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

We Will Have Public Banks

The power that finance holds over the quality and direction of our lives cannot be overstated. It is the muscular heart whose every beat directly or indirectly pumps essential nourishment—money—into every one of society’s organs, be they private businesses, not-for-profit organizations or government departments performing essential services. Look at the organizations of people around us. Without investment, what moves? What works?

You might reason that a function so critical to our common welfare would be administered in the public interest by democratically accountable public authorities. In the United States, you would be wrong! Our system of banks, credit and money and the power to decide which human needs and desires receive precious investment and which do not is effectively controlled by unelected elites in the form of private banks. Their headquarters is Wall Street, not Washington, D.C. We need only consider the crumbling storefronts, sidewalks and roads in our towns or those nearby to grasp the ruinous consequences.

There is an alternative way of organizing our system of finance to meet the needs of our communities. A decentralized network of state-, county- and city-owned banks would scatter from sea to shining sea the God-like power currently monopolized by Wall Street, granting communities and the state and local governments that are supposed to support them the independent power to create the investment they need to build and maintain the infrastructure and industries that are essential to civilized life. This is finance operated as a supportive public utility, not a private, profit-making enterprise.

It’s not just a nice idea. Governments own and operate some 25 percent of banks worldwide. Economists credit these institutions with helping enable the dramatic economic successes in recent decades of capitalist countries like China, Brazil, Russia and India. Just one publicly-owned depository bank exists in the United States, however. After briefly taking power in the 1910s, the socialist Nonpartisan League established the Bank of North Dakota in that state to make affordable credit available to farmers who couldn’t afford the usurious interest rates charged by out-of-state banks. Conservatives preserved the state bank when they retook power years later and have used it to support the state’s economy ever since.

With the state’s tax revenue as its deposit base, the Bank of North Dakota works with privately-owned community banks to provide low-interest loans to people looking to start businesses, buy homes or attend college, as well as government agencies undertaking public projects, including disaster relief. The interest earned on these loans returns to the state as new, non-tax revenue that is available to support the public budget or increase the bank’s lending power. Rather than displace community banks, the Bank of North Dakota partners with them to increase their security and ability to lend, filling the gaps that otherwise would exist in the state’s financial infrastructure.

The Bank of North Dakota also acts to stabilize the state’s economy in the event of a national or international financial crash. During the Great Recession, North Dakota suffered no bank failures. It ran budget surpluses and maintained one of the nation’s lowest home foreclosure and unemployment rates. The cheap credit provided by the bank is ballast that keeps the state’s economy upright in a storm. And public money is protected from the stock market casino gambling that destroys economies, communities and lives.

Legal experts suggest that Dutchess County, the City of Poughkeepsie and other Hudson Valley governments could quickly establish their own banks. In many cases we would simply transfer taxpayer funds from Wall Street to our shiny new public financial institutions. Once there, our money can be put to work financing essential public goods, such as social housing and a transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy well ahead of targets set by New York State, all while creating jobs and generating wealth for our communities.

Banks situated within our communities and controlled by us can serve our needs and interests in ways that banks headquartered far away do not and cannot. If there is a future worth having, public banking will be part of it.

A version of this piece appeared in The Hudson Valley News

The Misery of Masculinity

For two weeks in the seventh grade I was a football player in the making. Joining the team seemed like a natural step from the schoolyard scrimmages I enjoyed. As it turned out, I did not enjoy vomiting through a face mask in the late summer heat or being screamed at by a man I was doing all I could to please. When the players were exhausted and needed to rest, we were allowed only to kneel, never to sit on the ground; after all, we were being conditioned for violence. Shortly after I stopped attending practice, a friend who remained on the team informed me that the coach explained my absence to the other boys by calling me a “quitter”.

Trials of torture—physical and psychological—mark the American boy’s passage into manhood. Our heroes are supposed to be those who can endure the most pain. Though I largely escaped torment by organized athletics, I was not untouched by this madness. “The strongest among us at some point had to become the weakest,” I carved into my bedroom wall at least one year before I could carry a driver’s license. Many years later, when the chair of a humanities department at a prestigious New York university invited me to apply to his graduate studies program, his first selling point was that the experience would make me intellectually “tough”. For all kinds of American males, suffering is not just an unavoidable fact of life; it is an essential means of becoming.

Is it any wonder that women are wary of us? We emerge from these crucibles hardened not only to life’s adversities, but to the vulnerability of others, which makes it exceedingly difficult to form healthy relationships. If not corrected, the resulting isolation leaves us susceptible to the embrace of our culture’s casual sexism. In a minority of cases, factors combine to produce highly resentful, anti-social types who seek the gratification of dominance—or what a psychologist friend of mine simply calls “bigness”—through aggression or violence. These boys become bullies, rapists, neo-Nazis or mass shooters.

I never lost myself in violence, but the confidence, joie de vivre and easy fellowship I enjoyed during childhood turned bitter around age 20, when my family fell precipitously into medical and financial ruin and it became clear that no government, corporation or community would come to our rescue. I stalked the earth in a cloud of bitterness and fear, ready to explode and dress down with language any person who was unfortunate enough to fail my tests of decency or proper opinion. During this period, people I knew freely and intimately stopped coming around, including, of course, women whose friendships I cherished.

My deliverance from this evil was not guaranteed. By good fortune I met and was helped by a wise elder whose sensitive handling of the condition in which he found me commanded the respect and cooperation that my one-time football coach sought, briefly possessed and threw into the trash when he reduced my fellows and me to the status of base metals to be hammered into crude weapons; male objects shaped to feel little, hit hard and perhaps—in another time and place, as the dead poets of the first World War beg us to recognize—die if it serves the interests of our elders.

A few evenings ago I stopped by a friend’s home for conversation and a glass of wine. Her two-year-old son cried and cried when I appeared in the doorway. He knew the hour had come when his mother would abandon him to the darkness of his nursery. I was glad at his cries; they are appropriate to times of trouble. When he grows silent in years to come I will be concerned.

A version of this piece appeared in The Hudson Valley News

Getting Well at the Men’s Shed

Elvin Earley is beaming, his eyelashes spread like palms open wide around the good news he is sharing. It’s a damp day in early December in rural northwest Ireland and the 41-year-old father and husband is telling of how a stint at the local Men’s Shed helped him recover the confidence he lost after becoming unemployed.

“It was a big boost to go from losing my job and being very depressed to learning carpentry, which I never knew before,” he says. “The lads here showed me how to put down wooden floors at home, which came out brilliant. Now when the missus says, ‘Elvin, we need to get someone to put up a shelf,’ I can say, ‘No we don’t. I can do that!’”

My friend Doris, who was hosting me on a working vacation on her farm, brought me to the Men’s Shed in the town of Boyle after hearing me talk about tool libraries, makerspaces and hackerspaces. With lifestyles increasingly organized around consumption, these places provide access to special equipment and a chance to become proficient in crafts that range from the practical to the artisanal. In English-speaking countries around the world, thousands of Men’s Sheds combine a similar mission with concern for the mental health and overall wellbeing of males who feel socially isolated or restless. In 2013, just before the Boyle shed opened, The Guardian newspaper described the groups as “lifesavers.” I’m interested in them because I think motivated people could bring their benefits to Hudson Valley communities.

“It’s a mix of people who are used to working and are now sitting at home with nothing to do, on social welfare or retired,” Elvin says of the group’s members. “The biggest part of depression and suicide is that people are on their own, with no one to talk to. But there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here. You can walk through that door, sit down for a cup of tea and a chat, learn something new and go home happy.”

“It’s a safe place for us, really,” he adds. “There’s no pressure.”

Tony Byrne, chairperson of the Boyle shed, showed us some of the goods the group produces for the community. “Something was said long ago by someone in a Men’s Shed,” he says in his office. “Men don’t talk face to face, but they do talk shoulder to shoulder.” Tony’s voice is soft and his multiple sclerosis means that almost every physical thing he does involves a slow effort. He shows us wooden flower boxes, pens and wine bottle holders; shelters for birds, bats and bees; picnic tables that cleverly fold into multiple configurations and “buddy benches” where children and adults can sit to signal to others that they’d like someone to talk to.

As a non-profit, the few dozen people who use the Men’s Shed meet the necessary expenses—for heat, electricity and “a drop of milk”—with donations and very modest charges on some of the goods they create. Nearly everything is donated by locals: couches and chairs; drills, a wood lathe and the makeup of a small recording studio; hardwood and nails; and a row of computers where elderly people learn to use Skype and other programs to stay in touch with far-off relatives.

The group’s youngest member is Sam Benfield, a 15-year-old boy whose single mother homeschools him miles out of town. “He was so quiet when he came here,” says Elvin. “He never really mixed with anyone. Now he’s outgoing and involved with everything and can help his mom around the house. She’s so proud of him. It gives him a bit of confidence.”

Are women allowed in the Men’s Shed? “Oh, absolutely,” Elvin says. “It’s not like we’re closed just because it’s called the Men’s Shed. It’s welcome to women, men, people of any race, culture or age; it doesn’t matter where you come from. And that’s the way Men’s Sheds should be all the time, wherever you go. Everyone’s welcome.”

A version of this piece appeared in the Hudson Valley News.

Three Nightmares for Elvis Ramos

Elvis Ramos doesn’t sleep well. Some nights he dreams that he is permanently separated from his children, who are seven, eight and 10 years old. In other dreams he cannot find the employment he needs to support them, or they become casualties of Mexico’s drug war, which has killed or “disappeared” tens of thousands of people over the past 12 years.

Elvis is one of several thousand mid-Hudson Valley residents whose ability to continue living in the community that long ago became their home is threatened by President Trump’s decision to eliminate a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Until late last year, the policy allowed some people who entered the country without authorization as minors to temporarily continue living and working in the United States.

What does Elvis see when he tries to imagine the future? “I don’t know,” he told me in early February through an uncomfortable smile. We were in the Newburgh office of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a grassroots organization that works in mid-Hudson Valley communities to secure rights for working class people who face discrimination based on the color of their skin. “I’ve had my current job for eight years. It felt like I had some freedom. Now all seven members of my family and I could be sent to Mexico, where the only person I know is my grandmother.”

If he is deported, Elvis assumes he will have to find work as a farmer, a trade in which he has limited experience and no skills. He fears that if he and his children join his grandmother in the town of Matamoros, Puebla then they could be kidnapped for ransom and killed, as occasionally happens there. “Where would I get money to protect us?” he wonders. If his ex-wife is also forced to leave the United States, then their children may live with her, away from him, in another part of the country. “I don’t like to think about it,” he said.

Elvis’s parents, who are not U.S. citizens, brought his two brothers and him from Tijuana to the City of Newburgh 18 years ago when he was 11 years old. “My dad used to make cars,” he explained, “but there were no jobs down there anymore.” After graduating from high school Elvis spent a semester studying graphic design at Orange County Community College before deciding to drop out because of the financial burden it placed upon his parents. His unofficial residency meant that he had to pay expensive out-of-state tuition and his part-time job did not cover his expenses. In the years that followed he worked as a landscaper, a painter and a driver.

President Trump has suggested that he will not deport non-citizens whom the government previously protected and who are not charged with crimes. But Elvis is not comforted. “We applied to the program, so they have our information,” he said. “Where we live and where we work; they know how to find us. They said they wouldn’t use it to deport us, but everything can change.”

I asked him what he thought of the answer some people give when they are asked to explain why the United States should spend scarce public resources tearing apart families and disrupting the lives of peaceful people—that “we are a nation of laws” and “laws must be enforced.”

“I hear that a lot too,” he replied. “Yes, we’re a nation of laws, but we change our laws to meet the needs of justice.”

Near the end of our conversation I asked Elvis if anything gives him relief from the nightmares. After a quiet moment, he said: “When people who are not Hispanic reach out and try to help us, when I see them at rallies, it helps me feel less alone.”

A version of this piece appeared in the Hudson Valley News.

Drug Policy From the Precinct

Like many who enter law enforcement, Jeff Kaufman joined the New York Police Department in 1980 because he wanted to serve his community. He left six years later because the state’s drug laws made that impossible.

“As cops we need to develop trust with the community to get to people who need our help and protect the public from violence,” Kaufman told me in late January. “We depend on the community to do our jobs, and the War on Drugs created an incredible source of distrust and corruption that made these problems impossible to fight.”

Since 2004 Kaufman has worked with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, an international group of more than 1,000 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement professionals who advocate the legalization and control of all drugs as a means to justice and public safety.

Kaufman’s varied 40-year career gave him extensive experience with the problems of the poor. As a prosecutor with the N.Y.P.D.’s Legal Bureau in the mid-1980s, he helped the department seize the property of people who sold or used drugs. “We couldn’t catch the guys with the big bucks, so we went after little people,” he said. “We took their property, anything of value they had, and turned it into police resources.”

When he saw that he was harming people he intended to protect, he left the department to legally defend people accused of drug-related crime. In the mid-1990s he began to teach law to mostly black- and brown-skinned youths facing life sentences at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Since the mid-2000s he has taught in public high schools.

“I don’t advocate drug use,” said Kaufman, anticipating his critics. “Some drug counselors think I’m insane. They ask how I could allow these things to be unleashed on our children.”

Those people have it backwards, Kaufman insists. Drugs today are far more dangerous than they need to be. And prohibition unleashed them upon children.

“Cigarettes and alcohol are legal and they are equally or more destructive than many drugs,” Kaufman explained. “Over the years we reduced cigarette use through a major public education campaign. We outlawed it in public buildings and other areas. In a world without prohibition, these regulations would clearly be in place, but in our current uncontrolled market, anyone who uses drugs is exposed to highly concentrated forms that are mixed with dangerous unknown substances. Some of these substances, such as fentanyl, can cause death.”

“Most of my students who use drugs don’t get them from their parents, relatives or friends, but from people who sell them. Now, a small supplier can’t compete in a regulated market. We don’t have people illegally selling alcohol or manufacturing cigarettes in mass quantities, do we? When the conditions that support a black market disappear, who is going to sell these drugs to children? A legal and fully-regulated market would ensure that clean substances are dispensed to informed adults.”

Kaufman says that controlled legalization would make communities less violent and more stable.

“You don’t need to go too far back in history to see that we reversed alcohol prohibition because of the problems it created,” he said. “People who were merely providing substances to people who sought them became criminals who turned to violence to maintain territories in markets. It tore society apart in absolutely awful ways.”

“Today, an incredibly large number of people who did no harm to others have criminal records merely because they used or sold drugs. The law prohibits these people from getting licenses and responsible jobs, so they become very difficult for society to deal with. Drug prohibition creates a cycle in which criminalized people who are excluded from the mainstream economy are pressured to turn to violence to support themselves. It destroys lives and cripples communities.”

Instead, Kaufman said “police should be taking care of bad guys and making neighborhoods habitable. Drugs are a medical problem. Our experience over the decades has shown that the criminal justice method has done nothing to control their supply or widespread use. And because this method diverts scarce department resources, police have fewer means to solve real crimes. Consider, for example, that New York City has a tremendous backlog of untested ‘rape kits’—collections of physical evidence gathered after an alleged sexual assault. If police spent anywhere near as much time investigating rape as they spend investigating drug crimes, many more rapists would be behind bars.”

“In a democracy, police serve the important function of representing the policy of elected government in community problems. But for a whole range of problems officers can’t do that because people are afraid they’ll be arrested for drugs. In the 75th Precinct, people in trouble would refuse to call for help because they didn’t trust us. After I left the department, I struggled thinking about encounters in which I could have been much more helpful to people.”

A version of this piece appeared 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 grassrootsintegrity.org.

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.