Sunday, November 1, 2009

Andy Vidal Mcnair and Angela Plassmann's campaigns are funded by NoPornNorthampton's Adam Cohen

And so, what does that say about them? NoPornNorthampton stands for sex negativity, intolerance, and flouting of free speech principles.

They claim that free speech should be balanced in the case of porn b/c of the heightened crime that porn vendors bring to an area, and to prove this, cite three cases of high crime areas in which porn stores are located, with no proof that there is a direct causal connection. As for the porn store that was set up in Northampton, even those who opposed it at the time, such as mayoral candidate Bardsley, now say they hardly notice it. In contrast to the apocalyptic predictions of Cohen and his cronies, crime has not risen in the area. NoPorn attempts to pin this fact on the restrictions the council placed on the porn store at the time--smaller area, and muted advertisement--but again, there is no causal proof for this assertion. There is no inherent danger the can be conclusively proven in porn vending that can preempt the principle of free speech. The moral and aesthetic objections of Cohen and his ilk are not enough to cancel out the First Amendment in this city.

Adam Cohen is one of those men that has the temerity to define feminism for us women. Despite third wave feminism's embrace of sex workers and its insistence that women have the right to do as they wish with their body and their sex, his NoPornNorthampton is based on an idea of sex workers--female sex workers are the only ones spoken of--as universally brainwashed, exploited beings with no agency, implying that all of them are trafficked and virtually incarcerated in the industry. Trafficking is certainly a problem, a true atrocity that should be dealt with, but research has shown that those who are trafficked make up a tiny minority compared to sex workers who voluntarily enter the industry (in fact, a recent Guardian article showed that not one person who had been forcibly trafficked into the industry could be found in one large scale investigation, and that incredibly inflated numbers had been used knowingly by sex industry opponents for quite some time.) To conflate the two groups does huge disservice to both--insulting the dignity and agency of the latter and taking the focus away from the crimes perpetrated against the former. Finally, the prurient focus on sex takes attention away from the much larger group of migrants that are forcibly trafficked into unpaid domestic labor or farm work.

And the legal porn industry, with all the regulation imposed upon it, is *certainly* not made up of cowering sex slaves.

The issue is more complicated than the old trope of women's bodies being comodified by men. Women now make up half the pay per view porn market, and a sizable proportion of other porn markets. Women are not just workers in the sex industry, but consumers of it. In fact, the other porn store in this area, Oh My!, is a feminist sex store, and the proliferation of similar businesses throughout the country exemplifies women's demannd for porn, erotica, and sex toys. Furthermore, workers in the porn industry are not just women, but also men and trans people. (In fact, porn is one of the few industries in which unskilled women make considerably more money than men in the same field do.)

Cohen claims his movement is pro-marriage, as if there was only one model of marriage, as if there wasn't a booming sector of erotica created for couples to enjoy together, as if a marriage in which a couple explore their sexuality together is not a valid one. He claims his movement is against STIs--as if the small market catering to the "bareback" fetish was the be all and end all of porn, as if the free discussion of sex did not create a space for the free discussion of safer sex, as if the entire gay porn industry did not show condom use as an industry standard, as if instruction in safer sex and erotica weren't combined in many products made by more progressive pornographers. He quotes the worst figures from Dr. Sharon Mitchell's Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM) without stopping to compare these figures of STIs with the general population or noting the fact that in contrast to the general population, adult industry workers are all tested regularly for HIV and other STIs. In the recent porn industry HIV scandal, which included a small handful of cases, it was determined that in fact, the infection came from OUTSIDE the adult industry. And in fact, since 2004, AIM has tested 1,200 actors, and only 15 tested positive for syphillis while only 22 tested positive for HIV.

Cohen also characterizes his movement as "pro kindnesss" and "pro equality", as if sexuality is somehow antithetical to these things.

Adam Cohen is championing and funding Andy Vidal Mcnair because the incumbent he is challenging, Maureen Carney, voted against the restrictions on the porn store. Given the considerable funding Cohen has put behind Plassmann and Mcnair's campaigns, what will he expect in return if they are voted into city council seats? Votes for censorship. Votes for a sanitized, sex-neutered Northampton, a city which was originally a haven for alternative sexuality but may become a place where those of us who are kinky, those of us who enjoy erotica, those of us who work in or support the adult industry in all its guises may become distinctly unwelcome.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

on Andy Vidal Mcnair's open letter, and more

From the listserv:

It is true that I owed an apology to everyone I wrote to for bringing the issue of Ms Plassman's daughter into the fray. Even if she did bring her daughter's story into public debate, commenting on her family troubles is going way below the belt.
I apologize again for this, and have taken any references to this off
the blog.

As for my commentary being unfortunately timed--I feel it's well
timed, b/c other than those people who pay a lot of attention to civic
politics, most people vote for city council seats as an afterthought,
or based on little knowledge. If I'd spoken up earlier, people may not
have remembered by the time the fourth came around. I also did not
know about all this until quite recently. Finally, the fact that my statements are "eleventh hour" is not a valid argument against their content.

I have to say that there do seem to be blocs in the sense that
councilor candidates have spoken up in support of one mayoral
candidate or another, and the mayoral candidates have formed public
alliances with certain city council candidates. This is not a smear on
such a practice, just a plea for people to look beyond such alliances
whoever they vote for for mayor.

I find Mcnair's open letter to be unconvincing for many reasons. How
many people can misinterpret him before we admit there might be
something there? As I've mentioned before, for the two people who
stood up to discuss Mcnair's racist and classist remarks about
subsidized housing residents, there are many, many more who've spoken to me and
others about private conversations with him in which he's expressed
such views who are afraid to come forward. In fact, Ms Carney herself
pleaded for their anonymity because she is afraid they will be slandered
when Mcnair attacks her. Also, the fact that he used the "some of my
best friends are minorities" trope is laughable at best and doesn't
prove much. Many racists are comfortable with those they feel are "deserving" minorities, but that doesn't change their attitude towards poor black and Latino people.

In contrast to Mcnair, I find Angela Plassmann to be a sincere and
well meaning candidate, but her goal--heightened prosecution of
nonviolent crimes in the city--would be disastrous for Northampton,
for the reasons I discussed in a previous blog entry:
It's true that Bob Reckman has not had a marvelous record as a
candidate, but again, I believe it's better to stick to the proverbial
devil we know in this case.

I have asked both Ms. Plassman and Ms. Silva for brief interviews to
clarify their positions--neither has responded to me as of yet. As it
does not seem Ms. Silva has much of a chance to be elected, I will
continue to focus on Ms Plassman and Mr Vidal Mcnair. In my next entry
some time today I'd like to discuss the source of their campaign funding, from
one of the major figures in No Porn Northampton, and thus their
complicity in sex negativity, intolerance, and anti-free speech

Friday, October 30, 2009

more on Mcnair

I have had many people confide in me about private conversations with Mr. Vidal Mcnair, the challenging candidate for the Ward One seat, where he has revealed racist and classist views about the residents of subsidized housing in his ward, especially those who hail from Holyoke. But many of them have demanded anonymity, as even now, Mcnair is claiming that they fabricated these conversations in conspiracy with his opponent, Ms. Maureen Carney. But now, finally, someone besides Bill Dwight has stood up to bear witness about this issue:

Hello Neighbors & Friends (in Ward One, or know people in Ward One, I hope)
I want to share something with you related to the upcoming election.
As you probably know, Andrew Vidal-McNair is running for Ward One City Council against Maureen Carney. I spoke with Vidal-McNair three times now, and Maureen one time. I was really disturbed the last time I talked with Vidal-McNair, which was during this long weekend. Here is my interpretation of part of our conversation:
I pointed out to Vidal-McNair that many lower-income people cannot afford to live in Northampton due to limited amounts of low-income housing. This led Vidal-McNair to state that the Black and Latino people in Section 8 housing in Northampton were lazy, did not work, were criminal, and were unconcerned about crime. I tried to see if he would accept "toned down" statements, rather than blanket statements, about people in Section 8 housing. He would not accept the toned down statements, sticking with his statements that painted the "broad brush" over everyone there.
I want to live in a city where efforts are made to topple class and race barriers, and where there is no room for stereotypes like the ones articulated by Vidal-McNair. So, Vidal-McNair does not get my vote, and hopefully will not get yours either.
Laurel R. Davis-Delano
P.S. Please feel free to share this email with other people in Ward One that might be concerned about this issue.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

warnings about the reactionary views of many candidates for councilors

Andy Vidal Mcnair, who is running for the Ward 1 seat, is playing part of his ward against the other in a most opportunistic and disturbing manner. His ward encompasses most of the subsidized housing in the area,in area 1A, and most of the residents of this low income housing do not vote, often being too wrapped in the struggle of simply living to pay attention to civic politics, so he is utilizing the worst classist and racist impulses of the other half of his ward--1a-- to win his seat. He has stated that the low income housing seeks out destructive residents from Holyoke when there are more "deserving poor" here in Northampton--now, since Holyoke has a predominantly Puerto Rican population, the racist undertones in this statement are clear. He has also stated that there are a disproportionate amount of police calls to the housing projects, which is simply a false statement. His more progressive views on education, the landfill, and other hot button topics obscure his hostile attitudes towards the most powerless among us. I fear for the residents of Meadow Brooks and other housing projects in Ward 1 should Mcnair be elected.

The omission of any discussion of the topic on his campaign website is telling. But when questioned about these issues, Mcnair's true colors shine brightly and garishly. The one thing on the site that does point to his beliefs about the residents of subsidized housing in his ward is his refusal to criticize the fire departments' response to the fire at the Meadowbrooks project. If the fire had occurred in a more affluent part of the ward, we'd be hearing a very different answer from Mr. Mcnair.

Not a lot of attention is paid to the candidates for councilor seats, and I'm afraid that many people vote for these seats based on the most superficial reasoning. Mcnair is an out, partnered gay man, and in a city which has a sizable queer community, that carries a lot of currency. Mcnair is a gay man, but so is Andrew Sullivan--sexual orientation is no guarantee of progressive beliefs, and Mcnair's marginalization as a gay man, in a tolerant environment like this one, does not lead to true understanding of the marginalization of the poor. Also, it is only a fool that votes for anyone except the incumbent because of a desire for change. Change does not always come for the better. Ms Maureen Carney, the incumbent, is a woman with a proven track record as a *true* progressive, a labor organizer who was one of the councilors staunchly on the side of the homeless from the beginning during the debate to de facto criminalize panhandling, who has also been on the side of the poor on many other issues. Just one look at her voting record can tell you who she is--a person who is the furthest thing from a classist or a racist. Sadly, her paying job as an organizer does not allow her to spend as much time on her campaign as she needs to--but don't forget who she is as Mr. Mcnair places himself firmly in the spotlight.

Two other supposedly progressive challengers for seats on the city council deserve a long, critical look. Angela Plassman, running for the Ward 3 seat, endorses more drug enforcement in Northampton at a time when the nation as a whole is reconsidering the war on drugs, looking at prison overcrowding, the abuse of human rights within the prison industrial complex, and the lack of deterrent these barbaric tactics have proven to be. But rather than endorsing more options for treatment or focusing solely on diverting resources to fight violent rather than nonviolent crime, Ms. Plassman prefers a "tough on crime" platform, whether it makes sense as a position or not. I don't want to stand still and wait for Ms. Plassman begin a large push to imprison nonviolent drug offenders when the city deserves less reactionary policies rather than a repetition of the same excesses in the War on Drugs that have proven to be ineffective and often abusive throughout the rest of the nation.

(At least Ms. Plassman is honest enough to state this campaign goal on her website.)

I acknowledge that Bob Reckman, the current incumbent, has had a mixed record, but he has not displayed the reactionary impulses of his challenger, and in this case, I feel it is for the good of the city to stick to the proverbial devil we know.

Ms. Plassman also objects to the development exit 19, which in private conversation with many of the challengers, has been connected to the impulse to keep Northampton something of a gated community, to fear of taint from the outside--the outside being those of a different race, those who are less rich, those who are not Northamptonites.

In the next entry, tomorrow, I will discuss Kathy Silva credentials as a faux progressive, and reveal more about the two candidates I've discussed above.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Arturo Castillion's court appearance today

(For background on Arturo Castillion's unjust arrest during a Poverty Is Not A Crime protest, see this blog entry.)

Today, Arturo Castillion's count two, disorderly conduct, was dropped. Which raises the question of why they arrested and wrestled him to the ground in the first place, in the process of which they claim he bumped into them (which is false), making their charge of assault and battery on a police officer weaker. (This according to Arturo's lawyer, progressive attorney Luke Ryan.) Also, Ryan is subpoenaing footage that Channel 22 took. What the footage shows will no doubt further support Castillion's case.

A large contingent of Arturo's friends and Poverty Is Not A Crime members, as well as progressive community members, came to his court appearance in a show of support. As long as no one behaves themselves disruptively, Arturo and his attorney ask for the same show of support at his trial on October 17th, where he will begin by presenting the motion to dismiss. Also, Attorney Luke Ryan is asking for any eyewitnesses to Arturo's arrest, or anyone who knows of any eyewitnesses to contact him at 413 253 3900 or .

Friday, June 5, 2009

Southerland case

Ira Mckinley and I took turns representing PINAC and witnessing Alfonso Southerland's court case this morning. As Southerland is still in a coma and could not appear, his case was continued for arraignment for July third.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

belated Bill Dwight show audio link on the Al Southerland case

Ex-city councilor, radio host, absurdly overqualified video store clerk, and all around nice man about town Bill Dwight comments on the Alfonso Southerland alleged beating controversy on his April 23d radio show(the commentary on the issue begins roughly at the 6 minute mark of the audio MP3.) He gives evenhanded coverage, giving credence to both sides, although he expresses skepticism because he believes the Northampton police culture, many of whose officers he interviewed for their positions and promotions, are above police brutality for the most part. But unlike the police and some Northampton citizens, he refuses to swallow the idea that it could never happen here, and calls for more investigation.

He notes some holes in our coverage, which are actually errors in his reporting: there were four eyewitnesses, not just two, but despite our best efforts, we haven't been able to locate the other two. People are scared.But we're definitely still trying. Also, we asserted in our press release that the alleged beating occurred during the arrest outside of Urban Outfitters, not at the Northampton PD. I'd also like to note that the Chief of Police came out with a preemptive denial the a day or so after the incident, with no attempt at an investigation and an "it-can't-happen-here"attitude. Finally, Southerland's jaw was not dislocated, but the flesh on it was razed to the point that you could see his jaw bone.

I asked Dwight to make these corrections on his show, and knowing him and his commitment to truth, I fully expect him to do so. I heard that the Chief of Police was incensed at Dwight for even mentioning the case, though he favored PINAC no more than he did the police. If the the police had their druthers,this case would fade from public attention. But given the lawsuit the family is planning, and the complaint we'll be helping them make to the Northampton Human Rights Commission, it doesn't look like they'll be getting their wish anytime soon.

two court hearings you should not miss witnessing--June 5th & June 12th

1) Arturo Castillion is filing a motion to dismiss for the charge of "assaulting a police officer", when as documentary evidence shows, it was three police officers that wrestled him to the ground unresisting.

Here are Arturo's own words:

"On March 13th, I participated in a demonstration of sixty people, organized by Poverty is not a Crime (PINAC), against the controversial Northampton Business Improvement District (NBID). While playing music and serving free food outside city hall, we distributed informational cards about the BID, encouraging the passersby to boycott BID businesses and call their city councilors. After this we marched peacefully down Main Street, dancing and chanting our opposition to the BID and its agenda.

"Onlookers and protesters watched with surprise and frustration as the Northampton police violently responded to this peaceful assembly.

"From the time the demonstrators began to march down the street, police became very aggressive—pushing us around and yelling into our faces about not having a permit. [We had never been told we needed a permit before for a small scale sidewalk protest.] Yes, it’s true, we didn’t have a permit, but the first amendment is also supposed be worth something! I guess it’s not. As soon as I tried to deescalate the situation by explaining to officer Satkowski that we would get off the street once we reached the crosswalk (the part of the road which was wheelchair accessible)[we had disabled people with us who needed the detour], he body-checked me, and when I didn’t move, he grabbed my right arm while two other cops jumped on me. While I was pinned to the ground, fully cooperating with my arrest, Satkowski unnecessarily twisted my hand as another officer forcefully shoved my face into the asphalt several times.

"It is clear that the police went out of their way to intimidate and arrest people. Shortly after my arrest, David Beyer (who was 15 years old at the time) was arrested while assisting BB Sunshine with her wheelchair, leaving her alone in the road; BB Sunshine herself was shoved by police right before my arrest. The Northampton and Easthampton police then prepared for mass arrests, with about fourteen officers (one of them a state officer), five cars, and multiple vans. A detective in plainclothes was also on the scene photographing everyone. [Yet a police sergeant interviewed by the Gazette called the fact that we snapped pictures of the arresting officers and asked for badge numbers, as was our right, "hostile" and "anti-police".]

"Because I took part in this demonstration and exercised my supposed first amendment rights, I am currently facing charges of disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a police officer (a charge commonly brought against arrested protesters as a scare tactic), despite the fact that I was the one who was assaulted by the police unprovoked. I am being represented in court by Luke Ryan and have decided to plead not guilty to the charges. Any fund raising efforts and donations for legal expenses would be greatly appreciated and can be communicated to me through my email, My motion to dismiss hearing is Friday, June 12th at 8:45 AM in the Northampton District Court, in courtroom #1, please come and show your support."

Here's some media on the protest and the arrests, including some Advocate coverage.

2)Tomorrow, June 5th, at 8:30 AM, Alfonso Southerland, victim of alleged police brutality, will have a hearing in absentia on shoplifting charges while still in a coma. Come support his family and see if there will be any progress made on what happened to Southerland, not just what happened to Urban Outfitter's merchandise for the few minutes Southerland had it in his possession.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

the Northampton blogosphere gets some well deserved praise (if I do say so myself)

Paolo Mastrangelo, a great blogger and journalist who splits his time between NYC and Northampton, made some commentary about David Simon, former journalist and creator of "The Wire" and "Generation Kill", in his latest blog post. Apparently, Simon--usually one of my heroes for his ability to make the most of television as an art form, creating amazing, truthful depictions of the war on drugs, urban life, Marine culture and the war in Iraq--asked a senate committee to legalize monopolistic collusion by newspapers, claiming in this hearing on the future of journalism that bloggers cannot be classed in the same league as print journalists since they're not down in the trenches like old school reporters are: "...bloggers don't go to city council meetings, or know what the hell is going on if they do — a clich├ęd, out of touch refrain common among newspapermen who can't be bothered to do any reporting on the assertion."

Mastangelo finds this statement odd, because as one Gawker writer claims "as a newspaper reporter who spent a few years covering a town much like Baltimore — Oakland, California — [he] often found that bloggers were the only other writers in the room at certain city council committee meetings and at certain community events. They tended to be the sort of persistently-involved residents newspapermen often refer to as "gadflies" — deeply, obsessively concerned about issues large and infinitesimal in the communities where they lived."

Especially in *this* community:

"Citizens, gadflys, bloggers, concerned residents, whatever you want to call them. They don't cover the local news. At least not like a local newspaper does. And thank you for that. Thanks Mary Serreze, Mike Kirby, VFR Joel Saxe (Bread & Roses Radio), Daryl Lafluer,Kelsey Flynn,Greg Saulmon,Tommy Devine,Pinac, the crew from the early days of Mass Live, and the rest of you. Really, thanks. Talk about adding value to your community.

"Could you imagine if the Daily Hampshire Gazette was the only news source for Northampton? Only recently it was. "Local luminary has cancer." "Hey, look, a truck fell into the pond!" "Another year, another parade..." etc...

"I don't remember too much from my young teen years, but I do remember sitting at the kitchen table most days after middle school aghast at reading the Gazette, and saying to my mom, "this paper is so bad. who is this "news" for? Who is signing off on this shit?!" True story, she'll tell you.

"I'm very appreciative that it is no longer the only source of "news and info" because those days sucked."

It's a rush for our organization's little blog to be included in such august company, and it's vindicating to finally rewarded for all the city council meetings our organization's members have sat through. And it's true, I see the folks mentioned above at so many important city events, often while local traditional news outlets make only a brief appearance only to dash off somewhere they think is more important. And unlike traditional news staff, most of us bloggers are unpaid volunteers. So it's nice to be recognized.

Read all of Mastrangelo's article here, the Gawker piece here, more on the testimonies at the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet's hearing on the “Future of Journalism” with testimony from Ariana Huffington, Marissa Mayer, the Dallas Morning News' James Moroney, and more from David Simon at techcrush, and David Carr backing up David Simon's views in the NY Times here.

msnbc story on BID

Of course, despite our sending them a press release numerous times, and inviting them to a rally, they didn't include PINAC in the story. Guess it went against the narrow way that they decided to frame the issue: "property owner vs. property owner." It's a shame, b/c they didn't include the possibility of civil and human rights violations that also went along with the BID, as well as the BID steering committee's history of advocating for the panhandling ordinance.

They also show their ignorance about Northampton by calling us a "Berkshires" town, and probably didn't realize how truly they spoke when they said we existed under "Smith College's watchful eye."

But Alan Sheinman and Eric Suher made a good showing in the story, and it did draw attention to the huge number of property owners that opted out, as well as Suher, Sheinman and Pasuit's lawsuit.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pioneer Valley Food Not Bombs intimidated into shutting down by Northampton police

This is an account of one of the members of the Pioneer Valley chapter of Food Not Bombs:

The Northampton Police department allegedly received complaints about the Pioneer Valley Food Not Bombs’ Sunday afternoon servings of free food starting in March. An officer informed some different people eating food every week or two that the group was in violation of ‘health code ordinances.’ He never included specific legal documentation, and when pressed he was unable to cite any law of any kind that he was enforcing, replying that he was doing as he was told and that his order to ask us to stop was based on the chief of police receiving ‘complaints’. [The MA Good Samaritan legislation specifically protects organizations like FNB from health code violations.]

The same officer came to the serving on Sunday May 24th 2009 and told the people he found that if they did not take the food away, he would. The first person who reacted did what she felt was best and moved the containers of food and supplies in between the church and the Urban Outfitter's. Serendipitously, the officer came about three minutes before some of our community members had started unloading six banana boxes full of baking grains, canned goods, and pasta. He looked us in the eyes and told us not to put the food there, but we did! As our hungry friends looked through the boxes for healthy food for the week he told some people quite loudly that he would need to ‘call in couple of cruisers’ and have all of the food removed if we didn’t remove it. One member of our community went so far as to tell him that he wouldn’t stop putting food out until the police blockaded the space we were in. Others asked the officer if he really wanted to take away our food and why he had to.

The police threat was half effective. The PV-FNB chapter had out some of our best supplies and we were not willing to sacrifice it to the NHPD dumpster. At the same time, our community was so responsive and hungry that we successfully handed out five of the boxes full of food. People in our community fear those who have sworn to serve and protect it, this was evident as most of the people at the serving left or moved to the side promptly after cleaning out the boxes. Our serving had ended before the two extra cops showed up. As two of us were leaving a person came looking for food, she thanked us at our car saying that if we didn’t have any for her she wasn’t sure how she would get food for the day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Michaelann Bewsee smearing/Northampton Human Rights Commission

Here's a series of nasty, baseless ad hominem attacks on Michaelann Bewsee, co-founder of Arise for Social Justice (a veteran, committed, effective activist who's probably done more for Western Mass than any of her vicious detractors on this forum) provoked by her discussion of the Al Southerland controversy on her blog when the story first broke. I'm glad I don't follow the masslive forums, b/c this would've made me very upset if I'd read it at the time. Among the accusations on there is the idea that we had a protest organized just to stir up trouble ahead of time and found a convenient cause in Al Southerland's alleged beating. Um, no. We had emergency meetings and hastily organized it b/c we believed it was important. And Michaelann was "manipulated" into crediting these accusations by Keely Malone, David Beyer, me, and other ego-obsessed activist hoodlums. Actually, I worked under Michaelann as a volunteer at Arise for years, and I don't think anyone has ever manipulated her into anything.

And we are doing more than "have no real information, and have made no effort to investigate this "incident" beyond talking with people who will prop up their pre-ordained version of events..." (By the way, that was a malapropism, the way you used "pre-ordained", there.) We are interviewing eyewitnesses and gathering doctors' diagnoses through Southerland's relatives, who are suing the NPD (were they manipulated into doing that by us, too? Are they just being rabidly leftist and trying to stir up trouble? Or maybe they want justice for their son and their father? Who is still in a coma, by the way.) Is this how Western Mass, especially a progressive town like Northampton, responds to accusations of police brutality? By defensively denying it, with no investigation? I think a community of true integrity, a *real* Paradise City, would thoroughly look into *any* such claims before concluding they were without substance.

We will be helping Southerland's daughter, who has power of attorney, make a complaint with the Northampton Human Rights Commission. That is the current infrastructure in place for something like this. Unfortunately, the HRC's members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council, and the mayor is also the employer of the police force. One cannot even send a letter or e-mail to the HRC without going through the mayor's office. I am told that the HRC doesn't necessarily follow the party line of the city's executive branch, so we'll hope for the best. But we'd like to work with the city to develop a more independent citizen's review board.

Again, no one would be happier than we would be if we knew definitively that police officers did not assault Alfonso Southerland. But until we can know that with certainty, we can't just give the police the benefit of the doubt.

Monday, May 18, 2009

interview with Southerland's daughter/more updates on alleged police brutality case

Here is some information from our first interview with Al Southerland's daughter (whose name is to be withheld for now.) She said that Aaron Daniels misunderstood what she related to him about the doctor's diagnosis--Southerland did suffer a massive heart attack, but there is medical evidence that it could've been brought on by a beating that he took either at the Rt 66 lockup or at the time of his arrest (not to mention what the numerous bruises and contusions all over his body reveal about what could have happened.) The doctors told the daughter that they did not find drugs or alcohol in Southerland's system. She has been trying to get activists and concerned friends on the waiting list to see Southerland, but it is difficult as she lives so far away and has little control over what happens in Northampton--"they can say anything they want here." She says it seems that the hospital wants to move Southerland, and speculates that is because they want to avoid negative publicity.

When the daughter went to get power of attorney the Northampton Courthouse "sent [her] on a wild goose chase." She found out that one of the doctors and a judge are related. She ended up having to go to Greenfield to get representation, and found them "just as worthless." She is now retaining the services of attorneys in the Boston area to file a suit against the Northampton police.

We will continue to have an open dialogue with Southerland's daughter. She stated definitively, "I don't trust anyone in this hick town." (Can we blame her?)

Ira Mckinley, PINAC member, attended Southerland's first court hearing. When the judge discovered that Southerland was still unconscious and in the hospital, with no representation, he responded angrily, calling for a recess and slamming the door on his way out. A clerk informed Mckinley that the hearing has been moved up to June 5th at 8:30 AM. Please attend to stand witness. PINAC will certainly be represented there.

The phone with the pictures of the bruising on Southerland's face as he lay unconscious on it has been stolen. We don't want to be conspiracy theorists, but it's hard not to wonder.

We will continue to advocate for the formation of a nonnepotistic citizen's review board for the police department that can handle cases like these. There are many things to admire about the progressive Northampton PD, but their "it can't happen here" attitude and preemptive denial in the place of honest investigation is troubling. We would be happy to learn that no police brutality occurred, but it is our obligation as a low income rights organization to investigate these contradictory and disturbing accounts if no one else will.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sophian article on Smith BID protest

Here's an article I missed linking from the Smith newspaper about a protest during the opt out period demanding that Carol Christ and other Smith bigwigs have Smith opt out. I suppose it's kind of moot now, since, as most of you know, Smith did not opt out of the BID, but it has some interesting quotes.

The one that most impressed me, and gives the lie to the assumption that only students are involved and invested in PINAC, is this one:

"Mark Clinton, protest participant, tenured Holyoke Community College professor and former 14-year Northampton resident, stated: 'By most people's definition I make a middle-class income, and I can't afford to live here.' "

Sunday, May 3, 2009

report of suicide of shelter resident

A resident of a Northampton shelter, the emergency drop in shelter, committed suicide sometime in the last few days. His name was Mel and he is alleged to have killed himself behind the King St. Stop and Shop. He was on suicide watch recently. As more details come to us, like his full name and details on previous life as well as the time period leading up to his suicide, we will report them here.

here are the numbers which determined the percentages of the BID opt-outs

Many of you asked for the the numbers on which I based the assertion I made here. Well, here they are. This is according to documentation at the City Clerk's office in Northampton City Hall:

Total business whole buildings= 165

Business whole buildings opted out= 108

Percentage of business whole buildings opted out= 65%


Total business condominium units= 119

Business condominium units opted out= 65

Percentage of business condominium units opted out= 55%


Total of all business properties= 284

Total of all business properties opted out= 173

Percentage of all business properties opted out= 61%

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

press release on Southerland police brutality incident

According to two eyewitness accounts, black disabled Vietnam Veteran Al Southerland was beaten by three Northampton policemen sometime last week, and subsequently went into a coma. Southerland worked at Veteran's Affairs and lived in the apartment complex behind Pulaski Park, after being homeless for a period. Southerland is currently in the Intensive Care Unit of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, slipping in and out of consciousness.

One witness, Aaron Chick, claims he saw two policemen carry Al Southerland out of Urban Outfitters with his hands cuffed behind his back. Chick reports that Southerland was agitated and in pain. At this point, the police pushed Southerland's hands up,and Southerland began to scream for them to stop because he was in pain. Allegedly, the police brought Sutherland to Gothic St., where they were joined by a third policeman, who "wrestled" and assaulted him. Chick says that the police then pushed him into the squad car and left. Since the reported beating of Southerland, Aaron Chick has reported that he has also beaten by police.

Witness "P", also claims he saw two policemen walk Al Southerland out of Urban Outfitters with his hands handcuffed behind his back. P reported that Sutherland was struggling as the police moved him to Gothic Street. According to P, a third policeman then arrived, and began to wrestle with Southerland, "roughing him up". P says that Al yelled, "You're hurting me. I"m in a lot of pain. I'm a Vietnam Vet and I'm on medication." P maintains that the police "definitely used unnecessary force" against Al. Witness P and Aaron Chick both report that two others witnessed this incident, one of whom has been identified. Witness P also related that, within 24 hours of this incident, the police removed six tents from Tent City, a homeless settlement where many of Al's friends reside.

After his arrest, Southerland was held overnight in the Hampshire County Correctional Facility.

Aaron Daniels says he arrived at the Hampshire County jail the following morning at 11:00 A.M. to post Al's $40 bail. Daniels relates that when he arrived, the policeman entered Southerland's holding cell to find him unconscious and not breathing on the ground. Daniels reports that police appeared surprised to find Southerland in this state. Before any medical staff arrived, the policeman told Daniels, "He's on the floor not breathing...I'm sorry...He suffered a massive heart attack." Daniels says that five or six paramedics, police, and EMTs then arrived at the scene.

According to Daniels, the medical team was able to resuscitate Southerland using a respirator. Daniels claims that Al's jaw was so severely displaced that he was "able to see his jaw." Daniels reports that the areas under his eyes as very puffed up, and that Sutherland suffered from multiple vertical slashes on both lips. Daniels further describes a vertical cut through his bottom lip, leaving part of his lip hanging off and his muscle exposed "like white meat."

[There is also video footage of Southerland at the hospital that confirms this reports,that shows contusions all over his face.]

According to what Southerland's doctors and nurses told his family, who related this to Daniels, Al did not suffer a heart attack, but rather entered a coma, likely due to pain shock. (Southerland recently had his spleen surgically removed, and thus experiences pain more intensely than an able-bodied person.) Southerland is currently slipping in and out of consciousness but is sedated by medication.

On April 21st, a rally took place in downtown Northampton against police brutality, where Aaron Daniels spoke. The forty participants marched along Main Street, decrying the beating of Al Southerland and the arrest of two peaceful demonstrators at an anti-BID rally on March 13th.

Police Chief Sienkiewicz claims that no beating or brutalization occurred, and that Al Sutherland had a heart attack while in the Hampshire County jail.

Southerland's daughter and mother have arrived to Northampton from Boston, and are filing suit against the Northampton Police department. Area civil rights lawyers have offered their aid, and Arise for Social Justice and Poverty Is Not A Crime, two area low income rights groups,have spoken out against the attack. Southerland's family could not be reached for comment.

[But since this writing we have contacted them, and will be interviewing them about their suit against the Northampton police.]

Monday, April 27, 2009

more on police brutality allegations

Here is a Gazette news story that has been taken as gospel by the local community on the subject of the beating that police gave Al Southerland, a disabled veteran, a week or so ago. (Southerland subsequently went into a coma--his doctors state that it was likely caused by pain shock.) Poverty Is Not A Crime and Indymedia are polishing up a press release that we will circulate widely contradicting these disavowals by the police, based on eyewitness interviews. Along with other area progressive organizations, we will call for an independent investigation.

We hope to have the press release up by the end of the day. But meanwhile, here's the story, cut and pasted below, and a few points to ponder before you read it:

*John Downing, the president and CEO of Soldier On, who is meant to speak for and represent the veteran community and says he believes the police's claims, is an ex-prison warden. His loyalty to other criminal justice professionals make it more likely that he would take the police's side without scrutinizing all the facts.

*Why didn't the police check on their disabled, weak prisoner, who informed them he was on medication, before they found him unconscious when his friend bailed him out?

* On what basis did the police make the claim that Southerland suffered from a heart attack before he was given medical attention or a diagnosis?

* There is a video of Southerland in the hospital, and though the picture is blurry, it clearly shows contusions all over his face. Aaron Daniels, the friend who bailed him out, also reports seeing a number of visible injuries on Southerland's face and body.

* You will soon read two eye witness accounts that a beating did occur. There are two other eye witnesses who have stepped forward that we have yet to interview. According to what doctors related to Southerland's family, as relayed to Daniels, Southerland is in a coma likely due to pain shock. Given all this, no matter what any of you believe happened, shouldn't the case be independently investigated before the police can definitively rebut these claims?


Police, others rebut beating claim
Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Northampton - Police are refuting claims that officers beat a disabled veteran during a recent arrest - an allegation that sparked a rally planned in front of a downtown church today.

A veterans official also said he believes the police brutality accusation is false.

On Saturday two local blogs posted short entries claiming police over the weekend beat a black, disabled veteran named Al in a downtown alley, landing the man in a coma.

Attempts to reach the authors of the blog posts Sunday and Monday were unsuccessful.

The author of one post, Hampshire College student Beatriz Bianco, also known as BB Sunshine, helped organize a protest rally last month in Northampton, and criticized the police response to the demonstration in a recent letter to the Valley Advocate.

The "Al" referred to in the articles appears to be Alphonso Southerland, 54, who gave police an address of 421 North Main St., building 6, Leeds - a homeless shelter for veterans called Soldier On. He has not stayed at the shelter for several months, a spokesman said Monday.

Southerland was arrested April 10 after allegedly shoplifting a $128 jacket from Urban Outfitters, 109 Main St, police said. He was also wanted on a warrant out of Boston for failing to appear for jury duty, according to the police log.

Lt. Michael Patenaude said Sunday that Southerland was not beaten by police.

Following his arrest, Patenaude said, Southerland was booked at the police station and taken to the Hampshire Jail and House of Correction. The next day, as he was about to be bailed out, Southerland suffered a heart attack, Patenaude said.

Southerland was admitted to Cooley Dickinson Hospital April 11, and was listed in serious condition Monday, according to a hospital spokeswoman.

"We didn't beat him up," Patenaude said. "He was brought to the jail for holding and he had a heart attack before he was bailed out."

Meanwhile, John Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On, said Monday that he does not believe a veteran had been beaten by Northampton police. He described area police officers as "patient" and "understanding," and said he suspects the claims are being circulated by someone with a grudge against area law enforcement.

Fliers advertising the rally recently appeared downtown decrying police actions at a March 13 street protest against the Business Improvement District, when two people were arrested on disorderly conduct charges.

The rally is set to begin at 5 p.m. outside First Churches on Main Street.

Gazette reporter James Lowe contributed to this article.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

vast majority of downtown businesses reject the BID!

2/3 of downtown business property owners have opted out of the BID. The BID projected that there would be only a 30% opt out, when in reality it was about 66%, and that the BID would collect about $700,000 in fees from the business community--in reality, the number won't exceed $300,000 of which about half will be eaten up by operating and administrative fees.

So, either litigation will shut down the BID or they will stumble along on an inadequate budget---either way, the end of the opt out period signals a victory for a socially conscious Northampton.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


We received word today that a black disabled veteran named Al was beaten into a coma by Northampton police in an alley near 711 downtown. His family is outraged and coming from Boston to support him. We understand that we have very little information about this incident, as so far there has been no news coverage of this horror, but we will publicize information as we find it, and this event will be a part of our rally against police brutality, TUESDAY, APRIL 21, 5:00 PM, KIOSK BY BUS STOP, NEAR URBAN OUTFITTERS. COME ONE COME ALL. BRING MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS, VOICES, LOVE AND RAGE, THE POLICE WILL NOT KEEP THEIR HANDS ON OUR THROATS, OR THEIR GAGS IN OUR MOUTHS. 

Incidents like this are not circumstantial, they are not coincidental, they are part of a pattern of racist, sexist, and ableist practices that have become habit and protocol of the Northampton police. NoHo ain't a sunny little paradise anymore, if it ever was.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

yet more Gazette coverage on the BID(w/a mention of PINAC)

Link here.
Downtown trio files suit over Northampton BID
Staff Writer

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

NORTHAMPTON - Three downtown property owners are challenging in court the new downtown Business Improvement District, saying city officials didn't follow the law for creating such zones.

Alan Scheinman, David Pesuit and Eric Suher, under the names of several of his property holdings, filed the lawsuit against the city Monday in Hampshire Superior Court.

"We just think it's a bad idea," Scheinman, in an interview, said of the business district. The zone, in which participants pool money for various services, was approved in March by a vote of the City Council. Businesses have the opportunity to opt out of the district.

"I suppose it's a matter of opinion whether it's good or bad," Scheinman said. "But it's a matter of law whether it was done properly."

The plaintiffs allege that supporters of the BID and city officials who oversaw its creation failed to carefully inspect the signatures on a petition to create the district.

State law requires at least 60 percent of property owners, representing at least 51 percent of assessed value within the proposed zone, to sign off on the compact. City officials certified that the petition met those requirements, but Scheinman, Pesuit and Suher contend owners of multiple properties in the district were counted multiples times, when they should have been counted just once.

Dan Yacuzzo, chairman of the Downtown Steering Committee that spearheaded efforts to create the BID, declined to comment on the lawsuit Monday.

Scheinman, Pesuit and Suher have long made known their opposition to the BID. In a mailing to downtown property owners last June, Scheinman, Suher and Pesuit warned a BID would take power away from individual property owners.

Other opponents of the BID, including the activist group Poverty is Not a Crime, say the BID threatens to gentrify the downtown and stamp out panhandling, which they consider a form of free speech.

The BID is expected to include about 900 downtown parcels, including 18 city-owned plots, though several prominent businesses within the zone have already indicated they won't participate.

Property owners may opt out and avoid paying a 0.5 BID percent tax, but won't be eligible for district-sponsored services like marketing and maintenance.

James F. Lowe can be reached at

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Gazette story on BID opt outs yesterday

Here's the link.

However, if you have no Gazette log in, I have pasted the story below. Notice that although it says many major businesses are opting out, many are still staying on, so please help us with urging your favorite local businesses to opt out. The more businesses opt out, the more the fund and power base of the Business Improvement District erodes. We also need private citizens to volunteer to speak out against the BID in interviews that MSNBC is doing this week in Northampton. Please e-mail me about this at if you would like to help.

Major businesses won't join improvement district in Northampton
Staff Writer

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

NORTHAMPTON - Some major downtown businesses - including Faces, State Street Fruit Store, Sylvester's Restaurant and India Palace - won't participate in the controversial new business improvement district.

So far, more than 120 property owners, both commercial and residential, have opted out of the district, though more than half that number are condominium owners who are already exempt from the BID fees, according to records filed at the City Clerk's office. Most of the rest lease their buildings to commercial tenants.

Property owners still have more than a week to decide whether to participate.

In order to opt out, business owners must also own the property. Some longtime merchants are citing economic pressure in declining to join; others say they see no need for a BID.

"We are experiencing severe economic challenges and have decided we will not be able to participate at this time," wrote Peter St. Martin and Maureen McGuinness, owners of Sylvester's Restaurant at 111 Pleasant St.

"When it was originally proposed, I failed to see any merit in it and never signed on," wrote Gary R. Champagne, who owns 71 Pleasant St. that houses Mimmo's Pizza.

The City Council approved the creation of the district, known as a BID, on March 19, which means it exists no matter how many property owners choose to opt out. If more opt out than anticipated, BID leaders will have less money to achieve the ambitious goals set forth in a three-year business plan.

Dan Yacuzzo, chairman of the Downtown Steering Committe that organized the BID effort, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Organizers of the district still have support from many downtown property owners. The district is expected to tax some 200 participating property owners who own about 900 parcels within the district, or 63 percent.

Property owners who oppose the BID have until April 21, to opt out at the City Clerk's office and avoid having to pay the 0.5 percent property tax. Those who don't opt out will become members of the district, while those who do will not be eligible for the services it provides.

Several prominent downtown business owners who own the buildings that house their restaurants and shops are among those who won't be a part of the district, according to records at the City Clerk's office, including Stephen Vogel, who owns Faces at 175 Main St.; and Richard Cooper, who owns several parcels that house his business, State Street Fruit Store, at 51 State St.

Others opting out are Northampton Cooperative Bank at 65 and 67 Main St.; Amrik Singh, who owns India Palace at 26-28 Main St.; Robert and Patricia Normand, who own Normand Bakery at 190-192 Main St.; and William and Marybeth Bergeron, who own the Maplewood Shops at 2 Conz St.

The owners of several other buildings that house the following businesses have also opted out: National Car Rental, Changes Salon, Essentials, United Bank, Urban Exchange, Bruegger's Bagels, Noodles Restaurant and Amanouz Cafe.

Meanwhile, opponents of the BID recently distributed informational packets to all condominium owners and urged them to opt out or face the possibility of future property tax increases should the City Council change its mind and decide to include owner-occupied residential properties in the BID.

"They're exempt now, but that exemption could be taken away in a moment," said Alan Scheinman, one of the opponents who distributed the information.

More than 60 owners filled out the bright orange card provided by BID opponents and submitted it to the City Clerk's office as of Friday, records show.

The BID had plenty of critics who voiced their concerns at a public hearing that stretched over three meetings in January and February. Among the opponents was Eric Suher, the largest property owner within the district.

According to city records, Suher has yet to opt out his properties.

Suher, Scheinman and David Pesuit, another prominent downtown property owner, argued that the district would impose an unneeded tax in bad economic times and questioned the need for a levy to fund services like marketing and maintenance.

They also raised questions about the validity of petition signatures supporting the BID's creation, and accused backers of the idea of manipulating the district boundaries to ensure its passage.

BID backers, meanwhile, agree that the additional tax is needed to provide services the city can't afford and to beautify and "rebrand" downtown. About one-third of the district's nearly $1 million annual budget will pay for a variety of maintenance projects in the district, such as landscaping, while another one-third would fund a marketing plan.

The remaining third would be split among public safety, administrative costs and other special projects.

Organizers are in the process of establishing a 13-member board of directors and searching for an executive director and a manager for its downtown office.

Because it owns 18 properties within the district, the city will be a participant and provide services in lieu of property taxes.

why Smith students should pressure Smith to opt out of the BID before the 21st

This is a speech I gave at the Second Annual Northeast Class Conference at Smith yesterday:

Student activists often excel at working through macro-issues politically—the 5 college march against Gaza recently was really something to see, and the way Hampshire college organizations pressured Hampshire to divest from Israel was laudable and impressive. Or, they can often organize the hell out of oncampus issues—whether or not you agree with what happened at the Don Feder talk in terms of free speech, the Umass Coalition Against Hate really mobilized in impressive force in that instance. But when it comes to town-gown affairs, students often insulate themselves inside campus, never knowing what a huge role they and their school play in college towns economically, especially the influence they have over the lives of a town’s economically vulnerable people .

Smith plays an incredibly powerful role in Northampton politics, so much so that many Northampton citizens are afraid of its influence over residential neighborhoods, local business, and city government. Smith is immensely important to Northampton as a source of tourism in its role as a historical site, as a rich investor with alumni donators and its own resources going into commercial projects, and through the buying power of Smith students. A few years ago all hell broke loose in a city council battle over Smith expanding to build more in a residential/commercial Green St. neighborhood, using an antiquated law called the Dover Amendment that allowed it to control land 100 ft outside its campus borders. Well, Smith won that battle, and I’m not sure many Smith students even heard of it. Now plans to build in that area are under way, creating an early death for many small businesses in that area and affecting many residents, and perhaps most importantly, shutting down one of the few places low income Northampton citizens can live near downtown—a small Green St rooming house which provided a few subsidized and section 8 disability rooms.

But today, and for a very limited time after, students can do something about a new project in the works, in which Smith, a small elite of business owners, and parts of city government have united to control public space in a way that will hurt low income people, small local businesses, most Northampton citizens, and even Smith students themselves, especially those on financial aid or those on work-study.

At first, business improvement districts look like a pretty boring issue, and a non-issue at that. What’s wrong, the hype goes, with Northampton businesses and properties shelling out their own cash to fund public improvements, maintenance projects like sweeping the streets or amenities like setting up holiday lights downtown over Christmas and the other solstice holidays? It all sounds like good, clean fun, and after all, the businesses themselves are picking up the tab.

But going beyond the PR, there’s a much longer story to tell about Business Improvement Districts.

The official definition of a BID, business improvement district, is a public-private partnership in which businesses in a defined area create a contract to pay an additional in order to take on certain powers as a group, and fund projects in the district's public realm and trading environment. BIDs originated in the 1970s and 80s as federal, state, and municipal budgets were cut, and businesses in city neighborhoods decided to fund many municipal services themselves. So BIDs were created as private concerns filled voids when community supports broke down.

An appropriate analogy for a BID is a mall. In fact, the idea of the BID was originally modeled on malls. Malls are single properties managed by one entity that rents out retail space to tenants, and those tenants pay a common maintenance fee to pay for services that enhance the appearance of the mall's common areas and provide cooperative advertising for the mall and its various stores. BIDs operate economically in much the same way. And, much like a mall, it’s a person’s status as a consumer rather than as a citizen that counts in terms of how they are treated by security, and in general. It’s an organization or group of people’s status as an earner, rather than as a stakeholder, that counts.

In fact, our Northampton BID is designed for the same exact demographic as an upscale mall—designed to serve the target demographic of the mostly white female, mostly upper middle tourist who make up the majority of our tourists. This is why our BID in particular has such an incentive to conform to the racist, classist prejudices of such a demographic. And this is why small businesses, that cater to a more local demographic, will be left in the lurch—if they opt in, which many will by default b/c if you don’t opt out before April 21st, you’re counted in, the BID is focused around tourism, so restaurants, gift shops and hotels will receive the benefits while these small businesses, who make up part of the heart of Northampton’s reputation for arts and culture, will be left with the bill and no actual benefits. If they opt out, they will be left without basic city maintenance services they should receive on the basis of being taxpayers.

Imagine living in a mall.

That’s why the first issue many progressives have with BIDs is how they bring about the private control of public space. Public space plays a vital role in democracy, as a site of free speech, association, and protest. Urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg writes that the downtown, with its bars, coffee shops and public spaces, constitutes an important "third place," different from the first and second places of home and work. These third places are central to the health of local democracy and community, giving us respite from the rule of the marketplace in a space where we can interact with each other—where *all* classes and races of people can interact with each other, no matter how marketable they are or how local capitalist interest view them. When the policing of a district and its maintenance are based on profit-driven concerns rather than the need to create and maintain noncommercial space where people assemble, it's difficult to use public space the way it was intended.

For example, one problem with BIDs is private security. Besides private security's long history of civil and human rights abuses---despite the fact that in theory private security is restrained in the same way police departments are by people's Fourth Amendment rights, in practice they have much less oversight than police departments do---the mall analogy works well here to explain another pressing problem with the BID's use of private security: Mall cops are concerned with how your presence affects shopping, not whether you've truly broken the law or not. And mall security is usually selective about whom it chooses to pursue--a well-off tourist on a coke-fueled shopping spree, laden with shopping bags from different stores, won't be touched, but a homeless man loaded up on Thunderbird to keep warm will be thrown out of the premises, if not turned over to the police for disorderly conduct and public intoxication. This is usually true even if both individuals are equally disruptive.

While with the Northampton BID, the city has promised two more downtown police patrols as one of the many “in-kind” contributions it’s supposed to be making (and all the duties whose price they’ll be taking on through their contract with the BID, and the yearly tithe of $85,000, and all the other unspecified to be determined “in-kind contributions” whose bill the city is paying for the BID,like taking on the cost of collecting BID monies, organizing large scale BID events, buying, fueling, maintaining and storing pricey maintenance equipment, the first of which, a street sweeper, cost $35,0000, giving the lie to the BID’s claim that businesses are taking on costs that taxpayers would otherwise handle—but we’ll talk more about that later*), most BIDs use private security. But even in this case, these new patrols will obviously be influenced by the pull the BID has over the city. And furthermore, our BID wants to install a culture of informing in Northampton, where both their CLEAN Teams (made up of free labor) and the uniformed tourist guides they propose are instructed to act as “extra eyes and ears for the police.” Given the BID’s proposition of the ordinance that would have de facto criminalized panhandling downtown, to get rid of people the BID found unmarketable, it takes no great leap of imagination to figure that these "eyes and ears'" instructions will be construing any petty disturbance by poor people as a crime they should report, while ignoring any crimes that tourists or business owners themselves commit.

There's been substantial attention to the manner in which BIDs globally have often attempted to rid the spaces they control of the homeless, ethnic minorities, and political activists who might frighten off shoppers. (We've already seen how the Northampton BID feels about political protesters through the way they influenced the police recently: A few days before the BID passed, our peaceful protest against it garnered two arrests, with one arrestee pulled off the street while pushing another protester’s wheelchair around an obstacle, and another arrestee wrestled down by three cops, and, oh, the irony, charged with assault and battery of a police officer.)Yet, public space is there to accommodate the right of the people to assemble, and to use another, more telling commercial analogy, the city's streets are not a country club. You should not have to be the "right" race or in the "right" income bracket in order to walk them. BIDs have been routinely racist and classist. I'll list a few of the most egregious examples:

--The Grand Central Partnership, in New York, NY: In 1995, the Partership was accused of using "goon squads" of untrained, formerly homeless men to forcibly remove homeless individuals from the BID. It was revealed that these workers were being paid only $1.15 an hour for their services.

--The Madison Avenue Business Improvement District in New York, NY: In 1997, Mayor Giuliani found it necessary to advise the Madison Avenue BID's security department to rescind the distribution of a flier advising the BID's businesses to close and secure valuable merchandise on the day of the Puerto-Rican Day Parade.

--The Baltimore Downtown Partnership. Baltimore, in MD :"To change negative perceptions developed among area employees, consumers and visitors, the BDP hired 'Safety Guides' to discourage crime by curtailing the presence of the homeless." (What right do businesses have to roust poor people from public space?)"... The Downtown Partnership has been working with the Baltimore Gas and Electricity Company and the city to install surveillance cameras along the commercial streets of the BID"---however you feel about government surveillance for the purposes of national security, I think we can all agree that business interests have no right to spy on us in our public space. (Quotations all from Business Improvement Districts: Issues In Alternative Local Service Provisions, by Mildred Warner, James Quazi, Brooks More, Ezra Cattan, Scott Bellen and Kerim Odekon, June 2002, Cornell University)

This BID proposal is no different from any other when it comes to victimizing low income people, especially the most destitute and the homeless. This was the BID that proposed the panhandling ordinance to city council and only tabled it when it was met with huge community opposition and it threatened the political popularity of their entire BID proposal—and now that their little political shell game worked, and the BID passed less than a month ago, the BID proponents have vowed to bring the panhandling ordinance up again, and the language of that ordinance is still in their proposal. On page 18 of the BID proposal, it is strongly implied that homeless people will be used as a pool of free seasonal labor under the guise of “skills training” for the BID maintenance program, the CLEAN Team. The Clean Team proper itself is going to be using free labor like court-ordered community service participants and work release prisoners, instead of creating much needed low skill entry level living wage positions for poor people in this time of economic crisis. Also, this plan has community service participants working for business interests, rather than doing true community service like volunteering at a soup kitchen or a shelter, at a time when funding for social safety net programs like those is eroding. Furthermore, the BID is going to raise rents and prices throughout downtown, as property owners who opt in will pass the burden of the 43% increase in property tax it entails along to businesses and residents in the form of rents, and as the businesses that opt in or lease from those who opt in will in turn pass the burden along in the form of higher prices. BIDs are only supposed to be zoned in areas that are ¾ mixed commercial and industrial use, but Northampton’s Business Improvement District is 27% residential. Low income residents will be forced out of a downtown they can’t afford to live and shop in—and the rest of us will feel the pressure as well.

It would be one thing if the BID’s classist policies had oversight. But the power that the BID has over public space seems well nigh unlimited. Massachusetts General Law, in chapter 40 O, discussing BIDs, gives BIDs the power to sue, incur indebtedness, enter into contracts, acquire real property, design, engineer, and construct urban streetscapes, manage parking, and "administer and manage central and neighborhood business districts." The last clause, in its vague, abstract language, is the most frightening, since it could encompass almost anything. They say the BID cannot legislate, but with this sort of power, they can find many ways around existing legislation.

Furthermore, the BID will literally be making the big decisions the law gives it authority over behind closed doors. MA law does not require the private BID board of directors to have open meetings, or compel them to follow other public provisions that encourage citizen participation and institutional transparency. So, the BID will be making city government decisions without the benefit of voter-elected decision makers. This is one more example of how the BID is constructed to be controlled by people with money—not by THE people.

Now, here’s where Smith comes in. The fact is, the BID does not represent the interests of most local businesses in the area—only a small elite of business and property owners. To get the assent percentage they needed to be legitimate as a BID proposal, the Northampton BID proponents turned to a number of illegitimate tricks. One of them was allowing residential condo owners, who are by law excluded by the BID, to be counted as almost one third of the assents. But since they not only need the assents of 61% of business and property owners in the district to be legitimate, but also the assent of 51% of the representatives of the total assessed value of the BID district, in the second draft of their BID district map, they gerrymandered Smith. 95%, or $135 million dollars, of the 51% of total assessed value representation that they need is made up of Smith, a non-profit institution, which isn’t even supposed to be representative of the interests of the BID. Smith will be paying the BID an unspecified amount of money, to be determined later, and giving it plenty of in-kind contributions.

Basically, Smith is buying more control over the town from the BID. Because the town is also important to Smith, as Smith is important to the town—it is part of its marketing ploy to draw in more students and more tuition. A whitewashed town, beautified and wiped clean of the unsightly poor, is more attractive to the parents of many middle to upper class Smith students, especially the kind of parents who might end up being donors. The town also provides Smith with more territory in which to expand, and now they are buying influence from the BID with which to facilitate doing so.

Smith claims it is responding to student needs. Smith administration state that they put out the word about focus groups a couple of semesters ago, and only a few students ended up showing. (But I doubt they got notices in your mailboxes about this, or were all sent an online survey—they weren’t truly looking for student input, merely making the gesture of seeking it.) They then interpreted the concerns of these students to fit a pro-BID case—the Smith students said they were concerned about the homeless people downtown, and so Smith lauded the anti-panhandling ordinance. The Smith students said they enjoyed town events, so Smith pointed to the fact that the BID is planning many town events, without mentioning that Northampton always has a lot of event programming, like the Taste and the Sidewalk Sale, as it is. The Smith students said they enjoyed an affordable downtown—so Smith isn’t really mentioning the fact that because of the 43% tithe from all business and property owners, the BID will actually make it much less affordable for students to shop and live downtown as prices and rents rise.

During a time when work-study hours are being cut, and financial aid—which 62% of Smith students receive in some form—is endangered by the depression, Smith is agreeing to pay an unspecified amount of money to promote the BID’s classist and community destroying agenda. But there is a good side to all this, a chance for action. Because Smith makes up so much of the total assessed value of the BID, it makes up a large amount of its funds and influence. There is still time for any participant of the BID to opt out before April 21st when the participant is locked into the contract forever. If Smith students take on-campus action and pressure Carol Christ and other Smith high ups to opt out of the BID, they can defuse much of its power. This means they wield a lot of influence in this political campaign against the BID. I can only hope that they take the opportunity to use it.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Anti-BID Themed Solidarity! Potluck Party

Beautiful People! You are invited to...

Connect! Share! Build!

An open space-time for networking, sharing, playing, educating, learning, giving, receiving, and enjoying.

Some, many, and maybe all of you have heard about the growing resistance to the Business Improvement District (BID) in Northampton. This is a fight against gentrification. This is a fight against classism, racism, privatization of public space, marking people as undesirables, and devaluing community.

Next week is a week of anti-BID action at Smith and a celebration of community. In solidarity, and with hopes of bringing together people from multiple valley colleges, from multiple struggles, Wednesday night will be an anti-BID themed (vegan) Solidarity Potluck at Hampshire College.

In addition to being a space for connection, forming links of mutual aid, and, yes, having fun(!), this is also a space open to sharing information about organizations, campaigns, upcoming events, and news not covered by the mainstream. Expect there to be some infoshopping, jamming, and lively discussion.

I and others will be making delicious food! All are invited!

If you have flyers for events you want to publicise, bring them and we'll put them up on the wall. If you have literature about organizations, campaigns, and movements you want to promote, bring lots of copies, there will be tables available for it all. And if you have news articles about stuff the mainstream isn't covering that you want to share, cool! We'll pass it around... So, bring your energy, bring a (vegan) dish, bring instruments or a cool cd, bring refreshments, bring literature, flyers, whatever you want to share! And of course, bring friends!!

Monday, April 6, 2009

hope for precedents on panhandling ordinances

The 13th Juror, a homelessness issues blog run by a poverty lawyer J. Dowd, reports on an amazing precedent--an Oregon court has ruled that a panhandling ordinance that prohibits solicitation on freeways and intersections is unconstitutional. What this means is that a court has ruled that selectively restricting panhandling in a rigorous and onerous fashion, like the ordinance here in Northampton that was recently tabled set out to do, not just criminalizing it blatantly all together, is against the principle of free speech! Of course, it was judged unconstitutional going by the Oregon Constitution, not our constitution, but it's still a good sign. The article specifically referred to in the Oregon Constitution was "Article 1, Section 8...: Freedom of speech and press. No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion, or restricting the right to speak, write, or print freely on any subject whatever; but every person shall be responsible for the abuse of this right." I doubt the MA Constitution reads very differently.

Here is the original Southern Oregon Mail Tribune article that J. Dowd reports on:

The ACLU was involved in this case as it was in ours--in fact, one of its members filed the lawsuit. " 'I think it's important for government officials to understand that they cannot prohibit expression because they find it offensive,' said David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon." Bill Newman, our ACLU lawyer, said much the same thing here. It heartens me to know that the ACLU are concerned about the most vulnerable and perhaps the most important use of our right to free speech--the right to ask for help. And it saddens me that some citizens and businesses find these cries for help offensive.

The court did uphold the provisions about "aggressive panhandling", which is probably legally redundant as I can't imagine that Oregon doesn't have laws prohibiting harrassment just like MA does. But weeding out aggressive panhandlers wasn't the goal of the legislation in the first place, just as it wasn't the goal of the legislation here. It was just hype to make panhandlers look dangerous (despite the police's admission that the "aggressive panhandlers" were only a few individuals) and to make the legislation appear to be addressing a safety concern when it was really about rousting the poor.

Here are some of the many restrictions the legislation placed on panhandling before it was struck down. It was disallowed
--At any intersection controlled by an electronic traffic control device.
--Within 50 feet of an automated teller or financial institution.
--Public transportation vehicles or facilities.
--Public parking lots or structures.
--A queue of five or more persons waiting to gain admission to a place, or event, to purchase an item or admission ticket.

Don't these demanding requirements sound mighty familiar? (I find it particularly interesting how skittish Oregon shoppers seem to be, or at least, their police consider them to be--do they imagine that a panhandler could steal from someone withdrawing from an ATM from *fifty* feet away?) What Oregon's decision hopefully teaches the anti-panhandling crusaders is that masking de facto decriminalization as regulation does not fool the courts. As some major BID proponents have vowed to bring up the anti-panhandling ordinance before the council again, I hope they take heed.

Another thing Jacqueline Dowd blogs shows us, when we click on the "panhandling" tag in her blog and find many similar stories, is that this anti-panhandler fervor is a nationwide trend. Many of these laws have passed successfully in many states and many more have been proposed. (Luckily, though, so far none have been passed in our state, and ironically enough, supposedly progressive Northampton was the first city or town to propose such legislation.) When we fought the ordinance here, it was more than just a provincial issue. We were fighting a classist trend that has been making inroads throughout this country.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

recent coverage

As usual, the Advocate does an amazing job with BID coverage. They printed an extensive, longer statement from our organizer Beatriz Bianco/BB Sunshine on how the cops added a heavy portion of ableism to their police repression on the day of the arrests during the event she co-organized (this is not the statement we have printed here before):

Further on in the issue, Tom Vannah writes how people's distrust of the BID is closely connected to their distrust of government entities "giving private interests special status in the administration of public space", as worked out disasterously with the AIG scandal:

Daryl Le Fleur, at Northampton Redoubt, reports on the autocracy of the Higgins administration that allowed the BID to be so easily adopted, and on the problems with the decision making processes used in this city. As he has before, he wonders why contentious issues like the BID aren't placed on the municipal ballot for voters to directly decide--he advocates that this is exactly what the city should do with the new police station:

"Poor Turnout But A Good Time", blogger Tommy Devine says of our last protest, sympathetically potraying us and snapping some great pictures to boot:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

lawsuit poised to challenge validity of BID

Alan Sheinman, David Passauit, and Eric Suher, three prominent Valley property owners and long time opponents of the Business Improvement District, are suing the city with the aim of making the council's decision of adopting the BID invalid and without effect. They feel strongly enough about this that they are running the lawsuit solely on their own funds. They feel fairly confident about their success. Yesterday, I had lunch with Allan Sheinman at Florence's Side Street Cafe, the last in a series of conversations I've had with him about BID issues, and got a better picture of all these goings ons.

Sheinman told me that despite being a longtime Northamptonite, he's been planning to move to his property in Holyoke for a while now. "I have one foot out of this city, I could just opt out [of the BID] and leave, but these actions on the part of the city and the BID proponents are so egregious and offensive that I can't just sit still for them. This is a blatant power grab by the city and a small elite of business and property owners, a direct result of their aggrandizing urge for power." Sheinman explained to me that after three years the city will have a good deal of control over the BID board---and yet, because the BID is allowed to meet behind closed doors by law, without any institutional transparency or public accountability, the city can wield this power over municipal affairs without being hindered by the requirements of representative democracy.

The property owners are hiring Alan Seewald, a well regarded area lawyer who has also worked for the city before. He is a lawyer well known for avoiding frivolous lawsuits or lawsuits that are unlikely to succeed and thus, the plaintiffs of the lawsuit can avoid the accusation of being liability happy or not having a serious grievance.

Sheinman has quite a few political objections to the BID, expressed in his conversations with me and in the literature he's been handing out urging businesses to opt out, and in numerous interviews he and his fellow plaintiffs have given the Advocate. He feels that the city and the Chamber of Commerce should offer basic maitenance of public property without requiring that businesses tithe to the powers that make up the BID--after all, that's how things operate in the majority of cities and townships across the nations, which do not have BIDS. And why should a tax paying businesses be denied these basic services if they opt out because their profit margin is too thin to afford the fees in the midst of a reccession? And in a time of economic depression, how does it make sense to force business and property owners to pay a tithe to the BID that represents 43% of their property taxes in order to receive basic services, something that will result in raised rents and thus raised prices, placing a further economic burden on all Northamptonites that live, work, shop, and own a business or property in downtown? And in this difficult economic situation, if a business or property does not opt out in time and fails to pay its fees, the BID can have a lien on that property. The BID can borrow money and buy property, and use it in competition with area businesses--so much for being an altruistic organization existing only to help area businesses and properties.

A good chunk of BID support in the first place came from residential condo owners who were excluded from the BID in the first place--90 of the 300 or so asssents, meaning if the BID had covered only BID and property owners, following legitimate procedure, it would have fallen short of the 61% of assents from real property owners required in order for the BID to be considered by council. Also, the BID gerrymandered large pieces of Smith's property into the district, making up 91% of the 51% of total assessed value required. Smith is buying its way into power over the city through unspecified "contributions to be negotiated" with the BID, in return for influence unhindered by the democratic process because again, BIDs, governed by private boards of directors, need not comply with open meeting laws or other public "sunshine" provisions that encourage citizen participation and institutional transparency. BIDs are granted broad powers, and as such may co-opt local government authority without local government responsibility to its constituency. With Smith and the residential condos' participations, the original impetus for the BID isn't representative of most Northampton businesses.

Sheinman's fellow plaintiff, Eric Suher, has "questioned why Smith College is being included in the BID, echoing [Scheinman's] assertion that the BID map boundaries were gerrymandered to ensure that the BID petition requirements would be met. 'The majority of the BID is not-for-profit, with Smith College not being required to pay the full half-of-one-percent of assessed value...' ("The BID-Ding Opens", Jan. 29,2009,the Advocate) This from an organization that purports to represent the needs of local businesses--yet it can't form a legitimate majority without including excluded property or a nonprofit with an entirely different agenda!

Furthermore, Sheinman believes that the BID has not followed the requirements set down by MA General Law 40O. The district is not zoned correctly for a BID,which requires that a BID contain a "contiguous geographic area with clearly defined boundaries in which at least three-fourths of the area is zoned or used for commercial, industrial, retail, or mixed uses," and yet 27% of the district is zoned for urban residential use.

Also, "Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 40O states that a BID petition must contain 'the signatures of the owners of at least 51 percent of the assessed valuation of all real property within the proposed BID and 60 percent of the real property owners within the proposed BID.' " ("The BID: Cooked or Raw?", Mary Sereze, Feb. 19, 2009) This should mean that 60% of the city's property owners have signed. Instead, the city is couting the signatures by parcel, and not by owner, resulting in multiple signatures from the same property owners: "five signatures from Smith College's Ruth Constantine and at least 18 from Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins. Skera's Harriet Rogers signed once for 221 Main Street and once again for the basement of 221 Main Street. Condo owners were signing once for their residence and once again for their garage." (Ibid.)

Furthermore, Sheinman asserted that the city never checked to see if each signature was legitimate, as it has done before with other controversial petitions. When the Advocate made an investigation, the city clerk and the assessor's office merely stated that they just checked to make sure there *was* a signature. To have matched each signature with a place of residence, to have made sure the signer was the owner of the property, well, that would've just been "onerous", after all. Whenever there was a problem, the assessor's office sent the Advocate to the city clerk and vice versa in a circuituous go-round. If signatures were illegibile, the City Clerk would call the Chamber of Commerce, a strong BID proponent, to decipher them, a clear case of the fox guarding the hen house. What the Advocate was able to discover was that the city made going over the signatures as cursory and easy for the BID as possible. As for oppponents of the BID, things went differently for them.The city clerk and the assessor's office made checking the process a great deal more difficult for these people. As was revealed during a BID hearing, these city departments charged anti-BID investigators for copies and for their staff's time, something they did not do for the BID proponents.

But despite all these valid political problems with the BID, Sheinman and the other plaintiffs have decided to keep their legal complaints technical, so as to reduce controversy and increase their chances of prevailing. Their suit will be based on the fact that the BID proponents failed to give the sufficient notice required by law before the BID hearing. By law, two notices should be given 14 days before the BID hearing. In the first BID hearing, held on Jan. 15th, one notice was given on December 31st, meeting the standard. But the other notice was given on Jan. 6th, only 9 days before the hearing and without compliance to the standard.

Sheinman says he and the other plaintiffs are confident about their chances of winning, else they wouldn't be paying such large amounts out of their own pockets. (Though Sheinman says they do not want to be dependent on anyone's financial contribution, and thus they are paying for this themselves, donations are always welcome!) Their lawsuit should give us all hope---while we can encourage businesses to opt out, and monitor the BID for human rights abuses, it is very difficult for us to do away with the BID now that it's been adopted---we would require representatives of 51% of the district's total assessed value to agree to dissolve it in order to annul it. But if Sheinman, Suher, and Passuit's lawsuit were to win, the council's decision would be declared invalid and it would be as if the BID had never been adopted in the first place. Of course, the BID proponents could always try to push a new BID proposal through council, but it took them three years to do so last time, so at least a winning lawsuit would buy us all breathing room.

And yes, before anyone addresses this in the comments, the propertyowners and PINAC come from very different political backgrounds, and our opposition to the BID is differently motivated--the propertyowners are libertarian capitalists, and we are community oriented radicals. But both groups are concerned about the undemocratic nature of the BID, and I think this is one case where we can rejoice in politics making strange bedfellows. These propertyowners offer us a way to save our community from the BID in an easy, quick way, and are able to achieve something here that organizing cannot. Viva la difference!