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...

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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!