Civil Rights

This June, a great American will celebrate her 99th birthday (Rep. Barbara Lee)

What makes for a great American? Try this on for size: Among her friends were Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, WEB DuBois, Jessica Mitford, Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou.

When Nelson Mandela first visited the U.S. after being freed, he detoured his two stop tour to head for the Bay Area to honor her and the work she had spearheaded to free him.

She has traveled the world promoting peace and understanding, meeting with Castro in Cuba, Noriega in Panama and Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

She certainly put her stamp on regional politics, mentoring two congressmembers, three mayors and countless other elected officials and government office holders. "When I was trying to decide about running for Congress," said my predecessor 27 year Housemember Ron Dellums, "she looked me in the eye and told me that I had to run. Then she almost forced our group to nominate me! It was Maudelle who made me run for Congress. Without her support, I would never have been able to do it."

So who is this local icon and world traveler who hobknobs with political and cultural leaders? Maudelle Shirek, Berkeley's longtime Vice Mayor, is a quiet, demur, fashionably dressed senior - raised on a farm in Jefferson, Arkansas and winner of several coveted 4H bake-offs and sewing contests.

Born on the anniversary of Juneteenth, African-American Emancipation Day, Shirek's grandparents themselves had been slaves. After witnessing the lynching of a relative, she abandoned the Jim Crow south for California.

Burnished by memories of injustice, she campaigned tirelessly for fair housing, integrated education, against all forms of discrimination, against war, for women's rights, civil rights and workers rights. Her union activity led to statewide SEIU office. She has been arrested countless times for labor actions and protests. On her 90th birthday, she led a thousand person labor demonstration demanding organizing rights for janitors. As she was the first person arrested, she was serenaded by the huge demonstration singing her Happy Birthday. Police officers cheerfully lined up to have their photos taken with their celebrity arrestee.

It hasn't all been acclaim. Long before the City of Berkeley named its City Hall for her and adorned it with a huge historical mural of her life, they fired her for being too old to run one of the two senior centers that she had founded. Some would say it was politically motivated. But she just turned around, at the age of 72, and began a new career. She ran for City Council to become the boss of those who had fired her. She served 20 years, the last 8 as Vice Mayor of the City, the oldest elected official in the United States.

When she retired, it was proposed that the City name the Main Post Office after its most notable citizen. But Representative Stephen King of Iowa led Republican congressional opposition to block this honor. Rep. King, who favors building a wall across the southern U.S. to keep Mexican immigrants out and who holds disgraced right-wing Senator Joe McCarthy as a personal hero, accused Shirek of having values that "set her apart from, I will say, the most consistent of American values." King who also advocates abolishing the IRS and having Congressmembers who vote for guest worker programs branded with a scarlet A, opposed Shirek's sponsorship of Oakland's Niebyl-Proctor Library, set up by a San Jose State Professor and civil rights activist to study progressive alternatives and "to support emerging struggles for racial and gender equality and for socialism."

Shirek herself was merely bemused. "My values are peace, education and progress. I think these are consistent American values. I'm sorry Representative King doesn't think so. I knew another man named King who shared these values with me."

As she celebrates her 99th birthday this June, she certainly can look back on a life which epitomizes these values. 

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post


The people of Vieques, Puerto Rico deserve justice from the U.S. Government (Rep. Steve Rothman)

The injustice toward the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico must end. Vieques is a small island off the south east coast of Puerto Rico that was used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy from World War II until 2003. The munitions used in and around Vieques contained toxins that have affected the health of the residents. Yet in 2003, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) issued a report that said that the levels posed no health risk. The conclusions in this report strain credibility, are inconsistent, and demand a thorough reexamination.

The people of Vieques deserve answers for the undisputed high rates of disease that they have encountered over the years.  Residents of Vieques have a 25% higher infant mortality rate, 30% higher rate of cancer, a 95% higher rate of cirrhosis of the liver, a 381% higher rate of hypertension, and a 41% higher rate of diabetes than those on the main island of Puerto Rico.

I have brought this issue to the attention of the highest levels of our government and all of the appropriate federal agencies. ATSDR was finally convinced to re-open this case and made this known in response to my demands during a hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee, of which I am a member, on March 12, 2009. They have now begun an independent reexamination of their 2003 conclusions and have stated that they will issue their initial findings by the end of the summer or early fall 2010.

In addition, I have been assured that this issue will be included in the White House Task Force’s examinations and recommendations to President Barack Obama regarding Puerto Rico. I look forward to reading a new and improved report from ATSDR that will finally reveal the truth and open the door for justice to be realized by the people of Vieques.  Finally, I intend to question ATSDR’s Director Henry Falk later this week when he appears before our House Science and Technology Committee.

We must bring the issues surrounding the health of Vieques to light. I am confident we will finally be able to bring justice to Vieques. The time for the U.S. government to right this wrong is long overdue.


Arizona's dangerous precedent and the path forward on immigration reform (Rep. Raúl Grijalva)

Last week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a statewide law forcing local police officers to question and potentially detain anyone they "reasonably suspect" to be an undocumented immigrant. If you believe our local law enforcement agencies, who will be required to implement the mandates of this law, it will lead to mistrust between police and the people they have sworn to protect. The law violates due process, civil rights, and federal sovereignty over immigration policy. While I believe the courts will quickly overturn it, I am concerned that the damage to my home state's credibility has already been done.

Arizona has long been the epicenter of our national immigration debate. Unfortunately, that debate has been driven by extremists like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is under a federal investigation for civil rights abuses. Arpaio, like Gov. Brewer, seems to believe that every immigrant is equally capable of being a violent drug dealer to be dealt with harshly. Although this belief has no basis in fact, it has been the foundation of a fear-based campaign against immigrants and people of Hispanic descent for years.


Arizona Law Normalizes Racial and Ethnic Profiling (Rep. Mike Honda)

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's SB 1070, which allows law enforcement officials to stop, question, detain and report individuals based on suspicion of undocumented status, establishes a dangerous precedent in normalizing racial and ethnic profiling and does little to fix our broken immigration system.

As a Japanese American who spent part of my childhood in an internment camp, I know all too well the effects of scapegoating and racial profiling. I suffered through what happens when governments pass policies based on fear and misguided attempts at law and order.

This law is un-American as it unjustly targets communities of color, in particular immigrant communities, which have been critical to the economic growth of our country throughout our nation's history.

The law's enactment also demonstrates the urgent political and moral imperative for the federal government to act now on comprehensive immigration reform.

Comprehensive immigration reform is particularly important for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. There are currently 1.5 million undocumented Asian immigrants who contribute to our communities and economy everyday and who could contribute more if they were legalized. Millions of families are separated for years, sometimes decades, waiting in the backlogs of our broken family visa system.

Congress must pass comprehensive immigration reform, and we must do it now to avoid a patchwork of state measures that do not fundamentally fix our country's broken immigration system, and that will lead to profiling and discrimination in our communities.

As legislators, we have the responsibility to nurture a united America, one that is based on respect for the richness of our diversity, not one that is divided based on our worst fears.

Congressman Michael Honda is chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.



Latest polls find majority of West Coast voters, Californians, back marijuana legalization

A majority of west coast voters, and Californians specifically, believe that the adult use of marijuana should be legal, according to the results of a pair of polls conducted on behalf of CBS News.

Fifty-six percent of Californians believe that “the state of California (should) legalize the use of marijuana,” according to a Survey USA poll of 500 adults conducted for CBS. The survey results come less than a month after state election officials certified the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010 for the November ballot.

The measure would allow adults 21 years or older to possess, share or transport up to one ounce of cannabis for personal consumption, and/or cultivate the plant in an area of not more than twenty-five square feet per private residence. It would also permit local governments the option to authorize the retail sale of marijuana and/or commercial cultivation of cannabis to adults and to impose taxes on such sales. Personal marijuana cultivation or not-for-profit sales of marijuana would not be taxed under the measure, nor would it amend any aspect of the California Health and Safety code pertaining to the use of marijuana for medical purposes.


Equal pay for equal work (Sen. Chris Dodd)

Today is Equal Pay Day, the day until which women have to work to make up the earnings they were shorted in 2009 compared to their male colleagues.

Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that the fight for equal pay continues in the year 2010. It’s hard to find anyone who will say, on the record, that women don’t deserve to earn the same as men.

{mosads}And yet, the wage gap persists. Women still earn just 77 cents for each dollar a man earns. The average woman in my state of Connecticut needs a bachelor’s degree just to earn what a man with a high school diploma earns. The gap is larger in the African-American and Hispanic communities, it persists across the income spectrum, and, astonishingly, in some occupations it’s actually getting worse with time.

Even when studies control for factors such as education, job tenure, and choice of industry, the gap remains. Labor economists have conducted study after study and controlled for every measurable variable—job characteristics, union membership, ethnic and racial background, educational experience, and on and on—and still cannot explain nearly half of the wage gap.

Women, in America, in 2010, are still being paid less than men simply because they are women.

This is, of course, wildly offensive to our sense of fairness. But it’s also an issue of economic security for millions of American families. Two out of every five mothers are their families’ primary breadwinners, either as a single parent or as the spouse with the higher income. And the recession is only squeezing these families tighter.

The first law President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. But despite the heroic fight it took to get that bill passed, it simply reversed a truly horrendous Supreme Court decision that barred women from fighting pay discrimination in court. We still need to take legislative action to eliminate that discrimination in the first place.

That’s why we need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA). This bill toughens penalties for pay discrimination and puts gender-based discrimination on an equal footing with discrimination based on race or ethnicity. It makes it easier for victims of pay discrimination to participate in class action suits. It prohibits employers from punishing whistleblowers and makes it more difficult for employers to justify discrimination under the law. And it strengthens regulatory programs designed to monitor compliance with fair pay rules.

I’ve co-sponsored the PFA for the last seven Congresses, and although I’m retiring this year, there are plenty of Senators ready to keep the fight going. But we shouldn’t have to. It’s 2010 already, for pete’s sake. We should get this done.


Repeal 'Don't ask, don't tell'

This month, America enters our eighth year of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our troops have carried an enormous burden with honor and professionalism.  We owe each and every one of them our gratitude.

Many have spent multiple tours of duty in combat.  Despite the need for trained and dedicated individuals willing to serve, since 9-11, at least 5,800 service members have been discharged simply because of their sexual orientation.  Doing so has damaged our military readiness and placed our troops under unnecessary strain.


Obama on immigration: then and now (Rep. Luis Gutierrez)

Three years ago, when I met with Senator Barack Obama in his Chicago office and we contemplated his possible run for the presidency, I was enthusiastic.

On that day, it was hard for me to imagine a time I would have to say no to Barack Obama when he asked me for support. But last week, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sat down with the president, and he asked us to vote for the health care reform bill -- a bill that denies immigrants the opportunity to purchase health care with their own money. It was one more in a string of disappointments for the Hispanic community, and today, I no longer find myself able to confidently say "yes" when President Obama asks me for his support.

I remember clearly the afternoon I sat down with Obama. In December 2006, he was preparing for a family trip, and the decision to run weighed heavily on his mind. As a progressive member of Congress from Illinois, I was excited and energized by the prospect of my Senator, and my friend, running for President. At the depths of the Bush presidency, the idea of a like-minded, forward-looking leader for our nation seemed almost too good to be true. 


Amend the Fair Housing Act to ban housing discrimination against LGBT people

It is critical that federal lawmakers amend the Fair Housing Act to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

That’s what I urged lawmakers to do at the March 11 House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing titled "Protecting the American Dream: A Look at the Fair Housing Act." The Task Force was the only LGBT rights group presenting oral testimony at this historic hearing.

Right now, the Fair Housing Act protects against housing discrimination based on race or color, religion, sex, national origin, family status or disability. But the truth of the matter is, every day in America, people are discriminated in housing simply because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity.