to the Neighborhood: The Council for Unity present their
PHOTO: Chris Shields
group wants the city to put politics aside and bring the community
together to stop the cycle of violence in schools
Sean “Dino” Johnson, an ex-felon and onetime resident of Sing
Sing Prison, rapped his knuckles three times against a wooden
podium in the auditorium of Albany’s Harriet Gibbons High
School last Thursday night (Nov. 16). Standing in front of
an audience of school-board members, parents and local gang-prevention
experts, Johnson explained that the “knock, knock, knock”
was the sound of change at his door. It was, he said, the
sound of an opportunity for change that he passed up as a
young man, a mistake, he explained, that led him down a road
of drugs and violence and, finally, to prison. He insisted
that the same opportunity was now rapping on the doors of
concerned Albany residents who want to reduce violence in
their schools, who are tired of metal detectors and lockdowns.
The opportunity Johnson spoke of is the Council for Unity,
a gang-prevention program that was started in 1975 by Bob
DeSena, a teacher at John Dewey High School in New York City.
DeSena and three of his staff members, including Johnson and
Mark Wallace, who also was incarcerated at Sing Sing, came
to Albany last week to explain their program in hopes of gaining
community and political support. On Thursday night it was
clear that the community interest was there, as crowd members
huddled in the auditorium, listening to DeSena and shouting
out questions, looking for hope that change might come.
The Council for Unity tries to steer students away from gangs
by getting them involved in community projects, and having
kids from different races, lifestyles and achievement levels
meet with one another on a weekly basis and talk about the
realities of their communities. DeSena tells of calming race
wars by having the heads of gangs participate in the program
and come to understand one another. Classes and programs are
taught by staff members selected by the school district for
their ability to connect with students, often due to their
past involvement in gangs or crime. In some districts the
council has outreach programs in prisons, and there is a national
Council for Unity alumni program. The council program is tailored
to each school district, and the Albany program is not yet
written in stone.
Albany District Attorney David Soares has championed the group,
citing its successes downstate, and has secured at least $25,000
in funding for the program. “It is the only initiative that
I have come across that understands the importance of tying
community with school and family,” he said. “It is the only
thing that deals with them substantively. Not only that, but
it is the only initiative I have found that focuses on empowering
young people and talks about changing the culture of violence.
Everything else has a nice, neat package and bow that makes
adults feel good but is not really doing anything for the
Initially, the idea to involve the Council for Unity in the
Albany School District’s curriculum seemed to hit a sour note
for Police Chief James Tuffey and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings.
In a Times Union article, Tuffey said he wondered
if the program would lead to removing officers already in
However, last week DeSena met with Jennings and, according
to DeSena, things went well, and he now feels he has the mayor’s
don’t disagree on many things,” said Jennings of DeSena. “It’s
important we have programs for kids.”
Soares said the time for putting politics over policy are
toxicity of the politics [in Albany],” Soares said, “has in
fact destroyed neighborhoods, families and our schools. It
is about time we put the interests of our families, our kids
and schools ahead of our own political interests.”
The manic DeSena, who is also known as “Bobby Lips,” kept
the crowd captivated Thursday as he explained how his program
has bridged the gap between Blood and Crip, black and white,
and how, by enlisting people whose lives have been touched
by street life, prison and violence to conduct his program,
he is able to get through to kids hardened by the streets.
Johnson and Wallace told the crowd how the Council for Unity
reached out to them through its prison programs, and how they
realized they wanted to atone for their past sins through
work with the council.
Yusuf Burgess of the Department of Environmental Conservation,
who is involved in gang prevention in Albany, said he had
toured a school in Long Island where the Council for Unity
was operating and was nothing but impressed. “The kids were
ordered and disciplined,” he reported, “but they were happy
to be there.”
Throughout the night at Harriet Gibbons, the sentiment echoed
from crowd members that no matter how much they have tried
to do, no matter how much effort they have put into helping
kids in the worst-off areas in Albany, nothing has ever congealed
into a larger effort.
One skeptical man told Soares, “I’m just grabbing the kids
that I can, nine or 10 at a time, and taking them with me.”
But DeSena told the crowd that the time for splintered efforts
and rejected ideas has to come to an end.
people who don’t want to represent, the people who don’t want
to apply resources,” he said, “if you all come together, they
can’t play the race card anymore, they can’t play the culture
card anymore. And you say, ‘Excuse me, but your constituents
are staring you in the face!’ ”
Along with all the hope and enthusiasm, however, DeSena offered
a caution: “I saw some of the papers said we were claiming
we would eradicate gangs. We aren’t claiming that. No one
will ever completely get rid of them.”
We All Just Get Along?
than 200 students at the University of California
Los Angeles protested Friday what they called
the excessive force used against a fellow student,
23-year-old UCLA senior Mostafa Tabatabainejad.
Tabatabainejad was repeatedly shocked with a Taser
gun on Nov. 14 in the university library by campus
police after refusing to produce his identification.
Video made by another student’s cell phone, which
has become widely available online, shows four
campus cops shocking Tabatabainejad at least four
times, each time coupling their attacks with the
demand that the student “stand up.” Some experts
claim that the effects of a Taser shock can leave
a victim incapacitated for more than five minutes,
and Tabatabainejad can be heard in the video screaming
that he is willing to comply with the original
request that he leave the library. At least one
officer involved in the Tasering incident had
been previously recommended for dismissal for
an alleged assault.
news for the more than 10 million people who suffered
from hunger last year: You no longer have “food
insecurity with hunger,” says the U.S. Department
of Agriculture. You are now suffering from “very
low food security.” In watering down the language
used to describe the millions of people who go
hungry each year, the government has further pushed
the issue of starvation in this country to the
back burner, critics say. Nearly 38 million people
struggle everyday to provide for themselves and
their families a properly balanced meal, the USDA’s
Where You Pray
Muslim imams were removed from a U.S. Airways
flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix Monday after
three of the men were spotted praying in the terminal
before boarding their flight. The men, one of
whom is blind, were removed from the plane, according
to the Associated Press, after the airline crew
was alerted to this apparently suspicious behavior
by a nervous passenger. The imams were in Minneapolis
for a convention of Islamic religious scholars.
polled well, except in the race that mattered most
Unless a hidden stash of 9,000-plus uncounted votes for Green
Party gubernatorial candidate Malachy McCourt surfaces unexpectedly,
the Green Party of New York state has, for the second consecutive
time, failed in its attempt to achieve the 50,000-vote threshold
required for a political party to attain automatic ballot
access. But that doesn’t mean party leaders intend to step
aside quietly. Instead, Green Party members are considering
several means by which to challenge New York’s cumbersome
ballot-access law, including legal action.
got over 50,000 for all our candidates, except governor, which
demonstrated support for the threshold [the board of elections]
is looking at,” said Howie Hawkins, the Green Party’s 2006
candidate for U.S. Senate.
Hawkins received more than 51,000 votes, while fellow party
member Rachel Treichler, who ran for attorney general, received
more than 57,000. The Green Party candidate for comptroller,
Julia Willebrand, received nearly double those amounts with
more than 108,000. However, New York state election law specifies
such vote totals mean something in terms of ballot-line status
only if they are cast for governor.
York has some of the most onerous ballot-access laws in the
country. There’s no question about that,” said Deborah Goldberg,
director of the democracy program for the Brennan Center,
a New York City-based public-policy institute whose goal is
to strengthen democracy. “We have repeatedly challenged various
different types of ballot-access laws here successfully.”
Green Party leaders approached Goldberg after the Nov. 7 election
to inquire about the feasibility of a lawsuit challenging
the current ballot-access regulations.
Due to the current restrictiveness of New York’s ballot-access
rules, Goldberg said, especially when compared to other states,
“certainly there’s reason to think that there might be grounds
for a complaint here.” She could not, however, comment specifically
about the legal viability of such a challenge because the
Brennan Center currently does not have the resources to conduct
a full investigation into the issue. She said she has e-mailed
others to determine whether a pro bono attorney might be willing
to work with the Green Party instead.
As part of their discussion about whether to file a lawsuit,
Green Party leaders are looking to a case involving the Alaskan
Green Party as a precedent.
That case dates back to July 2003, when the Green Party of
Alaska filed a claim in the Alaskan Superior Court system.
Party leaders argued that the Alaska Division of Elections
violated rights guaranteed to the Green Party under the state
constitution by withdrawing its recognition of the Greens
as a political party after the 2002 election, in which the
Green Party failed to meet the statutory requirement for party
At the time, Alaska election law required a party to poll
3 percent of the total votes cast for governor or have registered-voter
numbers equal to at least 3 percent of the total votes for
governor in the previous election. The Green Party attained
ballot status under this law in 1990, but lost it when its
gubernatorial candidate failed to garner 3 percent of the
vote in 2002, even though the party’s U.S. House and Senate
candidates received more than 6 and 7 percent, respectively.
As the case awaited trial, the Green Party was granted a preliminary
injunction, which allowed the party to appear on the 2004
ballot without contest.
The Superior Court issued summary judgment in favor of the
state in May 2005. The Green Party appealed the decision to
the state Supreme Court, but that court affirmed the lower
court ruling on Nov. 17, 2006.
Despite the unfavorable rulings, the Green Party again retained
its ballot status in 2006 thanks to a preliminary injunction
issued by the Superior Court while a new, separate lawsuit
filed in August 2005 was pending. The second claim challenged
revisions the state Legislature made to Alaska’s election
law in 2004. The changes added that if the office of governor
was not on the ballot at the previous general election, the
candidate for U.S. Senate must receive at least 3 percent
of the total votes cast for that office (or, if the office
of senator also was not on the ballot, the candidate for U.S.
House must receive 3 percent of the total votes for that office).
A decision in the second case has yet to be issued. While
some have speculated that the Supreme Court’s decision in
the first lawsuit may have diminished the Green Party’s chances
for a favorable ruling this time, the Supreme Court’s decision
noted that its decision addressed only the constitutionality
of the former regulations and was not intended to be interpreted
as comment about the current statute.
If the Green Party of Alaska prevails in the second lawsuit,
it could bolster the argument of the New York Green Party,
should it choose to file its own case.
Gloria Mattera, co-chair of the Green Party of New York State,
said the party will make a decision about whether to move
forward with a lawsuit sometime after election results are
certified in December.
In addition to considering legal action, she said party leaders
also would like to see legislative changes to decrease the
barriers to ballot access currently faced by minority parties.
four years with only one race seems like a fairly restrictive
criteria for a party to come into official, board-of- election
existence,” Mattera said.
(Nov. 20), the Concerned People’s of Troy along with the Tio
Zapata Brigada took advantage of the Uncle Sam statue on Troy’s
River Street in an effort to draw attention to the continuing
struggle of the people of Oaxaca, Mexico, against government
brutality. Reports said nearly 5,000 people marched on the
center square of Oaxaca Monday, briefly clashing with police,
and a protest organized by the Chiapas-based revolutionaries
the Zapatista Army of National Liberation closed down all
the major roadways into Oaxaca. Uncle Sam’s new look, featuring
the iconic wardrobe of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata,
was created to coincide with the observance of the starting
date of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
loose ends this week-