‘What Kind of Asian Are You?’ Answered in Hilarious Video

'What Kind of Asian Are You?' Answered in Hilarious Video

Ever been asked where you’re from? Or where you’re parents come from?

For Comedy Week on YouTube, David Neptune and Ken Tanaka (author of Everybody Dies: A Children’s Book for Grown Ups) directed a video called “What Kind of Asian Are You?” that takes the question head on. 

Apple Announces New Upgrade: Former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson

Apple Announces New Upgrade: Former EPA Chief Lisa Jackson

Former EPA chief Lisa Jackson will be vice president for environmental initiatives at web products company Apple. CEO Tim Cook announced the Jackson hire during a live interview he gave during the D11: All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Jackson will “be coordinating [environmental] efforts across the company,” and will report directly to Cook.

Jackson, who was the first African American EPA chief administrator, resigned after her first four-year term in February. During her time there, she made environmental justice — policies that address disproportionate environmental burdens on poor neighborhoods and communities of color — a priority for the federal government. 

Jackson told Politico about her hire: 

“Apple has shown how innovation can drive real progress by removing toxics from its products, incorporating renewable energy in its data center plans, and continually raising the bar for energy efficiency in the electronics industry. I look forward to helping support and promote these efforts, as well as leading new ones in the future aimed at protecting the environment.”

Cook stated at the D11 conference that Apple’s data centers ran on 100% renewable energy and that they had the largerst solar farm of any non-utility company.

Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans, worked in government and public service for basically her entire professional career, after obtaining a Masters degree in chemical engineering from Princeton in 1986. Last month, Jackson told a story to The Moth about evacuating her mother from New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina federal levee failures and floods. Jackson was working for New Jersey state government at the time, and she had a moment then when she realized that had she worked for the private sector she could have “bought my mother a new house, or raised the one she had.” But her mother encouraged her to remain in public service.

Perhaps now, a new house is in the works.  

Wal-Mart Smacked With $110 Million in Fines for Environmental Crimes

Wal-Mart Smacked With $110 Million in Fines for Environmental Crimes

Mega-retail company Wal-Mart plead guilty on Tuesday for Clean Water Act violations that involved years of illegally and improperly handling hazardous liquids and pesticides in California and Missouri. The company is on the hook for $81.6 million in criminal environmental fines for violating federal laws and another $30 million to resolve state environmental law violations. 

Documents from the U.S. District Court in San Francisco say that “from a date unknown until January 2006, Wal-Mart did not have a program in place and failed to train its employees on proper hazardous waste management and disposal practices at the store level. As a result, hazardous wastes were either discarded improperly at the store level - including being put into municipal trash bins or, if a liquid, poured into the local sewer system - or they were improperly transported without proper safety documentation to one of six product return centers located throughout the United States.”

In Missouri, Wal-Mart employees improperly handled pesticides that customers had returned.  “Truckloads of hazardous products, including more than 2 million pounds of pesticides, were improperly handled under Wal-Mart’s contract,” said Tammy Dickinson, U.S. Attorney for Western District of Missouri.

In 2006, Wal-Mart began sending certain damaged household products, including regulated solid and liquid pesticides, from its six return centers to Greenleaf LLC, a recycling facility located in Neosho, Mo., where the products were processed for reuse and resale. Because Wal-Mart employees failed to provide adequate oversight of the pesticides sent to Greenleaf, regulated pesticides were mixed together and offered for sale to customers without the required registration, ingredients, or use information, which constitutes a violation of Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.

For all of these violations, Wal-Mart will pay roughly $110 million in criminal fines, at least $20 million of which will go to community service projects and programs to train people on how to legally handle hazardous waste.  Their plea agreement includes requirements to ensure adequate environmental personnel and training at all levels of the company, proper identification and management of hazardous wastes, and the development and implementation of Environmental Management Systems at its stores and return centers. Compliance with this agreement is a condition of probation imposed in the criminal cases.

Virginia Governor Will Restore Nonviolent Felons’ Voting Rights

Virginia Governor Will Restore Nonviolent Felons' Voting Rights

Yesterday, a task force commissioned by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli found no legal basis for either the governor or the general assembly to automatically restore the voting rights of former convicted felons, but the governor found a way to do it anyway. This morning, Gov. Bob McDonnell announced that he would lift the permanent civil rights ban for those convicted of nonviolent felonies, but he’d have to do it on a case-by-case basis. This means, for the thousands who currently can’t vote (or run for office) due to a nonviolent felony on their criminal record, the governor will send a letter to each person he can find telling them their rights are restored. Before this, a person with a nonviolent felony had a two-year wait after release from prison to begin an application process that might lead to their rights restored within 60 days of submitting that application. Those with violent or drug felony convictions will still have to wait five years to apply for rights restoration.

According to Rebecca Green, co-director of the Election Law Program at William and Mary Law School in Virginia, the fact that the governor can simply write a letter to individuals to restore rights shows that his powers are expansive enough that he should be able to provide automatic rights restoration, while the fact that those with violent and drug felonies still have to wait and apply shows there continues to be a lack of due process. 

“In a world where the governor could literally flip a coin to determine whose rights are restored and whose aren’t, I don’t understand why he then couldn’t issue blanket restoration for all rights,” says Green. Yet, if McDonnell did attempt a blanket restoration, “he would be doing what the [task force said the] legislature can’t do, which is change the law.”

The task force’s findings that the governor can’t do sweeping restoration is an “odd argument given the broad authority the Virginia Constitution delegates to the governor to restore rights,” says Green. Green helped prepare an amicus brief in a U.S. District Court case where former Richmond city councilmember Sa’ad El-Amin is suing the state to overturn the felony disenfranchisement law on the basis it has racist origins. A federal judge is allowing for that racial history to be explored to determine if the law is, in fact, unconstitutional on equal protection grounds.

The irony here is that El-Amin may now no longer have standing in that case. El-Amin himself has a nonviolent felony conviction, for tax crimes, which invalidated his voting rights. He is legally challenging the disenfranchisment law, but he never himself applied for restoration of his rights. Now he doesn’t need to. The governor will be sending him a letter telling him his rights are now restored, which might affect his standing. 

Indeed, finding every person in the state with a nonviolent felony to send a letter too will be tough for the governor. As Secretary of the Commonewealth Janet Kelly told the Richmond Times-Dispatch

“If you’re sitting in prison right now, we know where you are,” Kelly said. “If you got out of prison 20 years ago, we don’t know where you are.”

Overall, roughly 350,000 people lack voting rights due to felony convictions in the state. A report from the NAACP on felony disenfranchisement in Virginia says that if the governor had to review an application from every disenfranchised person it would take him 51 years to get through them all. That application review is now gone for nonviolent felons, but stay tuned to see how this affects those with  violent felonies. 

UPDATE (1:03 P.M. EST)

From civil rights community law organizing nonprofit Advancement Project:

Following the Governor’s announcement, Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly is meeting this afternoon with Virginia grassroots rights restoration advocates and national civil rights organizations, including Advancement Project, to discuss implementation. 

“We commend Gov. McDonnell for doing what his predecessors would not - taking an executive action to loosen Virginia’s grip on its antiquated felony disenfranchisement law,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. “We are interested in hearing his implementation plan for re-enfranchising as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. While today’s announcement represents a positive step forward, Virginia still needs a more permanent solution through a Constitutional amendment from the General Assembly to automatically restore civil rights for all citizens who have served their time. We hope to build on this development in order to move Virginia fully toward America’s promise of a robust and inclusive democracy.”

Many grassroots advocates, several of whom have been personally impacted because of prior felony convictions, are also attending this afternoon’s stakeholder meeting with the Governor’s office.

“I appreciate today’s announcement and hope that Gov. McDonnell will use the full extent of this executive action to restore rights to as many people as possible,” said Michael Edwards, founder and director of Secure Organization Building Educational Recovery, Inc. (S.O.B.E.R.). Edwards lost his right to vote for distribution of marijuana in the 1970s, before finally having his rights restored in 2011. “Since the new rules make a distinction for people with certain kinds of convictions, I’d like to see some other process in place to more efficiently re-enfranchise these individuals who pay taxes and live in our communities.”

UPDATE (10:10 A.M. EST): 

Virginia New Majority, a non-profit that organizes community and conducts leadership development programs for progressive causes, is planning a major voter registration drive on the heels of Governor Bob McDonnell’s planned announcement to streamline the rights restoration process for people with non-violent felony convictions.

“Gov. McDonnell is taking a huge step forward today. We’ve been actively working on this issue for the past four years. It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Tram Nguyen, Deputy Director of Virginia New Majority.

“We’re going to celebrate today, but we have to get right back to work tomorrow. We’re making plans to ensure that people with non-violent felony convictions will be registered in time for the November elections,” said Jon Liss, Executive Director of Virginia New Majority. “We don’t know how many people will be impacted by the Governor’s decision, but we think it will be in the thousands.”

Virginia New Majority is meeting with the Governor and other advocacy groups following the press conference to finetune the new rights restoration process. The state-based civil rights group also intends to continue its push for a permanent solution that would automatically restore voting rights for everyone who has a felony conviction.

Task Force Says No Automatic Voting Rights Restoration for Former Felons

Task Force Says No Automatic Voting Rights Restoration for Former Felons

In Virginia, where over 350,000 people can’t vote due to past felony convictions, legal experts have said for years that the governor could allow former incarcerated felons to vote again by issuing an executive order that strikes that law. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced in January that he wanted the state’s general assembly to pass a law that would automatically restore voting rights to those with felonies. Today, a task force Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli assigned to the matter issued a report saying that neither the governor nor the general assembly have the legal power to restore former felons’ voting rights. 

The governor can only restore rights on a case-by-case basis and modify the clemency process. Gov. McDonnell did that last year to accelerate the number of people whose rights were restored —  4,659 as of April 12. But the “number of Virginians convicted of felonies who apply to have their rights restored is a relatively small percentage of the total number of persons” currently disenfranchised, reads the report. 

The general assembly can only restore rights by amending the state’s constitution, according to the task force, a much more difficult process that would involve passing a proposal through the entire legislature plus additional approval made by state referendum. 

The task force instead recommended two alternatives to a constitutional amendment: Assign individual rights restoration application reviews to an existing state agency or create a new agency for this work; or,  “augment the staff of the Secretary of the Commonwealth” for more rights restoration reviews. 

The Commonwealth currently has two employees working on clemency matters , but the secretary says this staffing level is “appropriate” for timely application reviews. 

The declaration that the governor can’t issue an executive order to do this automatically is a setback to civil rights organizations, many of which have built entire campaigns around pushing the governor to take this exact action. Many of them simply aren’t buying the task force’s findings.

The Virginia Constitution makes it clear that the Governor has the exclusive power to remove political disabilities from people convicted of a crime,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project. “The Virginia Code reinforces this, allowing the Governor to restore voting rights by whatever process he alone deems appropriate. Previous governors in Florida and Iowa - Republican governors, at that - have also signed executive orders for automatic rights restoration. The Attorney General’s conclusion is incorrect, and it is wrong to continue Virginia’s policy of punishing and keeping citizens politically isolated for years after paying their debt and re-entering society.”

“The Committee’s findings shouldn’t halt any action by Governor Bob McDonnell to sign an executive order automatically restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions,” said Tram Nguyen, deputy director of Virginia New Majority. “Gov. McDonnell called on the Legislature during his State of the Commonwealth address to pass a bill that would automatically restore voting rights for people with felony convictions. That didn’t materialize. We were hoping that today’s announcement would be a prelude to an executive order. We’re still cautiously optimistic the Governor will do the right thing, regardless of today’s outcome.”

Virginia is one of only two states — the other Kentucky — that has yet to update its felony disenfranchisement laws in any substantial way since the 19th century, when it was placed. In March, a U.S. District Court in eastern Virginia allowed a legal challenge to the disenfranchisment law to move forward on the grounds that it may violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. 




Here’s a Cheesy Slow-Motion Video of Brittney Griner’s Debut Dunks

Here's a Cheesy Slow-Motion Video of Brittney Griner's Debut Dunks

It’s safe to say that WNBA rookie Brittney Griner has already changed the game of women’s basketball. Yes, the 6’8” center dunks. But she’s also among the highest profile openly gay athletes in the country.

Griner made her professional debut over the weekend when her Phoenix Mercury lost to the Chicago Sky. She dunked twice, and it’s such a big deal that someone made a slow-motion video out of it.

Prince Is At the Center a Copyright Battle With Video-Sharing Site Vine

Prince Is At the Center a Copyright Battle With Video-Sharing Site Vine

Two important things to note about Prince. First, the singer will turn 55 (yeah, you read that right) on June 7. Second: he’s at the center of a fairly recent dispute over what exactly constitutes copyright infringement in the digital age.

Here’s what happened. Last month, the singer’s record label issued a takedown notice to Twitter to remove eight Vine posts featuring footage from a recent concert. Vine, of course, is the rapidly-growing video-sharing app that’s currently available to anyone with an iPhone. The videos were eventually removed from the site, but that’s not the point. But a key question emanating from the case is this: Can you infringe on someone in six seconds? In Prince’s case, the answer is obviously yes.

Jeff John Roberts takes a pretty deep dive at Gigom into some of copyright’s more recent history, specifically how fair use battles have played a big role in the development of hip-hop.

Right now, we’re enjoying a rich new age of images — everything from Vine videos to BuzzFeed cat GIFs that are shared, recast and then shared again. If lawyers began to throw copyright grenades into this mix, these splendid strains of creativity could be quickly snuffed out.

Roberts’ look is really worth reading in its entirety.

Oklahoma’s Latinos Join Recovery Effort Amid State’s Cultural Change

Oklahoma's Latinos Join Recovery Effort Amid State's Cultural Change

Back in 2011, CNN reported on the culture clash between Oklahoma’s white residents and its fast-growing Latino population. Like many parts of the country, Oklahoma’s population is growing a lot browner. The number of Latinos in the state has doubled over the past decade, from 179,000 to more than 332,000. 

That cultural shift hasn’t been easy. State lawmakers have passed some of the country’s harshest immigration legislation. Senator Ralph Shortey (R-Ok.) summed up some up the backlash, telling CNN that Latinos “are not assimilating and enriching the culture of Oklahoma. They are invading the culture…Oklahoma is not the melting pot…(Latinos are) not doing their culture any favors when it’s shoved into Oklahomans’ faces.”

It’s within that context that NPR’s Code Switch blog looked at how some undocumented Latino residents are fairing in the aftermath of last week’s devestating tornado, which struck just outside of Oklahoma City. Citizenship has become a key factor in people’s decisions about whether or not to seek help in recovery, and even the storm itself has unveiled some of the barriers faced by the country’s millions of undocumented immigrants.

From Code Switch:

“It’s stressful,” Amelia says in Spanish.

Amelia cleans offices to support her and her 8-year-old daughter. They lived in a trailer home in Moore that was in the path of last week’s tornado. When the storm came through town, Amelia rushed to pick her daughter up from Plaza Towers Elementary School. They then took cover under a bridge. Amelia says it’s a miracle they survived, but they still lost nearly everything.

“I was desperate,” Amelia says, “But also afraid to ask for help.”

But she knew she had no choice but to take the risk. It took her three days to build up her courage. Then she got in her car, talked to church volunteers and went to a public health clinic for counseling. She even approached an official and asked how the government could help rebuild her life. She says she can’t imagine having done any of this before the tornado.

Read more about Latinos in Oklahoma’s storm recovery efforts over at Code Switch


Watch Yassin Bey’s (aka Mos Def) New Video on Stop-and-Frisk

Watch Yassin Bey's (aka Mos Def) New Video on Stop-and-Frisk

Native Brooklyn rapper Yassin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, released a video last week that speaks out against the New York City Police Department’s controversial Stop-and-Frisk policy. The song, called “Don’t Tread On Me” is a public service announcement released in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy group that took the NYPD to federal court over the practice.

Federal Judge Rules Sheriff Arpaio Guilty of Racial Profiling

Federal Judge Rules Sheriff Arpaio Guilty of Racial Profiling

A federal judge in Arizona ruled on Friday that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies engage regularly in unconstitutional racial profiling against Latinos.  The judge ordered the department to immediately stop targeting Latinos based on their race.

The suit is a victory for civil rights groups and for Phoenix Latinos in general whose lives have been marred by Arpaio’s local immigration enforcement activities. The ruling is in response to a class action suit brought by the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund on behalf of Latino drivers who say they’re stopped, interrogated and detained because of their race.

The 142-page decision, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow writes:

[I]n determining whom it will detain and/or investigate… the MCSO continues to take into account a suspect’s Latino identity as one factor in evaluating those persons whom it encounters.


Thus, to the extent it uses race as a factor in arriving at reasonable suspicion or forming probable cause to stop or investigate persons of Latino ancestry for being in the country without authorization, it violates the Fourth Amendment. In addition, it violates the Plaintiff class’s right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The decision prohibits Arpaio’s department from using race as a factor in determining if a driver is an undocumented immigrants. It bars Arpaio from reporting suspects to ICE without suspicion that drivers and passengers are in violation of other state laws. 

Judge Snow’s ruling is also a subtle indictment of the federal government’s own immigration enforcement programs. During the period at issue in the suit, federal officials authorized the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office to  to inquire about immigration status and detain undocumented immigrants though the 287(g) program. The Department of Homeland Security later terminated the 287(g) contact with the county, in large part because of Arpaio’s illegal implementation, but Judge Snow notes that it was under that local-federal partnership that Arpaio was formally empowered to profile Latinos. He writes:

In the 287(g) training that ICE provided, and in other policies and procedures promulgated by the MCSO, MCSO deputies were instructed that they could consider race or “Mexican ancestry” as one factor among others in making law enforcement decisions during immigration enforcement operations without violating the legal requirements pertaining to racial bias in policing. 

The decision came days before the Tuesday deadline for Phoenix advocates to submit signatures for a sheriff recall election. As of yesterday, groups organizing for the recall still needed to collect about 90,000 signatures to compel a new election, the Phoenix New Times reports.  Now the advocates hope the court decision will push Arpaio to resign instead.

“We’re really pushing now for Arpaio to resign,” Respect Arizona campaign manager Lilia Alvarez told the New Times. “After this ruling, we should not have to spend the taxpayer dollars to have a recall special election.” 

Resignation would be out character for the recalcitrant sheriff. His office has said it will appeal the decision, and continues to deny it ever relied on race in it’s policing activities. 



Was Violent Felon Ban on Food Stamps Accepted With False Data?

Was Violent Felon Ban on Food Stamps Accepted With False Data?

When Democrats and Republicans unanimously accepted Sen. David Vitter’s amendment (#1056) that would ban violent felons from receiving food stamps during a Senate debate earlier this week, that proposal may have been launched from poor facts.

In Sen. Vitter’s press release about the amendment, he exclusively cites a report from Louisiana’s legislative auditor’s report to justify his amendment. For Vitter’s focus on those convicted of violent felonies, you’d think there was some information about the abundance of felons using food stamps. Quite the contrary, there’s not a single word in the report about violent felons.

Vitter’s press release doesn’t mention anything from the report on felons abusing food stamps either. He does point to other fraud the auditor found:

The audit covered the fiscal years from 2010 to 2012 and found that there were duplicate and overpayments of millions. The results show that more than $1.1 million was issued to 1,761 people who were in prison, 322 people gained benefits even though their wages exceeded $50,000, and 3,060 people used $2 million worth of benefits in a state other than Louisiana.

Few things here: One, that same report noted that 1,157 cases that resulted in $841,615 in overpayments happened because of state agency errors — mistakes “such as a caseworker entering incorrect income amounts or failing to remove an ineligible member from the case.”

That may seem like a big deal, but consider those are totals for 2010 and 2011. Total SNAP benefits in those years totaled $2.5 billion in Louisiana. $840,000 in overpayments from $2.5 billion is rather minute. What this has to do with former incarcerated citizens with violent felonies is unclear.

Not to mention, Louisiana has one of the lowest overpayment rates in the nation — of all the states last year they ranked fourth in low overpayment error rates, and had the second highest improvement among all the states.

This improvement happened while the state’s administrative burdens increased. From 2008 to 2012 the workload for SNAP administrative increased 76 percent — 259,770 cases to 380,011 cases — mostly because of the economic recession. Meanwhile, staffing at the state’s SNAP offices decreased from 1,315 to 1,090 caseworkers.

But the number of erroneous cases alone might explain some of the questionable findings in the auditor’s report, such as prison inmates using food stamps (How exactly does that work?).

As for the 3,060 who spent $2 billion in SNAP benefits in other states, Vitter fails to mention that this is legal. SNAP beneficiaries receive their food allocations by their resident state, but those can be used anywhere in the United States. That this might indicate fraud is purely speculative.

Fraud isn’t a major problem in the SNAP program at large. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the national program achieved its lowest overpayment error rate on record in 2011. “The overwhelming majority [of errors] result from honest mistakes by recipients, eligibility workers, data entry clerks, or computer programmers,” writes CBPP senior policy analyst Dottie Rosenbaum.


Once Again, Poor People With Cell Phones Become Scapegoats for the Right

Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter took to the floor this week to introduce an amendment that would gut the federal government’s Lifeline Wireless program as part of an amendment to the farm bill. The program, which others on the Right have said gives out free “Obamaphones”, offers subsidized cell phones to people who otherwise couldn’t afford them.

Vitter has become one of the loudest opponents of the program, which I’ve written before is a case study in how the right uses race to pervert the spending debate. Vitter used a bunch of racially coded language to express his outrage with the program. “I think the whole program is an entitlement mentality gone wild,” he says. “We have started the notion that folks are entitled to the government providing them with almost everything under the sun.”

It’s worth taking another look at the fact vs. fiction when it comes to these so-called “Obamaphones.” Check them out after the jump.

Minneapolis Teens Trade Hip-Hop Producing Training in Exchange for Homework

Minneapolis Teens Trade Hip-Hop Producing Training in Exchange for Homework

An after-school program set up by the North Community YMCA in Minneapolis gives young kids the opportunity and equipment needed to make rap music as a reward for keeping up with their schoolwork. Founder of the program called Beats And Rhymes say their mission is to “provide challenging, positive youth and career development opportunities for low income, culturally-diverse youth.”

The young students have rapped and rhymed about fun subjects like Cheetos and Khaki pants but they also get political in other songs with messages about bullying, violence and drugs.

Beats and Rhymes has a partnership with the Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, where close to 97 percent of the students are black, Latino or Asian.

Zimmerman Defense Team Releases New Evidence in Trayvon Martin Case

Zimmerman Defense Team Releases New Evidence in Trayvon Martin Case

On Thursday, Defense attorneys on the George Zimmerman case released evidence they discovered on Trayvon Martin’s cell phone, including text messages in which he wrote about taking part in an organized fight, smoking marijuana and being suspended from school. They intend to use the reputation-damaging evidence about Trayvon to paint a different picture of him than the one that’s been shared by his family and supporters.

Orlando Sentinel has the details:

The evidence packet contains more than two dozen photos, including one that shows Trayvon with gold teeth and two of him making an obscene gesture. Those have been widely circulated online since shortly after the shooting, and it’s not clear where defense attorneys found them, but as of Thursday, they officially became part of Zimmerman’s criminal case.

The text messages that Trayvon wrote about fighting may be the most damaging to the state.

Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson will decide if the evidence is admitted in to the case next week, the AP reports. However, it’s unclear when the trial will start because yesterday Zimmerman’s attorneys also filed paperwork asking the judge to delay the start of his trial for six weeks.

Racially Segregated ‘Black-Only Pods’ in Florida County Jail

Racially Segregated 'Black-Only Pods' in Florida County Jail

U.S. Department of Justice investigators found a number of unconstitutional practices at the Escambia County Jail facility in northwest Florida that “constitute serious risks to prisoner safety,” according to the Justice Department’s findings letter. Among those problems were insufficient access to mental healthcare for the inmates, and racial segregation of black prisoners. Said the U.S. Department of Justice in a release:

Specifically, the department concluded that known systemic deficiencies at the facility, stemming mainly from staffing shortages, continue to subject prisoners to excessive risk of assault by other prisoners and to inadequate mental health care. Additionally, the department found that until recently, the jail had an informal policy and practice of designating some of its housing units as only for African-American prisoners. By segregating some of its prisoners on the basis of race, the jail not only stigmatized and discriminated against many of its African-American prisoners, it also fanned combustible racial tensions within the jail.

The racial segregation of black inmates into “black-only pods” had been occurring for decades. Justice officials first discovered the practice in October last year during a tour. They warned Escambia County Jail officials then that this was a breach of 14th Amendment equal protection rights. According to the findings letter, “For decades, the Jail’s officials have assumed that segregating on the basis of race would lead to a safer facility.”

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, Jr., who wrote the findings letter, said such assumptions were “unproven and untethered to data” and “insufficient to justify an explicit racial classification.”

Escambia County’s population is 23.1 percent African-American, and 70 percent white. The county jail has 1,442 prisoners, 65 percent of whom are black and 35 percent white.

A new sheriff for Escambia, David Morgan, told the Justice Department this past April that the segregation had stopped but Austin wrote that the Justice Department “will want to ensure that any agreement we reach with the Jail completely and permanently eliminates racially segregated housing units.” Their investigation concluded that “the practice of segregating on the basis of race has compromised security by exacerbating racial tensions within the Facility.”

Escambia County is 23.1 percent African-American, and 70 percent white.

Other Justice Department findings:

  • Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults are a common occurrence, owed to a shortage of correctional staff, resulting in serious harm to prisoners
  • The jail does not provide timely and adequate access to appropriately skilled mental health care professionals
  • The jail routinely fails to provide appropriate medications to prisoners with mental illness
  • The jail provides inadequate housing and observation for prisoners with serious mental illness who are at risk for self injury or suicide

Austin wrote that these are all violations of the 14th amendment and the 8th amendment, which protects those convicted of criminal offenses.

Jennifer Lopez Calls New Verizon Deal to Court Latinos ‘No Brainer’

Jennifer Lopez Calls New Verizon Deal to Court Latinos 'No Brainer'

Jennifer Lopez is embarking on an ambitious new business venture. The entertainer, who has long reigned as one of the most popular Latinas in show business, has teamed up with Verizon Wireless to launch a new mobile brand aimed specifically at the country’s fast-growing Latino population. The venture, Viva Movil, has already begun to sell smartphones, tablets, and Verizon Wireless plans on its website.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lopez revealed that while the products have already been selling online, she plans to open more than a dozen Viva Movil stores in cities with large Latino populations, including Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. The first stores are set to open on June 15.

But what, exactly, does it mean for a store to “cater” to Latinos? According to Lopez, it boils down to accessibility. Employees will speak both English and Spanish and stores will be equipped with play areas for children since “Latinos often like to shop together as a family,” she says.

“It was a no-brainer to finally cater to an overlooked segment of the population that has emerged, to actually do something that caters specifically to them,” Lopez told the Times.

Lopez’s foray into the tech industry underscores the tremendous buying power of Latino smartphone users in the United States. It’s a consumer base that Verizon has long been in the business of courting; in 2010, the company launched an ambitious advertising campaign featuring a diverse group of young, savvy cell phone users who were determined to “Rule the Air.” Advocates criticized the company for blatantly courting users of color while also fighting against regulatory efforts to protect Internet access for vulnerable, low-income users.

Nonetheless, the company is moving forward. And for good reason. From the Times:

Lopez cited “staggering” demographic statistics that showed the Latino population had grown 43% in the last five years, compared with 5% growth for non-Latinos. Latinos currently make up more than 16% of the U.S. population, and that figure is expected to grow to 30% by 2050.

The devices and plans sold by Viva Movil are the same as Verizon’s, although Verizon doesn’t own a stake in the new company. Customers can purchase smartphones including the iPhone 5, Galaxy S 3 and the BlackBerry Z10 and sign up for Verizon’s 4G LTE network service.

In announcing the partnership, Verizon noted that Latinos are an especially important customer base for the industry and represented $1.2 trillion in buying power last year. The country’s No. 1 wireless carrier cited a recent Nielsen report that showed that 75% of Latinos in the U.S. own smartphones, higher than the overall percentage of Americans who own smartphones, at 63%.

It’s a smart business move, but will have profound implications on the industry. Research has shown that while everyone is jumping on the smartphone bandwagon, black and Latino users are more likely to depend on their phones for basic access, and Verizon is among the country’s most expensive Internet service providers.

Local Election Officials Show Bias Against Latino Voters, Especially on Voter ID

Local Election Officials Show Bias Against Latino Voters, Especially on Voter ID

Three Harvard grad students experimented with whether there was ethnic prejudice in local election administration by emailing every local or county election official, commission and supervisor in 48 states with Latino-sounding and non-Latino-sounding names and examined the responses. What they found were that local election officials were three-and-a-half to four-times more likely to respond to the emails that came from the non-Latino name, Greg Walsh, than the Latino name, Luis Rodriguez.

The gap in those responses grew three points wider when their emails contained questions about voter ID.

The students were able to find qualitative bias as well, meaning even when election officials responded to the Latino name, the information included was less accurate or informative than the information given to “Greg Walsh.”

“Our results indicate that changes to existing voting regulations are likely to differentially increase information costs for Latino voters because public officials are less responsive to their inquiries than to non-Latinos,” wrote the study’s authors.

The Washington Post asked True the Vote president Catherine Engelbrecht about the study. She didn’t pass it to her Latino counterpart Voto Honesto — which appears to no longer exist — but rather the Texan of German background took it upon herself to dismiss the findings, calling it “a conclusion in desperate search of a viable methodology.”

This is a clumsy flip of the common rejoinder against her own advocacy for voter ID laws, which voting rights advocates call “a solution in search of a problem.”

Says Aura Bogado, our Voting Rights Watch reporter from last year, and current blogger for The Nation: “The study is especially worrisome when one considers that elections officials still do not view Latinos—who makes up the nation’s fastest growing population—as a legitimate voting base.”

Recent voting data from Census on last November’s elections show a drop in the Hispanic voting rate from 2008

Zimmerman Attorneys Insist Jurors Should Hear About Trayvon Martin’s Pot Use

Zimmerman Attorneys Insist Jurors Should Hear About Trayvon Martin's Pot Use

An attorney for George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch leader charged with fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, is pressing a Florida judge to allow autopsy blood results be presented to jurors because they show the teenager tested positive for marijuana use.

Defense attorney Don West argued in his written response filed Tuesday that the marijuana use is relevant because Zimmerman told a police dispatcher shortly before shooting Trayvon that he believed the Miami Gardens teenager was suspicious and may have been on drugs.

The Orlando Sentinel points out West’s response comes two weeks after prosecutors filed paperwork asking Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson to ban defense attorneys and witnesses from telling jurors the autopsy results found marijuana in Martin’s blood.

Judge Nelson will likely rule on the issue during a day-long hearing May 28 in Sanford, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

Senate Accepts Deal to Kick Formerly Incarcerated Off Food Benefits

Senate Accepts Deal to Kick Formerly Incarcerated Off Food Benefits

Yesterday, Sen. Vitter of Louisiana offered up an amendment to permanently drop anyone ever convicted of a violent crime from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). According to Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Democrats in the Senate obliged him. The amendment is for a farm bill, which is currently being debated in the Senate.

Says Greenstein:

The amendment would bar from SNAP (food stamps), for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time — even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since. In addition, the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut. … Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.

Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, elderly or the disabled, and two-fifths of SNAP households live below half the poverty line.


According to Greenstein, if this amendment ends up in the farm bill and passes, it would hit African Americans particularly hard:

Given incarceration patterns in the United States, the amendment would have a skewed racial impact. Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.

Sen. Vitter is claiming that his amendment is only aimed at preventing those convicted of violent crimes from obtaining benefits, apparently under the logic that stripping them of what may be their only form of income assistance will lead to less violence. Curiously, he didn’t propose that johns who’ve hired sex workers would also be banned from SNAP.

Sen. Vitter also proposed an end to the so-called “Obama Phone” program, which started under President Ronald Reagan to help elderly and low-income with cellphone service, particularly in rural areas.

Voter Suppression Group Sues IRS For Delaying Their Voter Suppression

When IRS officials publicly apologized last week for sorting out tax-exemption applications from tea party groups, one tea party network seized the moment to claim victimization by the federal government. True the Vote, a conglomerate of conservative tea party and “Patriot” groups across the nation seeking restrictive voting laws, claimed that their application for 501(c)3 status was wrongfully put through rigorous review by the IRS. Now they are suing the IRS claiming that due to their “perceived conservative policy positions and affiliation with Tea Party organizations” they were “systematically targeted… for additional review and scrutiny … [and] was deliberately subjected to numerous unnecessary and burdensome requests for information about its operations and affiliations,” as it reads in their complaint.

For the record, the IRS officials have said that political bias was not a motivation for their sorting of applications. The inspector general who investigated the situation found no political bias, only that IRS officials in a Cincinnati office used “inappropriate criteria” for the sorting. So far as we know, the IRS employees sorted this way because of a spike in 501(c) 4 tax exemption status applications — the bulk of those from tea party and patriot groups. Meanwhile, a decrease in IRS staff and resources burdened their capacity to effectively deal with the application deluge.

But despite True the Vote’s claim, nothing that IRS officials are accused of or have admitted to would support True the Vote’s accusation. The criteria used to sort out applications was to find any application that had the words “Tea Party,” “Patriot” or “9/12” [a reference to conservative groups started by Glenn Beck] in the applicant’s name. One reason for this might be that many of these groups have flouted tax laws while some have called publicly for the elimination of taxes and the IRS altogether. Either way, True the Vote has none of those keywords in their name, so they can’t claim they were part of the sorted group.

They do have “Vote” in their name, though, and if they did receive extra scrutiny, it could be because 501(c)3 groups are not supposed to engage in activity that influences how people vote when it comes to political candidates and campaigns. And yet, True the Vote intervened in the recall election for Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin last year, and they are currently leading an intervention in Rep. Allen West’s already failed re-election run as we speak. In that sense, True the Vote wasn’t profiled by the IRS, they profiled themselves.

True the Vote’s founder Catherine Engelbrecht said in a press release: “After answering hundreds of questions and producing thousands of documents, we’re done waiting. The IRS does not have the power to pocket veto our application.”

The IRS does have the authority to request for additional information from an organization seeking non-profit status if that group’s activities have engaged in questionable political activity. As Kim Barker and Justin Elliott reported at ProPublica:

In the 1970s, that meant flagging all applications for primary and secondary schools in the south facing desegregation. In the 1980s, during the wave of consolidation in the health-care industry, all applications from health-care nonprofits needed to be sent to headquarters. The division’s different field offices had to send these applications up the chain.

The fact that True the Vote’s membership largely consists of tea party members only adds to their dubious reputation. But True the Vote has been down the litigious road before — a few times actually. Last year, they basically created a cottage industry out of shaking down states with nuisance lawsuits around election practices, while pressuring those states to put restrictive voting polices in place. Looks like the IRS is just the latest caught in their scheme.

Hear me discuss True the Vote and the IRS flap on NPR’s “Tell Me More” here:

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