Thursday, July 12, 2012

New Orleans Bridge Shootings in the Wake of Katrina

Directions:  Watch both videos below and post a comment including a brief synopsis (summary) of what happened  AND your reaction(s)/response to it. Why do you think the cops did what they did? What was their motivation? Do you think the punishment fits the crime? Why do you think this wasn't more widely covered in the US news media?

Ex-New Orleans cops get prison time in Danziger Bridge shootings

By the CNN Wire Staff, April 4, 2012 -- Updated 2309 GMT (0709 HKT)
 (CNN) -- A federal judge Wednesday sentenced five former New Orleans police officers to prison terms ranging from six to 65 years for the shootings of unarmed civilians in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, prosecutors said.

The shootings occurred on the Danziger Bridge on September 4, 2005, six days after much of New Orleans went underwater when the powerful hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast. The ex-officers were convicted in August on a combined 25 counts of civil rights violations.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt imposed the stiffest sentence on former officer Robert Faulcon, who was handed a 65-year term for his involvement in shooting two of the victims. Former sergeants Kenneth Bowen and Robert Gisevius got 40 years for their roles in the incident, while ex-officer Robert Villavaso was sentenced to 38 years.

The lightest term went to former detective sergeant Arthur Kaufman, who was sentenced to six years for attempting to cover up what the officers had done, according to the U.S. attorney's office in New Orleans.
The men were accused of opening fire on an unarmed family, killing 17-year-old James Brissette and wounding four others. Minutes later, Faulcon shot and killed Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old man described by Justice Department officials as having severe mental disabilities and who was trying to flee the scene when he was shot, according to the Justice Department.

At the time, New Orleans police said they got into a running gun battle with several people. Prosecutors said Kaufman wrote the department's formal report on the incident, which concluded the shootings were justified and recommended the prosecution of two of the survivors "on the basis of false evidence."

During the trial, the defense asked the jury to consider the stressful circumstances the officers were operating under following Katrina. The shootings took place during a week of dire flooding, rampant looting and death by drowning, and police were strained by suicides and desertion among their ranks.
But U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said the prison sentences send the message that "when the crisis we face is the most threatening, that when the challenges are the greatest, the rules don't go out the window."
"In fact, that's when the discipline, when the honesty of our public servants, our police and the men and women of law enforcement are most critical," Letten said.

Romell Madison, brother of victim Ronald Madison, told reporters after Wednesday's proceedings that his family was happy with the sentences, even though prosecutors had to enter into plea agreements with several other officers to obtain the convictions.

"I think it made a big difference, even though they did give them lower sentences, that they did come forth and testify to get the truth out," Madison said. "At least we got to the truth."

Five other officers, including a lieutenant, have already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison terms of up to eight years in the case for conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Letten said the plea deals were necessary to break a "logjam" that had prevented investigators to get the whole story of what happened on the Danziger Bridge, in New Orleans East.

The Justice Department brought charges after a similar case brought by local prosecutors foundered. Thomas Perez, the head of the department's civil rights division, said the feds inherited a "cold case" when they took over in 2008.

"There were many, many New Orleans police officers who performed courageous, selfless acts of heroism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," Perez said. "But regrettably, the acts of heroism of so many have been overshadowed by the misconduct of a few.

"What we learned in this trial -- what we learned in these convictions -- is that the Constitution never takes a holiday. The Constitution applies every day of every week, and no police officer can take it upon himself or herself to suspend the Constitution."

In 2010, three former officers were convicted in the case of 31-year-old Henry Glover, who was shot to death and his body burned. David Warren, the officer convicted of shooting Glover in the back, was sentenced to more than 25 years in prison in 2011; Gregory McRae, who was found guilty of burning the body, received a 17-plus-year term. A federal judge has ordered a new trial for the third, Lt. Travis McCabe, who was accused of obstructing the investigation.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division launched an investigation into what it called "patterns or practices" of alleged misconduct by New Orleans police in the aftermath of Katrina, which killed nearly 1,500 people in Louisiana and more than 1,700 across the Gulf Coast.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said Wednesday that his department "will continue to take bold and decisive actions to right the wrongs inside the department, some of which we now know go back seven full years."
Mary Howell, a lawyer for the Madison family, said those promised reforms are the most critical part in all of this. "This just can't ever happen again," she said.

Lance Madison, who was with his brother on the bridge that September day, told reporters that he is grateful that his brother had received justice. But he added, "I try to avoid the Danzinger Bridge, because when I go there, it just brings back memories of what I went through."


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Louder than a Bomb Film & Discussion Guide

Poetry seems to some to be the most refined, most remote of literary genres. At times, it is given only cursory attention in secondary school English/Language Arts curricula deemed too difficult and obtuse.

But poetry is far from being an irrelevant literary form. Student poetry has filled school literary magazines for generations. Poetry slams, harkening back to the Beat Generation, have gained renewed popularity on high school and college campuses, as well as in local coffee shops and public libraries.

The film Louder Than A Bomb documents a full-blown competition to showcase students who write and perform their works right here in Chicago.

In an age of learning standards that privilege certain practical reading and writing skills with the aim of preparing students for the working world, what place might the formal and informal study of poetry have in this learning spectrum? Shouldn't poetry be the stuff of life that extends beyond career preparation?

Discussion Guide

Intro to film: 
What you are about to see is more than just a documentary about a poetry slam. It is a 90-minute snapshot of an ongoing revolutionary movement that is using the arts in a general sense and particularly spoken-word poetry to break social barriers, empower youth who are disenfranchised by an unbalanced socio-economic system, and build communities dedicated to the work of reuniting education with social justice. Harnessing the powers of writing and performance, organizations such as Young Chicago Authors (the non-profit that sponsors “Louder Than A Bomb”) are turning the tables of education, restoring it to what it should be and in fact always has been – a conversation, rather than a monologue. The teachers who serve as “coaches” for their schools' poetry slam teams do not dictate to their students what is truth. Instead, they ask their students to speak their truths.

 This single act, which can be as simple as asking the question “Where are you from?” has revolutionized education in Chicago and cities around the world. By validating the stories, lived experiences, and languages of their students, these teachers, poetry mentors, and artists offer young people opportunities to engage with their communities and literally reshape their worlds with their words.

 The stories these young people have to tell are moving and inspiring, eloquently crafted and performed. Their ability to evoke the emotions and social conscience of audiences far and wide is the root of this film's success in the public sphere. The old proverb “the pen is mightier than the sword” is still true. Likewise, as you will see, the voice of a teenager can be louder than a bomb.

Discussion questions for after the film:

  • Why do you think Louder Than A Bomb got so popular amongst youth in Chicago? (Remember that, with about 500 youth participants from about 50 schools, it is the largest youth poetry slam in the world)
  • What does LTAB offer the youth who participate? (community, creative outlet, a chance to tell their stories, academic support, etc)Thinking about Steinmetz and other socio-economically disadvantaged schools, what does LTAB offer students that they might not otherwise find in their high school experience? (a supportive, accepting community of peers and mentors; an opportunity to tell their stories in their own words to people who are really listening and want to hear)
  • Compare and contrast the four main stories in the film – Nate, Nova, Adam and Steinmetz. In what ways are these poets and their stories different, and in what ways are they similar? (Different in terms of issues and struggles they deal with, similar in that they use writing as a way of coping with these issues)
    • What challenges do they face, at home, at school, or otherwise?
  • What was familiar to you in the film, and what was new to you? Who did you relate to most and why? Which “character's” life/struggle was least like your own, and what did you learn from their story?
  • Why are writing and performing such powerful outlets for these youth?
  • What are some questions or issues around the education system that the film raises?
    • (Why aren't there more supportive programs for youth that focus on community-building, story-telling, and empowerment? How do schools prioritize creativity as a learning goal? Why are art, music, and other creative-learning programs so often the first to be cut in a budget crisis? Why is this a problem? What does the film suggest about the role of creativity in learning?)
  • What makes LTAB an important tool for education and social justice? (promotes cultural understanding, listening, story-telling, literacy, etc)
    • How might students, teachers, and schools benefit from open, positive community spaces such as LTAB?
  • What are some of the limits or problems of LTAB, particularly with the slam format, that we see from the film? (promotes competition, can be hurtful)
  • What are other questions/issues, ideas or reactions that the film brought up for you?

Extension Activity: Write a poem (in groups of up to four or individually) inspired by the film. It can be an ode to the power of poetry/story-telling in a community (in the style of “poet breathe now” by Adam or “Look” by Nate), or an explanation of your perspective on poetry and what it is/ is not/ can be. Suggestion: use the line “Poetry is _______” as an anaphora (beginning phrase of each line). (Note: this is technically an "Ars Poetica" exercise, but does not have to be labeled such, unless you want to.)