Category: poverty

Star of “The Wire” hooked by the streets of Baltimore

David Simon (R) and Ed Burns (L) on the set of The Wire

By Alan Bean

I learned about The Wire from former homicide detective Ed Burns.  He was sitting next to me at a convening of people concerned about the abuse of snitch testimony. “What do you do?” I asked.  When he told me he co-produced The Wire I said, “what’s the wire?”

Burns took my gnorance in stride.  “It’s an HBO drama about the war on drugs,” he replied.  I suspect I wasn’t the first person Burns had met who hadn’t heard of The Wire, a production widely regarded as the best dramatic series in the history of television.  The show had a rabidly loyal following, but it never rivalled HBO productions like The Sopranos.  The subject matter was gritty, intense, profane and troubling.  But from the moment we popped in the first rented DVD, my wife and I were hooked.

Sonja Sohn working with Baltimore street kids

Sonja Sohn played Detective Shakima “Kima” Greggs on The Wire, a role she initially struggled with.  Like the “corner boys” of Baltimore featured in The Wire, Sohn grew up in a world marked by deprivation, street hustling, violence and fear.  According to this Washington Post article, playing a cop was hard for Sohn; in the world she was raised in, law enforcement was the enemy.

The Wire played for five critically acclaimed seasons before Ed Burns and co-producer David Simon moved on to other things.  Sohn couldn’t move on.  The streets of Baltimore were wrapped around her soul.  This feature article in the Post is worthy of your time, and your reflection. 

After ‘The Wire’ ended, actress Sonja Sohn couldn’t leave Baltimore’s troubled streets behind

By Phil Zabriskie, Published: January 27

Sonja Sohn stood in front of her audience, confident about the performance she was about to give. This wasn’t surprising, considering her history as an actress who was just coming off a five-year run as Det. Shakima “Kima” Greggs on HBO’s “The Wire,” one of the most critically acclaimed shows in television history. To project professionalism, she had pulled her hair back and was wearing pressed slacks and a collared shirt. Her motivation was clear, her research was done, and after many months of preparation, she was ready. (more…)

Mass incarceration and the criminalization of homelessness

By Melanie Wilmoth

Exacerbated by the economic recession and increased home foreclosures, the homelessness crisis in the U.S. continues to grow at an alarming rate. According to a new report published by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), over 650,000 individuals in the U.S. are without a home on any given night. The report, “Criminalizing Crisis,” highlights the increasing criminalization of homeless individuals.

NLCHP reports that, despite the knowledge that there are inadequate services for those who are homeless, cities continue to prohibit activities that are essential for survival:

“Criminalization measures often prohibit activities like sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violations of these laws…Many of these measures appear to be designed to move homeless persons out of sight, or even out of a given city.”

Once individuals are criminalized (and, therefore, have a criminal record), they face more barriers when trying to obtain employment, housing, public benefits, and healthcare.

In a recent survey of large employers, “over 90% performed a criminal background check on some or all job applicants.” Moreover, individuals with a criminal record may be suspended from or ineligible for public benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps. Furthermore, many Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) have policies that disqualify individuals from housing based on arrest records. Thus, criminalization serves to preclude individuals from working toward economic self-sufficiency, further perpetuating the cycle of homelessness. (more…)

Jesus ain’t your home boy

By Alan Bean

If you can’t trust Jesus, who can you trust?

Unfortunately, you can’t trust Jesus.

Unless, that is, you are open to shocking new ideas about God, a counter-intuitive take on the created order, and a topsy-turvy understanding of the human condition.

When Jesus arrived in his hometown of Nazareth, everybody wanted to be impressed.  When a local boy makes good, small towns announce their association with the local-boy-made-good for the edification of passing motorists.  “We might look like just another hick town,”  the sign suggests, “but Bob Wills grew up here.”

Even if you’ve never heard of Bob Wills, you can’t help being a little bit impressed. 

Immediately after his wilderness encounter with the devil, Matthew tells us, Jesus took up residence in the little fishing village of Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, (or the Sea of Tiberias as Herod Antipas insisted on calling it).  From there, he moved into the surrounding communities, eventually arriving at his home town of Nazareth.

By this time, Jesus had acquired a reputation as a teacher with, it was widely rumored, the power to heal.  Nobody was thinking “Messiah” or “Son of God” at this point; but Rabbi was a distinct possibility.  Which explains why, when the hometown boy showed up for Sabbath worship, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and asked to read a passage of his choosing.

Turning to what we call the 61st Chapter (there were no chapters or verses in his day), Jesus intoned a startling message that, like the Lord’s Prayer, had been domesticated by frequent repetition. 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

 Then he handed the scroll back to the attendant and sat down.

Folks were impressed.  “He reads very well for a kid from Nazareth,” some thought.  “Good intonation, not too fast or too slow, and he fills the synagogue with his voice without appearing to shout.  Not bad for a rookie.” (more…)

The most influential civil rights champion you’ve never heard of

If you’ve never heard of Stetson Kennedy, you’ll feel as if you’ve known the man all your life after reading this wonderful eulogy by University of Florida professor Paul Ortiz.  Kennedy is generally remembered as a thorn in the side of the Ku Klux Klan, but as Professor Ortiz makes clear, his significance is much deeper and broader than that.  Until this morning, I had never heard Stetson Kennedy’s name mentioned in connection with racism, segregation, white supremacy or the civil rights movement.  How can that be?  AGB 

stetson_kennedy_typing.pngBy Paul OrtizStetson Kennedy passed away on Saturday, Aug. 27. He was 94 years old. Stetson died peacefully in the presence of his beloved wife, Sandra Parks, at Baptist Medical Center South in St. Augustine, Florida.

Stetson Kennedy spent the better part of the 20th century doing battle with racism, class oppression, corporate domination, and environmental degradation in the American South. By mid-century Stetson had become our country’s fiercest tribune of hard truths; vilified by the powerful, Stetson did not have the capacity to look away from injustice. His belief in the dignity of the South’s battered sharecroppers, migrant laborers, and turpentine workers made him the region’s most sensitive and effective folklorist.

Stetson was so relentless, so full of life, that some of us thought that he would trick death the way that he had once fooled the Ku Klux Klan into exposing their lurid secrets to the listeners of the Adventures of Superman radio program in 1947. As recently as April, Stetson gave a fiery speech to hundreds of farm workers and their supporters at a rally in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Tampa. Standing in solidarity with Latina/o and Haitian agricultural workers affirmed Stetson’s ironclad belief in the intersections between labor organizing, racial justice, and economic equity. (more…)

Rick Perry’s Texas miracle…or not.

By Melanie Wilmoth

In the wake of his recent presidential candidacy announcement, Governor Rick Perry hasn’t been shy in reporting that, despite the ongoing economic crisis, Texas continues to create more new jobs than any other state in the nation. It’s a “Texas Miracle” as Perry calls it.

Perry attributes this job growth to his successful implementation of conservative principles such as low taxes and minimal government regulation. However, as Harold Meyerson points out, Perry neglects to mention the quality of the jobs created in Texas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas ties with Mississippi for the highest percentage of workers in minimum wage jobs.

Although low-wage jobs may bring more businesses to Texas (greater access to cheap labor will often do that), this type of job creation does little to break the cycle of poverty. It comes as no surprise that Texas ranks 4th highest in the percentage of individuals living below the federal poverty line. That’s some “miracle.”

Take a look at what Meyerson has to say:

The sad facts behind Rick Perry’s Texas miracle

By Harold Meyerson

Rick Perry’s Texas is Ross Perot’s Mexico come north. Through a range of enticements we more commonly associate with Third World nations — low wages, no benefits, high rates of poverty, scant taxes, few regulations and generous corporate subsidies — the state has produced its own “giant sucking sound,” attracting businesses from other states to a place where workers come cheap. (more…)

Michael Gerson displays his ignorance of drugs and the drug war

By Alan Bean

Michael Gerson doesn’t like Ron Paul for all the wrong reasons.  George W. Bush’s ex-speech writer is appalled that a presidential candidate who advocates the legalization of heroin expects to be taken seriously.  Me?  I am appalled that a man who doesn’t grasp the futility of the war on drugs can be taken seriously as an authority on the subject.  Has he not been following the debate?  Apparently not. (more…)

Kellogg challenges the colorblind consensus

By Alan Bean

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently launched a $75 million grant-making program dedicated to racial healing.  “We believe that all children should have equal access to opportunity,” the foundation’s website reads.  “To make this vision a reality, we direct our grants and resources to support racial healing and to remove systemic barriers that hold some children back. We invest in community and national organizations whose innovative and effective programs foster racial healing. And through action-oriented research and public policy work, we are helping translate insights into new strategies and sustainable solutions.”

In an article written for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Dr. Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, addressed the issue squarely:

The vision that guides the work of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is clear: we envision a nation that marshals its resources to assure that all children thrive.  What may be less self-evident to some is the pernicious and self-perpetuating way in which racism impedes many children’s opportunities to do so. (more…)

Right-winger + hard time = compassion

prisonBy Alan Bean

Why are so many right-wingers suddenly arguing the case for criminal justice reform?  In this fascinating piece in Salon, Justin Elliot of Salon directs this question to Doug Berman, author of the influential Sentencing Law and Policy blog

Here are the highlights:

1. Prison is far more brutal than most people believe it to be

2. Most of the conservatives currently leading the smart on crime crusade have been locked up: Duke Cunningham, Charles Colson, Pat Nolan, Conrad Black

3. The religious concept of redemption generally plays a large role in these conversions.

4. Historically, mass incarceration required the enthusiastic cooperation of the political left

5. When you do hard time you realize that harsh penalties are typically applied to crimes disproportionately committed by minorities

6. Busting budgets and historically low crime rates make this a good time for reform, but . . .

7. The political forces that drove mass incarceration are always lurking. (more…)

The drug war is a long way from over

When the Wall Street Journal endorses the growing shift from mass incarceration to rehabilitation and diversion programs, something is in the wind.  But let’s not pop the champagne corks too quickly.  Politicians are beginning to understand that long prison terms for drug offenses have failed to deter drug abuse or the illegal drug trade.  Furthermore, prisons, even if run on the cheap, are unspeakably expensive.  All of this is good.

Mass incarceration is primarily a function of the war on drugs, a slash and burn campaign that–its own propaganda notwithstanding–was never about getting drugs and drug dealers off the streets.  The drug war is about social control.  When a nation turns its back on its poorest citizens (as American did in late 197os) bad things are bound to happen.  Desperate people take desperate measures.  Those with little access to legitimate work will turn to illegitimate work–like selling drugs.  Middle class addicts can fund their habits, but poor addicts sling drugs and commit property crime to keep the supply flowing.  Entire neighborhoods become economically dependent on the trade in illegal drugs even as they are afflicted by unbearably high crime rates.  (more…)