Municipal IDs Lead a Movement for Equal Rights

It is easy to take the benefits of citizenship for granted, to miss the advantages that come simply with living in the country of one’s birth.

Vianey Cid is aware of the differences. As a non-citizen who lacks government-issued identification, she struggles to do otherwise simple things like see a doctor, open a bank account and set up gas and electrical services for her home. Her sole identifying document is an expired Mexican passport, which she prefers to leave at home because if she lost it, it would be difficult to replace.

“For everything, everywhere you go, every activity you do on a daily basis, you need ID,” she says. “I know how hard it is.”

Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson is a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights and wellbeing of working class people and communities of color. They are working to make the basics of living more manageable for people like Vianey by getting mid-Hudson Valley communities to issue identification cards similar to passports and driver’s licenses. Though their right to continue living in the United States may not be legally protected, “municipal IDs” will make it easier for non-citizens and others who struggle to get traditional identification to establish their residency and access a range of services for which they are legally eligible but cannot get.

Municipal IDs also help their holders feel more a part of the communities they call home, and can reduce tension in interactions with police. Police departments nationwide support the programs.

The City of Poughkeepsie is one of the first mid-Hudson Valley cities working to establish a system of municipal IDs. When they do, Vianey will no longer fear being denied the right to pick up her children from school, as her mother was long ago when Vianey’s sister Vanessa became sick and a school administrator refused to recognize her mother’s identification from the Mexican consulate.

Their mother did not speak English, and Vanessa struggled to translate what the administrator said. She wrote in a letter to supporters of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson: I started breathing heavy and crying—I couldn’t tell my mom that I wasn’t allowed to leave with her. When I did, my mom became pale. I ran and latched to her legs. The monitors came over and pulled me off her. I remember screaming ‘That’s my mom! She’s my mom!’ I felt like I was going to be separated from my mom forever.”

When they reunited at a bus stop after school, Vanessa’s mother apologized and explained: “Vane nosotros no tenemos papeles haz de cuenta que no existimos.” We who do not have papers, do not exist.

The right to exist. The right to be with one’s family. The right to access and use the services upon which a thousand acts of care for ourselves and others depend; these are the basic rights that our wealthy, capable society does not guarantee to many millions of people whose families entered the United States later than the rest of ours. The result is a form of apartheid that runs straight through our communities; a system of disadvantage that many of us do not see because we are privileged by accidents of birth.

For the sake of Vianey, her family, and thousands of others across the mid-Hudson Valley, we must begin to see. We citizens must see for our own sake too, because when a government refuses to recognize legal rights across an entire population, when it uses some category of status—such as immigration—to deny rights to a group of people, then the security of the rights of any individual citizen depends upon the willingness of those in power to recognize that person’s citizenship.

In other words, in a society where people are “legal” or “illegal”, one’s legal status—and the rights that go with it—can be redefined and diminished. Such power should not be in the the hands of anyone, especially those who simply happen to be in charge of our legal bureaucracies.

We can have a society of equal rights. In the mid-Hudson Valley, those campaigning for municipal IDs are leading the movement. Join them.

A version of this piece first appeared in The Hudson Valley News

New York Schools Can Afford to Quit Standardized Testing

Ben Chun / Flickr

In the office of the late New York State Assemblyman Frank Skartados, we spent the past year studying and developing alternatives to practices within New York State public education. We began by talking with teachers.

What was immediately clear was what most of us already know: teachers are frazzled. They’re trying to do what’s right both for students and themselves, but they’re up against the usual problems of our culture: staid and slow-moving bureaucracies, the relentless assault of moneyed interests, and a shortage of empathy from large numbers of their neighbors.

During our first few weeks of research we spoke with nearly a dozen educators. Almost everyone asked us if we were aware of what the people of Finland have achieved. We weren’t, so we listened as they described the best-performing students in the world, teachers whose level of training and professional status match those of doctors and lawyers, and a culture-wide regard for education as a sacred human servicenot a factory-line process for minting exploitable workers.

The teachers seemed to be on to something. So we contacted Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish educator, government advisor and author who spends his days trying to show the rest of the world how the Finns achieved what they managed to achieve.

Sahlberg’s first recommendation was an expected one: stop administering standardized tests, which create nightmare versions of real education and serve to punish teachers and schools whose students fail to meet ridiculous and irrelevant federal performance standards.

The people who wrote federal U.S. education law made it tricky to follow Sahlberg’s advice. States are not required to give these tests, but corporate lobbyists working to turn public education into a private business got our national government to threaten to withhold federal money from schools that quit the tests. That might not be a problem, given that Washington provides just four percent—roughly $2.5 billionof what is spent on education in New York State. But it’s enough to worry N.Y.S. Education Department Regent Judith Johnson and others, because school districts that serve impoverished communities depend on that money.

Education finance experts are divided about whether this threat is real, but if it is, it would mean that we could not abandon standardized testing without risking harm to our poorest students. Even if the feds are bluffing, they are willing to be seen holding the education and futures of impoverished children—often children of color—hostage.

Assuming that they would pull the money, there are both workarounds and comprehensive solutions.

First, it appears that there is money to be saved in quitting standardized testing. Finnish tests, which are administered to a small sample of volunteer students instead of being required for everyone, cost just one-tenth of what the U.S. spends administering its tests.

Second, New York’s method of funding education through property taxes is inherently unjust. Our state constitution obliges the government to provide education to children, but as Assemblyman Skartados was fond of pointing out, it does not require that education be funded by property owners. Since property values are unequal throughout the state, many districts lack the capacity to adequately fund their schools. So the facts of economic inequality negate the state’s guarantee of educational equality.

Steve Gold, who served as Assemblyman Skartados’ Chief of Staff, offers a solution: replace the property tax with a progressive tax on the incomes of those who can afford to pay. Then, inch these taxes up in a fair way until the 4 percent of education spending that the federal government threatens to withdraw is covered. (Because overall taxes would rise for people who rent rather than own property, lawmakers who represent New York City tend not to support this measure. Therefore, this shift in the tax code may be politically possible only if New York City renters, who make up a majority of the population, are exempt from it, and landlords and property owners cover the increase through a comparable rise in property taxes.)

Make this change and New York can afford to drop standardized testing whether or not Washington is bluffing.

This piece first appeared at The Hudson Valley News

The Police Are Traumatized

I support police, but not in the same way many people do.

You’ve seen this woman before. With each involuntary convulsion, her bare skin tears against a shifting constellation of broken glass, her thrashing limbs tracing bloody arcs across a stained carpet. You call to her, but she only howls. After a while, she summons the strength to force out a few words: “Help me. Ican’t stop.”

Cristin Sauter is telling me about the trauma of police work. The scene I describe occurred during a call she answered during one of her weekly, eight-hour shifts with the City of Newburgh Police Department, where she served as an adjunct social worker on temporary loan from Adelphi University while finishing her Master’s degree over the past year.

“I was speechless,” recalled Cristin, who will pursue a Ph.D. in Social Work this fall. “That was my first experience with someone overdosing on drugs and really hurting themselves. She was rolling around on the floor, trying to crawl out of her skin. She physically couldn’t stop moving. She wanted to, but she couldn’t. She was screaming for help.”

Unlike Cristin, the half-dozen police officers and paramedics who responded to the call seemed unfazed. “When we got back to the car, the officer was like, ‘Yeah, we know her. She is a repeat overdoser. We encounter this often.’ It was like he was desensitized.”

Social workers are rare sights in police departments. Cristin, her department supervisors and the officers who benefit from her contributions to their work want to change that, and they are lobbying the City of Newburgh to make room in its budget for one or more social workers within the department. The goal is to reduce the hazards of policing both for the public and police officers by training street-level cops to more peacefully de-escalate tense interactions with the people they are tasked to serve, and to more healthily manage the stress of their job.

Cristin’s stories remind me that police work is inherently traumatizing. Whether they ever have cause to reach for their guns or not, police officers are constantly subject to threats of violence. It is part of the water in which they swim. Left untreated, the consequences of trauma can be disastrous. Lengthy exposure disrupts normal brain functioning. It undermines our ability to think clearly and carefully and regulate our emotions. And it makes us more suspicious, less trusting and even paranoid. It increases the likelihood that we will respond to stressful experiences aggressively.

“Fight or flight,” I say. “Or freeze,” Cristin adds. “An officer with untreated trauma experiences a lack of ability to think deeply and comprehensively before they take action.”

Fortunately, the effects can be treated, even reversed. But it appears that few officers seek the therapy that the state makes available to them. Cristin worked with roughly half of the members of the City of Newburgh’s police force, and in long conversations with each of them, none of them said they have taken advantage of the therapy that is offered.

Why not? “My sense is that there is a little bit of shame around that,” Cristin says. Officers are not required to be treated for trauma. Instead, they are left to work things out with each other over beer. “There is a lot of socializing within the department over substances that relax the mind,” Cristin said.

Alcohol is no substitute for medical treatment. But it appears that a thin, liquory line is sometimes all that stands between the public and a class of people who are armed, authorized to use force, and suffering the debilitating consequences of structural, untreated trauma. Like other people, police can lose consciousness of how their behavior affects others, and they should be trained to be very knowledgeable of just that, because both community safety and the psychological and physical well being of officers depend on it.

This piece first appeared at The Hudson Valley News


A Lifetime Intelligence Man on Trump’s New C.I.A. Chief

Richard “Dick” Conoboy. Photo by Robin Dude.

Dick Conoboy is a friend of mine. He’s also a retired senior counter-terrorism analyst for the National Military Intelligence Center, and a former analyst for the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office at the Pentagon. He handled intelligence in Vietnam, Thailand, France and Germany, served as an infantry officer in Germany, and taught French for several years at West Point.

Committed as he is to the role of the United States as a force for good, the confirmation last week of career intelligence officer Gina Haspel to head the Central Intelligence Agency deeply disturbs Dick. His objection hangs on Haspel’s involvement in torture, which U.S. law forbids.

When questioned by U.S. senators in early May, Haspel refused to condemn the illegal torture her government committed in the early years of President Bush’s international “War on Terror”. She also declined to say whether she would obey President Trump if he ordered the C.I.A. to torture captured suspects.

Haspel’s personal involvement in torture dates back at least as far as 2002, when she briefly oversaw a secret C.I.A. prison in Thailand where suspected members of al-Qaida were waterboarded, or subjected to simulated drowning. A U.S. Navy Reserve doctor described one of the victims as “one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen.” Haspel also ordered the destruction of videos of a C.I.A. interrogation in 2005.

Dick and Haspel received basically the same training in intelligence gathering. So what does he make of Haspel’s professional record and her refusal to condemn torture?

“I received no instruction or winking at the rules with respect to violating conventions on torture,” Dick told me by email. “In my personal relationships with Army interrogators and my own training in interrogation techniques, I was told time and again that torture was not only illegal, but ineffective compared to sophisticated questioning techniques.”

“I don’t know what Haspel was taught several decades after I entered the intelligence services, but the international conventions had not changed to authorize torture.”

Dick pointed out that on numerous occasions the C.I.A. itself condemned torture, including when members of the militant Islamist group Hezbollah kidnapped and eventually murdered Beirut Station Chief William Francis Buckley, between 1984 and 1985. “His colleagues were said to have wept openly when presented with a gruesome video of a broken Buckley,” Dick said.

At the Pentagon, Dick studied the debriefings of U.S. pilots who were shot down, captured and tortured during the Vietnam War. “All of these actions, condemned by the U.S., were eventually recreated by the U.S. for use against terrorism suspects,” he said.

How does Dick see Haspel? Her refusal to condemn torture?

“Haspel is a cipher. Watching her testify before Congress, the words ‘automaton’ and ‘groupthink’ come to mind. But torture is only part of the problem here. In Haspel we have a female Mark Zuckerberg as head of the C.I.A. She appears to be incapable of empathy, to work from a dangerously limited frame of reference, and to make changes only when confronted by the more powerful, or potentially, by whistleblowers.”

How should the average American regard the C.I.A. and its leaders?

Most people in the U.S. have no idea what the C.I.A. actually does. Few people understand what ‘intelligence’ means, including most of Washington. The public gets bits and snatches from the so-called news, whose information is often worse than being told nothing at all. As a consequence, the voter/citizen can’t make an informed judgment, and Congress abrogates its duties of oversight because nothing is demanded of it by an ignorant public.”

Dick Conoboy circa 1970, after returning from Vietnam.

“Torture is no more than lashing out and revenge-taking. It took me almost three decades to shed a large part of my Army frame of reference. I defended the armed forces no matter what. I supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I got caught up in the shock and awe.”


This piece first appeared in the Hudson Valley News.

New York Digs a Mental Hospital-to-Prison Pipeline

I spent a number of hours over the past several weeks listening to the worried voices of mental healthcare professionals. These union-protected caregivers to some of the most vulnerable members of our communities see New York State authorities attempting to dismantle a century-plus legacy of publicly-provided mental healthcare services, replacing state facilities with non-profit organizations or private, for-profit firms that are known to provide inferior care.

What will happen to usas individuals, families and communitiesif we allow our already diminished mental healthcare infrastructure to be further weakened? Approximately one in five American adults becomes mentally ill in the course of a given year, and they are unlikely to feel comfortable admitting it. Dhanu Sannesy, President of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, acknowledged the taboo against mental illness when she asked over dinner in a Newburgh restaurant: “If I go to a hospital with a heart condition, people bring me flowers. If I have a psychiatric illness, do I get the flowers? No. There is a stigma.”

Our society’s neglect of psychiatric health has dire consequences. Leaving aside for a moment that our way of life generates major and minor forms of mental illness in large numbers of us, our leaders’ failures to create and adequately train, staff and fund institutions capable of addressing the crises that afflict some 44 million people is a blueprint for widespread social disaster. Scandalously, health matters requiring the care of doctors and therapists are permitted to become public safety problems that fall to the force of police, courts, jail and prisons. Just one day before my dinner with Sannesy and others, N.Y.P.D. officers shot and killed a mentally ill black man who was pretending to shoot people with a welding torch on a street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Thirty-four year old Saheed Vassell had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Police said they mistook the piece of metal for a gun.

“Why did they have to just kill him?” Vassell’s father asked a reporter for The New York Times after his son’s tragic death. Indeed, why? Vassell’s illness was long known to neighbors and local authorities. He did not start out in life antagonizing others; he became increasingly disturbed after 2008 when a police lieutenant shot and killed his closest friend. Before he died, authorities summoned Vassell more than 120 times and arrested him at least 20 times. On several occasions, police were enlisted to help emergency medics take him to a psychiatric hospital.

What kind of society persistently and chronically neglects people who are in such trouble? What kind of society abandons its most vulnerable members, allowing them to deteriorate until they are ultimately dealt with by brute force?

More than a decade ago, “64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners [nationwide] had symptoms of serious mental illnesses.” Today, the U.S. has 10 times more mentally ill people in prison than in psychiatric hospitals. Incarcerating a mentally ill person can cost taxpayers more than three times as much money as providing community healthcare services.

“People with mental health issues have nowhere to go,” said one of the caregivers, who asked that their names not be published for fear of punishment by their employers. “The housing is not there, the beds are not there, waiting lists are enormous. Treatment facilities are closing and the state has no plan to care for these people. Many patients don’t have families, and many who do will still end up homeless or in jail. Jail populations increase when mental healthcare facilities close. Jails are the biggest mental healthcare providers in New York State state. They are modern day mental hospitals.”

The caregivers summarized: “Mentally ill people need treatment, not to be arrested and thrown into prison.” That this needs to be said at all, much less in hushed tones between appetizers and a main course, is disgraceful and maddening.

A version of this piece appeared in the Hudson Valley News

Immigrants, Like Citizens, Want a Better Life for Their Families: Letter

I descend from Irish immigrants who sought a better life in the United States in the early 20th century. Politicians and publishers stereotyped them as violent, unintelligent drunks. Today their descendants rarely if ever face such discrimination.

As Dutchess County Legislator Joe Incoronato (Wappinger) reminded us in The Poughkeepsie Journal recently (“Giving sanctuary to illegal immigrants undermines public safety”) our Latin American neighbors are not so fortunate. In an ugly, divisive letter celebrating the transfer of 24 unidentified people to federal immigration authorities, Mr. Incoronato characterized immigrants as “vicious predators” and claimed that Sanctuary Cities threaten public safety.

Mr. Incoronato’s message and its underlying false premises are the real threats to public safety. …

Continue reading at The Poughkeepsie Journal

Encomium for Assemblyman Frank Skartados, Immigrant

After saying farewell to their beloved father, brother, cousin, uncle, lover and friend last Friday evening, the family and close friends of New York State District 104 Assemblyman Frank Skartados gathered for a late meal at the Valley Diner in the hamlet of Marlboro. As one of his aides at the end of his life, I was invited to sit among them.

Some time before his untimely death from pancreatic cancer on the morning of April 15, Skartados was scheduled to give a speech at an event honoring immigrants who made notable contributions to Orange County communities. As he could not speak, the task fell to me, so I took the opportunity to ask his family what he might have said about his experience as an immigrant in America.

They talked about the difficulty of the early years. Shortly after leaving the small Greek island of Astypalaia with his mother at age 15, Skartados lived in New York City with his uncle and brothers. His mother believed that he could take care of himself. His brother George described New York as a much more favorable place than their home village, where the only growth that its several hundred inhabitants would see in “three years without rain” was on top of their heads.

Teen Skartados knew no English. He sat in his basement bedroom weeping because he couldn’t understand the lessons in the textbooks splayed across his bed. He cited this experience when we began crafting legislation which, among other things, would make education easier for non-English speakers. Education was among the subjects that were most dear to Skartados; he wanted to make it a truly public institution, available, without impediments, to all.

Skartados’s brother Russo said that Skartados never accepted any money from him. Instead, young Skartados supported himself with odd jobs and restaurant work, which made him and his family proud. But as our conversation went on it became clear that it was not just grit that allowed Frank to succeed; that is, able to graduate from high school and college, to become a teacher and a beloved father, to start businesses, own a farm and serve four-plus terms as a respected member of the New York State Assembly. No, George explained that success came because the brothers looked out for each other. The restaurant owners gave Skartados the employment he needed and, importantly, looked out for him in other ways.

In other words, Frank Skartados was able to become the man who loved and served us because his community cared for and supported him.

I thought that this is what Frank might have talked about in his speech: the importance of caring for each other in the critical basic ways of affection, and respect. Then he might have said that public policy is how citizens care for one another, and that we must support and create institutions that allow us to care for the most vulnerable among us, including immigrants who are struggling to make it, just as Skartados once was.

Someone else said something that deserves mention: During his first term in office, Skartados attended the naturalization ceremony of every new citizen in his district.

The obituaries tell of Skartados’s contributions to his district: millions in state dollars for projects that improved life, including the Walkway Over the Hudson; protecting our places of natural wonder in battles against shipping anchorages and oil pipelines; voting every single time for the full version of the Women’s Equality Act, which would help women contribute to the lives of those they cherish; and ensuring that every constituent who called his office in need received as much time and attention as their predicament required.

Immigrants contribute to our communities in subtle, major and decisive ways, usually without fanfare or notice. Public officials and others in positions of power and privilege must do all they can to support them. After all, as Skartados was reminded in his final days, as doctors and nurses with voices from other lands gave him the care he needed, we all depend upon each other.

Versions of this piece were spoken at the 2018 Orange County Democratic Women Annual Awards Dinner, where Assemblyman Skartados was scheduled to speak, and published in The Hudson Valley News

Stop ‘Pay-to-Play’ in Dutchess County

Something is fishy in Dutchess County. Over the past six years, leading elected officials have awarded tens of millions of dollars in county contracts to private companies that helped fund those officials’ campaigns for office.

While it may be impossible to prove that a particular contract was awarded as compensation for a business’ investment in a politician’s career, the pattern fits a well-understood form of corruption known as “pay-to-play” politics, and the lack of accountability that enables it has led some Dutchess County residents to suspect that our elected leaders have helped their donors profit at the expense of their constituents.

Four years ago, Orange County passed a law limiting opportunities for such corruption. Thanks to the work of a minority of legislators, a similar bipartisan resolution sits before Dutchess County, but leading officials refuse to seriously consider it. Residents deserve for pay-to-play and other corruption-enabling loopholes to be legally closed.

Fortunately, a number of people who promise to work to enact reforms that would end pay-to-play politics in our county, cities and towns have offered themselves as candidates for public office in the November election. Among them are Dutchess County legislative candidates Frits Zernike and Nick Page, who seek to represent districts 16 and 18, respectively. Zernike and Page and their peers pledge neither to seek nor accept campaign contributions from businesses that seek or hold contracts with local government, and to actively work to pass legislation to end pay-to-play politics and make local government transparent and accountable to all.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 21, voters will have an opportunity to hear from some of the pledged candidates at a Rally for Public Integrity in front of the Dutchess County Building at 22 Market St. in Poughkeepsie. All who care for the integrity of government are invited to attend. See

Carolyn Guyer, New Hamburg
Alexander Reed Kelly, Beacon
Guyer and Kelly are co-founders of Grassroots Integrity.

This piece appeared in The Highlands Current.

Ukraine Is In Crisis. Here’s Why the West Can’t Save It.

A Ukrainian national flag flutters in the wind. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

Nearly a year and a half after the Euromaidan protests ushered a new government into power in Kiev, Ukraine is still in trouble. Some 6,200 people have been killed, more than 15,000 wounded, and 1.2 million internally displaced in a civil war that had by mid-March, according to the new president, Petro Poroshenko, destroyed “around 25 percent of the country’s industrial potential.”

The country’s economy is out of control: Trending downward since the end of 2013, Ukraine’s gross domestic product is declining at a massive, accelerating rate. The World Bank predicts GDP will contract by as much as 7.5 percent during 2015. During 2014, the amount of money brought in on exports dropped by 40 percent, and between the beginning of 2014 and spring of this year, the goods and services available in the country became nearly 50 percent more expensive as the currency used to pay for them lost two-thirds of its value.

Ukrainians need rescuing. The question is: Can the policies favored by the new government save them? …

Continue reading at The Nation.