Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Agronomist

Last night I watched Jonathan Demme's The Agronomist, about Jean Dominique, a Haitian human rights activist and journalist. The documentary provided historical context, largely absent from the media I have seen, necessary to understand how Haiti ended up in such a desperate place before the recent earthquake. I wish that Dominique was still here to help his beloved country and to help us better understand what must be done from here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Media Conflict over Haiti's Impact along Class Lines

Those of us who lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina are all too familiar with reading stories in the press, written by people unfamiliar with this town, its politics, geographies, and citizens who descended just for the big story, that misunderstood either the details of our complicated city and what it and our neighbors endured here.

As we saw in New Orleans, much of what people got wrong was driven by their preconceptions about the city, with some quickly accepting as truth false rumors of unthinkable violence by the poor people abandoned in the city and others failing to realize that the flood destroyed upper middle class white and black neighborhoods, along with middle class white and black neighborhoods, before stranding the city's poorest (flooded and unflooded) residents, who became the most visible face of a much more complicated disaster. (People from other places still sometimes express surprise about this when I explain that a rich, white neighborhood was one of the first to flood.)

So it is unsurprising to see the American media struggle to get the story straight in Haiti, a country that many of the journalists now there were likely completely unfamiliar with a week ago.

I hadn't quite grasped this reality until I saw competing headlines, one in the New York Times on Sunday and another in the Washington Post on Monday, telling stories about the impact of the storm on the rich in Port-au-Prince that seem completely at odds with one another.

The New York Times, on the cover of Sunday's paper, carried the headline, "Earthquake Ignores Class Divisions of a Poor Land." The story is summed up in the following paragraphs:

Earthquakes do not respect social customs. They do not coddle the rich. They know nothing about the invisible lines that in Haiti keep the poor masses packed together in crowded slums and the well-to-do high up in the breezy hills of places like Pétionville.

And so it was with the devastating temblor that tore through Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, last week, toppling houses large and small, and trapping and traumatizing residents no matter where they stood on Haiti’s complicated social scale.

The story in yesterday's Washington Post carried the headline, "Haiti's Elite Spared Much of the Devastation," and tells a far different story:

Although Tuesday's 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed many buildings in Port-au-Prince, it mostly spared homes and businesses up the mountain in the cool, green suburb of Petionville, home to former presidents and senators.

A palace built atop a mountain by the man who runs one of Haiti's biggest lottery games is still standing. New-car dealers, the big importers, the families that control the port -- they all drove through town with their drivers and security men this past weekend. Only a few homes here were destroyed.

I have never been to Haiti, no less Port-au-Prince or Petionville, but I don't see how both stories can be accurate. But, especially for those of us who have seen a complicated and nuanced place reduced to generalities by someone without sufficient grasp of the place to begin with, it should be a reminder that, from this distance and in the midst of a crisis, it is hard to get any real read of the texture a place as complex as Haiti.

I suppose it should also come as no surprise that both these stories about Petionville, and so much of the press about New Orleans, seemed especially off-base about issues of class and, in New Orleans, the intersection of class and race. While such divisions are, of course, very often visible on the surface of a city, the dynamics are always much more complicated. Take New Orleans, which commentators suggested was segregated between black areas and white areas when in fact the historic city was integrated by design and remains much more racially diverse in its neighborhoods than most American cities, a fact that does little to change the fact that it is stunningly racially polarized.

While I admire some of the reporting I have seen from Haiti and feel like I am getting a picture of what is happening there (while having to hold back tears at the horror of some of the things that I am seeing), it is worth remembering that there will be things, like the "Babies Getting Raped in the Superdome" story after Hurricane Katrina, that may not hold up under the clear light of day, which will hopefully come soon for Port-au-Prince and Haiti.

Friday, January 8, 2010

State Assisted Suicide

In my view, the death penalty is indefensible without regard to whether the condemned embraces his punishment, as occurred yesterday in Louisiana with Gerald Bordelon's execution. I will concede, however, that leveling the argument against capital punishment becomes more difficult when discussing "volunteers," which is why I was pleased to read a well reasoned critique of yesterday's execution written by Bidish Sarma, a friend and colleague at the Capital Appeals Project.

It begins:

The State of Louisiana took Gerald Bordelon’s life yesterday.  Mr. Bordelon volunteered for execution.  After a jury convicted him of first-degree murder at the guilt phase of his capital murder trial, he asked his trial attorneys not to present any mitigating circumstances at the penalty phase – the phase where the jury had to decide whether the convicted murderer would be executed, or would serve a life-without-parole sentence.  After the jury sentenced him to death by execution, Mr. Bordelon waived his right to challenge that sentence in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  The Louisiana Supreme Court nonetheless issued an opinion in his case that ultimately dismissed the appeal.  The Court indicated that it was legally obligated to decide whether Bordelon was competent to waive his appeals and also to determine if his sentence was proportionate.  In October, the Court cleared the path for today’s execution, and ruled that Mr. Bordelon is competent to waive his rights to an appeal, and that the death sentence in this case is not disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases, considering both the crime and the defendant.

Generally, it isn’t uncommon for death-sentenced defendants to “volunteer” for execution by waiving their appeals.  According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, roughly 12% of defendants waive appellate review.  Yet, Bordelon was the first person to successfully volunteer in Louisiana since the death penalty was reinstated here in 1976.  And, while every case in which someone “volunteers” presents complex legal, ethical, moral, and philosophical questions, Gerald Bordelon’s case is worth thinking about carefully.

If you are a fan of complex legal, ethical, moral and philosophical questions, you can read the rest here. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Gerald Bordelon is schedule to be executed today and will be the first man executed in Louisiana since Leslie Martin was executed in May of 2002. Bordelon waived his appeals, making him a "volunteer" in the ghoulish parlance of the American death penalty.

In anticipatory memorial, I am posting two poems from Jill McDonough's Habeas Corpus on the lives and executions of two other volunteers.

January 17, 1977: Gary Graham
Point of the Mountain, Utah

A life of crime, of theft and drugs and jail
in Oregon and Illinois, but when
he robbed a Provo gas station, motel,
he shot and killed two clerks, both Mormon men -
Max Jensen and Ben Bushnell - with wives and sons.
There are sins that the blood of a calf, of a lamb
or doves cannot remit. They must be atoned
by the blood of man.

       He asked to die like a man,
and did, chained to a regular green chair.
When asked for his last words, he said Let's do it.
Black T-shirt, white pants. They added a hood, their
target, then bang, bang, bang, three noises, quick.

A line from Gilmore's mother that I found:
They shot your brother's heart out, on the ground.

May 13, 2005: Michael Ross
Somers, Connecticut

I am one of the greatest of sinners. I have murdered
eight women in a horrible way. The papers
lined up eight photos, smiling girls with feathered
hair posing at school or parties. Wendy, April,
Dzung, Paula, Debra, Robin, Leslie, and Tammy
were dead as soon as I saw them, he confessed.

A volunteer, he wanted to spare the families.
Or die, or get attention. Or he had Death
Row Syndrome, was a malignant narcissist.
Outside the prison, supporters told reporters
What do we do with trash? We bury it.
Inside, strapped to a table, Ross gasped and shuddered
while Robin's sister watched. She said It was too
peaceful. But I'm sure I will feel some closure soon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Helen Hill, You Are Missed

Helen Hill was murder in her home, protecting her family, three years ago. Following a lackluster investigation, there are still no real leads on who killed her and shot her husband.

Helen Hill, you are missed.

I still know. And I still do not approve. And I still am not resigned.

From the New York Times:

Taken by the Tide

Michael Kupperman

Published: January 10, 2007

New Orleans

IN one 24-hour period last week in New Orleans, now a small city of 200,000, six people were murdered. Last year’s total of 161 murders probably made New Orleans the deadliest city in the United States by a significant margin. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the violence touched my life directly.

Last Thursday morning I received a call from my friend Kittee. “I have awful news,” she said, and then, very quickly: “Someone broke into Paul and Helen’s house. Helen was shot and killed. Paul was holding Baby Francis and was shot three times. He’s still alive. Francis is O.K.”

Paul Gailiunas — Dr. Paul, I call him — had been my physician for several years at the Little Doctors Clinic, a health center for poor people that he founded in Treme, one of America’s oldest black neighborhoods.

I had started to see Paul after my previous doctor mocked one of my colleagues about our work representing people on Louisiana’s death row. When I met Paul through a friend, I asked him directly, “Are you in favor of the death penalty?” He responded, with a smile, “Eh, I’m Canadian,” clearly feeling that was answer enough.

And it was, coming from the founder of our local chapter of Food Not Bombs and the front man for the Troublemakers (a band whose songs celebrate Emma Goldman and the idea of universal health care) in such a lighthearted tone that it would scarcely have alienated the most ardent conservative.

Helen Hill was Paul’s perfect match — a kind and generous woman who made award-winning animated films and taught art and filmmaking to children, adults, anyone who was interested. She’d spent much of the last year restoring reels of 16-millimeter film on which she had drawn by hand, and which had been damaged when their house took four feet of water during Hurricane Katrina.

She had a new film under way, inspired by discarded hand-sewn dresses, made by an elderly New Orleanian, which Helen had found in the trash after the woman’s death. The film interwove the story of the old woman and her dresses with Helen’s own flood-torn life, which took her, Paul and Francis to Columbia, S.C. — Helen’s hometown, where she will be buried today — for almost a year.

Helen had longed to return to New Orleans, despite Paul’s concern that crime and potential hurricanes made it too dangerous for their family. So Helen campaigned, sending Paul’s friends in New Orleans blank postcards, addressed to Paul, for us to write and mail to him. In mine, I pleaded with Paul — “We need you” — the way I do with anyone who is thinking about leaving, coming to, or even just visiting New Orleans. After what I am sure was a flood of similar cards, Paul relented.

I saw Paul and the baby a day after their return to the city, at a parade on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Francis had on a little railroad conductor’s hat, a T-shirt depicting a cartoon love affair between red beans and rice (the New Orleans Monday lunch classic), and a little sign pinned to his back, in Helen’s hand: “New Orleans Native. I Got Back Yesterday!”

The day of the anniversary was solemn but optimistic. Everyone still had a can-do attitude. Paul, for one, could help make the city’s people well and improve health care for the poor. Helen could make art depicting the city’s life. Others could rebuild schools, demand better levees, reconstruct their homes. It still felt as if our grassroots efforts, along with some real help from a government finally forced to make good on its obligations, could create a more just, fair and safe city. It might have been naïve, but it really seemed possible.

After wandering this beautiful, falling-over city the afternoon after Helen’s murder, forcing myself to remember why I love it here so much, I came back to my garden and picked flowers, those hardy few that had weathered the recent cold. I put them in a vase, wrote out the verses to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” — “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground / So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind” — and drove to the couple’s house, which my wife and I had recently visited for Helen’s open studio. On the steps leading up to their old shotgun house I set down the poem and the vase, just feet from where Paul had been found by the police, shot, bleeding, holding his baby.

On the way home, I stopped at my neighborhood bar to try to eat something. A picture of Paul and Helen, followed by one of the baby, appeared on the television in the corner. Oh, my God. The bartender was kind. She asked me whether I knew them, and talked to me about her fears living with her new baby in a city with no functional schools, no real plan for redevelopment, and spotty or nonexistent basic services. The TV news switched to a weather report: torrential downpours were expected to dump half a foot of rain overnight.

I drove home in the twilight and arrived uneasy and restless. Remembering the coming rain, I resolved to make myself useful to my block by digging out a sewer so backed up that the street — on high ground by New Orleans standards — floods at even the hint of rain. I had done this many times before, having realized that my innumerable calls to the city were in vain.

I pried up the 100-pound cast iron cover with a shovel and then shimmied it from side to side until I had the two-by-four sewer open. It was full to the top with debris. I shoveled out the leaves, dirt, Popeye’s cups and other garbage until the small brick rectangle was as clean as it was a century ago, when New Orleans first created this drainage system.

Then I set to work on clearing the cylindrical drain — about as wide as a hubcap, at the bottom corner of the cleaned-out basin — so that the rain could find its way into the city’s sewers, away from our houses, cars and belongings. I got down with a small shovel and burrowed through the muck until it seemed to open at the other side. Reaching in, though, I could feel that beyond the drain lay more dirt and leaves, packed hard.

Indeed, it became clear to me that the whole sewer line running beneath the street was solid with waste, impenetrable to arms and shovels — that my street would flood again that night. The problem, I realized, is bigger than me.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.