Currently showing posts tagged Civil Rights

  • Maine Democrats successfully block bill to put Riverview mental patients in prison

    Democrats in the Maine Senate on April 6, 2016 blocked a bill by Gov. Paul LePage that would allow the state to transfer mental health patients at Riverview Psychiatric Center to a super-maximum security prison, even if they had never been convicted of a crime.

    In a 17-18 vote, the 15 Senate Democrats were joined by three Senate Republicans -- Roger Katz of Augusta, Brian Langley of Ellsworth and David Woodsome of North Waterboro -- in blocking the bill.

    The bill would have allowed the state to transfer patients from Riverview to the Intensive Mental Health Unit, or IMHU, at the state prison in Warren. Instead, the Senate passed an amended version of the bill, which ensures patients in state custody will continue to receive the appropriate level of care, even if they are transferred from Riverview.

    “We agree with the governor that patients from Riverview need quality health care in a facility that provides hospital level of care,” said Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. “Noncriminal patients do not belong in a prison but in a hospital where treatment is the priority.”

    Having been passed in the House earlier this week, the bill now faces final votes in both chambers.

    “The very idea that patients who have never been convicted of a crime would be put in a prison setting is appalling, and I’m thankful we were able to defeat this bill,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, the lead Senate Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee. “Instead, we passed a responsible bill that recognizes the sometimes dangerous environment at Riverview while respecting patients’ rights.”

    As amended, LD 1577 requires forensic patients in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services to be cared for in facilities that provide hospital level of care. Forensic patients are those who are determined by the court to be incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible.

    The measure requires DHHS to place patients in state-owned hospitals that provide the appropriate level of care, such as Dorothea Dix in Bangor. If that is not possible, the next choice would be another accredited hospital in Maine. Barring that, patients could be sent to an accredited hospital out of state.

    Last month, Dr. James Fine, the psychiatrist at the IMHU, told the committee that the unit is nothing like a hospital in that it is focused on behavior control and security. He also said that the intensive mental health unit can be dangerous, with a recent rape reported within the unit and potentially fatal fights.

    According to Fine and the Department of Corrections, if Riverview patients were brought to the IMHU, they would be kept in a unit that serves primarily inmates with a history of violent crime such as murder and rape. They would spend periods of the day subject to lockdown, have regular interactions with prison guards, be shackled during movement and be subject to other protocols meant to handle inmates at a maximum-security prison. Behavioral problems would be addressed with mace, shackles or other interventions typical of corrections facilities. The committee heard a graphic description of how inmates at the IMHU are sometimes forcibly “extracted” from their cells.

    During his appearance before the committee last month, LePage said that when he proposed the bill he believed that the IMHU provided the same level of care as a hospital. When he learned he was mistaken, he said that it ought to.

  • Maine's Rep. Gideon denounces effort to roll back LGBT rights

    Petition effort aims to legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity

     Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon on April 6, 2016 denounced any effort to legalize discrimination against LGBT Mainers.  

    “Michael Heath fundamentally misunderstands Maine people. He should know by now that we reject discrimination in any form,” said Gideon, D-Freeport. “If he wants to avoid another crushing defeat, he should abandon this effort to undermine our values. We will stand up for the human rights of all Maine people again.”

    Heath is leading a campaign to remove sexual orientation and gender identity from Maine’s Human Rights Act and has initiated a petition effort to do so. In 2005, Maine voters decided to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the Act, which protects Mainers from discrimination in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and credit.

    Heath, a longtime opponent of LGBT Mainers, fought the 2005 changes to the Maine Human Rights Act and marriage equality referendum approved by voters in 2012.

  • Penobscot chief and tribe deciding what action is next over river ruling

    Penobscot Indian Nation members performed before the Veazie Dam removal. The tribe ties the river to their history. There are aprox. 2,300 tribal members.

     By Ramona du Houx

    "Our family names, our language, our creation stories, all aspects of who we are as a people come from our relationship to the river. We could not stand by and let the state sever those ties,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis over the actions the tribe has taken to reclaim their water rights.

    On December 16, 2015 a federal judge ruled that the Penobscot Nation reservation includes the islands on the main stem of the Penobscot River but not the water itself.

    In his ruling, U.S. District Judge George Singal, said that members of the tribe may take fish from the entirety of that section of the river for sustenance.

    “The court’s ruling that the tribe’s reservation boundaries for sustenance fishing are ‘in the entire main stem of the river’ is a significant victory,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. “It also appears that those boundaries apply to our hunting and trapping rights and authorities.”

     Some in the community are concerned that the reservation is confined to island surfaces. Hence the Penobscot nation might appeal the decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston within the next 60 days.

    The rulings came more than three years after the tribe filed a lawsuit against the state as a result of former Attorney General William Schneider sending a letter dated Aug. 8, 2012, to the tribal warden service saying that the state—not the tribe—has the authority to charge people with violating fishing regulations and water safety rules.

    The letter came after a season of elvers fishing was bringing in a bounty and more fishermen wanted to fish in Penobscot territory. Gov. Paul LePage put limits on how many fishermen and how much they could fish. The tribe said he didn’t have a right to do that in their lands so AG. Schneider went to work. At that time the EPA also said Maine was not in complience with water quality.

    In recent years, market demand for elvers has increased dramatically. Elvers are highly valued in the far east (Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea) where they are cultured and reared to adult size for the food fish market. Due to recent intense market demand, elvers have now become the most valuable marine resource in terms of price per pound which varies from $25 to $350.

    The tribe argued that its reservation includes the water in the river because of the tribe’s sustenance fishing rights. There have been many treaties with the Penobscot over hundreds of years, all of which grant the tribe the river water rights as part of their “lands.”

    A year later, most municipalities along the river were granted intervener status in the case to support the state’s contention that the reservation included the islands but not the water. Many of the municipalities that signed on were pressured by corporate businesses along the river, like paper companies. The irony is Verso, Redshield and the Bucksport mill, all “interveners” have all closed since then.  The corporations said a ruling in the tribe’s favor would give the Indians control over water quality on the river. Thus, they might impose stricter rules on discharges into the river.

    In 2014 the state sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over water quality in tribal waters. Because the EPA referred to tribal waters as the standard the state has been put in a bad postion. The battle continues in court. The state claims the EPA created a double standard for water quality — one for tribal waters and another for the rest of the state. 

     The State Representative for the Penobscot nation left the legislature last spring as tensions between the state and his people became too strained. Gov. LePage continues to his attempts to undermine the Indians sovereign rights, on the behalf of the people of Maine. The majority of state citizens reject LePage’s claims.

  • 60 years ago today Rosa Park helped spark America's Civil Rights movement

    Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on 1 December 1955 was one of the most important symbols of the civil rights movement in America

    President Barack Obama's statement on this historic anniversary:

    "Rosa Parks held no elected office.  She was not born into wealth or power.  Yet sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks changed America.  Refusing to give up a seat on a segregated bus was the simplest of gestures, but her grace, dignity, and refusal to tolerate injustice helped spark a Civil Rights Movement that spread across America.  Just a few days after Rosa Parks’ arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, a little-known, 26 year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. stood by her side, along with thousands of her fellow citizens.  Together, they began a boycott.  Three-hundred and eighty-five days later, the Montgomery buses were desegregated, and the entire foundation of Jim Crow began to crumble."

    "Like so many giants of her age, Rosa Parks is no longer with us.  But her lifetime of activism – and her singular moment of courage – continue to inspire us today.  Rosa Parks reminds us that there is always something we can do.  It is always within our power to make America better.  Because Rosa Parks kept her seat, thousands of ordinary commuters walked instead of rode.  Because they walked, countless other quiet heroes marched.  Because they marched, our union is more perfect.  Today, we remember their heroism.  Most of all, we recommit ourselves to continuing their march."

  • LePage misses his own veto deadline allowing Asylum-seekers to receive General Assistance, and 19 other bills to pass

    A rally was held this spring in favor of the state providing General Assistance for asylum- seekers who legally can’t work because they are waiting for the government to process their papers. Photo by Portland City Councilor Jon Hink

    More than a thousand immigrant asylum-seekers, and their families in Maine, will be able to get General Assistance for the next two years despite Governor Paul LePage’s vehement opposition.

    When the state two-year budget was finalized funding was cut for these immigrants. Most of these people are victims of violence and persecution fleeing to America. Immigrants similar to so many whom have built this country. The city councils in Portland and Lewiston were outraged, and immediately voted to fund assistance for these asylum-seekers as leaving them homeless and hungry would have been an act against humanity.

    The majority of immigrant asylum-seekers have skills and trades that they can assimilate into Maine’s business world, given time. The problem is they have to wait for their papers from the Federal Government and during that waiting period they are not allowed to work. They have no way of supporting themselves or their families during this time.

    It goes against the founding of our nation to persecute immigrants but LePage’s has falsely called these refugees, “illegal aliens.”  His re-election campaign was fueled by his rants about our future citizens.

    How did they manage to get lawmarkers to give them General Assistance with so much opposition from the governor?

    Many lawmakers wanted to help the asslym-seekers but couldn’t do so within the budget process. So, a separate law, LD 369 allows those seeking asylum to receive General Assistance aid for a period of 24 months while their asylum claims are being processed made it through the legislature. It was on its way to being vetoed by the Governor with an override of the veto looking unlikely.

    “LD 369, which clarifies that municipalities may support legally present immigrants, received bipartisan support in both the Maine House and the Maine Senate. It will now become law because the time for a Governor’s veto has expired,” said Representative Drew Gattine, House Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. “This is a giant step forward for Maine. We need to continue to attract and retain talented and educated people to our State from around the world in order to replenish our skilled work force. New Mainers will play an important role in Maine’s future and we need to invest in their success.”

     LD 369 and 19 other bills never received a Governor’s veto. Because the legislature is still in session, and hasn’t adjourned, the Governor missed his own veto deadline.

     Although LePage disputes this fact the Maine Constitution is crystal clear.

    "The Constitution and historical precedent make clear that these bills are law, " said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick. "The Governor is wrong."

    Article IV of the Constitution states: “If the bill or resolution shall not be returned by the Governor within 10 days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to the Governor, it shall have the same force and effect as if the Governor had signed it unless the Legislature by their adjournment prevent its return, in which case it shall have such force and effect, unless returned within 3 days after the next meeting of the same Legislature which enacted the bill or resolution; if there is no such next meeting of the Legislature which enacted the bill or resolution, the bill or resolution shall not be a law.”

    “The Maine Constitution is clear on this. The governor had 10 days to veto the bills, he did not veto them, and now the bills will become law,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “We do not have a government of one, and the governor cannot make up the rules as he goes along.”

    Asylum seekers escaping persecution including torture, rape and detention are in the United States legally.

    The LePage administration has been in a legal battle for the last year over General Assistance funding for municipalities, holding up payments to cities for legal non-citizens. Several cities, including Portland and Westbrook, sued the state. In a recent ruling, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren affirmed the state’s right to withhold funding for aid to immigrants who are ineligible under federal law.

    The full list of the 20 bills that made it into law because the governor missed his ten day veto deadline are:

    LD 25 "An Act To Protect the Privacy of Citizens from Domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Uses" Sponsored by Representative Diane Russell

    LD 78 "An Act Regarding Limitations on Certain Storm Water Fees" Sponsored by Senator Nathan Libby

    LD 113 "An Act To Reduce the Penalties for Certain Drug Offenses" Sponsored by Senator Roger Katz

    LD 234 "An Act To Adjust Appropriations and Allocations from the General Fund and Other Funds for the Expenditures of State Government for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 2015" (Emergency) (Governor's Bill) Sponsored by Representative Margaret Rotundo

    LD 299 "An Act To Protect Children in Municipal and School Facilities by Requiring Boiler Inspections" Sponsored by Senator Dawn Hill

    LD 369 "An Act To Align Municipal General Assistance Programs with the Immigration Status Policies of the Department of Health and Human Services" Sponsored by Senator Eric Brakey

    LD 522 "An Act To Clarify a Recently Enacted Law Designed To Expand the Number of Qualified Educators" Sponsored by Senator David Burns

    LD 722 "An Act To Strengthen Penalties for Abuse of General Assistance" Sponsored by Senator Eric Brakey

    LD 756 "An Act To Enhance the Address Confidentiality Program Regarding Property Records" Sponsored by Representative Michelle Dunphy

    LD 822 "An Act To Allow a Former Spouse of a Member of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System To Begin Collecting Benefits When the Former Spouse Reaches the Member's Retirement Age" Sponsored by Representative Patrick Corey

    LD 870 "An Act To Amend the Maine Spruce Budworm Management Laws" Sponsored by Senator James Dill

    LD 1013 "An Act To Prevent the Shackling of Pregnant Prisoners" Sponsored by Senator Anne Haskell

    LD 1039 "An Act To Amend the Polygraph Examiners Act" Sponsored by Senator Anne Haskell

    LD 1085 "An Act To Implement the Recommendations of the Right To Know Advisory Committee Concerning Receipt of a Request for Public Records"

    LD 1108 "An Act To Protect Children and the Public from Electronic Cigarette Vapor" Sponsored by Representative Jeff McCabe

    LD 1134 "An Act To Require the Department of Health and Human Services To Distribute Information Regarding Down Syndrome to Providers of Prenatal and Postnatal Care and to Genetic Counselors" Sponsored by Senator Amy Volk

    LD 1185 "An Act To Establish the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Network Access Fund" Sponsored by Representative Norman Higgins

    LD 1303 "An Act To Stabilize and Streamline the Department of Environmental Protection's Ground Water Oil Clean-up Fund and Maine Coastal and Inland Surface Oil Clean-up Fund" Sponsored by Senator Thomas Saviello

    LD 1391 "An Act Regarding the Treatment of Forensic Patients" Sponsored by Representative Richard Malaby

  • The Right for Gays to Marry happens with Supreme Court Ruling

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on June 26, 2015 that it is legal for all Americans, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, to marry the people they love.

     "This is a beautiful day for millions of loving, committed couples across the country. In dozens of states there are couples that share homes, raise children and remain committed to each other through good times and bad, but have been denied the basic right of getting married to each other. Today that changed and same sex couples in every state will have the same rights they enjoy in Maine and the other states that have legalized same-sex marriage," said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. 

    The decision is a historic victory for gay rights activists who have fought for years in the lower courts. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia already recognize marriage equality. The remaining 13 states ban these unions, even as public support has reached record levels across the country.

    The justices found that under the 14th Amendment, states must issues marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognize same-sex unions that were legally performed in other states.

  • LePage threatens to withhold voter approved funds for Good Will-Hinckley if Eves is hired by school

    Speaker of the Maine House Mark Eves looks out over Augusta from his office photo: Ramona du Houx

    by Ramona du Houx

    "Gov. LePage is blackmailing a school for at-risk children because I have opposed his policies. He has threatened the Good Will-Hinckley School to either fire me or lose over $500,000 in budgeted state funds and thereby lose another $2,000,000 in private funding. The Governor knows that these financial losses would put the school out of business, but he has refused to back down. This is an abuse of power that jeopardizes Maine children," wrote House Speaker Mark Eves in response to the recent actions by Gov. Paul LePage to block his job at Good Will-Hinckley.

    Today board of directors of Good Will-Hinckley announced that they rescinded its offer to Eves to be the next president of the organization, which includes the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences charter school in Fairfield.

    “The Board of Directors of Good Will-Hinckley, after a great deal of consideration, has voted to seek a new direction for the institution’s leadership,” wrote Good Will-Hinckley Board Chairman Jack Moore said in a statement. “The basis for this decision is grounded in the institution’s desire not to be involved in political controversy that will divert attention away from our core mission of serving children and has the potential to jeopardize the future of our school.”

    Good Will-Hinckley and Eves signed an employment contract in May, prompting an outrage from Republican Governor LePage. Since then, the Harold Alfond Foundation a major contributor to the school, told the board it would withhold $2.75 million in grant funding if state funding didn't happen.

    "The Governor is not above the law and his illegal use of our government money to retaliate against the Speaker of the House must not be allowed to stand," said Civil Rights Attorney for Mark Eves, David Webbert. "Governor LePage has violated our Nation’s highest law by using taxpayer money to retaliate against a top leader of Maine’s Legislature. The Governor threatened to withhold over $500,000 in already approved state funding for the Good Will-Hinckley School for at-risk children unless the School fired Mark Eves from his new job as President."

    Political games should never govern the well being of an insitutition that gives kids futures with solid educations.

    Eves, with his legal counsel, released these full statements in response to the apparent blackmail by LePage:

    "Gov. LePage is blackmailing a school for at-risk children because I have opposed his policies. He has threatened the Good Will-Hinckley School to either fire me or lose over $500,000 in budgeted state funds and thereby lose another $2,000,000 in private funding. The Governor knows that these financial losses would put the school out of business, but he has refused to back down. This is an abuse of power that jeopardizes Maine children. 

    "The Governor’s actions represent the worst kind of vendetta politics Maine has ever seen. If it goes unchecked, no legislator will feel safe in voting his conscience for fear that the Governor will go after the legislator’s family and livelihood. For 15 years, I worked on the frontlines with struggling Maine families across the state as a professional clinical therapist. I’ve helped children, adults, and seniors on the edge facing mental illness and deep poverty. My personal experience with these struggling children, families, and seniors has guided me every day in the Legislature.

    "My father served as a chaplain in the military. My mother was a teacher. They raised me and my six siblings to give back to our communities and to serve the public. These are the values that led me to a career in counseling and behavioral mental health and they guide me each day in the Legislature.

    "The Governor’s actions should deeply trouble every single taxpayer, Maine resident, and member of our citizen legislature. I have strongly disagreed with the Governor on many issues, but I have never gone after his family the way he has gone after me personally, my wife, and my three children."


    Statement of Civil Rights Attorney for Mark Eves, David Webbert:

    "Governor LePage has violated our Nation’s highest law by using taxpayer money to retaliate against a top leader of Maine’s Legislature. The Governor threatened to withhold over $500,000 in already approved state funding for the Good Will-Hinckley School for at-risk children unless the School fired Mark Eves from his new job as President.

    "As was his plan, the Governor left the School with no choice but to terminate Mark Eves without cause. In turn, Mark has been forced to hire legal counsel to protect his ability to provide for his three young children.

    "Under the First Amendment, the Governor is clearly prohibited from using the money of our state government to exact revenge on public officials because they do not vote the way the Governor wants. This is not how Maine’s system of government is supposed to work.

     "The Governor’s tyrannical behavior threatens our democratic institutions. Legislators must be able to freely cast their votes in accordance with their best judgment and good conscience, without fear of political interference and intimidation. If the Governor’s blatant retaliation goes unchecked, it threatens the independence of Maine’s legislature and its ability to serve their critical role as a check on abuse of power by this or any future Governor."

  • Maine Superior Court rules DHHS acted beyond authority denying General Assistance to non-US citizens

     Photo of rally to protect General Assistance for asylum seekers and refugees in May, 2015

    By Ramona du Houx

    Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren ruled today that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) overstepped its authority and acted illegally in its efforts to force municipalities to deny General Assistance to non-U.S. citizens who are lawfully in the country.

    “The court has declared that the Department of Health and Humans Services exceeded its authority and acted unlawfully,” said Zach Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine. “The department’s efforts to deny life-saving assistance to asylum seekers and other legal immigrants cannot be supported by the law.”

    The Legislature has an opportunity to settle the dispute by clarifying its intent in regards to providing assistance to asylum seekers and others in the country legally, a practice that dates back to the beginnings of General Assistance in Maine.

    “It’s a tragedy that lives are hanging in the balance when the Legislature could easily resolve this issue and protect hundreds of Maine’s most vulnerable residents and prevent them from becoming homeless,” said Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners. “The Legislature should make clear that asylum seekers and others in the country legally should receive General Assistance.”

    In July 2014, MEJP and the ACLU joined a lawsuit challenging administrative action taken by DHHS to deny General Assistance to asylum seekers and other immigrants in Maine lawfully.

    DHHS Commission Mary Mayhew first proposed denying general assistance to some immigrants in December 2013. Following a public hearing attended by nearly 200 people who opposed the rule change, DHHS submitted the proposal to the Maine attorney general for legal approval. In May 2014, the attorney general informed DHHS that the rule would not be approved as it was likely unconstitutional 

    Rather than withdraw the proposal, Mayhew altered it to deny General Assistance to even more categories of immigrants and informed municipalities that the state would no longer reimburse them for general assistance payments made to the specified people.

    Further, Gov. Paul LePage declared that the state would cut off reimbursement for all general assistance payments, not only those made to immigrants, to towns that did not adopt the rule change. 

    “General Assistance provides temporary support for people who are trying to build a new life after escaping terrible violence,” Merrill said. “The vast majority of people impacted by this change are asylum seekers who are lawfully seeking refuge here. They are caught in legal limbo, unable to work and with few resources. The LePage administration is playing politics with people’s lives.”

    The complaint charged that DHHS failed to follow the required rulemaking procedure for implementing such a change. It further charged that denying General Assistance on the basis of immigration status constitutes illegal discrimination.

    The original case was filed by the Maine Municipal Association, as well as the cities of Portland and Westbrook. The complaint, along with more information about the plaintiffs, can be found online

  • Selma: The March for voting rights fifty years later with Pres. Obama

    Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1965, hundreds of people gathered in Selma, Alabama to march to the capital city of Montgomery. They marched to ensure that African Americans could exercise their constitutional right to vote — even in the face of a segregationist system that wanted to make it impossible.

    On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, state troopers and county members violently attacked the marchers, leaving many of them injured and bloodied — and some of them unconscious.

    But the marchers didn't stop. Two days later, Dr. Martin Luther King led roughly 2,500 people back to the Pettus Bridge before turning the marchers around — obeying a court order that prevented them from making the full march.

    The third march started on March 21, with protection from 1,000 military policemen and 2,000 Army troops. Thousands of people joined along the way to Montgomery, with roughly 25,000 people entering the capital on the final leg of the march. On March 25, the marchers made it to the entrance of the Alabama State Capitol building, with a petition for Gov. George Wallace.

    Only a few months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965. The Voting Rights Act was designed to eliminate legal barriers at the state and local level that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment — after nearly a century of unconstitutional discrimination.

    The President's full remarks:

    It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes.  And John Lewis is one of my heroes.

    Now, I have to imagine that when a younger John Lewis woke up that morning 50 years ago and made his way to Brown Chapel, heroics were not on his mind.  A day like this was not on his mind.  Young folks with bedrolls and backpacks were milling about.  Veterans of the movement trained newcomers in the tactics of non-violence; the right way to protect yourself when attacked.  A doctor described what tear gas does to the body, while marchers scribbled down instructions for contacting their loved ones.  The air was thick with doubt, anticipation and fear.  And they comforted themselves with the final verse of the final hymn they sung:

    “No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
    Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.”

    And then, his knapsack stocked with an apple, a toothbrush, and a book on government -- all you need for a night behind bars -- John Lewis led them out of the church on a mission to change America.

    President and Mrs. Bush, Governor Bentley, Mayor Evans, Sewell, Reverend Strong, members of Congress, elected officials, foot soldiers, friends, fellow Americans:

    As John noted, there are places and moments in America where this nation’s destiny has been decided.  Many are sites of war -- Concord and Lexington, Appomattox, Gettysburg.  Others are sites that symbolize the daring of America’s character -- Independence Hall and Seneca Falls, Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral.

    Selma is such a place.  In one afternoon 50 years ago, so much of our turbulent history -- the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham; and the dream of a Baptist preacher -- all that history met on this bridge. 

    It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.  And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others, the idea of a just America and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America -- that idea ultimately triumphed.

    As is true across the landscape of American history, we cannot examine this moment in isolation.  The march on Selma was part of a broader campaign that spanned generations; the leaders that day part of a long line of heroes.

    We gather here to celebrate them.  We gather here to honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod; tear gas and the trampling hoof; men and women who despite the gush of blood and splintered bone would stay true to their North Star and keep marching towards justice.

    They did as Scripture instructed:  “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”  And in the days to come, they went back again and again.  When the trumpet call sounded for more to join, the people came –- black and white, young and old, Christian and Jew, waving the American flag and singing the same anthems full of faith and hope.  A white newsman, Bill Plante, who covered the marches then and who is with us here today, quipped that the growing number of white people lowered the quality of the singing.  (Laughter.)  To those who marched, though, those old gospel songs must have never sounded so sweet.

    In time, their chorus would well up and reach President Johnson.  And he would send them protection, and speak to the nation, echoing their call for America and the world to hear:  “We shall overcome.”  (Applause.)  What enormous faith these men and women had.  Faith in God, but also faith in America. 

    The Americans who crossed this bridge, they were not physically imposing.  But they gave courage to millions.  They held no elected office.  But they led a nation.  They marched as Americans who had endured hundreds of years of brutal violence, countless daily indignities –- but they didn’t seek special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them almost a century before.  (Applause.)

    What they did here will reverberate through the ages.  Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.

    As we commemorate their achievement, we are well-served to remember that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them.  Back then, they were called Communists, or half-breeds, or outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse –- they were called everything but the name their parents gave them.  Their faith was questioned.  Their lives were threatened.  Their patriotism challenged.

    And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?  (Applause.)  What could more profoundly vindicate the idea of America than plain and humble people –- unsung, the downtrodden, the dreamers not of high station, not born to wealth or privilege, not of one religious tradition but many, coming together to shape their country’s course? 

    What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?  (Applause.)

    That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience.  That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance.  It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents:  “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.”  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  (Applause.) 

    These are not just words.  They’re a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape our own destiny.  For founders like Franklin and Jefferson, for leaders like Lincoln and FDR, the success of our experiment in self-government rested on engaging all of our citizens in this work.  And that’s what we celebrate here in Selma.  That’s what this movement was all about, one leg in our long journey toward freedom.  (Applause.) 

    The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny.  It’s the same instinct that drew immigrants from across oceans and the Rio Grande; the same instinct that led women to reach for the ballot, workers to organize against an unjust status quo; the same instinct that led us to plant a flag at Iwo Jima and on the surface of the Moon.  (Applause.) 

    It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.  (Applause.)  

    That’s what makes us unique.  That’s what cements our reputation as a beacon of opportunity.  Young people behind the Iron Curtain would see Selma and eventually tear down that wall.  Young people in Soweto would hear Bobby Kennedy talk about ripples of hope and eventually banish the scourge of apartheid.  Young people in Burma went to prison rather than submit to military rule.  They saw what John Lewis had done.  From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world’s greatest power and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom. 

    They saw that idea made real right here in Selma, Alabama.  They saw that idea manifest itself here in America.

    Because of campaigns like this, a Voting Rights Act was passed.  Political and economic and social barriers came down.  And the change these men and women wrought is visible here today in the presence of African Americans who run boardrooms, who sit on the bench, who serve in elected office from small towns to big cities; from the Congressional Black Caucus all the way to the Oval Office.  (Applause.)   

    Because of what they did, the doors of opportunity swung open not just for black folks, but for every American.  Women marched through those doors.  Latinos marched through those doors.  Asian Americans, gay Americans, Americans with disabilities -- they all came through those doors.  (Applause.)  Their endeavors gave the entire South the chance to rise again, not by reasserting the past, but by transcending the past. 

    What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say.  And what a solemn debt we owe.  Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?

    First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day’s commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough.  If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done.  (Applause.)  The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.

    Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism.  For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair.

    Just this week, I was asked whether I thought the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report shows that, with respect to race, little has changed in this country.  And I understood the question; the report’s narrative was sadly familiar.  It evoked the kind of abuse and disregard for citizens that spawned the Civil Rights Movement.  But I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed.  What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic.  It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom.  And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.  (Applause.)

    We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.  If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.  Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed.  Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.  To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better. 

    Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes.  We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true.  We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. 

    We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won.  We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.  “We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin once wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.” 

    There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem.  And this is work for all Americans, not just some.  Not just whites.  Not just blacks.  If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.  (Applause.) 

    With such an effort, we can make sure our criminal justice system serves all and not just some.  Together, we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on –- the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect, and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago -– the protection of the law.  (Applause.)  Together, we can address unfair sentencing and overcrowded prisons, and the stunted circumstances that rob too many boys of the chance to become men, and rob the nation of too many men who could be good dads, and good workers, and good neighbors.  (Applause.)

    With effort, we can roll back poverty and the roadblocks to opportunity.  Americans don’t accept a free ride for anybody, nor do we believe in equality of outcomes.  But we do expect equal opportunity.  And if we really mean it, if we’re not just giving lip service to it, but if we really mean it and are willing to sacrifice for it, then, yes, we can make sure every child gets an education suitable to this new century, one that expands imaginations and lifts sights and gives those children the skills they need.  We can make sure every person willing to work has the dignity of a job, and a fair wage, and a real voice, and sturdier rungs on that ladder into the middle class.

    And with effort, we can protect the foundation stone of our democracy for which so many marched across this bridge –- and that is the right to vote.  (Applause.)  Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote.  As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed.  Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.

    How can that be?  The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts.  (Applause.)  President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office.  President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office.  (Applause.)  One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it.  If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.  That’s how we honor those on this bridge.  (Applause.) 

    Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or even the President alone.  If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples.  Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, the number of bubbles on a bar of soap.  It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. 

    What’s our excuse today for not voting?  How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?  (Applause.)  How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?  Why are we pointing to somebody else when we could take the time just to go to the polling places?  (Applause.)  We give away our power.   

    Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years.  We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace.  We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives.  We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined.  But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

    That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. 

    For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction -- because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it.

    Look at our history.  We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are.

    We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

    We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.  (Applause.)

    We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.  (Applause.)  We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

    We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied. 

    We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge. (Applause.) 

    We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

    We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

    We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.  (Applause.)   

    We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.”  We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

    That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.  (Applause.)  We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.  That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march. 

    And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day.  You are America.  Unconstrained by habit and convention.  Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be. 

    For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed.  And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.

    Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.  Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.”  “We The People.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  “Yes We Can.”  (Applause.)  That word is owned by no one.  It belongs to everyone.  Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

    Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.  Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer.  Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile.  Somebody already got us over that bridge.  When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:  “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on [the] wings like eagles.  They will run and not grow weary.  They will walk and not be faint.”  (Applause.) 

    We honor those who walked so we could run.  We must run so our children soar.  And we will not grow weary.  For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.

    May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.  Thank you, everybody.  (Applause.) 

  • No indictment in Ferguson shooting of unarmed black teen - Pres. Obama's remarks

    There was no indictment in Ferguson shooting of unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury took three months to decide not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for the death of Michael Brown.


    Shortly after the indictment was read President Barack Obama made a statement on national TV,


     "I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.  Let me repeat Michael’s father’s words:  'Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer.  No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain.  I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.'  Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone. We should be honoring their wishes," said the President. 


    The grand jury process was not conducted as per normal protocols. The grand jury, with nine white and three black members, heard an unprecedented amount of evidence without having any recommendation by the prosecutor. Nine jurors in agreement were needed to bring charges. The grand jury's process seemed more like a trial than a process to decide if there was “reasonable doubt as to the lawful killing of an individual.” Brown was an unarmed black 18 year old shot 12 times. Trayvon Martin was a young black unarmed man shot dead in Florida... the list unfortunately goes on and points directly to discrimination.


    "Finally, we need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation. The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color," said Obama.<!--more-->


    From New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., to Seattle and many other cities in-between people peacefully protested the grand jury decision. The emphasis is on peaceful. For many the scenes reminded them of the race riots in the late 1960's but the major difference was in 2014 they were peaceful protests.


    In Ferguson a few buildings and cars were set on fire by what TV stations reported as young adults. The majority protestors took their efforts to another area of town where they concluded the nights peaceful demonstrations. Throughout the city emotions were high. The President said, "we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry. It’s an understandable reaction."


    Questions soon arouse as to why officials in Ferguson arranged for the announcement to be made so late in the night, as the only previous violent protests had taken place after the sun set. Others asked why buildings and cars were allowed to burn out of control when there were very few protestors left in the streets by 11pm. Shots that were fired were never traced back to the people who fired them, so nobody knows if protestors did it or the police. St. Louis County reported that 61 people had been arrested.


    The Federal Government is pursuing their own investigation.


    The President's full remarks:

    10:08 P.M. EST



         THE PRESIDENT:  As you know, a few moments ago, the grand jury deliberating the death of Michael Brown issued its decision. It’s an outcome that, either way, was going to be subject of intense disagreement not only in Ferguson, but across America. So I want to just say a few words suggesting how we might move forward.


    First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law.  And so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.  There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply disappointed, even angry.  It’s an understandable reaction.  But I join Michael’s parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.  Let me repeat Michael’s father’s words:  “Hurting others or destroying property is not the answer.  No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”  Michael Brown’s parents have lost more than anyone.  We should be honoring their wishes.  


    I also appeal to the law enforcement officials in Ferguson and the region to show care and restraint in managing peaceful protests that may occur.  Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They’ve got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law. As they do their jobs in the coming days, they need to work with the community, not against the community, to distinguish the handful of people who may use the grand jury’s decision as an excuse for violence -- distinguish them from the vast majority who just want their voices heard around legitimate issues in terms of how communities and law enforcement interact.


    Finally, we need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation. The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.  Some of this is the result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country. And this is tragic, because nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates. The good news is we know there are things we can do to help.  And I’ve instructed Attorney General Holder to work with cities across the country to help build better relations between communities and law enforcement.


    That means working with law enforcement officials to make sure their ranks are representative of the communities they serve. We know that makes a difference. It means working to train officials so that law enforcement conducts itself in a way that is fair to everybody. It means enlisting the community actively on what should be everybody’s goal, and that is to prevent crime.


    And there are good people on all sides of this debate, as well as in both Republican and Democratic parties, that are interested not only in lifting up best practices -- because we know that there are communities who have been able to deal with this in an effective way -- but also who are interested in working with this administration and local and state officials to start tackling much-needed criminal justice reform.


    So those should be the lessons that we draw from these tragic events.  We need to recognize that this is not just an issue for Ferguson, this is an issue for America. We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades. I've witnessed that in my own life.  And to deny that progress I think is to deny America’s capacity for change.


    But what is also true is that there are still problems and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion.  I don't think that's the norm.  I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials.  But these are real issues.  And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down.  What we need to do is to understand them and figure out how do we make more progress. And that can be done.


    That won't be done by throwing bottles. That won't be done by smashing car windows.  That won't be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property.  And it certainly won't be done by hurting anybody. So, to those in Ferguson, there are ways of channeling your concerns constructively and there are ways of channeling your concerns destructively.  Michael Brown’s parents understand what it means to be constructive.  The vast majority of peaceful protesters, they understand it as well.


    Those of you who are watching tonight understand that there’s never an excuse for violence, particularly when there are a lot of people in goodwill out there who are willing to work on these issues.


    On the other hand, those who are only interested in focusing on the violence and just want the problem to go away need to recognize that we do have work to do here, and we shouldn’t try to paper it over. Whenever we do that, the anger may momentarily subside, but over time, it builds up and America isn't everything that it could be.


    And I am confident that if we focus our attention on the problem and we look at what has happened in communities around the country effectively, then we can make progress not just in Ferguson, but in a lot of other cities and communities around the country.




    Q    Mr. President, will you go to Ferguson when things settle down there?


    THE PRESIDENT:  Well, let’s take a look and see how things are going. Eric Holder has been there. We've had a whole team from the Justice Department there, and I think that they have done some very good work. As I said, the vast majority of the community has been working very hard to try to make sure that this becomes an opportunity for us to seize the moment and turn this into a positive situation.


    But I think that we have to make sure that we focus at least as much attention on all those positive activities that are taking place as we do on a handful of folks who end up using this as an excuse to misbehave or to break the law or to engage in violence.  I think that it's going to be very important -- and I think the media is going to have a responsibility as well -- to make sure that we focus on Michael Brown’s parents, and the clergy, and the community leaders, and the civil rights leaders, and the activists, and law enforcement officials who have been working very hard to try to find better solutions -- long-term solutions, to this issue.


    There is inevitably going to be some negative reaction, and it will make for good TV.  But what we want to do is to make sure that we're also focusing on those who can offer the kind of real progress that we know is possible, that the vast majority of people in Ferguson, the St. Louis region, in Missouri, and around the country are looking for.  And I want to be partners with those folks.  And we need to lift up that kind of constructive dialogue that's taking place.


    All right.


                             END              10:18 P.M. EST