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Welcome to the Neighborhood: The Council for Unity present their vision.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Unity in Albany?

Gang-prevention 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 kids.”

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 the schools.

However, last week DeSena met with Jennings and, according to DeSena, things went well, and he now feels he has the mayor’s support.

“We 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 over.

“The 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.

“The 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.”

—David King

What a Week

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

More 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.

Hungry No More

Good 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 report concludes.

Careful Where You Pray

Six 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.

Achilles Heel

Greens 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.

“We 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.

“New 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 recognition.

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.

“Every 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.

—Nicole Klaas

Viva Revolución

On Monday (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

-no loose ends this week-

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