On July 16, a federal judge ruled that California's death penalty is unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In a nation in which the death penalty is under close scrutiny and already on the decline, the decision could have significant implications...
Among Jewish Americans and Israelis themselves, there is a diversity of opinion on the Israeli invasion of Gaza and on the Occupation of the Palestinian people. If there is to be any peaceful and just solution to the nightmare we are witnessing each day -- to senseless destruction, the bloodshed, the displacement of families, and the other atrocities and human rights violations taking place in Gaza -- these voices must be heard.
"To not be outraged at the killing of children is to risk your very soul," tweeted Rob Schneider, former Saturday Night Live comedian and actor, on the bombing of Gaza and the deaths of Palestinian children.
And Jon Stewart went out on a limb on The Daily Show recently with a sketch that parodied what passes for public discourse about Israel and Palestine these days. Although it was satirical, the segment, which was most effective, was the host's response to those who had condemned his criticism of the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza.
At least one athlete of Jewish descent has expressed opposition to Israeli military policy. New York Knicks player Amar'e Stoudemire -- who is also African-American, has applied for Israeli citizenship, and had to postpone hosting his upcoming basketball camp in Tel Aviv due to security concerns -- posted a photo on Instagram with a message that read "Pray for Palestine." The message was subsequently deleted.
Meanwhile -- Jews of conscience, initially a group of 200 peace activists, academics, religious leaders, journalists, Holocaust survivors and others -- have signed a petition on Change.org addressed to President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu "unequivocally condemning Israel's ongoing massacre in Gaza, whose victims include hundreds of civilians, children, entire families, the elderly, and the disabled." Invoking the tradition of the civil rights movement, the group quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, in opposing the Vietnam War in 1967, said "For the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."
This letter from politically conscious Jews characterizes the Netanyahu government as an "apartheid" government that does not speak for them, and calls for an end to U.S. military support for Israel. "In the face of incessant pro-Israel propaganda, we heed Malcolm X's warning: 'If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing'" the petition continued.
As progressive American Jews protest the occupation and the Israeli ground operation in Gaza, their Israeli counterparts are doing the same. In cities such as Tel Aviv and Haifa, hundreds of Jews and Arabs have rallied against the Gaza operation and have called for Israel's pullout from Gaza, resulting in arrests by police and physical attacks from right-wing and neo-Nazi protestors.
A most potent example of the Israeli peace movement is Breaking the Silence, the organization of veteran IDF soldiers who are exposing Israeli society to the realities of life in the Occupied Territories, and the human rights violations that are committed against the civilian population. The organization collects and publishes testimonies from soldiers who have served in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem since 2000, holds lectures and other events, and exposes the public to the humiliating and dehumanizing conditions faced by Palestinians that are not reported in the Israeli media, and to which society turns a blind eye and often chooses to ignore.
"Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely. Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases," according to the Breaking the Silence website. "Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel's security."
So, in Israel and in the U.S., there are voices of conscience, those who do not like what the Likud government and its coalition of settlers, hatemongers and religious zealots is doing in their name. Those who seek peace are not ceding territory to the folks who bang the drums of war, whose only tools for conflict resolution are guns, missiles and F-16 jet fighters. It is painfully apparent their input is needed, in conjunction with Palestinian civil society, to help build bridges, break the cycle of violence and halt the land grabbing.
In Israel, if the reactionary political leadership have not lost their minds, then even worse, they know exactly what they are doing, as they engage in "mowing the grass" -- periodically killing Palestinians as a matter of policy. This, as the Israeli government attempts to manage in perpetuity an unsustainable Occupation and keep 1.8 million Gazans imprisoned in the back yard.
And in the U.S., a dysfunctional and spineless political elite still falls in line with AIPAC, as evidenced by the unanimous Senate vote in favor of Israel's Gaza invasion, although everyone insists they don't want to see babies...
When the family of kidnapped and lynched Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir recently grieved together with the family of abducted and murdered Israeli teen Naftali Fraenkel, we were reminded that the loss of a child is both painful and universal. All mothers mourn in the same way, and no child's death is any less tragic than another.
The recent events in Gaza and in Israel also serve to caution us of the consequences of policies that emanate not from a place that regards the interests of all children, but from a toxic space laden with tribalism, hate, greed and hubris. Coldhearted and coldblooded decisions are made by hotheads. What if the purveyors of policy would treat all children, particularly "other" people's children as their own?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his backers have waged another war on the civilian population of Gaza--an open air prison where people cannot escape--in an operation which is killing for the sake of it. As of publication, nearly 200 people, all Palestinians, have been killed by Operation Protective Edge, and thousands injured. Of these fatalities, 80 percent are civilians according to the UN, including over 30 children.
Israel's purported target is Hamas, and while Hamas is no innocent bystander, control of the oil and natural gas reserves discovered in the Occupied Territories is a more plausible backstory to the recent assault. After all, Operation Cast Lead did not eliminate Hamas in late 2008 and early 2009, but according to the human rights group B'TSelem it did take the lives of 1,387 Palestinians, 773 of whom were civilians, including 320 children and 107 women over the age of 18. Meanwhile, three Israeli civilians and six soldiers were killed, while four soldiers were victims of friendly fire.
Time and time again, these operations are a lesson in disproportionality. After all, Israel is a first rate military power thanks to American largesse and the F-16 jet fighters that are bombing Palestinian homes in densely populated urban areas.
Ultimately, the Occupation is the elephant in the room, a policy which deprives the occupied of their dignity and right to self-determination, and denies the occupiers their humanity and robs them of the opportunity to become a truly democratic state. In the end, both Palestinians and Israelis are imprisoned. And the Israeli government is attempting to do the untenable, which is pulling off colonization--against a soon-to-be Arab majority-- in a post-colonial era, all while painting itself through propaganda as a defenseless victim, or a humanitarian who bends over backwards to spare innocent lives.
The Occupation cannot succeed without the dehumanization of the other. The nationalist extremists, settlers and theocrats among Netanyahu's base believe in a Greater Israel extending from Egypt to Iraq, and an open Jim Crow system where Palestinians are disenfranchised. Netanyahu recently said himself that Israel can never unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank. Meanwhile, characterizing the Palestinian people as terrorists, including children, or even worse as animals that should be killed, the Israeli right justifies all of the violence and human rights violations visited upon Palestinians, whether by mob or by military. Separation walls, travel restrictions, the displacement created by the bulldozing of homes, encroaching settlements, and vengeance killings are all a reality of an unjust occupation.
"My mom told me that it feels and looks like a tsunami has hit the neighborhood. I thought if it was a tsunami; maybe the International community would have acted fast to save innocent lives," said Safa' Abdel Rahman-Madi, a Palestinian woman originally from Gaza who now lives in Ramallah.
"I do not understand how Israel is defending itself by killing entire families and children. If Israel has a right to defend itself as an occupier, why we are denied the very same right as the occupied," the mother of three girls wrote in conjunction with an open letter campaign by U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. Safa' said the root of the recent attack is the notion that Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian lives. Further, she believed things will not change until the U.S. takes a strong stand against Israel's human rights violations.
If you want to judge a policy and the intent of those who promote it, observe its impact on the children. We must strive for a world where we protect all children as if they were our...
Environmental toxins and pollutants know no class or race, and yet government policies and corporate activities place an undue burden on the health of the poor and communities of color.
Throughout the United States, children of color and poor children are disproportionately exposed to health hazards while attending public school, placing them at high risk. Often, this problem is unaddressed in urban centers. However, one group of New York City parents is bringing attention to polluted schools, holding elected officials accountable, and in the process, becoming a focal point in the environmental justice movement.
Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Public School 163 is a diverse elementary school consisting of children ranging from pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade. The student body is 46 percent Latino, 27 percent white, 17 percent African-American and 16 percent Asian-American. Over half of these youngsters (52 percent) qualify for free lunch.
The proposal by Jewish Home Lifecare to construct a 20-story nursing home tower next to the three-story P.S. 163 over the next few years raised red flags among parents, who collectively call themselves the Task Force for a Safe School (TFSS). TFSS is concerned the construction will bring toxic fumes, excessive noise and disruptive traffic, and negatively impact the development and learning environment of their children.
TFSS has called upon Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to take a stand, with legislation to protect children from next door construction. Councilmembers Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal recently proposed such legislation. As for de Blasio, the circumstances are made to order. In contrast to his predecessor Michael Bloomberg, whose administration favored developers, de Blasio ran for office on a progressive agenda of protecting the underdog. With the P.S. 163 crisis, the new Mayor has an opportunity to show leadership in environmental justice.
This is not the first New York City school to seek protection from an environmental threat to children's health. For example, in 2011, students at P.S. 51 in Hell's Kitchen reportedly suffered from rashes, asthma and nosebleeds resulting from construction of a large residential development next to their school. Acceding to the parents' demands, officials moved P.S. 51 to the Upper East Side at a cost of millions of dollars.
In 2005, when a developer planned to build a 1.1 million sq. ft. residential project, including a 400 ft. condo tower near P.S. 234 in the tony Tribeca section of the city, a brokered deal ensured construction noise would be minimized through the use of sound barriers and alternative construction methods, and construction delays until after children completed their standardized testing. The $2.5 million "community friendly" noise reduction plan -- designed to minimize the impact on students and address the parents' environmental concerns -- was unprecedented.
Meanwhile, parents at P.S. 163 expect the same treatment for their youngsters. "Are my kids' lungs less precious than those of the kids in the Tribeca school?" asked Adina Berrios Brooks, co-chair of TFSS and whose child attends the school. "Shouldn't we protect all of our kids?"
Brooks noted that the P.S. 163 issue links environmental justice concerns to the national debate over charter schools and education reform. "This is a public school. Many of the children zoned for the school have no other options. They are told they cannot change out of that school," Brooks said, fearing the children could be exposed to toxic dust. Affluent parents would simply raise the necessary funds, or place their children in private schools to guarantee a safe learning environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as "the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."
A long legacy of environmental racism and injustice plagues the United States, with a history of housing segregation, discriminatory mortgage lending and land use policies setting the stage for toxic schools, according to Daria E. Neal of Lewis and Clark Law School. While blacks live in mixed-use communities -- including industrial, commercial and residential use -- whites tend to live in solely residential areas. Some schools in low-income, black and Latino communities are built near contaminated areas and pollution-generating plants.
Further, a 2006 AP study found that people of color are 79 percent more likely to live in areas with dangerous industrial pollution. In 19 states, the odds for African-Americans were double that of whites. The lower the average income, the higher the risk.
Children are exposed to poisonous substances such as pesticides, asbestos, mold and vermin while in school. Further, children breathe more rapidly and may inhale and absorb toxins more effectively than adults, impairing their development in the process, and leading to asthma, cancer, genetic mutations and other conditions.
According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, asthma is most prevalent among Puerto Rican (18.4 percent), black (14.6 percent) and multiracial children (13.6 percent), as opposed to white children (8.2 percent). Among poor children, asthma disproportionately impacts Puerto Rican (23.3 percent), multiracial (21.1 percent) and African American children (15.8 percent) when compared to their white counterparts (10.1 percent).
According to the University of California, Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, New York State has the most segregated public schools, due especially to the school segregation of New York City. A "double segregation" based on race and class produces inequality, and intensifies the risk of children's exposure to health hazards, violence and other problems. Moreover, the predominantly black central Harlem has the nation's highest rate of asthma.
All children have a right to learn in a healthy, safe and quiet environment in order to thrive and become productive citizens. And yet, often their health is determined by their race, class, zip code and street address. This is why P.S. 163 is so...
In recent weeks there have been a number of news stories about young black men who were accepted to numerous elite colleges, including any and all of the blue chip, Ivy League schools of their choice. All of these positive news stories have provided a welcome respite from the usual...
America's community of death row survivors bids a farewell to another one of its own. Gregory R. Wilhoit, who had spent five years on Oklahoma's death row after being wrongfully convicted for the brutal murder of his wife, died...
Martin Luther King Day is as good a time as any to remind ourselves of certain inconvenient problems in America that are unfortunately not subjects for polite discussion. One of them is racial violence.
Dr. King preached and practiced nonviolent civil disobedience against unjust laws and a legalized system...
I gave the following remarks to the Delegation of the European Union to the United States and diplomats from the EU28 member embassies on Dec. 12, 2013:
I would like to thank the EU delegation for inviting us here today and for supporting our efforts. I want to...
A peacemaker is how people described Delbert Tibbs.
On November 23, 2013, the death penalty abolition movement lost a beloved family member and friend when Delbert, 74, passed away in his home in Chicago.
Delbert Tibbs was many things. He was a sage, a poet, a leader and...
It was a long time coming, but finally America has reached a milestone in the area of criminal justice. In Texas, a former D.A. has made history by becoming the first prosecutor in U.S. to suffer criminal punishment for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence.
In this case,
Gordon "Randy" Steidl is a survivor and a hero.
He survived 17 years in the Illinois prison system, 12 on death row, for a crime he did not commit. That is something few of us can fathom. Now he is fighting against the death penalty as the board chairman of Witness to Innocence, the national organization of exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones. Randy helped bring about the repeal of the death penalty in his home state of Illinois, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed an abolition bill into law.
Now all Randy is looking for is a pardon from the Governor. And he's been waiting for an answer for 11 years, since he first filed his petition. Is it so much for an innocent man to ask?
Steidl and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock were convicted and sentenced to death for the 1986 double murder of Dyke and Karen Rhoads, a newlywed couple in Paris, Illinois, in the rural Southern part of the state. The couple had been brutally stabbed to death in their bedroom.
Meanwhile, the miscarriages of justice plaguing Randy's case provide us with clear reasons as to why the death penalty is a problem. In essence, Randy Steidl was framed by the police and the prosecutors. His wrongful conviction was secured through the "creation" of two sketchy witnesses, who came forward years after the fact to claim they witnessed the murders, and later recanted. There was fabrication and suppression of evidence. In fact, no physical evidence linked the men to the crime. Further, Randy suffered from an inexperienced lawyer who couldn't get the job done, didn't ask the right questions, and failed to look into the prosecution's manufactured case against his client.
Randy was resentenced to life in 1999 based on an ineffective defense counsel claim. And in 2003, a federal judge overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial, stating it was "reasonably probable" that a jury would have found him not guilty if provided with all the evidence. In 2004, he was a free man, the 114th innocent person released from America's death row since 1973. Whitlock was release four years later. Randy's story was featured in the British film project One For Ten, a series of documentaries on innocence and the death penalty.
In 2002, Steidl filed a petition for a pardon when George Ryan was governor. His petition has been pending through successive administrations, and is now the longest pending pardon awaiting a decision from the current governor, Pat Quinn. Recently, lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School and the People's Law Office wrote a letter to the governor requesting a pardon for Mr. Steidl.
"Certainly, there is enormous public support for Randy's pardon based on innocence. Governor Quinn, this matter has lingered for far too long. Please do the right thing now, and allow this innocent man to clear his good name," the letter said.
"At a bare minimum, please do Randy the honor of sitting down with him, face to face, and explain to him why you have decided so many other pardon petitions during your tenure in office -- including 65 grants of clemency this past Friday -- but have repeatedly passed over his," the October 16 letter continued.
Randy Steidl is an innocent man, this is certain, and Governor Quinn has the power to grant him a pardon today. Nothing can erase what Randy has experienced, and nothing can return to him all he has lost. But let the man officially clear his name and his record, something which is curiously difficult for many among the wrongfully convicted. What else is there to...
Jimmy Dennis has been on Pennsylvania's death row for two decades, and a federal judge calls it a "grave miscarriage of justice" by the Commonwealth.
Dennis was convicted of murder for the October 1991 fatal shooting of Chedell Ray Williams, 17, a student at Olney High School,...
What a way to start a week. Last Sunday night at around 11:30 pm, as my family and I were trying to get some sleep, I heard a barrage of gunfire outside my Philadelphia home. At first it sounded like fireworks, but I knew better. Suddenly, I heard a woman...
George Orwell himself could not have come up with a more deviously named piece of legislation than Florida's ill-advised Timely Justice Act. In the world of doublespeak, it conveys the image of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness, while doing exactly the opposite. Surely, its sponsors wanted to misrepresent and...
Witness to Innocence is a national organization originally founded as a project of Sister Helen Prejean of the...
In the past four decades, 142 men and women were liberated from death row because they were innocent. Given that 1,328 people have been executed in the U.S. since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, it means that there is one death row survivor for...
The following are excerpts of a presentation I made at the Amnesty International USA Human Rights Conference in Washington on March 23, 2013. I spoke on a panel called "Abolishing the Death Penalty in Our Lifetime."
It is a pleasure to be here, and I want to thank...
With the death penalty a hot topic of discussion in Maryland these days, lawmakers in that state have a golden opportunity to repeal an outdated, cruel and unjust practice.
Death penalty repeal is in the air. At the urging of the NAACP, Maryland CASE and others, Gov....
Proposition 34, the important ballot initiative in California, would eliminate the death penalty in that state. With 725 people on death row, including 19 women, California has the most death row prisoners in the nation, and one quarter of America's...