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Merch with a message: Conference participants browse the vendors between workshops. Photo: Eileen Clynes

United We Unite
Latent activists seek like minds, and inspiration, at daylong conference

‘If we can defeat fear, we can defeat these brigands, because fear is all they have going for them!” It was late afternoon, and the people filling the auditorium of Albany High School had already had a long day of workshops and speakers and calls to action, but this battle cry from the day’s second keynote speaker, William Rivers Pitt, managing editor of Truthout.org, still drew an explosion of cheers. This is what people had come for.

Confronting the Politics of Fear, a “people’s assembly,” filled the halls and classrooms of Albany High from 8 AM until early evening last Saturday (Nov. 15). The conference was intended to bring together the fragmented efforts of the peace movement and related progressive causes and launch a diverse and unified action plan. Organizers were hoping strongly to see more than the usual faces. [See “Please Share My Umbrella,” Nov. 13.]

It was an ambitious plan, and showed early signs of success. Three hundred people preregistered for the conference, but by mid-afternoon all 400 welcome packets were gone, and people were still streaming in the door, said Cathy Callan, one of the organizers, who estimates that more than 500 people participated in the event. (Oddly enough, the Times Union, whose editor Rex Smith served on a panel at the conference, reported only 200 attendees.)

The familiar faces were definitely there. Green “Choose Peace” buttons were abundant, as were bearded anarchists, aging hippies, and longtime labor leaders. Few people showed up whose opinions weren’t already in line with the theme of the day. But a number came who had formed those opinions outside of the activist milieu, by following the news or talking with friends. These were the people the organizers had been hoping for—people who were feeling outraged, who may have written an angry letter or attended one peace vigil, but weren’t the same hard-core activists who come to all the meetings.

“[I came for] comradeship, people I have something in common with, people who are rational and haven’t lost their minds,” said one older gentleman, his shirt and tie anomalous in a sea of political T-shirts. A young woman who recently completed an AmeriCorps stint in the Midwest, and is now living with her parents and doing temp work, sought out the conference to feel more connected to opportunities for action, which she said was difficult without owning car. A woman from Canada who just became a U.S. citizen said she came because she figured that as a citizen she ought to start to paying attention to politics.

Despite extensive outreach, however, some of the more desired nonfamiliar faces—those of people of color—were only marginally represented. “The politics of fear is manifest in this room,” observed the morning’s keynote speaker, Damu Smith, and you could have heard a pin drop. “We can’t have these separate issues. When the opposition meets, they meet together.” Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace, challenged the audience to invite him back to speak again, “and I want to see a different mixture.”

Later in the day, at an overflowing workshop on “Race, Class, and the Politics of Fear,” Smith and copresenter Barbara Smith (no relation) dismissed the idea that what was needed was more individual sensitivity. “I want more than to hug you,” Damu quipped. “I want a job that pays the same as you.” He explained the motto of Black Voices for Peace: “Peace in the Hood, Peace in the Land, Peace in the World,” and offered a concrete suggestion to the still- primarily-white audience. “When the peace movement connects these dots,” for example, by turning up en masse to a police- brutality protest, said Smith, “I promise you, you will see more people of color show up” to traditional antiwar protests.

To carry the day’s work forward, each workshop generated lists of potential action steps (“Oppose the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act” came out of the workshop on the Targeting of Arabs and Muslims), which will be posted online and on listservs that have been created for each and every one of the 31 workshops of the day. But the organizers also wanted to come away with some sort of priority for unified action. To do this democratically, nine sheets of paper with the main topics of the day (broad categories like “globalization” and “election 2004”) were taped up around the auditorium, and after Pitt’s talk, participants were given two green dots with which to vote on their priorities.

The two most popular—foreign policy and civil liberties—will get the attention of a newly forming steering committee that hopes to carry on, in the words of one attendee, “doing what the community should be doing.” The task of sustaining momentum on big issues is always a daunting one. But in the meantime, the energy is high. Callan says she and other organizers have been getting many e-mail messages from excited participants. “People were thrilled,” she said. “A lot of people felt rejuvenated. One person said he felt like we charged his batteries.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

A Green Light, With Speed Bumps
Malta planning board recommends approving Luther Forest chip-fab plan, with conditions

On Tuesday night (Nov. 18), Malta’s planning board made its recommendation to the town board on the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation’s proposal to develop a site for four semiconductor chip-manufacturing plants in Luther Forest. Board members synthesized comments and concerns from three public workshops and gave their approval to a modified version of the plan.

The board had developed a list of 58 points that it thought SEDC ought to address before going forward, but selected a smaller number to officially include in its recommendations. The rest are considered advisory. Among the official recommendations are that any reports to government regarding emissions or chemical releases also be filed with the town and that the town has the power to halt development if promises about traffic levels and other quality-of-life issues are not met. If SEDC doesn’t voluntarily incorporate these measures, the town board would need a supermajority to overturn them.

“I think it’s possible to have both—quality of life and quality of jobs,” said Paul Sausville, chairman of the planning board and a partner of the environmental engineering firm Sausville and Schriber. “One way of ensuring that is to put conditions on anything coming into the forest.”

But others think even the conditions are not enough. The vote, which was approved 4 to 2, came after a motion to disapprove entirely, which lost along the same split, 2 to 4. The Rev. Peter Klotz, who made the motion to disapprove, said, “I don’t think it’s something Malta needs badly enough to go through all the changes and accept the so-called improvements and accept all the risks.” He added that he was disappointed that U.S. Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) put money into the study of a new Northway exit for the project before the town had come to its own carefully deliberated conclusion. “I would prefer to see him study mass transportation and other alternatives to just more roads and just more cars,” he said, adding that bus service to the site is under discussion.

Andrea Austin, a resident who has been part of a vocal opposition to the project, said she was pleased that the planning board was challenging SEDC and holding them “to higher standards than we’ve seen them held to in the past.” But she was still hoping the planning board would recommend not going forward at all. “The middle road is the easiest one,” she said. “You can say you’ve approved something, but you can feel in your heart you’ve done it with a conscience.”

Throughout the region, debate is still lively about whether the Luther Forest site is the most appropriate location for chip fabs. Gary S. Kleppel, a biology professor at the University at Albany who researches the effect of land use decisions on ecosystems, said it would make a lot more sense to locate a plant in a more urban area that already was served by the necessary infrastructure. There are consequences to developing a wild area like Luther Forest, according to Kleppel, who said Luther Forest’s wetlands perform very useful functions for area residents. “I know where my air comes from and my water comes from,” he said. “Forest and wetlands.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute


Standing behind the plan: Jerry Jennings and Lori Harris. Photo: Joe Putrock

Looks Like a Plan
An update on the city’s initiative for neighborhood revitalization in Arbor Hill draws mixed reactions

A public meeting to update Arbor Hill residents on progress being made on the city-sponsored plan to revitalize their neighborhood drew a mixed response from a packed house at 200 Henry Johnson Blvd. Tuesday night.

While members of the Arbor Hill Neighborhood Advisory Committee and some neighborhood residents praised the plan for its comprehension and inclusiveness, some citizens were more critical. A number of community members who attended the meeting left before its conclusion, some shaking their heads.

“You can keep talking all you want, but don’t keep calling me to these meetings if you’re not going to come into Sheridan Hollow and do something,” said Ruby Hughes of 202 Orange St. Hughes was frustrated that the city’s plan for Arbor Hill didn’t include any specific proposals for her neighborhood, Sheridan Hollow, a sub-neighborhood within Arbor Hill.

Lori Harris, deputy commissioner of the city’s Division of Economic Development and emcee for Tuesday’s meeting, said that the plan didn’t include all of Arbor Hill’s neighborhoods because it aims only to create “pockets of investment” that the city could build from. “I think we need to view this not as a sprint but a long distance that we are faced with,” Harris said.

Earlier this summer, a committee selected by Mayor Jerry Jennings finalized a tumultuous, multi-year effort to present a revitalization plan for one of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods. According to U.S. Census data, one in every three housing units in Arbor Hill remains vacant, nearly one in every three households lives in poverty, and residents’ median household income is $16,222, about half the city average.

City officials have twice before hired private development firms—Norstar Development USA in 2000 and Dennison Associates in 2001—to evaluate the community’s needs. Norstar’s recommendations, which prescribed concentrating low-income housing on North Swan Street, were abandoned when neighborhood residents presented a lawsuit alleging that the community had not been adequately involved in the planning process and that the plan was too limited in scope. Dennison’s efforts were also dismissed for not being comprehensive enough.

But in 2003, after the year-and-a-half-long planning effort with Community Builders Inc., a national nonprofit, the committee presented $69 million worth of ideas to breathe new life into Arbor Hill. The committee’s plan calls for an ongoing community-oriented police presence, and better investments in street repair and playground upkeep to improve quality of life in the neighborhood. It also calls for more and better investments in existing neighborhood businesses and cultural organizations.

But the majority of Tuesday’s meeting was dedicated to the Albany Housing Authority, which presented a plan calling for the construction of a number of new or rehabbed single-family homes and rental units in Arbor Hill using an existing $5 million federal Housing and Urban Development grant, leftover from the Corning Homes project.

The housing authority proposed building 20 new single-family homes each year over the next three years on vacant lots throughout the neighborhood, some of which the city and the housing authority already own. Darren Scott, a member of the mayor’s 23-member committee who works at the housing authority, said that approximately $600,000 is already in the pot for the new construction, and the New York State Affordable Housing Corporation will decide whether to afford the city an additional $500,000 early in December. Scott said construction on the new homes could begin as early as next spring.

Scott said the housing authority is looking to build 80 to 90 two- to three-unit rental apartment buildings over the next three years as well. Most of the rental units would be reserved for families or individuals of low income, with a portion being rented at market rate. The buildings, which Scott said would be rehabbed from existing structures or constructed anew on vacant lots, would be small and spread throughout the neighborhood to avoid unpopular clusters of low-income housing.

Willie Medlock, president of Robert M. Whalen Homes Tenants Association, said that he was most excited about the home-ownership presentation Tuesday night. Medlock said he would be looking into the home-ownership possibilities offered by the housing authority.

“You ride around and you see all the abandoned buildings coming up Clinton and Swan, it looks like a ghetto,” Medlock said. “They’re trying to build so things look better, bring a better quality of life to the community and that’s a good thing. . . . Me being new, only three years in Albany, it seems like an improvement. I’d have to see it fail for me to say something negative about it.”

—Travis Durfee


We deliver: Jimmy Lawson and Rap. Photo: John Whipple

Chow on Call
As pantries stock up for the increased end-of-the-year demand, the Food Express delivers

Rap checked orders and Jimmy Lawson finished his Stewart’s orange juice as the truck idled at the Ryder rental center on Erie Boulevard in Albany a little after 6 Wednesday morning. Were it not for the image painted on the side of the 16-foot white Isuzu—a giant black grocery bag spilling out multicolored shapes—the truck would have just blended into its surroundings.

But this truck isn’t your average $29.95-a-day rental. This truck has responsibilities. This truck has a name: The Food Express. Monday through Friday, it handles the majority of deliveries for Food Pantries for the Capital District, a 40-pantry coalition.

“This is our distressed time of year. You go nuts with it some time. You’ll see,” promised Rap, the truck’s curmudgeonly captain. Rap, who has driven the Food Express for the past three years, and Lawson, who’s been on the job for about three weeks, zig and zag the city’s streets, making stops at local bakeries to pick up donated day-old breads and pastries before heading to the Regional Farm and Food Bank in Latham to pick up the bulk of the day’s orders. “Not a big day, about 6,500 pounds,” Rap said.

Guy Rappold, aka Rap, is a 74-year-old from Castleton-on-Hudson who took up truck driving in 1972 after retiring from a 25-year career in the Navy. A man of medium build with a cragged face, bright white hair and pale blue eyes that require the assistance of bifocals, Rap exhibits a certain pride in his crotchetiness: “You can’t spell ‘Crap’ without ‘Rap,’” reads the custom bumper sticker on his duct-taped three-ring binder holding the day’s paperwork. “You got it, boy, and don’t forget it,” Rap declared.

“He’s a good teacher. But if I do something wrong,” Lawson said, “he’ll jump on me with both feet.”

Lawson, a gentle, 53-year-old man and father of five from Loudonville, recently retired from his job as a maintenance person at UAlbany’s downtown campus. He said he sat around enjoying his retirement for about a year before returning to work.

“Really, his momma was getting tired of having him around the house, so she told him to get a job,” Rap laughed.

“It’s true,” Lawson said, laughing as well. “She kept giving me hints.”

After the early morning salvages, the truck arrived at the Regional Farm and Food Bank’s warehouse a little after 7 AM. Three pantries’ orders were rolled down a conveyor to the back of the truck. The food bank was short a few items, and the day’s load ended up one ton lighter than expected. Rap checked the orders while Lawson began the three-dimensional puzzle of hand-stacking the more than 4,000 pounds of grocery cases—turkeys in 40-pound flats, boxes of cereal and dried milk and cases of canned fruits, vegetables and sauces, much of it USDA surplus with no name brand.

According to Linda Schuyler, director of Food Pantries for the Capital District, the Food Express delivered some 434 tons of food to 42 pantries throughout the Capital District in 2002—a 24-percent increase from 2001. Even with the busiest time of year remaining, the Food Express has delivered 440 tons of food already this year.

From Latham, Rap, Lawson and the Food Express headed to the pantries, stopping along the way to pick up a few more loads of day-old pastries, cakes and cookies at local Price Choppers. “We never have any problem getting rid of the sweets,” Rap said.

At around 8:30 AM, Lawson exited the Price Chopper on Madison Avenue to Rap’s applause, having retrieved a stack of fresh banana boxes along with the shopping cart full of donated pastries. “I thought you might like that,” Lawson boasted.

The crew arrived at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 275 State St. in Albany, a little after 9 AM, and were met by Deb Catoozi, with Focus Interfaith Food Pantry, which feeds about 200 regular visitors. Recently, demand has spiked again, as it always does at the end of the year. Focus sends volunteer drivers to the Regional Farm and Food Bank eight to 12 times a week, Catoozi said, but most of the drivers are volunteering senior citizens who can only carry so much.

The Food Express delivery “is like 10 of those,” Catoozi said. “The more we see this truck the less we have to dip into our own resources.”

Lawson said the job merely gives him something to help pass the time in the winter. “I don’t know how to ice fish,” he joked. Rap, too, was modest about his role delivering food to those in need around the holidays.

“Well, when I was delivering for the drug company, I guess the people needed the medicine I was bringing, too,” Rap said. “I guess it’s six of one, half-dozen of the other.”

—Travis Durfee

Poll Faulting
Saratoga Springs Democrats take election battle to Spitzer, and Skidmore braces for more conflict over its polling place

After the final count last week, Republican candidate Mike Lenz won the mayoral seat in Saratoga Springs. This did nothing to quell the frustrations of city Democrats who think the close outcome could have been different. They contend that voters in Skidmore College’s district were deterred from voting by very long lines and delays, or antagonistic challenges over campus residency from Republican poll watchers [“An Education in Intimidation,” Nov. 13].

The city’s Democratic committee chairman, Shawn Thompson, brought his complaints to state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and now the college community is trying to figure out how to keep its polling place and make sure its students are correctly registered.

“By a margin of 80 votes—less than one percent of the total cast—the mayor’s office in Saratoga Springs has been returned for now to the hands of the political bosses and the power brokers,” current Mayor Ken Klotz said in a statement the following day. He condemned the Republicans’ tactics, and implored citizens to truly engage in local issues to make sure their voices are heard.

Being heard is something of a problem to city Democrats at the moment, as they’re concerned that a pattern of vote suppression has developed over the last two years; first with the attempt to take away Skidmore’s polling place last year, and now with the conduct of Republican poll watchers.

In his letter to Spitzer, Thompson wrote, “Each of these [challenged] voters is, without any doubt, a resident of the City and County of Saratoga. As such, regardless of the location of the poll at which they cast their votes, each vote counts towards the same totals. At minimum Republican operatives tactics deprived legally registered voters of the chance to cast their ballot.”

He also said Republican poll watchers could have violated state election law in several ways: voter intimidation; obstruction of an elector en route to the polling place or registration; electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place; remaining within the “guard-rail” of the polling place after being asked by an inspector to leave; and disobeying the commands of inspectors. Spitzer’s office has not said what it might do with the complaint.

Meanwhile, the Skidmore community is concerned about what might happen to its polling place, as well as how to make certain its off-campus students are correctly registered in the proper district each year.

“Over the near term, I think the issue is less about registration than it is more about the polling place,” said Pat Oles, the dean of student affairs. “Public sentiment needs to be aroused in support of keeping the polling place.” He also suggested that the college make an effort to convince elections and city council officials of the campus polling place’s importance. “My concern,” he said, “is that they’ll quietly try to move the polling place during January,” before the students are back.

Students living in the off-campus dormitory, Moore Hall, were principle targets of the Republican challenges. To Oles, their residency was fair to question, but “it’s a question that could have been asked very easily over the summer.”

“This particular election, it’s an especially senseless challenge because there were no district-level races,” said Oles. Students “could have voted very easily by affidavit if they had been challenged politely and in a way that was adjudicative. . . . The tone was clearly not about that.”

—Ashley Hahn


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