Minneapolis Shootings Show That Communities Need Resources, Not More Policing

The recent shootings of Black protesters by white vigilantes in Minneapolis—and the ensuing anemic response by local police—are symptoms of a culture of racism that devalues Black lives. It is clear to many of the residents of Minneapolis and beyond that police do not make them safer. We need to reimagine community safety as something very different from policing and mass incarceration.

As members of Minneapolis’ Black community staged a peaceful protest against what one relative of Jamar Clark called his “execution-style” killing by police, a masked man—accompanied by three accomplices—shot five Black Lives Matter protesters outside of a police station.

Activists who were on the scene say that police nearby did nothing to protect the protesters and that it took approximately 15 minutes for ambulances to arrive.

The shooting of peaceful protesters by white vigilantes is terrorism, plain and simple. The victims were shot as they exercised their right to free assembly. The horrific act should have been met with a state response that takes these ongoing threats seriously and did not perpetuate the devaluing of Black life. Instead, the response by the City demonstrates that the policing and criminal justice systems in Minneapolis are irredeemably broken.

The police in Minneapolis were aware of threats to the protesters but took no action to avert this tragedy. All four suspects managed to get away after drawing guns and shooting five protesters only a block away from the Fourth Precinct police station. Activists reported that during the chaos of the shootings, not only did police fail to protect the demonstrators, but they taunted and maced them. In the past week, the Minneapolis Police Department further escalated tensions by using a chemical irritant against protesters.

The shootings in Minneapolis took place on the same week as the one-year anniversary of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. They also occurred the week that first-degree murder charges were filed against a Chicago officer in the merciless shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.  Indeed, Minneapolis is the latest example that our criminal justice and policing systems are not designed to keep Black communities safe. All around the country, Black people are finding that they are as under-protected as they are over-policed.

We must address not only this current crisis but the root causes that created it.

We need to reimagine community safety as something very different from policing and mass incarceration.

We need meaningful community control of police and support for Black communities to address safety concerns. Communities are experts in the type of policing they need and must have the power to set police priorities, determine policing tactics, and make hiring and firing decisions. Police departments in San Francisco and Newark have introduced programs in which local communities have a meaningful say in setting priorities for the department, but there are currently no existing ideal models for community control of local police.

We need to ensure that our communities are protected not only from white vigilantes, but from other forms of violence ignored by the state, including poverty, a dearth of employment opportunities, failing education systems, homelessness, and a lack of mental health services. We know that investments in education, affordable housing, mental health services, restorative justice programs, and higher wages are vital for rebuilding these traumatized communities.

The United States spends $100 billion annually on policing alone—this despite a steady decline in crime rates. Growth in corrections spending has outpaced growth in expenditures in other critical areas. State spending on higher education rose by less than six percent between 1986 and 2013, yet corrections spending jumped by 141 percent.

If all of the energy and resources that go towards policing and incarceration were instead redirected toward these basic needs and opportunities, we would see a kind of safety we have not seen in this country since its original sin.

Legislators and state officials have stripped our communities of basic resources, preyed and profited on our exploitation, and continue to fill prisons while shutting down schools. The killing of Jamar Clark and the terrorist event in Minneapolis are the latest symptoms of our great American tragedy.




Tax Negotiations Cannot Leave Working Families High and Dry

Congress has a lot on its plate before it breaks for the holidays. In addition to agreeing on a way to fund the federal government, one of its most important tasks is to forge a compromise on a range of tax credits for businesses and workers. Debates about the tax code are riddled with jargon and technicalities. Too often, compromises start to sound like minor disagreements over a balance sheet. But in fact, the decisions Congress must make during this tax debate will either help stabilize hardworking families or push millions of them into poverty. As Congress tries to cut a deal, they should support the everyday working people who rely on our tax code—especially the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC)—to make ends meet in an economy that isn’t working for many of us.

It’s working people like Joanna who have real stakes in the current debate. Joanna has two children—a 14-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. She works full-time as a cashier on the third shift at her local deli. She earns the current minimum wage in New Jersey—$8.38 per hour—which means she makes just over $17,000 annually. To say she struggles to make ends meet is a great understatement.

“I have to pick and choose my battles when it comes to paychecks,” she says. “I sacrifice whatever I may need or want because my children come first.”

Joanna receives the EITC and CTC, both of which are intended to encourage work and offset federal payroll and income taxes for working households.

“It lifts a burden off my back,” Joanna says. “I’m able to catch up on all our bills…I was able to get my children coats for the winter, shoes that will last them for a while, school clothes and underclothes all at once. It’s a lifesaver.”

Congress must now decide whether to make key parts of the EITC and CTC permanent as part of a broader tax package that primarily benefits corporations. If they let key provisions of these credits expire at the end of 2017, Congress will be cutting Joanna’s family income by over $1,500 per year. That’s income that makes a real difference in the lives of Joanna and her children.

“The thought of [losing income from the tax credits] has been stressing me out,” she says.

Joanna isn’t the only one who is worried. If Congress lets these provisions expire, nearly 50 million Americans, including 25 million children, would face a loss of income. In 2018, 16 million people would either fall into poverty, or fall deeper into poverty. In New Jersey, where Joanna lives, 219,000 families and 435,000 children would be impacted if Congress cuts these credits.

Moreover, these tax credits don’t just mitigate poverty and economic hardship in the short-term—they have tremendous positive effects on children’s long-term health and success. After significant increases in the credits in the 1990s, there was substantial improvement in the health of new born children. Indicators of child wellbeing such as low-weight births and premature births improved, as did indicators for the health of the mothers of these children. Research has also shown that the EITC and CTC improve the educational outcomes for children according to a variety of indicators, including academic test scores. Children from families receiving these tax credits are also more likely to attend college and earn more as adults.

In short, these tax credits are public policies that work—and work very well. Right now, Congress is debating how to extend more than 50 tax credits and incentives. Many of these are costly credits for big corporations. In fact, out of the $400 billion in proposed tax benefits, two-thirds would go to businesses. If Congress considers making these business credits permanent, they must also make key improvements to the EITC and CTC permanent for working people like Joanna.




Paul Ryan’s (Accidental) Case for Raising the Minimum Wage

Today, Paul Ryan gave his first major policy speech as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He spoke for nearly half an hour about “the millions of people stuck in neutral… 45 million people living in poverty.”

While Ryan pushed many of his favorite myths about the safety net, he also inadvertently made one of the strongest cases to date for raising the minimum wage and investing in policies to help people balance work and caregiving.

Indeed, in his grand finale, Ryan called on Congress to:

“Push wages up. Push the cost of living down. Get people off the sidelines. I could think of no better way to restore confidence in the American economy.”

Bravo, Speaker Ryan. We couldn’t agree more. Now, if only we knew how to do these things…

Oh, wait. We do!

How can we “push wages up”?

It’s called raising the minimum wage. And luckily for Speaker Ryan, over 75 percent of Americans support raising the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020.

But wait, there’s more.

As Speaker Ryan so eloquently points out, our minimum wage is a poverty wage and not nearly enough for working parents to support their families, leaving many with no choice but to turn to public assistance to make ends meet.

“So say you’re a single mom with one kid. You’re making minimum wage. You’re on food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other assistance.”

So, by raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 as the Murray-Scott bill would do, not only would 35 million Americans get a raise, but we would also save nearly $53 billion over the next 10 years in SNAP alone.  

Unfortunately Ryan has voted against raising the minimum wage at least 10 times since he’s been in office.

So, how can we “push the cost of living down”?

Paul Ryan is correct when he says that the cost of living is rising. But families with young kids often face the tightest squeeze of all. Childcare expenses have skyrocketed; the average annual cost for center-based childcare is now more than tuition and fees for a public 4-year college in 31 states and DC. And low-income families spend an average of nearly 14% of their annual income on diapers alone.

What these families need is affordable, high-quality childcare—which also helps parents work—and a stronger Child Tax Credit to help alleviate the squeeze of stagnant wages and rising costs.

And, finally, how can we “get people off the sidelines”?

While there’s obviously a lot that policymakers can and should do on this one—including investing in job creation and removing barriers to employment for people with criminal records and people with disabilities, a major piece of the puzzle is ensuring access to paid family and medical leave.

Speaker Ryan has led by example on this important issue—well, for himself anyway. But, in opposing legislation that would help families access up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, he’s left other working parents high and dry.

The U.S. stands alone among developed nations in failing to guarantee access to any form of paid family leave. But research has shown that when women are able to take paid leave, they are more likely to be working; to have higher wages 9-12 months after their child is born; and to avoid turning to public assistance.


Interestingly, a major theme of Speaker Ryan’s speech was about how conservatives need to push new ideas to cut poverty and boost opportunity. “Our number-one goal for the next year,” he said, “is to put together a complete alternative to the Left’s agenda.”

Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell him that his speech didn’t actually contain any new ideas on tackling poverty and boosting opportunity – only the same old stuff conservatives have been pushing for years such as block grants and cuts to effective programs.

Instead, at his poverty summit on January 9th, Speaker Ryan should endorse raising the minimum wage and adopting work-family policies. To borrow his hashtag of choice, that would make us a #ConfidentAmerica.



First Person

Where Martha Stewart and I Went to Prison Was No ‘Camp Cupcake’

I was a 60-year-old woman when I was first incarcerated in 2010 at Alderson Federal Prison Camp (FPC), one of the few federal women’s prison camps in the United States. A month before I entered prison, my friend Russ Rothman called to tell me Martha Stewart had served her time there when she was 63. He had googled Alderson, nicknamed “Camp Cupcake,” and had found they had tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool—more like a country club than a prison, he said. Russ assured me I would be okay…and instructed me to bring my racket.

My mother had Martha Stewart on her mind too. Not realizing that Martha had actually gone to trial and lost, she said, “Martha Stewart pled guilty and went to prison for six months. Why don’t you plead guilty, go to prison, and get this nightmare over with. You can’t beat city hall.” My mother also used my love of watching 24/7 TV news in her efforts to persuade me. She said, “At least you will get cable TV in prison. I didn’t get that in Auschwitz.” I had no words.

Ultimately, my mother was right: I couldn’t beat the government’s charges of tax evasion and mail fraud, even though I was innocent. And so, eight years after Martha went to prison, my case went to trial and I was convicted. But from the moment I entered Alderson, I realized it was no country club. After being fingerprinted and having my mug shot taken, I was given “newbie” clothes, that is, the clothes inmates wear for the first day only. The slip-on sneakers were two sizes too large; the bra had as little material as a G-string and didn’t hold my breasts in place. The oversized outfit could have fit two women.

After this initial intake, I waited with three other new arrivals in a freezing cell in the Receiving and Discharge (R & D) building. We got the prison bag lunch of a bologna sandwich, cookies, an apple, and a water. When we missed dinner, we got another bag of bologna sandwiches.

Soon after our arrival, R & D officers gave each of us a large laundry bag which contained a blanket, two sheets, soap, shampoo, a comb, a toothbrush, and, most importantly, “Maximum Security” deodorant.

Photo provided by author
Photo provided by author

The R & D building was separated from the sleeping quarters (the “units”) by a long stretch known as “Hallelujah Hill.” For some, this nickname was a reference to its proximity to the prison chapel, but for the older crowd, making it to the top merited a shout of “Hallelujah.” During my first trek to the Admissions and Orientation (A & O) units, I was forced to stop several times to catch my breath while carrying the heavy laundry bag. I lagged far behind the younger women.

During my first two weeks in prison, I went through orientation with thirty other women. Correctional officers showed us a film on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) and emphasized there was to be no lesbian sex. I understood that to mean lesbian sex was the only kind of sex that merited punishment, as opposed to some of the contractors’ well-known proclivity for sexually abusing prisoners. They also lectured us on the rules of the compound, the different facilities, and told us we had to work.

In Alderson, everyone was required to work in the kitchen for their first 90 days. That is, everyone but Martha Stewart, who requested but was denied kitchen duty. I suspect she was refused because this chore might have given her an inkling of pleasure within the miserable prison environment. She was instead assigned instead to the humiliating task of mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of the warden and other higher-ups.

My first job at the Alderson kitchen was cleaning floors after the lunch and dinner shift. Although I worked seven or eight hours a day, I earned only $5.25 during my first month. There were also few accommodations based on age—elderly women were given the exact same jobs as younger women; even older women who could barely walk had to endure the long work hours. And after our work was done, we were not permitted to go back to the unit between lunch and dinner. We were not allowed to read, do crossword puzzles, knit, play cards, or sleep. Instead, everyone had to spend long hours in plastic seats attached to the table. As an older woman, this took a real toll on me physically.

Any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences older adults experience behind bars.

After my days of kitchen duty were up, I got transferred to the landscaping department, which meant that, at the age of 60, I was charged with the backbreaking work of mowing the lawns in the hot summer and shoveling snow in the winter. Once, I was assigned a heavy 1950s-style lawnmower but could not get it started without assistance. When I went to push it, I couldn’t even move it an inch.

After I went to landscaper and asked for a different assignment, he gave me a broom and instructed me to sweep the streets. I cleaned the road of rocks but quickly realized that the area would be filled again as soon as a truck came by. And so, I asked the officer if I could remove the stones and put them far from the road. He replied, “But then you would have nothing to do.”

At an age where working a physically demanding job for seven- and eight-hour days was grueling, I served as the Sisyphus of Alderson, sweeping rocks off the streets only to see my work undone by passing vehicles. My experience is far from unique. While there are 75,000 prisoners over the age of 60 that are under the jurisdiction of correctional authorities, accommodations that take into account the reality of aging behind bars are all too rare.

What I’ve come to realize is that although older people do commit crimes that warrant punishment, there are few reasons, public safety or otherwise, to incarcerate elders. Certainly, any basis for incarceration is outweighed by the negative consequences we experience behind bars. Instead, we need alternatives to incarceration that acknowledge that older people are too vulnerable a population to be held in our prisons and jails.

As for Martha Stewart, well, Martha was lucky. She went home to a billion dollar company. But as for me, I’m homeless, broke, and living proof that Alderson is no “Camp Cupcake.”




How Employment Agencies Abuse Jobseekers

If you don’t have a job, or you want a better one, advertisements like these may seem promising:

CLEANERS – NOW STAFFING – F/T & P/T, no exp needed. Up to $29.00 per hour.

The U.S. economy continues to improve and the unemployment rate is decreasing, reaching a seven-year low of 5.2 percent in New York City in September, according to the New York State Department of Labor. But many people are still looking for a job or seeking a better one, which can be a stressful and time-consuming process. Lured by advertisements and the promise of work, some turn to an employment agency for help.

The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), which I serve as Commissioner, licenses and regulates employment agencies. While we are very vigilant in our protection of job seekers, with such a high demand for services and many people desperately in need of work, there are inevitably those who try to take advantage of vulnerable individuals. This has led to a proliferation of predatory employment agencies that exploit the unemployed or underemployed who are trying their best to provide for their families.

One of these individuals was Rosa. After paying $125 to an employment agency, the agency sent her to a laundromat that they claimed was looking for workers. However, when Rosa went to inquire about the job, the owner of the laundromat said they were not hiring and had never asked for workers. Rosa returned to the employment agency asking for a refund, but was refused one. Their only response to her was that she was “too old” and so the laundromat just didn’t want to hire her.

And Marlon, a man from Queens, New York, paid a $125 advance fee to an employment agency plus a $774 fee for a construction training class. The agency guaranteed Marlon a job. Not only did it fail to come through on that promise, it never even referred him to a potential employer. When Marlon returned to the agency to demand a refund, the office had been abandoned.

We at DCA have seen too many job seekers respond to ads for employment only to have agencies charge them illegal fees as high as $1,400—for processing their application, background checks, or “required” trainings like Marlon’s. Many of these agencies operate without a license, send people to jobs that don’t exist, or place them in jobs that don’t pay minimum wage.

This is a growing problem among our immigrant and low-income communities, as they are often the main target of these scams. Over the past year, DCA received more than 600 complaints about employment agencies, and as a result initiated more than 225 investigations into both unlicensed and licensed offices. In the past year, DCA has issued more than 400 violations and secured more than $77,000 in restitution for 269 consumers who were charged illegal and predatory fees.

DCA has also increased its education and advocacy work in this industry. Together with New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), DCA recently created a Job Hunter’s Bill of Rights, which is available in eight languages. It outlines what employment agencies can and cannot do. Advocacy groups have been distributing it to employers and job seekers throughout New York City. Some of the rights and responsibilities noted include: an individual’s right to a full refund of any advance fee if an agency doesn’t find that worker a job or if a job offer isn’t accepted; the job seeker’s right to file a complaint regardless of immigration status; and the requirement that employment agencies refer workers only to employers that are hiring.

“Every day, predatory employment agencies take advantage of unemployed low-wage and immigrant workers,” says Manuel Castro, Executive Director of NICE. “That’s why [we have] worked with DCA on this Bill of Rights. With DCA cracking down on bad actors, and a campaign pushing for legislative reform, low-wage job seekers will be better protected when looking for quality jobs.”

We urge New Yorkers to know their rights, including the right to submit a complaint to DCA about employment agencies in New York. For job hunters who choose to use an employment agency, it’s important to check the local laws and know your rights. Here in New York City, get our tips and read the Job Hunter’s Bill of Rights. There are laws and rules that can protect the unemployed and underemployed from these predatory practices. Knowing those rights is the first step.

Author’s note: Read the results from DCA’s investigations of employment agencies.