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Unamerican: Religious leaders, activists speak out against Guantanamo Bay and torture.

PHOTO: John Whipple

Torture Is Not an American Value

Members of area religious groups gather together to protest on the five-year anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay

It certainly was an unorthodox way to start a press conference. A man wearing an orange jumpsuit and a black hooded mask, similar to the garb worn by prisoners in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, approached the podium, escorted by Patricia Beetle, who sported an orange T-shirt with the words “Shut Down Guantanamo” written across it.

“We believe that torture is wrong,” Beetle said simply, “and that’s why we’ve gathered here today.”

The Interfaith Alliance of New York State held a conference on Jan. 11 to condemn the United States’ use of torture in its war on terror. Local leaders from the Islamic, Jewish, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic faiths spoke at the event, which was held at the Pastoral Center of the Roman Diocese of Albany.

The conference was designed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay as a detention center for suspected terrorists.

“Torture is morally repugnant and contrary to the values upon which our nation is built,” said Bernard Fleishman, chairman of the Interfaith Alliance of New York State. “It violates international treaties to which we are a party. Furthermore, until a few months ago, the practice of torture was a violation of American laws as well.”

The speakers at the conference touched upon a number of common themes. Most of the leaders spoke about torture as a moral issue, an act of hatred against “human beings created in God’s image,” as Rabbi Aryeh Wineman said. The speakers called for an immediate end to their government’s use of torture, both for moral reasons and for more practical reasons, such as the enhancement of the United States’ standing with other countries.

John Amidon, a member of the Interfaith Alliance, spoke about a visit he made to Syria in 2005 as a delegate of Veterans for Peace.

“It is extremely difficult to be taken seriously when our government is kidnapping people, sending them overseas and having them tortured,” he said.

The Interfaith Alliance also invited Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region Chapter of the New York State Liberties Union, to discuss the legal battle being waged to outlaw torture. Trimble said her office receives more phone calls from citizens regarding the suspension of habeas corpus under the Military Commissions Act in 2006 than it does about any issues surrounding torture.

“[The legal battle against torture] is going slowly,” said Trimble. “It’s going to take a combination of grassroots effort and the legal system to get this done.”

Trimble stressed the importance of writing to representatives in state and national governments regarding the country’s torture policies. Conference attendees were also encouraged to take one of the 100 lawn signs available reading “TORTURE IS WRONG.”

The conference coincided with protests taking place across both the Capital Region and the country against the Bush administration and the war on Iraq last week. The demonstrations came a day after Bush announced an additional 20,000 troops would be sent to Iraq in an attempt to quell the sectarian violence in that country.

Dan Wilcox, the man dressed as the torture victim, said he hoped the conference effectively raised awareness of torture to Capital Region residents.

“People have to understand, these are not comic-book characters, these are real people,” said Wilcox of the costumed torture victim he portrayed. “If people thought, ‘If this is something that could happen to me,’ no one would torture, no one would kill.”

—Greg Ryan

What a Week

It’s Your Mess, Mr. President

The message that congressional Democrats will be sending to President George W. Bush is clear: We don’t like your Iraq plan, and now it is your responsibility. Today (Thursday), the Democrats, working with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), plan to propose legislation that will denounce a troop surge one week after Bush authorized 21,500 additional troops be sent to Iraq. The legislative move is a largely symbolic one—it will neither remove funding from the Pentagon’s war budget nor challenge the president’s authority over the troops—but it will be the first time Congress has drawn a line in the sand over the course of the war.

Feeling the Burn

Bush’s confident façade is showing cracks. The normally stoic president was spotted shedding tears at the funeral of a dead Marine last week, and, perhaps due to recent polls that show that more than 70 percent of the public disapprove of his handling of the war, Bush even made a candid confession: “I am frustrated with the progress,” the president told Jim Lehrer on PBS’s News Hour. “A year ago, I felt pretty good about the situation. I felt like we were achieving our objective. . . . No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq.”

The Final Countdown

Five minutes till midnight on the Doomsday Clock, and all is not well, declared The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists this week. The group, which has been monitoring global threats since 1945, moved the clock ahead from 11:53 PM to 11:55 PM, citing greater nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, as well as impending environmental disasters caused by the changing climate.

Good Help Is Hard Not to Hit

Especially if you are Naomi Campbell. The supermodel admitted this week that she did in fact hurl the cell phone that caused the cut on the back of her housekeeper’s head. The two women were having an argument over a pair of jeans when Campbell snapped. Campbell said that although she threw the phone, she had no intention of hitting her housekeeper. Now, she faces five days of community service and a whopping $363 fine.

Fund It, and They Will Achieve

Advocates of education reform expect Spitzer’s budget to be a first step in change

On Jan. 31, Gov. Eliot Spitzer is expec ted to announce his first state-budget proposal and, with it, to have the opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of his many Day One promises. Proponents of increased education funding anticipate that the new governor’s spending plan will be the fiscal realization of Spitzer’s promise to reform education, reverse more than a decade of state-level resistance, and include billions in additional aid for school districts throughout New York.

“We’re very excited, and we’re very optimistic about what’s happening in the future for education here in New York state,” said Michael Davoli, campaign coordinator with the New York-based Alliance for Quality Education. “Gov. Spitzer has made it very clear that when it comes to education he is not [former Gov.] George Pataki, and he said everything that we could possibly want to hear out of a governor.”

AQE is one of two self-described education-advocacy organizations involved in the recently launched “100 Days to Educational Excellence Campaign.” The 100-days effort—the time frame in which an on-time budget would be signed—is designed to support Spitzer in bringing his educational rhetoric to fruition in three ways: increasing state aid to school districts, reforming the state-funding formulas, and developing an accountability system to measure performance.

AQE’s partner in the project is the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a statewide reform-based organization that, until November 2006, was embroiled in a 13-year-long lawsuit to secure additional funding for public schools, especially in New York City. CFE argued in the courts that the state’s inadequate public-school funding denied students the right to a “sound basic education” that is guaranteed by the state constitution.

In 2003, the Court of Appeals ruled that the “sound basic education” requirement means that the state must ensure that students receive a “meaningful high school education.” The court also ruled that the state must allocate additional money to New York City public schools and gave the state government until July 2004 to determine what that additional amount should be. When neither Pataki nor the Legislature acted, the court determined in a November 2006 decision that $1.93 billion would be the minimum for additional funding.

It is likely, however, that New York City schools will see significantly more than that court-ruled floor. In his budget proposal, Spitzer is expected to allocate as much as $8.5 billion in new funding for schools statewide, with $4 to $6 billion going to New York City alone.

Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton has been involved with and vocal in the CFE campaign for years. He said that Schenectady public schools could see about $50 million in additional funding if Spitzer proposes, and the Legislature approves, the budget advocates hope for and expect.

To put this figure into perspective, Stratton noted that the Schenectady school district currently levies about the same amount in school taxes. In other words, $50 million in additional state aid could theoretically eliminate the school tax all together.

While advocate organizations such as AQE and CFE acknowledge the property-tax-relief implications of additional state aid, they are pressing for additional revenue to be used primarily to fund programs that have shown to improve educational performance. The reduction of class sizes, guarantee of universal pre-kindergarten and recruitment of quality teachers are among the strategies shown to improve student success that have been articulated by AQE, CFE and Spitzer.

Last week, the state Education Department released a list of underperforming schools, which included several schools in the Capital Region. Two Schenectady schools were named, but Stratton said increased state funding could help to address such performance concerns.

“Whether you’re talking about Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Binghamton, wherever, inner-city schools always face a harder challenge,” he said. “I certainly think those are issues that could be remedied by an increase in state funding.”

Increased state-education funding must not, however, come without other long-term reforms, advocates argue. Also included as part of the 100-days campaign is to revise the complex formulas the state currently uses to allocate education funds.

“We have talked about the need for real school-finance formula-funding reform in that we need to move away from a politically manipulated funding system to one having transparent, reliable formulas based on need,” said Geri Palast, executive director for CFE. “Eliot Spitzer has also committed himself to that, so we would anticipate in the 100 days that would certainly be a part of whatever gets passed as part of the on-time budget.”

Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Smithtown) agreed that school-funding-formula reform is necessary but said he doesn’t expect the issue to gain significant headway this term. “It is a real tug-of-war between upstate and downstate, the city versus the rest of the state, upstate and downstate versus the city,” he said. “It’s a very difficult struggle.”

Fitzpatrick is one of three assemblymen who received a “bad apple award” from AQE during 2006 for what the organization called an anti-education record. (Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno [R-Brunswick] and Pataki also were named.)

Fitzpatrick laughed at the designation and called it “nonsense,” noting that just because he doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with educational advocacy organizations doesn’t mean he’s anti-education. For example, he agreed that school funding formula reform is necessary, but while organization such as AQE and CFE argue for a need-based system, Fitzpatrick said he’s worried about how a “Robin Hood” approach could affect his district.

“If Long Island is educating 17 percent of the kids, then our funding formula should be adjusting so we’re getting 17 percent of the aid,” he said. “That is fair.” Long Island currently receives less than that, about 13 percent of the state aid pie, according to Fitzpatrick.

—Nicole Klaas

Loose Ends

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