Obama, Congresspersons Call for Justice System Reform at Local NAACP Convention

President Barack Obama pressed the 10,000 conventioneers at the NAACP to help him effect domestic reforms, including the criminal justice system, as well as investments in education.

President Barack Obama pressed the 10,000 conventioneers at the NAACP to help him effect domestic reforms, including the criminal justice system, as well as investments in education.

The thousands of NAACP delegates, alternates and supporters who descended on the Philadelphia Convention Center for the 106th national convention of the NAACP were rewarded for their travels and loyalty. Many members of Congress spoke at the plenary sessions and themed workshops.

President Barack Obama, just on the heels of the successful negotiation with Iran, flew from Washington to Philadelphia to address the NAACP convention. His speech focused on domestic priorities, with no mention of the Iran deal, but the news spread and no one needed to be reminded that the President has had a couple of really good weeks.

Speakers like Congressman James Clyburn (SC-6) and U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger, spoke passionately about the need to reform the criminal justice system, to root out discrimination and profiling and unequal sentencing for African Americans.

President Obama, in his speech, explained why he commuted sentences for dozens of prisoners who, if they had been charged and sentenced today, would have received far less severe prison terms for non-violent drug offenses or possession of drugs like marijuana. He gave examples of ex-offenders he had just met, who had served their sentences and then redeemed their lives. They are now tax-paying citizens.

Right before I came out here, I met with four former prisoners, four ex-offenders. Two of them were African American, one of them was Latino, one of them was white. All of them had amazing stories. One of them dropped out of school when he was a young kid. Now he’s making film about his experience in the prison system.

One of them served 10 years in prison, then got a job at Five Guys — which is a tasty burger — and they gave him an opportunity, and he rose up and became a general manager there, and now is doing anti-violence work here in the community.

It was a treat to watch the NAACP session on resolutions, the debates from the floor, the challenges to the chair, the re-counts, the urging of the NAACP member from Georgia to pass a resolution requiring the removal of ALL Confederate flags from every single state’s public grounds. This amended resolution, or “game-changer,” as the NAACP calls them, passed overwhelmingly.

And it was heartening on the day of the first plenary session to hear Cornell Brooks, the national president of the NAACP, tell a story about a baby born down south who weighed only three pounds and was not expected to survive until night-time. But the doctor who delivered the baby told the mother to pray, if she believed in God. Brooks said the woman called for a chaplain in the hospital, but no preacher or minister was available. But here was a rabbi serving as chaplain, and he came and prayed with the mother.

Senator Bob Casey was featured at the NAACP Convention opening plenary session.  He urged the 8000 attendees from around the country to contact their members of Congress and push for Casey's funding bill for universal early education.

At the NAACP Convention opening plenary session, Senator Bob Casey urged the 8000 attendees to contact their members of Congress around the country and push for his universal early education funding bill.

Then Brooks delivered the punch-line: “And that is why I am standing here today!”

Although I did not hear a mention of the three martyred civil rights workers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, I thought about them often as I traveled the halls of the Philadelphia Convention Center from plenary session to workshops. Listening to heroes like Congressman Jim Clyburn, Senator Bob Casey (PA), Congresswomen Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) and Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), and Senator Corey Booker (NJ), was inspirational.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads up the Democratic National Committee, urged the conventioneers to register to vote and get involved in politics.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who heads up the Democratic National Committee, urged the conventioneers to register to vote and get involved in politics.

Wasserman Schultz, from Florida, who heads up the Democratic National Committee, focused on voting rights reform in her address to the entire corps of NAACP members. She told me about the unfairness of the voter ID laws in many states and of her intention to increase registration and voting patterns of African Americans.

I bumped into Joyce Kravitz, the president of Tikvah/AJMI, the Philadelphia region’s nonprofit agency for families with members dealing with mental illness. Kravitz, a social work professor, has been an NAACP member for many years, and she attended this year’s convention with her former student, an African American social worker.

Pennsylvania state Representative Jim Roebuck, who has been advocating for Governor Tom Wolf’s budget which restores funding for pre-K and public education, was in attendance. Congressmen Chaka Fattah (PA-2) and Brendan Boyle (PA-13) accompanied President Obama on Air Force One from D.C. to the convention.

NAACP has made national news every day of the convention, and President Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch made the closing day of the convention memorable.

Photo credit: Bonnie Squires

Double Billing: Paying For What Someone’s Already Paid To Do

Israel

Yesterday, Israel’s former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was acquitted on double billing charges as not proven:

On trial for the last two years, Olmert was accused of allegedly paying for family vacations by double billing Jewish organizations through the Rishon Tours travel agency; allegedly accepting envelopes full of cash from American businessman Morris Talansky; and allegedly granting personal favors to attorney Uri Messer when he served as trade minister in the Investment Center case. The charges were filed after he became prime minister in 2006, but covered his time as mayor of Jerusalem and later as a government minister.

According to DEBKA, “The verdict read out by Presiding Judge Moussia Arad said there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he accepted illegal moneys systematically and deliberately, only that he acted in an improper manner.”

Pennsylvania

However, at the same time, Pennsylvania Corbett has decided to award a $249,660 contract to the Republican lobbying group, Bravo Group, to “educate” Pennsylvanians about the Commonwealth controversial, restrictive, new voter ID law. The Bravo Group is the work of Republican lobbyist Chris Bravacos who used to be the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Republican party. Bravacos has personally donated $27,400 to the Romney campaign.

This taxpayer-funded money was intended for actual voter education, but will instead be used to create advertisements that will attempt to gloss over how many legal voters will be disenfranchised by this law. Indeed, two weeks ago Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said that his Voter ID bill would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”


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Corbett defends the Voter ID law on the hollow pretense that it prevents voter fraud, but when Corbett was Pennsylvania Attorney General he did not pursue a single case of voter fraud.

Imagine what the conservative uproar would be if President Obama were to award a federal grant to MoveOn.org to advocate for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

As US Attorney General Eric Holder said today before the NAACP,

Under the proposed law, concealed handgun licenses would be acceptable forms of photo ID, but student IDs would not. Many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them, and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them. We call those poll taxes.

Isn’t paying a conservative lobbyist to advocate for a Republican voter supression effort the very definition of double billing?

Sample ads pulled from the Bravo Group’s vimeo channel follow the jump.
Video 1:
Dramatic music over pictures, including one of three suffragettes.

Video 2:
Video of overly happy people showing a card that is supposed to resemble an ID.  Also confuses the issue by saying “other kind of photo id” will be accepted, without explaining what that means.

Book Chat: The Power of Habit


— by Hannah Lee

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  An investigative reporter for The New York Times, Duhigg has engagingly compiled scientific research on why habits exist. Readers learn why some people and companies struggle to change, while others seem to re-make themselves overnight.  We discover how the right habits were crucial to the success of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The book brings us inside Proctor & Gamble, Target, NFL locker rooms, and the nation’s largest hospitals to learn how implementing “keystone” habits can make the difference between success and failure, life and death.

More after the jump.
The most fascinating chapters for me were the ones on societal change.  In “Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Duhigg describes the circumstances in which people were guided into religious practice and advocating for civil rights.  As a young seminary student, Rick Warren chose to go where the people were un-churched, “somewhere all of my seminary friends didn’t want to go.”  His search for virgin territory lead him to Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California, which was the fastest-growing region in the fastest-growing county in one of the fastest-growing states in America.  He learned that the local residents self-identified as Christians but didn’t attend services.

Warren was inspired by the writings of a controversial theologian, Donald McGavran, who’d devoted his life to building churches in nations where most people hadn’t accepted Christ.  McGavran’s strategy was to adopt the tactics of other successful movements by appealing to people’s social habits.  The evangelist would succeed by helping people “become followers of Christ in their normal social relationship.”  This tactic exhorted religious leaders to speak to people in their own languages, create places of worship where “congregants saw their friends, heard the kinds of music they already listened to, and experienced the Bible’s lessons in digestible metaphors.”  Most importantly, wrote McGavran, ministers had to convert groups of people, rather than individuals, so that a community’s social habits would encourage religious participation.

Upon graduating from seminary, Warren moved his wife and baby to Orange County and rented a small condo.  His first prayer group consisted of seven people gathered in his living room.  Thirty years later, his Saddleback Church is one of the largest ministries in the world, with more than 20,000 congregants coming to its 20-acre headquarters and eight other satellite campuses.  Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has sold 30 million copies, putting it amongst the biggest sellers in history.  Warren performed the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration and is considered one of the most influential religious leaders of our day.  

At the core of his church’s success is a belief in the power of social habits.  Warren told Duhigg, “We’ve thought long and hard about habitualizing faith, breaking it down into pieces.  If you try to scare people into following Christ’s example, it’s not going to work for too long.  The only way you get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.  Once that happens, they become self-feeders.  People follow Christ not because you’ve led them there, but because it’s who they are.”

How did Warren teach his thousands of followers habits of faith?  First, he had to get them through the door, into his church.  He told people to wear whatever clothing was comfortable to them.  He brought in an electric guitar.  His sermons focused on practical topics, such as “How to Handle Discouragement,” “How to Feel Good About Yourself,” and “How to Survive Under Stress.”  They were easy to understand and they addressed everyone’s daily problems.  

Warren’s biggest breakthrough was a lesson that seemed to me to come straight from the Chumash, when Moshe’s father-in-law encouraged him to share the burden of ministry by setting up a system of courts and judges (Exodus 18:1-20:23).  In Warren’s case, he assigned every congregant to a small prayer group that met weekly in individual homes.  It transformed church participation into a habit that drew on existing social urges and patterns.  “Now when people come to Saddleback and see the giant crowds on the weekend, they think that’s our success,” related Warren.  “But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Ninety-five percent of the church is what happens during the week inside those small groups…You have this big crowd to remind you why you’re doing this in the first place, and a small group of close friends to help you focus on how to be faithful.  Together, they’re like glue.”

Next, Warren created a series of curriculum, for use in church classes and small group discussions, which were designed to teach people new habits.  Every congregant had to sign a “maturity covenant card” promising to follow three habits: daily quiet time for reflection and prayer, tithing 10 percent of their income; and membership in a small group.  “Once we do that, the responsibility for spiritual growth is no longer with me, it’s with you.  We’ve given you a recipe,” related Warren.  “We don’t have to guide you, because you’re guiding yourself.  These habits become a new self-identity, and at that point, we just need to support you and get out of the way.”  These lessons are analogous to my experience living in an Orthodox Jewish community, where issues of kashrut, chesed, and a daily minyan for reciting Kaddish quickly binds strangers into a thriving community.

The next example was from the civil rights movement and how King galvanized a populace of southern black Americans to stand up and walk for their rights.  When an exhausted Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in 1955, she became the catalyst for advocacy and public demonstration.  But, she was not the first black person jailed for breaking Montgomery’s bus segregation laws.  The previous incidents did not, however, result in boycotts or protests.  “There weren’t many real activists in Montgomery at the time,” said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning civil rights historian, to Duhigg.  “People didn’t mount protests or marches.  Activism was something that happened in courts.  It wasn’t something average people did.”  When King arrived in 1954, he found a majority of the city’s blacks accepted segregation “without apparent protest.  Not only did they seem resigned to segregation per se, they also accepted the abuses and indignities which came with it.”

What changed with Parks was a shifting political climate and an example of social networks in action.  Rosa Parks was deeply respected in her community.   She had friendships and affiliations that cut across the city’s racial and economic lines.  “She was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, attended the Methodist church, and helped oversee a youth organization at the Lutheran church near her home.  She spent some weekends volunteering at a shelter, others with a botanical club, and on Wednesday nights often joined a group of women who knit blankets for a local hospital.  She volunteered dressmaking services to poor families and provided last-minute gown alterations for wealthy white debutantes.  She was so deeply embedded in the community, in fact, that her husband complained that she ate more often at potlucks than at home.”  Parks “transcended the social stratifications of the black community and Montgomery as a whole,” related Branch.  “She was friends with field hands and college professors.”  She had what sociologists call “strong ties” — first-hand relationships.   The power of these friendships were evident from the moment she landed in jail and she called her parents.  Her mother contacted the wife of the former head of the Montgomery NAACP, who called her husband and told him to bail Parks out of jail.  He did and he also enlisted the help of a prominent white lawyer who knew Parks because she had hemmed dresses for his three daughters.  These two men, E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr, were looking for the perfect case to challenge Montgomery’s bug segregation laws and asked Parks for her cooperation.  Her husband warned her, “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” but Parks couldn’t refuse her friends’ appeal.

The call for a boycott of the city buses spread within 24 hours of Parks’ arrest, but this could have fizzled out as for many other small protests.  What distinguished this act of civil disobedience was another aspect of social habits.  The Montgomery bus boycott became a society-wide action because of social peer pressure, the “power of weak ties” which made it difficult to refuse participation.

Some nine years later, the Mississippi Summer Project called upon students to commit to a 10-week project registering black voters in the South.  Later nicknamed “the Freedom Summer,” it was known to be a risky undertaking, and of the thousand applicants accepted into the program, more than 300 later decided to stay home.  In the 1980s , a sociologist at the University of Arizona, Doug McAdam, studied why some people participated in Freedom Summer and why others backed out.  His initial hypothesis was they had different motivations, but this did not hold true.  Neither did opportunity costs, as in spouses or jobs at home.  

His final hypothesis was to look at the applicants’ memberships in student and political organizations and the list of 10 contacts to be kept informed of their summer activities.  

Imagine you’re one of the students who applied. On the day you signed up for Freedom Summer, you filled out the application with five of your closest friends and you were all feeling really motivated.  Now, it’s six months later and departure day is almost here… you’re walking across campus and you see a bunch of people from your church group, and they say, ‘We’re coordinating rides — when should we pick you up?’  These people aren’t your closest friends, but you see them at club meetings and in the dorm, and they’re important within your social community.  They all know you’ve been accepted to Freedom Summer, and that you’ve said you want to go.  Good luck pulling out at this point.  You’d lose a huge amount of social standing.  Even if you’re having second thoughts, they’re real consequences if you withdraw.  You’ll lose the respect of people whose opinions matter to you.

King and his other civil rights leaders shifted the struggle’s burden from his hands onto the shoulders of his followers.  He activated the social habits of weak ties and the Montgomery bus boycott became a self-perpetuating force.  

The book has other fascinating chapters on how Paul O’Neill turned Alcoa into the “best performing stocks in the Dow Jones index” by making it the safest company in America; how Starbucks turned self-discipline into an organizational habit; how Dr. Mary Reich Cooper rescued Rhode Island Hospital from a morale-draining pit of surgical errors by changing its medical culture; and how Desmond Fennell used media coverage of his investigation into the disastrous King’s Cross station fire in London to galvanize organizational change.  

For people who wish to change their own personal habits, there are chapters on how to recognize the habitual cycle of cue, routine, and reward.  Only by understanding the nature of the cue (which could be different for each person), could one change the routine to trigger the same reward.  It requires a belief in free will: “If you believe in change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real.”  What bad habits do you want changed?  Read The Power of Habit and learn how to make the most of the summer ahead.

DOJ Rejects Texas Voting Law. What Does That Mean For Pennsylvania?

Daylin Leach, Al Sharpton speak about Voter ID

Crossposted from the Brennan Center of Justice’s Redistricting Blog

— by Erik Opsal

The Department of Justice objected to Texas’ voter ID law Monday, determining the law would discriminate against minority voters, particularly Hispanics.

“Even using the data most favorable to the state, Hispanics disproportionately lack either a driver’s license or a personal identification card,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a letter to the Texas director of elections.

The same day, the Brennan Center and other legal groups moved to intervene to stop the restrictive photo ID law, which will also be reviewed in federal court. The motion, on behalf of the Texas NAACP and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, argues the law erects unnecessary barriers to voting and disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of minority voters.

“Decades ago, our nation passed the Voting Rights Act to combat this kind of discrimination,” said Brennan Center Senior Counsel Myrna Pérez. “We urge the federal court to stand up for voters by blocking this law.”

This news comes just days after a Houston Chronicle analysis found that Texas’ voter ID law “could affect as many as 2.3 million registered voters.”

Court Rejects Voter Suppression Efforts

As November approaches, voter intimidation looms as a next battleground. A federal court in Philadelphia last week made clear the limits to what is allowed.

The judge upheld a long-standing consent decree prohibiting the Republican National Committee from using improper election tactics. The consent decree specifically bars the organization from using voter challengers, poll watchers, and a practice known as “vote caging” to target and intimidate voters of color.

“Under the agreement, the Republican National Committee must obtain court approval before implementing certain poll-monitoring activities in minority precincts,” Reuters reports.

The court’s opinion described how poll watchers and poll challengers have the potential to disenfranchise lawful voters by causing delays, crowding, and confusion inside the polling place and creating a charged partisan atmosphere that can intimidate many new voters. Here’s an analysis of these past problems.

With the 2012 election fast approaching, it is important for state officials to ensure other political groups — not just the RNC — follow the law and refrain from using poll watchers to intimidate or discriminate against voters, writes the Brennan Center’s Nic Riley.

Pennsylvania Update

The state Senate passed a voter ID bill, which the House is expected to vote on today. Opponents of the bill are still fighting, saying it limits a basic right. Read more here and here. Read an op-ed opposing the law from Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center.

Jews & Blacks “Refudiate” Tea Party Racism

— David Streeter

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) applauds the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for passing a resolution condemning the “racist language” used by elements in the Tea Party. NJDC has repeatedly condemned the anti-Semitic and abusive Holocaust rhetoric used by certain Tea Party activists and we hold the same position towards racist language. Racist language has no place in our political discourse and should be condemned by all, regardless of political orientation.

As NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris wrote following the incidents that occurred before the final health care reform vote:

… last weekend’s amped-up protests, egged-on by Republican members of Congress, just took things to a new level as racial epithets and homophobic slurs were hurled at House Democrats.

This is miserably bad for our society, and it’s bad politics for the GOP too as the public associates an unfortunate face with some of health care reform’s loudest detractors. It’s long past time for Republican and conservative leaders to step up to the plate and clearly denounce such comically over-the-line tactics …