all in it together’. Welcome to the place where the theater of cruelty merges with the wretched of the earth, and, through the cataclysmic changes, the worst remains the same and absolutely ordinary. We are talking, once more, of eviction. Two reports appeared today, both focusing on Georgia. In one, we learn that, among African Americans, youth and housing insecurity are primary causes of “vaccine hesitancy”. In the other, we learn that, in the Atlanta metro area, evictions are concentrated in low income and Black, Indigenous, People of Color, BIPOC, neighborhoods. At one level, we learn that we have learned nothing, since, as both reports suggest, these patterns preceded the pandemic and have `simply’ continued. What are we to do with that `simplicity’, with the persistence of systemic racism in the real estate industry as in the courts? And what is to be done?

According to a study of “vaccine hesitancy” among African Americans in Georgia, “COVID-related housing insecurity—difficulty paying the rent or mortgage or even eviction—increased the odds of vaccine resistance sevenfold”. Actually, housing insecurity increased those odds by 7.3-fold. Why does housing insecurity increase those odds so dramatically? According to the report, those living with `housing insecurity’ tend to live in highly segregated neighborhoods, are low wage essential workers, and have little to no access to health care systems. They’re not `hesitant’, they’re excluded. For “highly segregated neighborhood”, read “ghetto”. For “low wage essential worker”, read “indebted servant” or, better, “serf”. Again, that’s not hesitation. That’s feudalism.

According to the second report, five counties make up 63% of the Atlanta metropolitan area population and 74% of its occupied rental units. During the pandemic, eviction filings continued, especially in “hotspots”, census tracts that were below 80% of the Area Median Income, or AMI, and were 50% or more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. These hotspots were not a surprise to the researchers, since, prior to the pandemic, the same neighborhoods were eviction hotspots and the same patterns devastated those neighborhoods, communities, families and individuals. As the authors note at the outset of their report, “An eviction marks a crisis point of housing instability that ripples into nearly every facet of a person’s life and harms future chances of housing security …. With the added urgency of a global pandemic, the impacts of eviction mushroom and tighten the nexus between individual outcomes like an eviction and community-level harm.” In the Atlanta metro area, as across the United States, evictions are working as planned, condemning majority BIPOC communities, especially low- to moderate-income BIPOC communities, to a certain death sentence. None of this is new, even if its context makes it seem worse than before.

We “learn” this week that in Virginia, the Virginia that has improved on its shameful history of mass evictions, high eviction rates, and easy eviction procedures, in that Virginia, “Black women … are disproportionately evicted.” We “learn” this week that in New York, the New York that only recently started distributing any rent relief funds, Black women make up nearly two-thirds of those applying for rent relief. Again, that relief has only now started, barely, reaching people.

In light of the new CDC Eviction Moratorium, and the challenges to it which are currently being argued before the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court that barely kept the last CDC Eviction Moratorium going and, with a single vague sentence, tried to gut the New York State Eviction Moratorium, the Eviction Lab took a look at the first iteration of CDC Eviction Moratorium. Here’s what they found: “A large number of eviction cases originate from a relatively small number of Census tracts … Neighborhoods with high eviction filing rates prior to the pandemic continued to see the highest rates during the CDC moratorium … Neighborhoods with high eviction filing rates prior to the pandemic continued to see the highest rates during the CDC moratorium … Prior to the pandemic, Black renters received a disproportionate share of all eviction filings: they made up 22% of all renters in ETS sites, but received 35% of eviction filings. They continued to be over-represented during the CDC moratorium period, receiving 33% of filings.”

What they found is that we have learned absolutely nothing. Where is the outrage at the predictability of these findings? Around the country, activists are pushing, often with success, for right to counsel, where every tenant would have an attorney present and engaged, long before every going to court; Just Cause restrictions, which would require that landlords give just cause before not renewing a lease; sealing eviction records; mandatory mediation; and more. Those are all important policies. At the same time, we have a reckoning due. Where is the outrage at the loss of life, the devastation, the twenty first century version of feudalism? Why does it take a plague for people to begin paying attention to our neighbors, and have we actually begun paying attention, if, in the end, each study concludes that the present and the past are one and the same.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: ABC News / AP / Ben Finley)

Why do landlords have so much discretionary, and ultimately fatal, power?

Yesterday, Virginia’s Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne informed the Virginia House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee that the Commonwealth of Virginia is looking at a $2 billion surplus. The Virginia state legislature will meet in special session, starting August 2, to decide how to divide the Covid relief moneys. No matter what they decide, $2 billion is a lot of money. And yet … and yet people concerned about eviction are worried, very worried. Why? Partly because the money in Virginia, as elsewhere, has moved at a snail’s pace. The process of application is cumbersome and, for many, almost impossible. The scale of demand has far exceeded the capacity of state agencies. But there’s something else, something more structural than agency capacity and poorly designed procedures: landlords’ discretionary power. 

Virginia has more than a billion dollars in aid for people behind on rent”. Again, that’s a lot of money, and, again, people who need that money and their allies, communities and networks are worried. Why? “To tap into $1 billion worth of federal aid earmarked for Virginia, tenants or their landlords must proactively apply, and there’s no longer any rules requiring property owners to cooperate.”

Fairfax County, in northern Virginia, is the second richest county in the United States, a close to its neighbor, Loudoun County. Despite its great wealth, and despite the fact that it has access to great sums of rent relief money, Fairfax County officials and advocates are worried about eviction. Why? “Although Fairfax officials and other stakeholders say there’s plenty of emergency rental assistance to help low-income residents, they are concerned that it’s taking too long to get that money to landlords. County officials said that even if the rental assistance is available, landlords may decide it’s not worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and may evict their tenants anyway.”

Landlords may decide it’s not worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and may evict their tenants anyway.

Despite all the research and all the public discussion of the intimate link between transmission of the pandemic and eviction, between health and housing more generally, landlords still get to decide whose life is `worth it’ and whose life is not worth it. Do not ask what it is … 

Across the country, local jurisdictions are responding to this injustice. Some are instituting “just cause” eviction restrictions, others are going with right to counsel. Philadelphia, today, approved legislation to restrict landlords’ decision-making process. From now, landlords will not be able to deny potential tenants just because they have low credit scores or past evictions or evictions filings. The landlords’ process will have to be transparent and rational. Housing is not only a right, it’s also a matter of life and death, and that matter is passed down from one generation to the next. 

How did landlords become the arbiters of life and death, in the midst of a pandemic … or ever? Where does landlords’ discretionary power come from? And why and h ow did we let this happen? On one hand, the answer is in decades of real estate driven urban economies, that reward White homeowners and punish Black and Brown renters, creating an ever wider racial wealth gap, that is also a death gap. Some live long, others are “not worth it”, and the necropolitical maps of `urban development’ proceed. At its source, the concept of landlord is the power of a lord, “the male head of a household; a man who has authority over servants, attendants, or slaves.” It’s time to rewrite the terms and change the power. Our lives are worth it.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: NBC Washington)

Eat the rich!

“Quand le peuple n’aura plus rien à manger, il mangera le riche.”
“When the people have nothing left to eat, they’ll eat the rich”
                                                                        Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the midst of pandemic and deepening and expanding economic crisis, “the total net worth of the nation’s 644 billionaires has risen from $2.95 trillion on March 18 to $3.88 trillion on October 13.” While state and local governments face cataclysmic budget crises; while communities, families, and individuals across the country have faced job loss, loss of health care, eviction, hunger, the top 644 have been raking in money at a rate never before seen. Clearly, we are all in this together, and why worry about economic revival when `we’ are doing so well and there’s a Supreme Court vacancy to fill?

Last week, Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies released their analysis of the current situation, and it’s not a pretty picture. 8.2 million were infected with Covid-19, and 220,000 people had died (that was last week; the numbers today are far worse, a week later). “Collective work income of rank-and-file private-sector employees—all hours worked times the hourly wages of the entire bottom 82% of the workforce—declined by 3.5% from mid-March to mid-September”. Between March and September, close to 62 million lost jobs. 98,000 businesses have closed for good. As of end of August 12 million people have lost employer-sponsored health insurance. In September 22 million adults reported not having enough food the week before. Of that group, 14 million lived with children in their respective households. In September, close to 17% of renters in the United States reported being behind on rent payments. America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.

The 644 billionaires’ increase in wealth represents a 31.6% growth. Imagine if that $931 billion that went to a very small number of people, who themselves represent an even smaller number of families, instead benefited the entire population. $931 billion is more than triple the amount of Mitch McConnell’s proposed `relief’. Imagine all the people who could be served, who could be saved, with $931 billion. 

Let’s take Virginia as an example. Seven billionaires call Virginia home: Jacqueline Mars, Pamela Mars, Winifred J. Marquart, Daniel D’Aniello, William Conway, Jr., Matthew Calkins, and Steve Case. In seven months, during this pandemic, this group’s wealth grew by $6.5 billion. That’s almost a 16% increase … a `modest’ showing. To put this modest increase into perspective, the Commonwealth of Virginia faces a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall in 2021 and a $2.7 billion shortfall over the next two years. Meanwhile, and again, seven individuals in that same Commonwealth increased their wealth, in seven months, by $6.5 billion. There is more than enough money for rent relief, health care, food assistance, education, and so much more. Imagine all the people who could be served, who could be saved.

Meanwhile, sales of million-dollar homes have doubled in the United States. According to the National Association of Realtors, `we’ are in a real estate boom, right now. Here’s another sign of that boom: “From early September to Oct. 17, despite the CDC eviction ban, almost 10,000 eviction actions have been filed in 23 counties in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.” Here’s another sign of the boom: “In September, 865,000 women dropped out of the U.S. labor force compared with 216,000 men. Black and Latina women in the U.S. have been hit the hardest. While unemployment in September fell to 7.7 percent for all women, it remained at 11.1 percent for Black women and 11 percent for Latina women.”

Boom.

 

(Image Credit: Zeph Farmby / The Chicago Reader)

In a matter of 10 days, 6 family members, including myself and a 4-month old baby, all got COVID-19

In a matter of 10 days, 6 family members, including myself and a 4-month old baby, all got COVID-19. Six people got COVID from ONE non-family member who had not been following social distancing—that’s all it takes—one person to infect five adults and one baby. Thankfully, my family has been doing things mostly correctly in terms of social distancing, limiting how often we left the house, wearing masks (!!!), and just overall being smart in these weird times. Because of this, our points of contact post-exposure have been minimal to non-existent.

As our family was grappling with the terrifying thought of being exposed to COVID, getting tested has been an added nightmare. I got tested last Sunday at a CVS in the area after being told of our potential exposure and experiencing symptoms. The test I took was self-administered and had promised results within 6-10 days. 6-10 days to wait for a test result is completely mind boggling to me. What happens if I feel better by day 5? What happens if I get worse? Our family was on edge for 6-10 days, waiting for results from different family members. I finally got my results on Friday—after most of my symptoms had already subsided. It was negative. 

However, after a phone call with a contact tracer (arguably the only thing our government has done right in terms of this pandemic), they suggested I get retested somewhere because I “have too many COVID symptoms and too much exposure to be negative”. And yesterday, I lost my sense of smell, which pretty much means I have COVID. I’m still getting tested on Tuesday, this time it will be done by a medical professional, just to confirm I have it. At this point, there are 3 family members who have tested positive, and 3 people who are presumed positive (we all know we have it, but we’re not an official statistic yet).

To put it bluntly, this experience has been hell for our family. Our government’s response to the pandemic has been terrible. Tests shouldn’t take 6-10 days to deliver results, tests shouldn’t be self- administered (I think my false negative was because I didn’t hear the directions clearly). Testing with rapid results needs to be more accessible—I have called so many different testing sites, looking for appointments that aren’t weeks away, looking for test results that won’t take 6-10 days, and looking for sites that are “approved” by my primary physician.

Thankfully, we are all getting better—slowly, but we’re getting better. I’m lucky (?) that my only real symptom now is no smell. At some point this week, all of us, including the baby, will have had a COVID-19 test. Testing is important–especially when you can get results in 1-2 days.

And to make this even longer, to those people—especially my age, that are still going out and having sOOoooOOOo much fun going out to bars, getting meals in restaurants, taking trips, living like life is normal, I envy you. I WISH I could pretend that life was normal, but it’s hard to do that when you have to google “COVID and babies”, “COVID survival in babies”, “COVID survival rates in adults”, “chances of needing a ventilator”.

(Image Credit: Inside NOVA)

Across the United States, children living with disabilities face the torture of school seclusion

In Loudon County, Virginia, 13-year-old Gigi Daniel-Zagorites lives with Phelan-McDermid syndrome, “a disorder that hampers her ability to speak.” In her middle school, one day in September, a fellow classmate took a picture of Gigi being “secluded”. Someone, teachers presumably, took a bookcase and a cabinet and built an enclosure in the corner of the classroom. Gigi was dumped in there, and two adults stood, or sat, guard. In the picture, Gigi is trying to get out or at least see over the barricades. Months later, her mother, Alexa Zagorites, is still asking questions and still getting no answers. Gigi Daniel-Zagorites and her mother are objects of the national pogrom against children living with disabilities. Like so many others, both Gigi and her mother refuse to be or become the victims that national policy intends for them.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center released a report  concerning the abusive seclusion and restraint of a 14-year-old child, called Zach, at the Sununu Youth Services Center. First, Zach was dumped into seclusion which led to two staff members throwing Zach to the ground and “restraining” him face down there. The staff fractured the child’s shoulder blade. Despite New Hampshire law, the restraint and, even more, the injury was not reported for two months. Months later, the Sununu Center continues to withhold information. New Hampshire has “restraint and seclusion” laws, but they all rely on the staff to self-report. The levels of violence form a network of threads of immediate, intimate violence and those of structural violence, all held together by the violence and suffering of family, friends, and community.

Similar stories have been recently reported in IndianaIowa, Florida, and Arizona, to name a few from only the last month or so. Across the country, children in school learn that living with a disability is a crime. It must be a crime, otherwise why would the adult staff members be punishing them so?

Last month, U.S. Department of Education released a report on school climate and safety for 2015 – 2016. It found that Iowa rates had just about doubled. For example, in 2013, 23 school districts in eastern Iowa had 2514 reported instances of seclusion or restraint. In 2015, that number rose to 4,904. A recent Iowa State report describes Davenport as in “systemic non-compliance” of Federal laws concerning the education of students living with disabilities. According to the report, the situation for students of color in Davenport is particularly dire, systemically so. Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators are calling for a Federal investigation into the use of seclusion rooms. Davenport’s U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack has called for a ban on seclusion rooms.

The report on school climate and safety merely confirmed what we already know. In a nutshell, students living with disabilities constituted 12% of all students enrolled. 12 percent. That very small sector of students living with disabilities constituted 71% of all students restrained and 66% of all students “secluded.”

What crime have these children committed? What is their terrible sin? Why do we continue to send these children into solitary confinement? Why do we continue to torture those who are most vulnerable? When will we stop this practice? What do you think we’re teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”?

(Infographic Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Virginians decided yesterday, and we decided to move forward

In 2006, Mazie Hirono was elected to the U.S. Senate. She was the first and only Asian-American woman U.S. Senator and the first woman Senator from Hawaii. A year ago, today, the people of Washington’s 7th Congressional District elected Pramila Jayapal to the United States House of Representatives. Pramila Jayapal was the first Indian-American woman elected to Congress. On the same day, in Minnesota, Ilhan Omar won a Minnesota House seat, making her the first Somali-American legislator in the history of the United States. Yesterday, Virginia voters decided to smash a few more glass ceilings, and elected Danica Roem, Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala, Kathy Tran, Dawn Adams, Jennifer Carroll Foy.

Here’s the list of firsts. Danica Roem is the first openly transgender person to win elective office in Virginia. Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala are the first Latinas elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Elizabeth Guzman is also the first social worker and the first AFSCME member elected to the House of Delegates. Kathy Tran is the first Asian American woman elected to the House of Delegates. Dawn Adams is the first open lesbian elected to the House of Delegates. Jennifer Carroll Foy is the first public defender elected to the House of Delegates. That’s a lot of firsts, and that’s a whole lot of women.

Who voted these first women into office? Extrapolating from those who elected Ralph Northam to be the next Governor of Virginia, women. 61% of all women voted Democratic. 91% of Black women voted Democratic. 58% of women with college degrees voted Democratic. 54% of married women voted Democratic, and 77% of women who are not married voted Democratic. The turnout yesterday was the highest in 20 years for a gubernatorial race. That’s a whole lot of women.

There were other firsts in the Commonwealth. Voters elected Chris Hurst, a first-time candidate and a leading gun control advocate. Voters also chose Justin Fairfax, the first African American elected to a Virginia statewide office since 1989.

Thanks to the great work of Governor Terry McAuliffe and New Virginia Majority, thousands of formerly incarcerated people – including LaVaughn Williams and Brianna Ross – voted for the first time.

Virginians decided yesterday, and we decided to move forward, not back. Virginians decided to remember and honor Heather Heyer, whose last, and lasting, public statement was, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” In the words of Sojourner Truth, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!” And Mary Harris Jones roars in response, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living!” We’re outraged, we voted, and we’re going to keep on voting, organizing, mobilizing, and moving the agenda forward.

 

(Photo Credit: The New York Times / Chet Strange) (Infographic: The Washington Post)

In Virginia, Lipton Tea workers prove there is power in a union

On Monday, July 24, workers at the Lipton Tea factory in Suffolk, in the so-called right-to-work Commonwealth of Virginia, voted 109 – 6 to approve their first union contract. The contract covers 240 workers in the plant. It also covers all Lipton Tea factory workers in North America, since the Suffolk plant produces all the Lipton tea bags sold in North America.

The story of workers taking charge began last year. For the preceding ten years, workers had seen their benefits shredded, the pace of work accelerated, their positions rendered increasingly precarious. Sick leave, including unpaid sick leave. was reduced to the barest legal minimum. Insurance coverage became prohibitively expensive and, simultaneously, less expansive. Particular to Lipton was something called “drafting” in which workers were forced to work overtime, often 12-hour shifts for 13 days before getting a day off.

In 2013, Lipton Tea, owned by Unilever, announced it would invest $96 million to “upgrade” the factory. That meant new machinery. Production stopped temporarily. When production resumed, all the workers were forced to re-apply for their jobs. As mechanic Robert Davis explained, “I had been there 23 years, but I had to reapply for the same job, turn in a resume and everything.” Davis was turned down the first time he applied.

With speed ups, no sick leave, workplace injuries and illnesses, workers began leaving. When they left, they were not replaced. The factory workforce decreased, as the amount of work increased. This is known as “lean production.” Last spring, workers decided they had had enough, and called the United Food and Commercial Workers. According to UFCW Kayla Mock, “From the beginning, they took so much ownership and responsibility for building their union. They held full-on organizing conversations with their co-workers, identifying other leaders in the plant and bringing them on board, talking and assessing the other workers.” Mock added, “The workers were the ones who took ownership of it from the very beginning. They very clearly understood that their union was something that they needed to build, almost like a tangible thing, and they built it from the ground up—they just owned it.”

Lipton Tea workers called Hellman Mayonnaise workers in Chicago. Unilever owns Hellman Mayonnaise, and the Chicago plant is unionized. The workers in Suffolk learned that their brothers and sisters in Chicago had better working conditions, including better and more immediate pay for overtime and a far superior, and much cheaper, health care plan.

Anita Anderson, who has been with Lipton Tea for ten years, explains, “You had a choice to make. You call out sick and get one incident, or you come to work and pass germs around … If you got hurt on the job, it’s never unsafe conditions. It was never that you were fatigued from working so many hours. It was always, the employee did not do something right. So if you get hurt, then it’s an incident, it’s a strike in your personnel file … We decided we deserved more than what we were getting. Once we got a write-up comparing the benefits of the Hellman plant compared to our plant, a lot more folks came on board.” Anderson started talking with her colleagues, “I told them about how the Verizon workers had a union, and when they were threatened with their jobs going overseas, they went on strike, they fought, and they won and kept their jobs.”

August 26, 2016, the workers of Lipton Tea voted 108 – 79 in favor of joining the UCFW. Juanita Hart has worked 25 years at Lipton Tea: “I was crying like I had won the lottery. I was so glad and I was so happy because I’ve been told for all this time, all these years, that it would never happen. And when it happened, I had so much joy that all I could do (was) cry.” Anita Anderson added, “Everyone is excited. Even the ones that were naysayers about the union are asking about the next union meeting so they can speak up and talk about the issues in the plant.”

Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers voted for the first time in the 60 year history of the factory, and they approved a contract that would save them more than $4000 a year in health care costs. Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers – with Anita Anderson and Juanita Hart among the leaders –  voted for workers’ dignity, respect, and power. There is power in a union.

(Photo Credit: Suffolk News Herald)

#NotMyPresident: We need both a HateWatch and a PeaceLoveandUnderstandingWatch

Since the November elections, across the United States, from middle schools and high schools to colleges and universities, people of color, women, LGBTIQ persons, Muslims, Jews and others report outbursts of intimidation, threat, and abuse. To no one’s surprise, a campaign based on white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sutured by lies, hatred and violence, has engendered intensified and expanded violence, but violence against people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTIQ persons, Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities, workers, others, is not the whole story. Individuals, organizations and communities across the country are engaging in acts of kindness and campaigns for inclusive justice. Here’s the story of what happened over the weekend in the leafy Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia. Call it a verse of the Parable of Memorial Day 2017.

On Saturday, May 27, self-described white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-fascist posters appeared on trees and utility poles in the Del Ray neighborhood. Some of them targeted C. Christine Fair, who had taken on a white supremacist at a local gym. The posters were taken down immediately. That’s the hate crime part. But there’s more; there’s the peace, love and understanding part. Residents pulled out crayons, markers and paper and produced posters of welcome, calling for mutual respect and dignity.

These homegrown posters now sit next to the more formal posters gleaming from shops in Del Ray and the adjoining predominantly Latinx Arlandria neighborhood. Those posters read, EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE TODOS SON BIENVENIDOS AQUI. They’re part of the Hate Free Virginia Campaign, and in Del Ray that campaign was organized by the Tenants and Workers United, a chapter of New Virginia Majority; Grassroots Alexandria; and Indivisible Del Ray. Individuals, communities and organizations are on the move.

White supremacy and racism are baked into our history, as is violence. Peace, love and understanding may be more aspirational, and may take more work and labor, and may demand more light, but the work of welcome is happening, across the country, in this climate of terror and fear mongering. We need a HateWatch; we need groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center. But we also need a PeaceLoveandUnderstandingWatch, and we need it now. Remember, there is nothing funny about peace, love and understanding.

(Photo Credits 1,2: Buzzfeed / Eric Wagner)

In Virginia, Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and 206,000 more people just won back the right to vote!

Raja Johnson and Terry McAuliffe

Sometimes, as in Virginia this past week, democracy happens, and when it does, it’s largely thanks to the work of women of color organizing. Last Friday, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting and civil rights to 206,000 people who had been disenfranchised permanently, thanks to Virginia’s lifelong voting ban on former prisoners. As the Governor explained, “I believe our commonwealth can not achieve its full potential until all men and women act on this fundamental right and participate in the decisions about their own children’s education, about their taxes and every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of effectively suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women at the ballot box … I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history of injustice and embrace an honest clean process of restoring the right of these men and women. And so today, I will sign an order restoring the civil and voting rights of every single individual who has completed his or her sentence as of this day.” On that day, Raja Johnson stood with Governor McAuliffe as he spoke, and Kimberly Carter watched on television. These women, and thousands of others overwhelmingly women of color, will finally be able to vote, and so a chapter in Virginia’s decades long war on women of color may be drawing to a close.

In 1999, Raja Johnson, an 18-year-old Black woman, made a mistake. She was convicted of grand larceny. In 2014, Governor McAuliffe restored her right to vote. According to Johnson, “It sort of did something on the inside…and it gave me that motivation to go on. I’m about to graduate. I’ll have an associate degree in two months. In June I’ll be going for a bachelor’s degree. So, it’s sort of made me feel more like a citizen, just having my right to go back.” About ten years earlier, Kimberly Carter, a woman in her late teens, was arrested on a drug charge. Today, Kimberly Carter is 45 years old. Last Friday, Kimberly Carter watched Governor McAuliffe’s speech and then went and filled out a voter registration card: “You make a mistake, 20 years later you’re still paying for it.”

According to Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, “It is a historic day for democracy in Virginia and across our nation. The disenfranchisement of people who have served their sentences was an outdated, discriminatory vestige of our nation’s Jim Crow past.”

Virginia’s current code of lifelong disenfranchisement began, in 1902, as a racist attempt to keep newly enfranchised Black populations from voting. For over a century, the Commonwealth actively sustained and intensified that racism. According to Governor McAuliffe’s office, “It is estimated that 1 in 5 of the African American voting-age population is disenfranchised in Virginia because of this provision.” While the lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans, and then on communities of color more generally, in recent years, it has also been the preferred weapon of State in a war against women of color. The so-called war on drugs targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws, which have caught women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. That’s the reason Virginia’s rate of incarceration of women has soared to 146 per 100,000. With the war on drugs, Jim Crow became Jim and Jane Crow.

It’s time Virginia returned the right to vote to those who paid their debt, a debt was largely the result of racist legerdemain. It’s past time to stop the war on communities of color, and in particular on women of color. It’s time for Virginia, and all the States, to pay back their debts to the unfinished project of democracy. Raja Johnson, Kimberly Carter and hundreds of thousands in Virginia and millions across the United States are saying that the time for democracy-to-come has passed. It’s spring, and it’s time for democracy here and now.

The crowd responds to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of voting and civil rights to 206,000 neighbors.

(Photo Credit 1: New York Times / Chet Strange) (Photo Credit 2: Richmond Times-Dispatch / Mark Gormus)

“My rape was awful. But the way the police handled it was even worse.”

 


On Sunday, February 27, Buzzfeed reported at length on the story of Lara McLeod. It’s a devastating, all too familiar story. In brief, Lara McLeod was raped by the fiancé of her sister, Hera McLeod. Hera had given birth two weeks earlier. Traumatized, Lara went home and, the next day, told her parents. They immediately went and retrieved Hera and Prince, the two-week-old. To do that safely, they called the police in. That’s where the awful became the unbearable.

The police called Lara in, interrogated her, compelled her to file a complaint and then arrested Lara for filing a false complaint and charged Hera with aiding in the deceit. From there, it just gets worse. You can read the Buzzfeed account for yourself. The rape and arrest occurred in 2011. Using the charges against Hera, her fiancé won unsupervised visits. Three months later, Prince was found unconscious on his father’s apartment floor. The fifteen-month-old died the next day. The fiancé’s trial on murder is coming up soon. Hera has moved on, as best she can. Lara is struggling.

This story occurs in the leafy well-to-do suburbs of Prince William County, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, but it could as easily occur in the leafy suburbs anywhere. Every step of the way, every single time the State was called in, from the police to the courthouse, the State did more than merely fail these two women. It assaulted them. A French report on this case notes that in France, of women who report being survivors of sexual violence, only 4 percent have reported the crime formally. In the United States, the situation is the same. In South Africa, according to the Medical Research Council, one in nine rapes are reported to the police.

Why are the numbers so low? There are many reasons. Here’s Lara McLeod’s answer, “The night I was raped, I said I wanted to be left alone. People say rape is serious and you should report it, but look what happened to me: I reported my rape, and they told me it never happened.”

Buzzfeed and others have described the police investigation as “botched.” It wasn’t. Virginia, and beyond it the State, got exactly what it wanted, what it pushes strenuously to get: a woman living with trauma, agony and pain who has learned to silently absorb injustice directed at her as a woman. To botch means to clumsily repair or to bungle. No one clumsily repaired or bungled the investigation. No one cared enough to botch the investigation. How do I know?

Every year, on Prince’s birthday, Hera McLeod sends a letter to the two Prince William County police officers whom she holds responsible for the death of her son: “This year, she included a photo of Prince with his two front teeth in, smiling and sitting on a red truck — with his birth and death dates printed above. `On July 1st, 2015, I would have turned four,’ the card said. `May you always remember how the decisions you make impact the lives of innocent people. I will never forget you. I pray you will never forget about me.’ This year, Kimberly Norton, one of the two officers who charged the McLeod sisters, put the card in a new envelope and mailed it back to Hera unopened. She rewrote her return address in block letters. Not Detective Norton, as Hera had written, but “SGT K. NORTON.” She had been promoted. So had Detective Cavender.”

The State got what it wanted. It’s time for us to get the State we want.

 

(Image Credit 1: Buzzfeed) (Image Credit 2: Slate.fr)