Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Talk to Bill Quigley tomorrow!

Bill Quigley, Loyola New Orleans law professor (and THE MAN of civil rights law in NOLA) will be answering questions about justice law in NOLA since Katrina. Go to this website to join in or to ask a question.


The Live Talk is at noon Central time.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sorry for the Long Delay

The title says it all. Things have been hectic down in the Big Easy (that's New Orleans, right), in fact they've been awesomely hectic. I love work. I get a lot of work that I feel is incredibly interesting, but also prevents me from having the time to blog as often as I'd like.

That being said, I want to speak a little about some of my experiences with law enforcement down here. Some of it has been very pleasant. There are truly law enforcement agents down here who want to help us out. Take for example, Jovanna Cardova, who works at the House of Detention Legal Office. I caught Jovanna leaving building and she stayed overtime to help me get the records I needed to write a bail reduction motion. Jovanna Cardova is an ally.

The military police officer I had this conversation with is not an ally:

I try to walk to the jail, referred to as HOD (House of Detention) but come to a fence and am not sure the quickest way around. I approach a military police officer and a regular (in the most pejorative sense) police officer in a squad car with a presumably recent arrestee in back.

Me (speaking to military officer): Can you please tell me how to get to HOD?

Private Pile: What, where are you going?

Pejoratively Regular Officer: What does he want?

Private Pile: I don't know, they said they're going to HIV or something.

Pejoratively Regular Officer (laughs): Oh, HOD. I'm not sure.

Me: Thank you.

My thoughts: are you kidding me? HIV? You really thought I was saying HIV? and you don't know where HOD is? Then where the hell are you taking THAT PERSON YOU JUST ARRESTED YOU MORONS!? (can I swear on this blog? I was thinking swears at the time. No one ever actually thinks the word 'moron,' do they?)

That would be funny, except these are the people in charge of justice in this city.

It's thus not surprising that justice usually means stopping an impoverished black man under the pretense of "public intoxication," patting him down, and hoping to find drugs. If you do find drugs, and this person already has been convicted of 3 felonies (most likely all non-violent, drug possession charges), putting him away possibly for life. Was this person intoxicated in the first place? Who knows? But they were reasonably suspiciously drunk I guess. And in a "high crime area." And they have a darker complexion than the Commish so that pretty much takes the cake.

The real question is: why are there laws against public intoxication in a city that sections off blocks every night for people to get drunk on and allows people to drink outside anywhere in the city?

That is not a rhetorical question. The answer is: it provides yet another reason for the police to legitimize patting down poor black people.

Totally Insane Fact of the Week: If you are five times prosecuted for marijuana possession you get 20 to life.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Interactive map of NOLA flooding

So, I was referred to this great website that steps through what exactly happened when during the flooding. It really was a complicated process with failures on many fronts. Whether those failures were due to poor levees or inevitability...we may never know.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Justice Restored?

So, while I was volunteering in NOLA over winter break ('07), one of the areas I worked on was helping people appeal their FEMA recoupment notices. Most of these people were being asked for around $20,000 to be returned to the federal government, because it had been given to them in error. This $20K was distrubuted to help people pay for lost personal property.

In the cases I saw, and I'm sure many others, these people didn't have ANY money to give back. Oddly enough...they had spent the money on...of all things...new personal property (imagine that...the nerve!) And these clients had their receipts to prove it. Receipts for pots and pans, clothes, toiletries, furniture, etc.

So, I understand the government demanding replayment of funds that were fraduently collected by survivors who were trying to "work the system." But that wasn't the case here at all. They were a woman who lived with her abusive boyfriend, so when he collected homeowners insurance on his house, and didn't share any with her so she could replace HER property that was in the house, she applied for FEMA funds. They were a woman who was encouraged by FEMA to apply for more funds, because the FEMA worker glanced in her house and saw that she had nice furniture that would certainly rise above the $5,000 she was going to get in homeowner's insurance. These are the people that were going to have their $20,000 debt, sent to a collection agency, because the government wasn't careful in reviewing claims and too disorganized to do its job properly.

The attorney I was working with told me that there was probably no chance that these people would get the waivers we were requesting, because FEMA is flooded with these sort of requests. I mean, why would they grant waivers to special cases, when nearly every recoupement they were issuing was due to a special circumstance (most notably, FEMA error in dispursing the money in the first place)? But like all of the freedom fighters in NOLA, she said we had to try.

Luckily, this week, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Lousiana ordered a preliminary injuction for FEMA and Homeland Security to stop recoupments until these people have a chance to be heard. Perhaps this is a small sign that justice is getting back on its feet in the Gulf Coast?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Poetry Slams: A Casualty of Katrina

When I was living in Baltimore, the year before I came back to the midwest, god bless it, for law school, I read in poetry slams maybe once or twice a month. You know: "roses are red, violets are blue, I'm angsty and lonely, symbolism about this and that, Che Gueverra," the usual. I haven't read much this last school year, but having some extra time on weekends, I decided to seek out some slams.

Oddly, it turns out that, while New Orleans did have a slam poetry scene before Katrina, that scene left with the storm. Many of those interested in slam poetry left. Many of the venues, such as the Dragon's Den, which would host slams got shut down and are just reopening, if they are reopening at all. I went to 3 or 4 venues and searched the internet for a long time and couldn't find a slam, nor could anyone point me to one.

This just goes to show how many of New Orleans' niches were affected by Katrina. Even the poetry left.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

1 Week Down

Just one week and my apprehensions have faded. First of all, while I do still think fighting crime is very important, most "fighting crime" seems to consist of giving young men outrageously long drug possession sentences. At the end of the day, I can easily reconcile defending anyone, even the guilty, with my conscience for two main reasons. First, justice should not depend on class. If rich people can get good attorneys to get them off, then poor people deserve the same. Also, as just alluded to, many defendants are very young and face very long jail sentences. The system is too quick to throw in the towel on people's lives and sometimes, if given the choice between not punishing the guilty and flushing a young, albeit guilty, person's life down the drain, I choose the former. But I guess I'm rationalizing a little. Can you hear it over the world wide web?

I was also apprehensive because I thought the system down here may be too broke for me to do any good. I couldn't feel that way less. This is not too say that the public defender is adequately funded or staffed. Far from. PD's still often have upwards of 50 active cases at once and there is only one xerox machine for a staff of about 50 or 60 (I should double check that number maybe) just to name a few examples off the top of my head. Still, the PD system has been largely revamped and improved after Katrina and its fallout drew attention to its inadequacies. The PD used to have a single room office and we now have a floor. The PD used to have no permanent staff, but rather a series of private attorneys that worked part time for the PD and cycled in and out. Now there is a permanent staff. Kudos to the many former part timers who decided to work for the PD full time.

In this column I feel the same tension, to a much smaller extent obviously, as the PD staff in general. The PD is in the strange position of having to prove its own inadequacy and its own progress. Progress, to show that its possible, inadequacy, to call attention to the fact that more help and resources are desperately needed.

As to my specific job, I have been paired with two lawyers and another intern. For the lawyers, I have looked over case files and brainstormed to think of arguments (generally fact specific, not constitutional) with the lawyers. It's very gratifying. I feel like I'm getting my hands dirty and that the lawyers really appreciate the interns. Sometimes I imagine myself as Jack McCoy (open this link).

Pure Insanity Fact of the Week (hence the insaaaaaane font): Arrested people can be held in pretrial detention for 60 days without being charged with a crime. Until recently, these people would not even have a lawyer for this period of time.

Monday, May 28, 2007

N.O.t Pun II: N.O.t Working Yet

I promise, this will be the last of the N.O.t-pun series. But, as is suggested by this N.O.t.-pun, I haven't started work yet. I start on Thursday. There will be an orientation and then, as one of my supervisors said, we'll "hit the ground running."

In the meantime, I've been busy alligator hunting and listening to CCR. Those are both lies, but I did get a snowball which is like a New Orleans snow cone. The difference is that snowballs are good and not only sold at the circus (is that a false childhood memory?).

My house and neighborhood rocks. Within a few blocks there are lots of independent businesses, bars, coffeehouses, dry cleaners, antique shops, and an inordinate number of chiropractors. But, being that I live in kind of a yuppy area (the Garden District, I think, though I'm not sure where the neighborhood borders lie), I'm sure the contrast between some of the areas PD clientèle live in and my neighborhood will be daunting. My neighborhood, to my knowledge, was not damaged by Katrina. This doesn't mean I feel guilty for living in the area I do. I find such guilt to generally be a neurotic way for people to feel like they are doing something when they aren't - like somehow the guilt itself contributes to society. That being said, when the contrast between my neighborhood and other neighborhoods becomes more apparent to me, some guilt may set in; hopefully guilt of the productive variety.

As time tends to do, it will tell.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

N.O.t. there yet

Hello readers and Student Hurricane Network supporters. And hello pro-hurricane spies. My name is Eric Sirota. I am the Vice President of the University of Illinois Law School’s Student Hurricane Network. I will be working for the New Orleans Public Defender this summer and keeping those who are interested posted through this blog.

I haven’t moved down to New Orleans yet, and I don’t know most of the details of my working situation. I know I’ll be shadowing an attorney. I know I’ll be working with other interns from around the country. I am looking forward to the task at hand, but I am a little apprehensive. One reason I am apprehensive is that I am scared that the system is too broken for me to be helpful. A second reason I am apprehensive is that, despite my strong liberal leanings, I sometimes have a bit of a ‘law and order’ mentality and may feel morally conflicted about my work with the PD. Another reason is more personal – I don’t really want to be a public defender for my career and am worried that going to New Orleans was an impractical life choice. Perhaps I should have tried to fulfill a more genuine aspiration this summer – perhaps by training to be a professional baseball player or by going to astronaut camp.

Apprehension aside, I am excited for the challenge that awaits and motivated to take it head on. Even though I have little interest in becoming a public defender, I decided to take the internship in New Orleans because I feel that, in the wake of hurricane Katrina (yes, this much later is still the wake, unfortunately), they need as much help as they can get. I went to New Orleans for a Student Hurricane Network thing through U of I last winter break, and it inspired me to want to help out more. In fact, it inspired me so much that I turned down two paying jobs to volunteer in New Orleans. I’m not saying that just to toot my own horn. Just kidding. I am saying that to toot my own horn.

But, having spent the last several years engaging in public interest jobs, I have realized that pride alone motivates me to go into public interest but does not help me be good at it. I was a teacher after college, largely priding myself on my desire to better the situation of the disadvantaged. However, pride made me become a teacher, but I was a bad teacher. Hopefully, I will be a better intern. Time will tell.

I will be living with another intern in the Garden District, near Tulane. I will be driving down to New Orleans in the next few days with Adam, my cousin and close friend. Adam wants to see Bourbon Street. Hopefully, he will be able to amuse himself there while I partake in the equally exciting task of shopping for linens…AND THINGS!

Cool. That’s all for now. I’ll keep ya’ll posted. Tune in.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Survey: Blacks face housing bias in New Orleans


Survey: Blacks face housing bias in N.O.

Blacks already feeling the pinch from a housing shortage in the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina are facing racial discrimination in their search for rental property, a survey by housing advocates found.

The survey sent black and white "testers" — paired by matching incomes, careers, family types and rental histories — to inquire about openings at 40 rental properties in metropolitan New Orleans.

The findings, released Tuesday by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, found blacks encountered "less favorable treatment" than their white counterparts in 57.5 percent of those tests.

In one example, an agent told the black tester who responded to an apartment ad on Jan. 22 that only one unit was available, and not until February. The same agent told the white tester later that day that two units would available Feb. 1 and mentioned two other units.
Tammy Esponge, association executive for the Apartment Association of Greater New Orleans, she has no reason to believe housing discrimination is more acute in New Orleans than in other parts of the country.

"There's discrimination all the time out there — not just in the apartment market. I'm talking all over the place," she said. "But we are highly in support of our members enforcing the fair housing laws."

She said her group offers annual fair housing training seminars for its members, which include 34 owners and managers of 20,000 rental units in southeast Louisiana.
James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said the group intends to sue several landlords.

"At a time when people need housing desperately, we really can't stand to have discrimination occurring," Perry said.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"When The Levees Broke" playing at the College of Law - April 19

"This intimate, heart-rending portrait of New Orleans in the wake of the destruction tells the heartbreaking personal stories of those who endured this harrowing ordeal and survived to tell the tale of misery, despair and triumph."


This Spike Lee documentary will be playing as part of the Social Justice Film Festival at the College of Law on Thursday, April 19. Let's have a big showing of Student Hurricane Network participant at the viewing/discussion to show our support for the people of NOLA. A post-discussion led will be led by Professor Victoria Hadfield.

Thursday, April 19, 6:30pm
Room A
Law Building

Monday, April 9, 2007

Tracie Washington fan club - Illinois Chapter

I think the rest of the College of Law discovered on Friday why the Student Hurricane Network students are unofficial Tracie Washington (TW) groupies. Tracie has such a commanding presence. Maybe its because she is a kick-ass corporate attorney turned civil rights lawyer. Maybe because she can rock out a bright green jacket. Is it her uncanny sense of humor?

I think part of what makes TW so appealing is the fact that she is so darn humble. She doesn't realize she has budding law student fans across the country. She doesn't realize (or at least doesn't acknowlege it) that she's a civil rights superstar. She readily admits she likes buying expensive shoes...but when called to duty...she has forgone those luxuries in favor of doing what she can to try to save her city.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Tracie Washington at COL on Friday!


Come to the New Orleans Judge Arthur Hunter - 75th Anniversary of Powell v. Alabama Conference, where Tracie will be one of the guest speakers. The conference is in the Auditorium from 1-4pm, but students are allowed to come later/leave early because of class. Hope to see you there!


Welcome to the University of Illinois Student Hurriane Network! We are a group of law students who are committed to providing continuing relief to the gulf coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.