Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our Man In Melbourne

Eric Williams in the Northcoat district of Melbourne, taping a segment for an upcoming conference on Cancer to be held in Houston, Texas later this week

by Eric K. Williams

(Special to YOUR FREE PRESS readers)

Melbourne, Australia-- "Typical Yanks" is an expression often heard when one witnesses a heated discussion, or argument, between an American and, an Australian. It could be over a sporting event, a movie and, especially over politics. More than likely, the latter, politics, than the former. There is much fascination between policy makers, intellectuals, academics, lawmakers, writers, and even music fans in this part of the world, now that Barack Obama is the president-elect. Whether it is long and insightful articles by such noted writers as Ian McEwen or, sharply critical commentary heard from the popular radio talk show host, Tony Biggs, known for his program, ON THE BLOWER, Australians will let you know what they think about every topic imaginable.

What is less imaginable is the undercurrent of suspicion that abounds among many in this part of the world with everything American. It is a different sort of undercurrent than, say, what one might encounter in Europe while riding a train between cities. There it is, out front: either people will not like you straight away, because of the land you happen to call home or, there will be a complaint about the policy of the president. That is what this writer encountered while living the life of an American Ex-pat in Scandinavia in the 1980's. After the exchange of names and other niceties, out comes the criticism directed at you, by virtue of your place of birth, to find out where you stand on one subject or another.

There are aspects of that here, too, in the land called DOWN UNDER. Yet, among fellow English speakers there is the aspect of what one might call, the verbal sword fight. The verbal sword fight is a battle devoid of profanity, curse words and open hostility. More subtle, often times. But, it is a fight none-the-less and, one that British speakers of the language, are masters of, and, it is a battle that many speakers of the American language rarely engage in.... at least not in the same way. Frankly, I would prefer a verbal sword fight with fellow New Yorkers on the corner of, say, 110th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. On the other hand, in the city that I happen to call home presently, there are no Harlems to speak of..... at least not yet.

The other day I sat outside at a local cafe, sipping coffee, in the Fitzroy district of this city. Fitzroy, for New Yorkers anyway, would remind one of how Greenwich Village was in the 1970's, BEFORE the encroachment of Gentrification. It was on Smith Street, which is a street with a lot of character that has old fashioned trolleys whizzing along and, where one could find everything from eateries to fine restaurants, mom and pop grocery stores, newspaper shops, liquor and hardware stores, where this short but, testy conversation took place. On Smith Street, believe me, there are plenty of colourful characters that stroll around, giving the boulevard the aura of a parade. It was there, at the Kent Street Cafe where a man sat at a nearby table under a large umbrella. He looked scruffy, unshaven and, a bit dishevelled. He was downing a third beer (I later found out) in mid-afternoon, as it was not quite 3 pm. At his table sat a young woman from Canberra, Australia’s capital city, who I had met some days ago at another coffee shop. This new transplant was searching for a place to live. She recognized me and, it was there that the conversation began.

I was introduced to "Andrew," who immediately recognized my American accent. The usual questions of what part of the USA I called home is what started it off. I said, "New York City." Andrew said, "Yeah, I've heard about it. But, it is a place that I have no interest in visiting. Ever." Okay, that was part of it. But, then, the discussion soon turned to politics and, he expressed how he felt that the leaders of the USA used Australia as a lap dog and, cannon fodder, for their war efforts. I pointed out that I was no fan of the current occupant of the White House and, that we were allies in the First and Second World Wars and, that, our two countries were not about to fight one another now..... Or Ever. Then, other derisive comments were made by Andrew about those war efforts of years past with, according to him, the TRUE feelings of Australian soldiers of their American Counter-parts. In short, American military types as, "Overpaid, oversexed and over here." I thought that funny and, it made me think of the Grade B 1970's-era film, YANKS, of the American military presence in Britain back in the 1940's. That's where I had heard that phrase the first time.
It went on this way for some time and, I said, finally, "Look, I am neither a military man, past or present, nor do I work for the federal government. I trust you are the same." Andrew concurred. I also said that neither he or I, as citizens of our respective countries, control either George W. Bush or, the recently ousted Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. Not to mention the new guys on the proverbial block did we control, that being current Prime Minister, Kevin Ruud, or President-elect, Barack Obama. And that, at the end of the day, we were just a couple of regular Joes trying to get by and, paying our taxes. That's all. We left it at that.

The young woman who introduced Andrew and I sat silent during this exchange, until another friend of hers joined their table. Andrew, a work-at-home scientist, was off to volunteer for a local social service centre a few blocks away. He was, as they say, "tanked." Those three pint sized beers he had consumed were taking a toll.

Which leaves me with this thought.... As I said in an earlier post, Australians of all hues and ethnic backgrounds are neither British, Caribbean, Canadian, and, especially not, American. They are themselves and, yet, there are a lot of similarities between the USA and, this neck-of-the-woods. I feel, oddly enough, at home here. Melbourne has a distinct New York-feel to it, with its grid system of organized streets, low-rise apartment dwellings, public spaces and parks. The trolleys, or trams, as they call them here, is like stepping back into time, when the city of my birth had them, as well. I do recall older relatives telling me about the time when the Big Apple had trolleys and, what fun they were to ride. Of course, and like New York, a city is more than the sum of its buildings and boulevards. There are the people who make it work and, what it is.
(Photo: With my Buddy Jo Hogan at a party. Hogan left, always informs me about the culture keys a gringo like me should avoid even in this English speaking country.)

On the other hand, I am the foreigner here, too. I am the gringo. I am the guy with the funny sounding accent and, strange clothing. As a Black American I am also a bit of an exotic here. A rarity and, a curiosity. At the same time, I feel immensely proud that Barack Obama, a fellow Black American man, is the president-elect. And these people called Australians, Black and white alike, seem genuinely happy that he is the new guy coming into power, as well. Yet, while we speak a common language and, while guys like Andrew has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about guys like me, I could not help but think about what some new friends over here, two native Aussie women, Jo and Lori, told me about this "Typical Yank" thing, that hangs in the air with their countrymen.

A thing, I should point out, that may not be immediately recognizable, even for a very un-typical Yank, who calls New York City home. It is coming around I have to say, slowly but, surely.

I leave you with this piece that appeared in THE AGE newspaper about that very thing. Read on.....

See you back here again soon. Same time. Same Channel.


Typical Yanks. They've pinched our prejudices
by Tom Hyland

TYPICAL Yank. The thought might have crossed the mind of the guard at the Shrine of Remembrance as he lectured the elderly American tourist with his camera, plaid jacket and slacks.
The old Yank was my father's cousin, one of dozens Dad had in the US, the children of Irish uncles who migrated early last century and settled in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
His name was John J. Hyland, and when he arrived in Melbourne on a brief holiday, Dad asked me to show him around. So we went to the shrine, where he had a conversation with the guard, a man with a slouch hat and, it seemed, a kitbag full of prejudices, including a defensive resentment of Americans.
Typical Aussie.

Cousin John listened to the guard's account of Australian military history, then quietly revealed that he had served in the Second World War with the US Army Air Force in Burma. "Yanks weren't in Burma," the guard snapped.

I hoped cousin John didn't understand what this boofhead was saying. But he understood all right, and insisted that indeed the Yanks were in Burma, that he was one of them, and that he'd flown in support of a legendary British officer named Colonel Orde Wingate. "Never happened," insisted the guard. "Yanks weren't in Burma."

I can't remember how the conversation ended, but I ushered cousin John and his wife Carol away, telling them there was much more to see. Twenty years on, I bristle with shame and anger as I recall the encounter.
I never saw Dad's cousin again. He died in 1998. The following year his name was inscribed in the USAF Special Operations Force Hall of Fame at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He had been in Burma, not that I'd doubted it and not that he'd boasted about it.

Typical Yank.

His wife Carol, a school teacher for almost 50 years, died only last month, aged 95. Her obituary in The Salem News reported that at one time she'd taught in Arlington, Virginia. And there was this: "All her life, she had a knack for hobnobbing with the famous, and while in Virginia often played golf with Robert Kennedy and his wife, Ethel … She also introduced many of her students to Robert's brother, president John F. Kennedy, when he was still a senator representing Massachusetts."

Typical Yanks, my distant relatives. Descendants of migrants, community-minded, ordinary, decent, totally unremarkable.

And they'd "hobnobbed" with the Kennedys, the grandchildren of migrants, including one who became president when the idea of a Catholic in the White House was almost as unthinkable as, well, an African-American in the White House.

(Below an image Aussies Surely don't Want)

From the shrine, let's move to Kirribilli House, where Kevin Rudd interrupted a party one night last month to take a call from George W. Bush. Out of this call a yarn was spun and spooled out to a journalist. The gist of the story is that Rudd had to persuade Bush that, to deal with the global financial crisis, he had to call together the G20 group of nations, to which Bush responded: "What's the G20?"

Let's accept Rudd's denial that he leaked this conversation, and White House denials that Bush said the words attributed to him. Instead, ponder the purpose of the person who decided to spread the story.

It shows Rudd putting an American in his place — a profoundly ignorant American, who obviously didn't know what he was talking about. Typical Yank.

When it comes to Americans, we are well-balanced, with chips on both shoulders. Left and right, we resent them because we depend on them, because we're junior alliance partners. We mock them because they, unlike us, are boastful, brash, crass, and ignorant of the world. We accuse them of racism. Yet we consume their culture, movies, TV, books, music, fashions and ideas. We ape their accents. Our anti-American left adopts their styles of protest.

So now that we don't have George W. Bush to kick around anymore, how do we sustain our consoling prejudices? It's going to be tricky, with an African-American in the White House. He's educated, articulate, inspiring. Maybe he's tough, too, this son of multi-racial parents with family and personal links scattered across the globe. Typical Yank.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Adding to the City’s Coffers, One Ticket at a Time

Yana Paskova for The New York Times

A couple approach a tow truck hauling away their car on West 14th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, the most-ticketed block in the city.

Published: November 27, 2008

The most-ticketed block in New York City is 14th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Jacob Silberberg for The New York Times

A traffic enforcement agent at work with a handheld ticketing device in Brooklyn. The devices scan data from a car’s registration sticker.

Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

Tickets pile up on a car that was apparently abandoned near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The number of parking tickets issued citywide has surged 42 percent since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office.

The day after Thanksgiving was the most-ticketed day of the last fiscal year.

And, no, Virginia, there is no five-minute grace period.

These facts are among the findings of an analysis by The New York Times of how the city enforces its parking laws. While the city has worked to explain the tactics it uses to curtail crime, its strategy in issuing parking summonses remains a poorly understood area of law enforcement and one that, even when done fairly, makes people cringe.

But through interviews with experts and a review of nearly 10 million parking tickets issued last year, a portrait emerges of how the city, increasingly starved for revenue, has energetically raised money and moved traffic by increasing the number and cost of tickets it issues each year.

Since Mr. Bloomberg took office, the city has hired 793 more traffic enforcement agents and doubled some penalties, collecting 64 percent more in fines in fiscal year 2008 than it did in 2002. During the last fiscal year, it collected more than $624 million in parking fines — more than the city spends to run the Department of Transportation.

City officials say their parking enforcement is not driven by revenue goals. But City Councilman Vincent J. Gentile said his district in southwest Brooklyn has been so overrun by traffic agents that it is hard to conclude otherwise.

“It’s a growing recognition that the city is using parking enforcement as a means of revenue generation, not as a means of traffic management or safety management,” he said.

The data show that the day after Thanksgiving has become a special time for more than retailers. On Nov. 23, 2007, enforcement agents papered the city with more than 41,000 citations, almost double the daily average.

Part of the increase is explained by ramped-up enforcement associated with the need to keep traffic moving during the holiday season. But it is also a day when drivers forget that parking regulations remain in force. Half of the tickets written that day last year were for failing to move cars in accordance with alternate side of the street rules.

“A lot of people think it’s a holiday,” said Andre T. Strothers, a former agent who set a record that day last year when he issued 227 tickets in a five-hour streak across Brooklyn. “They stay up late the night before.”

The surge of ticket writing has swept away some of the civilities of life in New York, like the five-minute grace period that was once part of the city’s official enforcement policy. Police officials say there is no longer a grace period, just a suggestion to agents that they use common sense, but many motorists still believe one exists. At least 276,000 drivers found out sorrowfully last year that the tradition is dwindling; they were ticketed for violating alternate-side parking rules within five minutes of the time the rule went into effect.

In fact, a full 10 percent of the tickets for alternate-side parking violations were issued within two minutes of the time that the rule went into effect. Of those, some 28,000, or 2 percent of the total, were issued exactly on the hour.

“I walked out at 11 o’clock on the dot one night, and my car was already being ticketed and towed,” said Gus Markatos, who manages the Donut Pub on West 14th Street. “There’s no courtesy anymore.”

Traffic agents may be emboldened in part by the precision of their equipment. The city has furnished all traffic enforcement agents with handheld computers that spit out more tickets in less time and with fewer errors than handwritten tickets.

The device scans a vehicle’s registration sticker for some information and the agent, using a stylus, fills in the rest.

Police officials say that the time on the instruments is synchronized with the atomic clock when they are plugged into a docking station at the end of the day. But a television reporter for Fox 5 News, John Deutzman, was able to establish, on one day this year, that some of the devices were more than two minutes fast. And Sanford F. Young, a lawyer, successfully fought a ticket by questioning that level of accuracy.

“I parked a car on First Avenue at 7:02 p.m.,” Mr. Young recalled. “I knew that from my cellphone. I was going to dinner at Petaluma. When I got back, the ticket was on my windshield, and it was for 6:59 p.m. They claimed I parked somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon. Come on — give me a break!”

The judge in the case sided with Mr. Young, and the ticket was dismissed.

Police officials said the time on the ticketing devices is now coordinated with more than one source.

The city says the vigor of its ticketing corps has not been a result of requiring agents to fill quotas. That word is never even whispered, agents say, and officials say that productivity is measured not by the number of tickets written, but by “individual job performance.”

Ross Sandler, who was commissioner of transportation from 1986 to 1990, said, “What we always said was we never had a quota, but we always had a goal.”

To achieve those goals, the parking czars within the Transportation Division of the Police Department have adopted several strategies.

Deputy Inspector Michael W. Pilecki, who oversees the 2,529 traffic agents, about half of whom write tickets, says the core mission is not revenue, but keeping traffic moving and reducing the number and severity of accidents.

“What we ask our agents to do when they’re out in the field is to be particularly aware of those types of violations that really impede the flow of traffic and increase the likelihood of accidents,” he said. “We want them to focus on things such as double parking. Vehicles parked in bus stops. No standing. Obstructing a traffic lane. Obstructing a bus lane. Those are the biggies.”

Though more than 30 different agencies can issue parking tickets, about 80 percent are written by traffic agents, who work out of 12 traffic commands across the city. Five are in Manhattan, where most tickets are written.

Traffic agents patrol congested areas on foot, covering about 10 to 15 blocks a day. Less busy areas are patrolled by car. And agents are deployed primarily from early morning to midevening, with a small crew working overnight.

“We call them the nighthawks,” Mr. Pilecki said. “They address conditions around bars and clubs and dance clubs and things of that nature.”

The most prevalent reasons for tickets were expired meters and alternate-side violations, which together accounted for nearly a third of all parking summonses last year.

The agents get their marching orders at roll call, when they are dispatched according to a monthly patrol guide with input from supervisors who canvass the city daily. Additional instructions come from weekly TrafficStat meetings, which are modeled after CompStat, the data-tracking program the city uses to fight crime. Michael J. Scagnelli, the Police Department’s chief of transportation, leads the meetings.

“Chief Scagnelli will say, ‘Let’s not forget why we’re all here: We’re here to move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce injuries, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce accidents, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic, reduce fatalities, move traffic, move traffic, move traffic,’ ” Mr. Pilecki said.

With these mechanisms, combined with community complaints, Mr. Pilecki and his commanders adjust postings as parking problems are corrected or as new hot spots emerge.

One focal area for enforcement last year was 14th Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, which was the most-ticketed block in the city. It is one of the places in the city where parking is forbidden after 11 p.m.

City officials say the rules are set to discourage clubgoers drawn to an area’s night spots, and many nights on 14th Street, the tow trucks show up with precision. Tow truck drivers call it “disco towing.”

“They sit right there and wait for people to park,” said Carlos Martinez, a bouncer at Honey, a restaurant and bar on 14th Street, pointing to a truck. “Once people park, they just tow their car.”

Nothing about such a process makes the traffic enforcement agent a particularly popular figure, and agents are increasingly the targets of verbal and physical attacks.

“Every day, you go out there naked — without a gun — in the back of your mind is, ‘Is this my day?’ ” said Robert Cassar, the former president of Local 1182 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents most agents.

Critics of the city’s enforcement policies say that some agents, under pressure to produce numbers, write bogus summonses by, for example, “dumping” them repeatedly on abandoned cars. City officials say such instances are isolated. But the data do present some curious situations, like the 267 tickets, all unpaid, issued to a 1989 Nissan that was parked near the Brooklyn Navy Yard for the past 17 months. Most of the tickets were issued by a police officer, although several traffic agents had also left summonses on the car. The fines now total $32,964.

City marshals and sheriffs are authorized to tow cars with at least $350 in delinquent parking tickets. But this car was tagged repeatedly for the same three or four violations, even after it had two flat tires and no visible license plate and was parked about two blocks from the Brooklyn Tow Pound.

After The Times began asking about the car, it was towed away by the police.

The city’s aggressiveness in ticketing has not gone unnoticed in neighborhoods like Riverdale, in the Bronx, where a dozen residents claim a traffic agent issued them phony double-parking tickets. Some said they were out of the country at the time the tickets were written. James Huntley, the current president of Local 1182, defended the agent and said she remained on duty. The police would not comment.

Councilman Gentile held his own forum in Bensonhurst several weeks ago to air complaints from residents of his district.

“We have traffic agents who get bused in by van each and every day to these communities,” he said. “They’re deployed like an army regiment.”

Police officials said that vans are routinely used to transport agents, and a police captain who attended the meeting defended the ticketing.

But Ron Galluccio, a retired Navy veteran who walks with a cane, told the gathering that the agents had overreacted. He got one ticket, he said, while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. Another summons was for parking in a spot that he said should have been permitted because he has a handicapped license plate. And a third occurred last winter when he double-parked during a snowstorm because another vehicle was blocking his driveway.

“I said, ‘Look, I can’t get in my own driveway,’ ” Mr. Galluccio said at the meeting. “I said, ‘I don’t deserve a summons.’ ”

His argument had no effect, he said. “I had to pay the ticket.”

Joel Stonington contributed reporting and Carolyn Wilder contributed research.

Monday, November 24, 2008

« Naked Ambition | Main | Obama presser: The econ team »

Senate 'Gang of 3' have the courage of their acquittals

Despite past differences among them, the so-called "Gang of Three" Democrats who have withheld support for Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) as majority leader share at least one other thing - clean criminal records. And this hasn't always been for lack of effort by prosecutors.

Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) was cleared decades ago of charges he and others tried to induce bribes from a developer. Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx) was acquitted in 2000 on charges he illegally used funds from a health plan for the poor to pay campaign expenses.

And last year it was reported that Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) and his son, Assemb. Ruben Diaz Jr., drew FBI probers' attention. Sen. Diaz has said this was because he'd made political enemies. No charges have been filed.

Some background reading on Espada, from Robbins in the Voice a while ago, is here. Also, Liz has WFP's Bertha Lewis with a line about Kruger "palling around with Republican terrorists," in talking about the prospect of Kruger trying for the housing committee, here.

At the end of the tape below is a primary-season reaction by Espada and company to a maverick blogger, Rafael Martinez-Alequin, whom he says he wishes to teach some "manners." Assaults aren't a great way to fend off criminal charges.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hiram Monserrate: Creating A New Politics

Hiram Monserrate and Mike Schenkler


Last week, Hiram Monserrate was the man of the hour.

He set the standard by which City Council members will be judged in having input over redevelopment projects in their districts.

Championing low income and affordable housing, the rights of property owners, Monserrate stood up to the Mayor and his high-power Willets Point redevelopment effort, his Queens front headed by Claire Shulman, and prevailed over what appeared to be an unyielding City Hall onslaught.
For months, they painted Monserrate as the renegade, the self-serving politico who was preventing Willets Point, the blighted area north of Shea Stadium dominated by junkyards and chop shops, from becoming a true neighborhood and contributing to the local economy.

The redevelopment was needed to clean up the polluted soil and connect it to city water and sewer lines. Then there were housing units, roads, a hotel, a convention center, a neighborhood which would grow from the formerly polluted iron triangle.

And Hiram Monserrate said no. He said no without a greater commitment to affordable and low income housing and he said no to the City’s use of the threat of eminent domain to bully landowners from their property.

Sure the $3 billion plan made sense and will ultimately return to the city many times its investment. But did it make sense to the local community? To Monserrate’s constituents and local property owners?

Monserrate didn’t think so and stood his ground. And the Willets Point redevelopment forces tried to paint him as the villain. Months of lobbying, bullying, threats couldn’t make Monserrate blink.

For the second time this year, Monserrate, a former Marine and NY Police Officer, stared the power structure down and we watched the other side blink. Monserrate is going to the State Senate after bullying the Queens Democratic organization and incumbent State Senator John Sabini into handing over Sabini’s Senate seat to avoid doing battle with him.

And now, in Willets Point, the city blinked and compromised, Hiram won, and it appears the community was served. The revamped plan includes an 850-seat school and a mandatory level of permanent affordable housing — 35 percent of the 5,500 planned units must be affordable, with 250 units exclusively for low income earners. Compromises were also reached on the use of eminent domain.

More importantly, Hiram elevated himself and the role of the Councilman in controlling the development process in his community.

“The end game here was always to ensure that we had a project and a plan that was fair to all parties,” he said, “I think we’ve achieved that.”

Hiram, never the Council consensus builder, marshaled the council members and demonstrated all land use fights do not get decided by the Mayor.

Yes, one little Councilman stood up. And whatever baggage he may have carried previously, he is not so little anymore.

We should all watch him in the State Senate.

Pollster: Bloomberg 'Hasn't Closed The Door' on '09 Competition

Here's Marist pollster Lee Miringoff parsing today's poll on Mayor Bloomberg, 2009 and whether the mayor has been damaged by his push to change term limits and seek re-election.

Miringoff notes that Bloomberg is still ahead of his prospective Democratic challengers, but not by as much as in previous polls.

He's leading his strongest likely opponent, Rep. Anthony Weiner, by 14 percentage points, but gets just 51 percent of the vote with 37 percent for Weiner and 12 percent undecided.

"Firty-one is about as slim a majority as you can have, at this point, as an incumbent. So that is we think troublesome for the Bloomberg administration in terms of re-election prospects. He's ahead, but he certainly is far away from closing the door on that race."

Bloomberg is, of course, not the only New York elected official in an executive post whose popularity suffered a hit lately. In a Marist poll released earlier this week, Gov. David Paterson saw his approval rating drop six points, from 57 percent lasrt month to 51 percent this month.

The question, as Miringoff sees it, is whether Bloomberg gets blamed for the pain he will have to inflict in the face of the economic downturn. The same case holds true for Paterson, who has been warning of major fiscal distress and tried - unsuccessfuly - to get legislative leaders to make a second round of mid-year budget cuts earlier this week.

Marist Pollster Lee Miringoff On Bloomberg's Numbers from Elizabeth Benjamin on Vimeo.
By Elizabeth Benjamin on November 21, 2008

Marist Pollster Lee Miringoff On Bloomberg's Numbers from Elizabeth Benjamin on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cheney Indictment Moves Forward In South Texas

CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN | November 19, 2008 09:25 PM E | AP

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, left, and Vice President Dick Cheney are shown in this 2006 file photo at the White House. Cheney and Gonzales have been indicted on state charges involving federal prisons in a South Texas county that has been a source of bizarre legal and political battles under the outgoing prosecutor. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, file)

RAYMONDVILLE, Texas — A Texas judge has set a Friday arraignment for Vice President Dick Cheney, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and others named in indictments accusing them of responsibility for prisoner abuse in a federal detention center.

Cheney, Gonzales and the others will not be arrested, and do not need to appear in person at the arraignment, Presiding Judge Manuel Banales said.

In the latest bizarre development in the case, the lame-duck prosecutor who won the indictments was a no-show in court Wednesday. The judge ordered Texas Rangers to go to Willacy County District Attorney Juan Guerra's house, check on his well-being and order him to court on Friday.

Half of the eight high-profile indictments returned Monday by a Willacy County grand jury are tied to privately run federal detention centers in the sparsely populated South Texas county. The other half target judges and special prosecutors who played a role in an earlier investigation of Guerra.

One indictment charges Cheney and Gonzales with engaging in organized criminal activity. It alleges that the men neglected federal prisoners and are responsible for assaults in the facilities.

The grand jury accused Cheney of a conflict of interest because of his influence over the county's federal immigrant detention center and his substantial holdings in the Vanguard Group, which invests in private prison companies.

The indictment accuses Gonzales of stopping an investigation into abuses at the federal detention center.

An attorney for the private prison operator The GEO Group filed motions accusing Guerra of "prosecutorial vindictiveness."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Was the Lie of "Consistent Leadership" Old Media's Last Stand?

By Gary Tilzer

"It is a function of government and politicians to invent philosophies to explain the demands of its own convenience." - Murray Kempton

A couple of weeks ago New York City’s term limits law was extended legislatively by the New York City Council and Mayor Bloomberg based upon the rationale that the City needs consistent leadership to get us through the coming economic crisis. The editorial boards of all the city’s daily newspapers made this exact case to their readers and our elected officials echoed their argument. Council Speaker Quinn said “given the level of economic tumult that exists, I have decided to change my position [opposing the extension of term limits] because I believe the potential of consistent leadership by this council and this mayor would be in the best interest of the city during these hard economic times."

But just eight days after the extension of term limits became law the City Council’s professed agenda of economic cooperation with the Mayor was all but abandoned. Expressing outrage at the Mayor’s fiscal stewardship, the Council blocked Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to rescind the City’s promised $400 homeowner property tax rebate without the Council's approval.

All of a sudden, the Council had forgotten about the Mayor’s economic expertise, which they asserted was so important to save our City from financial meltdown. What changed in eight days? Now that the City Council has successfully overruled two public refenda and the 89 percent of New Yorkers who opposed a change to the term limits law, they no longer have to worry about maintaining false pretenses to keep their jobs. Speaker Quinn, Bloomberg’s staunchest ally for extending term limits, and Councilman James Vacca, who was one of the 29 Council Members who voted “yes” on term limits, have already gone so far as to protest the Mayor’s plan to restructure the City’s senior centers to improve efficiency and save money.

Are the editorial boards of the City’s three dailies suddenly crying foul? Not a whisper.

Bloggers Got the Real Story When It Counted.

“It used to be that a handful of editors could decide what news was and what was not. They acted as sort of demigods. If they ran a story, it became news. If they ignored an event, it never happened. Today editors are losing this power. The Internet, for example, provides access to thousands of new sources that cover things an editor might ignore.”- Rupert Murdoch

Only the city’s bloggers like Your, Pardon Me For Asking, The Brooklyn Optimist, The Daily Gotham, Queens Crap, and Washington Square Park reported to their readers during the term limits debate that the Council’s argument for continuity of leadership to save the city’s economy was nothing more than public relations spin to cover the Council’s blatant power grab for an additional term in office. At the same time these citizen journalists across the City were reporting the real facts, the Mayor was meeting with the publishers of the three major dailies to coordinate a cover story for his support of extending term limits. Working in concert, the dailies provided the Mayor with the rationalization to disregard Bloomberg’s previous public statement that “it would be an absolute disgrace to go around the public will” to extend term limits.

Rafael Martínez-Alequín, publisher of Your Free, wrote on his blog that it was a sad day for democracy when the Council passed the term limits extension. He openly expressed anger at those that voted for its passage, echoing the spirit of Former Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. As Breslin said, “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns that exposed the wrongdoing in government.”

It is bloggers like Martínez-Alequín who are keeping journalism alive and vital in New York City. They are following in the footsteps of newspaper greats like Joseph Pulitzer of the long lost New York World, whose legendary name is ascribed to journalism’s greatest honor. Pulitzer’s passion-filled editorial pages were the true heart of the World. There he crusaded against the robber barons and oil and rail companies, exposed corrupt politicians and brutal policemen, and advocated for decent working hours and humane living conditions for the poor.

That’s just what Martínez-Alequín has dedicated his life to trying to do. And that’s just what has gotten Mayor Bloomberg so mad at him.

Norman Siegel Sues on Behalf of All Bloggers

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
- Thomas Jefferson

New York City blogger journalist Rafael Martínez-Alequín and his lawyer, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, recently filed a lawsuit to protect the First Amendment Constitutional Rights of bloggers in a case which has the potential to dramatically change journalism in New York City and the rest of the county. Siegel is challenging the New York City Police Department's policies for issuing press credentials. (For somewhat arcane reasons having to do with access to crime scenes, the NYPD issues all City media credentials.) Martínez-Alequín was a credentialed member of New York's working press since the early 1990s, but in 2007, his yearly press pass application was suddenly denied.

The NYPD officials decided that Martínez-Alequín and two other independent journalists weren't entitled to a press card because they didn't regularly cover breaking news for a professional news organization. The other two journalists, Robert E. Smith, publisher of The Guardian Chronicle and David Wallis, founder and CEO of, are also plaintiffs in Siegel’s case.

Siegel’s lawsuit argues that the current system of issuing press passes amounts to privileging those who work for large corporations. Besides unfairly excluding citizen journalists like Martinez-Alequin, the problem with this system is that those who are credentialed often find themselves in situations that pose a certain conflict of interest between reporting the facts and not offending the corporate policies of the media giants for whom they work. As a result, in favoring corporate-employed reporters over citizen journalists and independent bloggers, the City’s press credentialing system effectively chooses to license primarily staid, cautious reporting - with a strong bent toward corporate coddling – over the dynamic, unadulterated articles of journalists like Martínez-Alequín.

Given the high stakes for citizen journalists like Martínez-Alequín, Siegel’s lawsuit is now seen by the blogging community as the epicenter of its battle against the old media for equal legitimacy of the New Media; the New Media being defined as essentially anything published online that is not affiliated with a major corporate news entity.

Martínez Alequín, an independent gadfly who has reported out of City Hall for the last two decades, is a modern-day Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was one of the first journalists to use media as a weapon against the entrenched power structure controlled by the King of England. He is often credited as the journalist that propelled the American colonies to break free of British rule.

It now falls on the shoulders of Norman Siegel, who always seem to be around when the rights of New Yorkers need to be protected, to ensure that Internet bloggers in New York have the same rights as Thomas Paine. The city’s fast-emerging community of bloggers is quickly growing its readership simply by providing the type of truthful analysis that is hard to find in the City’s dailies. In so doing, New York’s blogosphere has established itself as the City’s premiere forum to debate controversial opinions, encourage participation in local politics, and further the belief that people should control their own lives.

“It’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and the country is in great danger.” - Hermann Goring, at the Nuremberg trials

New York has always been at the epic center of the fight for a free press

John Peter Zenger was editor of the New York Weekly Journal in 1734 when he was jailed by British colonial authorities on charges of seditious libel. He had criticized the corrupt administration of New York's governor, William Cosby. Zenger's subsequent trial and acquittal is considered a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press, paving the way for the American Revolution.

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a documentary history tracing the ultimately doomed involvement of the United States in a grinding war in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. They demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance. The Government sought and won a court order restraining further publication after three articles had appeared. On June 30, 1971, the United States Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of 9 to 0, that publication could resume.

Paine and Zenger have now passed the Freedom of the Press touch to a new generation. The success of President Elect Obama’s Internet new technologies has given us the opportunity to democratize journalism like our founding fathers envisioned.

The Founding Father of Blogging: Thomas Paine

Siegel should start his case in court by filing a brief entitled, “Thomas Paine is the moral forefather of Internet blogging.” The example Paine set for the need of freedom of the press to ensure our Constitutional liberties, and the sacrifices he made to preserve the integrity of his work, is being resuscitated by a means that hadn't existed or even been imagined in his day - the blinking cursors, clacking keyboards, hissing modems, and bits and bytes of another revolution: the digital one. If Paine's legacy was seemingly derailed by the Nixon Administration’s FCC changes that have led to increased corporate ownership and consolidation of the media, the Internet has brought Paine’s vision back to life.

The problem of freedom in America is that of maintaining a competition of ideas and you do not do that by silencing” Max Lerner, former NY Post columnist

Early in this century when New York City had dozens of daily newspapers engaged in fierce competition it would not have been possible for elected officials to extend their terms in office for their own self interests. William Randolph Hearst’s conservative New York Journal, Dorothy Shifts’ liberal New York Post, the original New York Sun’s crusading muck breaking journalist and the other great passion filled paper of that time would make politicians scared of even dreaming about the scam they pulled on us.

It not just the term limits swindle. Lobbyist and the Robber Barons they work for have destroyed our economy and have left millions without proper medical care. Only on the Internet could you read in when the Glass- Steagall Act was repealed in 1999 of the dangers that action fueled by campaign donations, posed to the nation’s banking and housing industry. Only on the blogs could you hear the voice of opposition to Bush’s request to the Senate for permission to start the war in Iraq, during the congressional debate to grant him those rights.

Paine’s mark is now nearly invisible in the old corporate media culture, but his soul is woven through the Internet’s New Media, his fingerprints on every Web site, his voice in every online thread. That spirit was part of the political transformation he envisioned when he wrote about change 250 years before Barack Obama ever uttered the word. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," said Paine. Through media, he believed, "we see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”

If we let the City of New York deny bloggers like Rafael Martínez-Alequín one of the most essential journalistic tools – a press pass – we consent to accept a media that is not truly free. Bloggers, citizen journalists, and all of the readers of their important work must band together and raise their voices in support of Norman Siegel and Rafael Martínez-Alequín. Their fight belongs to all of us who believe that citizen journalists can help change our government and make ours a more just society.