Two versions of the Gowanus story published

Yes, two versions of the investigative story I did with Mike Reicher have been published.

One, “A Score Of Companies Could Share Bill For Gowanus Cleanup” is up on City Limits Magazine’s website right now.

The other, more in-depth version, “Superfund: What Will It Mean For Gowanus?” has been published at 219 Magazine.

I just want to thank Mike, Valerie Lapinski, Sophie Cocke, Geneva Sands-Sadowitz, Andy Lehren, and Tim Harper for all their hard work in making this project what it is.

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Police Brutality Killed Oscar Grant: Johannes Mehserle Should Have Been Guilty of Murder

By Kieran K. Meadows

Credit: Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr: NeitherFanboy)

Americans anxiously awaited a decision Thursday involving a young African American man. Some thought an entire community would erupt in riots based on the outcome. You might think I’m referring to star basketball player LeBron James choosing to “take his talents” to South Beach. I’m not.

While TV media hyped “The Decision” for hours and millions seemed more concerned about a rich guy’s job situation than they did about their own, another decision came down in a Los Angeles courtroom with far more serious implications.

I heard about the verdict and shook my head in disgust. A jury found an Oakland transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting death of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant III. I was relieved Mehserle was convicted at all, which is rare in fatal police shootings. In the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, remember, officers were acquitted of all charges.

However, Mehserle was acquitted of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. His sentence could see him serving less jail time than a non-violent drug offender.

How could Grant’s death not be murder? Videos show Mehserle shooting Grant in the back as he lay subdued and facedown on the ground. Mehserle claimed he meant to reach for his Taser and instead grabbed his gun. As an astute reader on MotherJones.com commented: The “argument boiled down to: ‘I was attempting to abuse a suspect already in safe custody but I was too incompetent to even do that right and killed him by accident.’ ”

If the jury believed Mehserle’s testimony, then a key follow-up was ignored: Was Mehserle justified in using his Taser, let alone any weapon? The Taser has been implicated in playing a role in suspects’ deaths. And there have been cases in which a gun wasn’t even involved—see Anthony Baez. Therefore the issue is not the gun; it’s police brutality. The choice to use excessive force murdered Oscar Grant. Johannes Mehserle made that choice.

So was Mehserle justified in using a Taser? Police had been investigating reports of fighting on the train and had gathered a handful of young men thought to be involved. Accounts differ on Grant’s actions: the police say he was resisting arrest; witnesses say he was attempting to diffuse the fight. What’s obvious is just before the shooting, Grant lay prone on the platform with another officer pinning him down.

Afterwards, the usual story played out: the authorities’ “official” account characterized the suspects as thugs. But in the YouTube era, almost everyone in that BART station had a cell phone camera. Multiple videos immediately surfaced. For me, the loud pop is the most chilling moment—out of proportion to what we’re seeing. After all, officers were responding to reports of a fistfight.

If Mehserle decided to use his Taser only because he saw Grant as a threat, simply because he was young and black, then on a different night in a different place, the victim could have been LeBron James, or any black male, or anyone, period. Until we confront police brutality—by punishing officers who murder unarmed citizens—we will continue to see the same pattern of abuse, no accountability, and tragic loss of life.

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Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid and the influence of the “musical”

I went to see Janelle Monae live for the first time on Tuesday night at the Highline Ballroom. It was her free album release party for “The ArchAndroid,” which was released earlier that day. I was definitely impressed. What I was most impressed by was her versatility. She is sometimes talked about as a little bit of James Brown mixed with a bit of Prince and Michael Jackson, influenced by rock and hip hop, especially the Atlanta-based group, OutKast (not surprising then that Big Boi, half of OutKast, is her mentor and appears on the single, Tightrope — by the way, this video is very very cool).

By versatility I mean that she draws on music from all over the last 60 years as she creates her Android record. During Tuesday night’s show, I saw at least one song each that appeared to be directly influenced by music from the decades of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. To me, that showed incredible range. Many people have mentioned this. What, however, is less mentioned is how Ms. Monae is clearly influenced by musical theater and cinematic-like productions. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the now-24-year-old first moved to New York City to  pursue a career on Broadway, first studying theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. It becomes clear after watching her perform that her sets are actually theatrical productions rooted in musical theatre: there is art direction, costumes, choreography, lights, projected video — and a wall of lushly-produced sound that incorporates pre-programmed loops. Suffice it to say, her band is incredibly tight.

And of course there is Ms. Monae herself. She is a triple threat: she can sing, rap and dance. With her own form of android-robot-like moves, she glides around the stage as light as a feather, grabbing and rocking the mic-stand at will as if she has done it her entire life. Here, one can definitely see the influence of Brown, Prince and MJ. It’s no wonder why Ms. Monae has been rocking and buzzing up the underground music scene for some time now. The ArchAndroid is really like her album debut into mainstream pop. And yes, the mainstream needs this refreshing breath of air and creativity.

My only criticism of her is quite minor. During the live show, I would have liked to see more interaction with the audience. Just some sort of give and take — like a “Here I am performing, how are you doing? Yes, I’m up on stage performing, but we’re here rocking together.” Probably largely due to her theatrical background, Ms. Monae seems quite disconnected from the audience, maintaining somewhat of a performance fourth wall. And as one of her songs from her 2007 EP, “Metropolis Suites I of IV: The Chase,” is titled, Smile, I’d like to see her do some more of that. She seems quite content to keep a permanently petrified look with wide eyes as she performs. Is she having fun up there? The question I have is: how could she not?

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Gowanus Canal Designated a Superfund Site

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today declared Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal a Superfund site over the city’s objections and after considering the designation for almost a year.

On a morning conference call with reporters, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck announced that after holding over 50 meetings with city officials, community leaders and other interested parties, and receiving roughly 1300 public comments, the agency had decided to add the Canal to its National Priorities List (known as the Superfund program).

“We have determined that it is the most efficient and comprehensive cleanup,” Enck said.

The Gowanus Canal, which was built in the 1860s, has long been a heavily polluted industrial waterway, lined by coal manufactured gas plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, paint and ink factories, tanneries, cement makers and machine shops. Dangerous chemicals, coal tar sludge, pesticides, PCBs, and heavy metals are found in abundance in its sediment. Raw sewage and an oily sheen can be seen on its surface.

Superfund gives a federal mandate to the EPA to hold polluters accountable to pay for the cost of the cleanup. The EPA estimates that cleaning the contamination of the Gowanus Canal will cost approximately $300 to $500 million, and could take 10-12 years. Many Superfund sites have taken decades to clean up, due to years of litigation by companies defending against potential responsibility.

“The is not going to happen overnight,” Enck said, but added that it took decades for the Canal to become polluted so a cleanup that lasts one should be reasonable.

The debate in the neighborhood over whether to give the Canal Superfund status had been contentious. The Bloomberg administration had opposed the Superfund designation, claiming it would take too long and drive developers away. The city had instead proposed its own cleanup plan, which it said would not have taken as long due to voluntary agreements with past polluters to cover costs. In addition, it would have utilized funds from the federal Water Resources Development Act. Enck said her agency had concluded that not enough money would be available to take this path. She said there were limited funds available under WRDA and too much uncertainty in requiring annual Congressional approval of federal money.

Walter Mugdan, the Superfund director for the region, said that an agreement has already been reached with one of the potentially responsible parties (PRPs), National Grid, the successor company to Brooklyn Union Gas, which owned three manufactured gas plants along the Canal. Other PRPs include the City of New York, the U.S. Navy, Con Ed, Chemtura Corporation, Rapid American Corporation, Brinks, Beazer East, and Cibro Petroleum Products, with others to be identified in the coming months.

Enck also addressed the suggestion in recent weeks that development would be impeded by the Superfund listing. Pro-development and business groups have claimed that developers with sites within 3,000 feet of the Canal would have difficulty securing private financing and obtaining HUD and FHA-insured loans due to the stigma of a listing. “Unfortunately, there is already a stigma there,” she said. “I reject this as a reason why development can’t move forward.”

The EPA’s announcement clears the way for the next stage of the process to begin. The EPA says it hopes to complete a Remedial Investigation and an Ecological and Risk Assessment by the end of the year.

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Citing signs of stabilization, economists hopeful about next year

By Kieran K. Meadows

What a difference a year makes.

Jobseekers may not feel better, but if you ask economists, things are not nearly as bad as they thought they might be.

“Looking forward and looking backward, we’re better off than most people would have imagined at this point,” said Barbara Byrne Denham, an economist for Eastern Consolidated, a real estate investment company.

Just over a year since the financial crisis plunged New York into the depths of recession and uncertainty, some economists are now cautiously optimistic about next year’s outlook. They predict a moderate turnaround in mid-2010. While conceding there’s a long road ahead to a full recovery, they point to some encouraging signs the economy is stabilizing. Some say this is largely the result of government intervention.

“The government came in and bailed out the financial firms and they are major employers in New York City,” said Ken McCarthy, an economist for Cushman Wakefield, a real estate services firm. “The financial sector is coming back more quickly than anybody expected.”

After being propped up over the last year by the feds, Wall Street to estimated to make $59 billion in profits in 2009—its highest ever—and a complete U-turn from huge losses of $11 billion in 2007 and $42 billion in 2008.

On Thursday, the Independent Budget Office reported fewer job losses and higher tax revenues than it had originally projected. “We expect New York City job losses to be far lower than we anticipated last spring,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, the director of the IBO.

The revised report forecasts the city to lose 157,200 jobs from the peak of employment in August 2008 through mid-2010—much fewer than the 254,500 lost jobs from the earlier report. “That’s a huge difference,” Lowenstein said.

The construction sector has also showed signs it’s slowly improving. Work began at $3.9 billion worth of projects in the third quarter of 2009, twice that of the year’s first three months, according to an analysis by the New York Building Congress.

The state Department of Labor reported that the city’s jobless rate was 10.3 percent in October, unchanged from September. “After deteriorating for months, the city’s unemployment rate appears to be stabilizing,” said Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. in a statement.

Despite encouraging signs, the city is not close to being out of the woods yet. Unemployment is likely to come down very slowly, said Rae Rosen, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. She says banks are rebuilding capital, which limits their ability to make loans to businesses. With less access to credit, small businesses, which are traditionally engines of recovery, have been unable to create jobs.

Moreover, the unemployment rate will likely inch higher until it levels off at least six months from now, after we shed another 50,000 to 75,000 jobs.

To counteract this trend in 2010, Jonathan Bowles, the director of the Center for an Urban Future, says city officials should focus on diversifying our economy to depend less on Wall Street. “We need to identify areas where there’s substantial opportunities for growth,” he said, citing the tech and creative sectors. “We attract the most talented and creative people,” which is “a core strength,” he said.

New Yorkers should hope the city follows the footsteps of the national economy. On Friday, more evidence revealed the U.S. is turning the corner toward recovery faster than expected. The U.S. unemployment rate dropped from 10.2 percent in October to 10 percent in November—perhaps not a significant drop, yet symbolic after a year of awful economic news.

“Positive job growth at the national level will be a huge boost in morale overall,” Denham said, building confidence on Wall Street and on the part of consumers, which can help accelerate the city’s economic recovery into the new year.

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The governor’s power to grant clemency

Under the New York State Constitution, the governor has the power to grant clemency to prisoners “upon such conditions and with such limitation, as he may think proper” (excluding for crimes of treason or impeachment). Most states in the U.S. give the extraordinary power of clemency to governors (or at least in some hybrid arrangement with a parole board). The issue is currently in the news because of the recent shooting deaths of four police officers in Washington State, allegedly by Maurice Clemmons, whose prison sentence in Arkansas was commuted in 2000 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. The speculation is that the willingness of Huckabee, who ran an upstart presidential campaign in 2008, to grant clemency may hurt his presidential ambitions in 2012. It is in this context that I noticed an excellent post on The New York Times’ City Room blog on this very issue. It begins:

This month Gov. David A. Paterson will be mulling the fate of roughly 150 inmates in New York prisons who have formally applied for clemency in the hope of having their prison sentences shortened or their criminal convictions forgiven.

It is a traditional — if increasingly rare — holiday gesture of mercy. Over three and a half decades the number of inmates who have had their sentences commuted or convictions pardoned has steadily dropped.

The post’s author, A.G. Sulzberger, goes on to say that unfortunately, many governors now weigh the political consequences of granting clemency, particularly if they are to soon to go before the electorate. Prison advocates like Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, fear that this year, Gov. Paterson, facing low poll numbers and the upcoming election, will grant clemency to few, if any, inmates.

Similarly, in 2006, when then-Gov. George E. Pataki was mulling over a 2008 presidential run, he declined to grant clemency to any inmates.

One wonders then, whether he would have been willing to commute the prison sentence of Elaine Bartlett in 2000 if he had faced an upcoming election (his next was in 2002) or considered vying for a spot on the Republican presidential ticket that year. I recently finished the book,“Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” which tells Bartlett’s story of serving a 20-to-life sentence for a first-time drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws until Pataki commuted her sentence after 16 years. It was tough enough for Bartlett to receive clemency when Pataki did not face the circumstances described above, so I can only imagine if he had. She probably would have served at least another four years, when in truth, she should have been granted clemency after ten (half of the minimum of the sentence). But in 1995, Pataki had just been elected in the mold of a “law-and-order” Republican — surely not someone who was going to be granting clemency.

But after watching this clip of Pataki last week — considered a dark-horse for the 2012 Republican presidential nod — drawing a contrast between his record and that of Huckabee, I get the feeling that Elaine Bartlett was lucky to have received a commutation at all.

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NY high court rejects prison phone rate refund lawsuit

teljus_logo The New York State Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by prisoners’ families seeking refunds for the exorbitant phone rates it cost them to speak to their loved ones behind bars. The class action suit, Walton v. NYSDOCS, was filed in 2004 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners’ families and friends, who for years had paid inflated rates for collect calls due to the state’s monopoly contract with MCI/Verizon.

Lawyers for the families said that the excessively high rates amounted to an unfair and “unlawful tax” that resulted in millions of dollars being paid over a number of years. The prison telephone service contract stipulated that MCI pay the state 57.5 percent of the fees received from prisoners’ collect calls. Then MCI would be allowed to charge well over the market rate: a $3 connection surcharge and between 16 and 36 cents per minute. The rate of a collect call from a federal prison is 7 cents per minute. Most of New York’s calls are from prisons upstate to loved ones in New York City.

Mostly due to the long struggle waged by the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, upon arrival to office in 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer halted the arrangement. Rates then fell to about half of what they had been. In June 2007, the state Legislature made Gov. Spitzer’s decision into a law, the Family Connections bill.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that families were paying up to $300 or $400 per month to speak to their loved ones who were incarcerated. Since 1996, they said, the state had collected about $200 million in profits from kickbacks outlined in the phone service arrangement with MCI. The lawyers maintain that families are owed compensation for this unnecessary burden.

The high court’s 5-1 decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the families had failed to assert a legitimate claim under the the state Constitution. The court said the the policy was bad, but not unconstitutional.

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