Editorial & Opinion

The Uprising, March 30, 2018

“Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert. If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.” –Glinda Welcome to The Uprising!, your weekly update of social, economic and climate justice news. 1a. Criminal Justice There were at least two bills heard in the
Photo for The Uprising, March 30, 2018

Published on March 30, 2018
By Steve Ahlquist

“Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert. If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.”

Welcome to The Uprising!, your weekly update of social, economic and climate justice news.

1a. Criminal Justice

There were at least two bills heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that if passed, will have big impacts on people’s lives. The first piece of legislation is known as Kristen’s Law, and would make the “death of all human beings as a result of a controlled substance transaction” a homicide in Rhode Island. The bill was introduced by Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston) at the request of Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

The act is named for Cranston resident Suzanne Coutu‘s daughter. Coutu delivered compelling, emotional, and somewhat contradictory testimony to the committee:

“While this is hardly the only answer to the epidemic of overdose deaths in Rhode Island. It should send a strong message that if someone wants to prey on those who are ill, those who have a substance usage disorder, they will pay the price with their own life. We in Rhode Island have to uphold the sanctity of human life, all human life, we cannot allow drug traffickers and dealers to kill our best and brightest people with impunity.”

Can we “uphold the sanctity” of all human life even as we insist that some drug dealers should “pay the price [for their crimes] with their own life”?

More importantly, no less than nine experts on addiction, drug use and recovery were of the opinion that the proposed legislation, if passed, will do nothing to deter drug use and drug crime and will cause significant harm, destroying families and impacting the most vulnerable.

1b. Criminal Justice

Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) introduced legislation, H7596, which “would provide that prisoners who committed offenses prior to age 18 and were sentenced as adults would be eligible for parole after completing 15 years of their sentence. This act would not lengthen their parole eligibility should the prisoner be eligible for parole earlier than 15 years.” Ranglin-Vassell called the bill “uncomfortable” but “necessary.” She said she thinks about six people incarcerated as juveniles would be impacted if this legislation were to pass, adding,

“This piece of legislation is so important, because giving a young person who has committed a heinous crime [a sentence of] being put in prison with no possibility of parole, I think that is essentially a death sentence. Mr Chairman, I do believe in the power of redemption. I think people have the potential to change. I think a juvenile who has completed 15 years, should be given an opportunity for [parole].”

Only Assistant Rhode island Attorney General Joee Lindbeck spoke against the proposed legislation, raising the specter of Craig Price, who brutally murdered four people as a juvenile in a time before the criminal justice system felt itself equipped to deal with such a crime.

Here’s a thought: Perhaps justice, not fear, should not be our most compelling argument when discussing these issues.

2. Transgender Rights

Let’s stay in Tuesday night’s House Judiciary Committee hearing for a few more beats. That meeting also heard discussion of a bill, H7765, that would help protect people from being misgendered in death. Upon passage, the proposed legislation “would require that a death certificate reflect the decedent’s gender identity, as reported by the next of kin or the best qualified person available, unless the person completing the death certificate is presented with a document that memorializes the decedent’s gender transition.”

Many people waited until past 11pm to have their testimony heard. Their testimony lasted until just past midnight.

Some spoke of supportive families, who would respect their gender identity after death, others spoke of families who might erase their gender status and their identity, because they don’t approve or understand their transition.

It’s a significant bill that would impact only those who need it. It should be an easy bill to pass.

3. Tuesday night’s House Judiciary Committee

Chair of House Judiciary, Representative Cale Keable (Democrat, District 47, Burrillville, Glocester), set an ambitious agenda for Tuesday’s hearing: 21 bills, including the three mentioned above. Many of the bills dealt with significant and important issues, with long lists of people needing the opportunity to testify. In addition to the issues mentioned above, the committee also took on the uniform parentage act, removing the statute of limitations for child abuse crimes, changes to the way in which discovery works in trials, and civil forfeiture law changes.

Needless to say, the committee meeting dragged on until long into the night, with Keable apologizing to those who were waiting to testify on the ten or so bills that were never heard. Mike Stenhouse, from the Libertarian Center for Freedom and Prosperity waited for hours, for nothing. His civil forfeiture legislation will be heard at a later date.

Keable explained at the beginning of the committee hearing that the agenda was long, “primarily as a result of recent snowstorms.”

Near the end of the hearing, nearly six hours in, Keable revealed that there were still 12 bills on the agenda. “Now I want to apologize. Clearly we over scheduled… We’re trying to make up for some lost time because of the snow storms… obviously the committee took on some rather important, heavy stuff tonight.”

Those bills unheard were rescheduled.

The problem with such a hearing goes beyond the time wasted by those who sat in the committee for hours before being heard or being rescheduled. Legislators were checking out continuously throughout the evening. Many literally, by getting up and going home, others figuratively, their eyes glazing over, their attention not on the testimony.

The problem is that such hearings do not respect the public. We all want more public engagement with important issues, but who can spend six hours and 40 minutes in a stuffy room waiting to be heard on a bill that might never be heard?

Keable’s apology not withstanding, we need to demand better from our representatives.

Another point: Piling all these issues up in one night makes it all but impossible for anything less than a team of reporters to adequately report on what happened. I’m pretty sure I was the last reporter in the room when the hearing ended, and I was dead tired.

That said, I’ll have more articles from the committee meeting out over the weekend.

4. Guns

Last Saturday saw what may have been the largest student led protest in history, with over 840 events worldwide and on every continent. Well over 5000 people crowded onto the south lawn of the Rhode Island State House to hear students (and politicians) rail against the scourge of gun violence in our nation.

Here are photos from the event.

Here’s all the video from the event.

And here’s the standout speech/poem from Halima Ibrahim (with all respect to the other students who spoke and were also amazing):

5a. DPUC report outlines National Grid’s post storm power restoration failures

A report from the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities (DPUC) found that National Grid’s preparations and response to the October 2017 storm “which left thousands of Rhode Islanders without power for days” found that National Grid “failed to adequately prepare and directly contributed to a 36-hour delay in full power restoration.”

The report notes that:

Even at this time National Grid, based on its Summary Report, apparently believes its full restoration occurred earlier than the factual data supports. There were crews working on power restoration after the time National Grid represents is the final restoration date and time. This type of disconnect between the facts and National Grid’s belief is a further indication of a flawed and broken communication and data processing system.

“Rhode Islanders deserve better service from National Grid,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo. “I ordered this investigation in October because I saw residents in neighboring states get their power back soon after the storm ended, while Rhode Islanders had to wait days.

“The delay was not because crews weren’t working quickly enough, it was because Grid’s management failed their customers. They failed to communicate. They failed to adapt.”

5b. Representative Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence) writes that the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities (DPUC)’s review of National Grid’s storm preparedness highlighted the need for a long-term restructuring of utility governance and accountability, which he began calling for last year following National Grid’s repeated request for rate hikes.

“The for-profit corporate utility model is not working for our state. This year we’ve faced repeated outages, unacceptably slow responses, and continued requests by National Grid to further hike our utility rates. Seniors in Warwick shouldn’t be living in the dark for days on end, families in Bristol shouldn’t have to spend hundreds of dollars buying generators to make sure their kids are safe at home, and low-income Rhode Islanders shouldn’t be forced to choose between paying their utility bill and putting food on the table.”

5c. In response to the DPUC report, the Providence chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America wrote:

Representative Aaron Regunberg introduced Tuesday a non-binding resolution in support of a public, not-for-profit energy utility in Rhode Island. The bill, written by the Providence chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the country’s largest socialist organization, is an effort to call attention to the untenable financial strain placed on Rhode Islanders by National Grid’s inequitable practices.

Following several calls for rate increases, National Grid came under fire recently for poor service response and unreliability during predicted storms. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo noted National Grid “dropped the ball” during the October 2017 storm that resulted in power outages so widespread and prolonged that the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities (DPUC) conducted a formal investigation. The DPUC’s report found National Grid filed an inaccurate report about its power restoration efforts that claimed full power restoration occurred earlier than actual findings.

In addition to weak infrastructure-related service loss, National Grid has also engaged in a pattern of deliberate utility shut-offs, cutting services to Rhode Island households as a consequence of National Grid’s rising fees. “There are people in Rhode Island who pay 40 percent of their incomes toward utilities,” according to Camilo Viveiros, lead coordinator of the George Wiley Center, a non-profit advocating for access to basic utilities including water, light, heat and electricity. As reported by the United States Energy Information Administration, Rhode Island is ranked fifth in highest electricity costs to customers nationwide.

Will Speck, Providence DSA Co-chair, suggested National Grid’s failings are systemic to the private, for-profit model. “Private ownership is hurting Rhode Islanders, from high costs forcing people to choose between feeding their family and keeping their lights on to fossil fuel exploitation bringing us closer to climate disaster, and an entire array of associated problems,” urged Speck.

Customers of not-for-profit utility providers, such as Pascoag Utility District in Rhode Island, pay on average lower rates than customers of for-profit investor owned utility companies. “We’ll never get a good deal when our utility’s primary goal is billion-dollar profits for a multinational corporation, instead of the best possible service for Rhode Islanders,” affirmed Regunberg. “It’s time for a new model of direct community accountability that puts the needs of Rhode Islanders front and center.”

6. Invenergy

Associate Director for Planning Parag Agrawal is leaving his position at the Rhode Island Department of Planning. One of the duties off the Associate Director for Planning is to serve as one of the three members of the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB). His absence leaves Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and Margaret Curran, chair of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission as the only two people on the EFSB.

Readers might remember when Governor Gina Raimondo made some quick changes to the make up of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) which seemingly paved the way for the easy passage of important permits National Grid needed to build their liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence. I have not received an answer to my question about how quickly Agrawal will be replaced and if his replacement will be installed at the EFSB in time to render a decision on Invenergy‘s proposal.

According to ecoRI, “A decision [on replacing Agrawal] is likely needed soon, as Agrawal’s last day at Statewide Planning is April 13. The final phase of hearings for the $1 billion Clear River Energy Center begins April 11.”

If a final decision is made by the two people left on the EFSB, both will need to vote affirmatively for the power plant application to be approved.

7a. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza vetoed the plastic bag ban bill on Monday responding to concerns from the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee (REJC). The Committee sent a letter to Elorza and members of the Providence City Council on March 14 citing specific concerns with the policy after their evaluation noting, “This policy assumes that everyone has equal access to reusable bags. That is not the case for low income families who do not drive a car. Many community members will struggle to pay the fee.”

Echoing concerns articulated by the REJC, Mayor Elorza requested that more community engagement be done before he signs the ordinance into law. Elorza continued, “There is no harm done in taking our time to do this right, but we do risk harm if we exclude or ignore these communities and their concerns in this process.”

The Rhode Island Chapter of Sierra Club agreed with Elorza, writing, “While everyone agrees the bag ban is a huge step in the right direction, the Mayor’s veto will allow progress to occur without skipping a step. It is a bold move to ensure the crafting of city policy prioritizes equity, inclusion and justice.”

Not everyone is happy with the veto, of course. Commenter “Barry” writes, “If the Sierra Club won’t stand up for the environment, no wonder progress is so difficult.”

7b. A state bill that seeks to ban plastic bags was introduced in the General Assembly by Representative Carol Hagan McEntee (Democrat, District 33, South Kingstown and Narragansett). The bill would, “would prohibit large retail sales establishments from providing plastic checkout bags and all retail establishments from providing expanded polystyrene disposable food containers enforced by municipal police departments or other municipal designees…”

Local cities and towns may choose to opt out of this bill’s requirements and the bill would go into effect in 2021.

8. RI NOW demonstrates free childcare at State House

The event demonstrated the need for childcare at the State House.

“For me personally it’s important that I model for my kids that you need to be an active participant in our democracy for it to work,” said RI NOW President Hilary Levey Friedman. “And it’s also a right to have your voice heard, to peaceably assemble and yes, even to protest.”

9a. Organ Equity Day #2: Codify, a performance + The Community ‘Petition 2.0’ Quilt

On March 28 in the Library at the Rhode Island State House, 15 actors and 20 volunteers came together to for Organ Equity Day #2. Using the ‘People’s House’ as their stage, The Woman Project (TWP) collaborators, volunteers, and actors represented the voices of so many Rhode Islanders in a display of artistic activism to call attention to the looming danger that plagues Rhode Islanders if Roe v Wade is overturned on the Federal level.

First there was a performative reading named ‘Codify’ by director Tammy Brown and colleagues as well as the display of the Community ‘Petition 2.0’ Quilt.

Community ‘Petition 2.0’ Quilt

9b. The Woman Project Interviews: Felicia Love, Mother, Doula, Artist

“The families I work with have generally chosen to become parents, but if they were to lose the right to choose, and were forced to parent children they didn’t make the choice to have, they might not be in a position to parent this new life or be able to parent the children they already had in the way the need to. These rights protect all of our freedom; not just our rights to be able to choose, but our rights to parent, live, and thrive.”

9c. Eleven male Democratic State Representatives have identified themselves as proud cosponsors of the Reproductive Health Care Act (RHCA).

The list include Jason Knight (Democrat, District 67, Barrington, Warren), Jean Philippe Barros (Democrat, District 59, Pawtucket), Robert Craven (Democrat, District 32, North Kingstown), Arthur Handy (Democrat, District 18, Cranston), Aaron Regunberg (Democrat, District 4, Providence), Joseph Almeida (Democrat, District 12, Providence), Jeremiah O’Grady (Democrat, District 46, Lincoln, Pawtucket), David Bennett (Democrat, District 20, Warwick, Cranston), Michael Morin (Democrat, District 49, Woonsocket), Evan Shanley (Democrat, District 24, Warwick), and Christopher Blazejewski (Democrat, District 2, Providence).

Representative Knight said,

“We, as men, stand behind women and acknowledge that they should have complete control of their bodies and their own medical decisions. It is urgent for the Rhode Island General Assembly to act now.”

Unfortunately, one Democratic State Representative, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello (Democrat, District 15, Cranston), has no intention to allow the RHCA to come to a vote on the House floor.

10. The first gubernatorial debate/forum was held in Warwick Thursday evening, but not all the announced candidates for governor attended.

Four of the ten announced candidates for governor of Rhode Island, including Spencer Dickinson (Democrat), Giovanni Feroce (Republican), Bill Gilbert (Moderate) and Paul Roselli (Democrat) showed up at the Sheraton Providence Airport Hotel conference center in Warwick. Five of the announced candidates for governor declined to attend, including Matt Brown (Independent), Luis-Daniel Munoz (Independent), Allan Fung (Republican), Patricia Morgan (Republican) and incumbent Gina Raimondo (Democrat).

In a weird bit of political thinking, Joseph Trillo, a former Republican State representative now running as an Independent, sent a truck to sit in the parking lot of the Sheraton Hotel.

You can’t debate a truck:

11. Independent journalist John Gonzalez and Monica Huertas, executive director of No LNG in PVD just released an amazing video, taken by drone, of the Port of Providence. They write:

National Grid has proposed a $180 million dollar dirty fracked gas liquefaction facility, for the Port of Providence, putting our black, brown and indigenous communities at risk… This is an area already experiencing the highest incidences of childhood asthma, respiratory and cardio vascular illnesses.

There are over 300 schools in the impact zone of this densely populated urban area, as well as hospitals, shelters and community facilities. The people here simply cannot afford to get up and move. We are encouraging Save The BayNarragansett Bay, as well as other groups and lawmakers, that champion themselves as environmentalists, to step up to the plate…

12a. Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse turned “a blind eye towards the humanitarian disaster occurring in Yemen as a result of both Saudi bombing and blockade,” writes David Oppenheimer in an oped. “They voted with Donald Trump and the GOP to defeat the bi-partisan Sanders/Lee/Murphy resolution that would have stopped United States support for Saudi Arabia‘s war on Yemen.”

Oppenheimer and Jonathan Daly-LaBelle organized a protest outside Whitehouse’s downtown Providence office to protest the Senator’s record on war.

“Rather than lifting the blockade and allowing the free flow of food, water and medical supplies, the Saudis and its coalition partners, including the United States, have said it will supply aid to Yemen, even while the bombing continues. Food supplies dwindle and transportation becomes impossible as fuel prices skyrocket and the road infrastructure is bombed, further preventing access to what little aid is available.

“Apparently, our senators are fine with this.

“Moreover, they seem uninterested in exercising Congress’s constitutional authority over the declaration of war and authorization of the use of force.”

Jonathan Daly-LaBelle

12b. Maybe our Senators see defense as a jobs program: Voting for endless war is good for our local economy, right?

Independent journalist Alex Nunes is calling B.S. on that. Read:

The Myth of General Dynamics-Electric Boat and Its ‘Middle Class Jobs’

The defense contractor jobs aren’t, “good middle class jobs, argues Nunes. And the government subsidies these multi-billion dollar war contractors are getting at the state and national level aren’t worth the investment.

13. Anti-pipeline campaigners found not guilty by judge because ‘protest against climate change crisis’ was legal ‘necessity’

14. General Assembly considers updating Rhode Island’s out-of-date parentage laws

I’ll have a lot more on this subject in a few days, with luck.

15. Representative Aaron Regunberg introduced a House resolution urging law enforcement to recognize “white nationalist” and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations.

The legislation is a response to the increasingly brazen activities of white supremacist groups, including the rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 17, when a white supremacist drove into a crowd of protestors, killing a women. The resolution is based on one passed in Illinois shortly after the Charlottesville incident.

“White nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist and xenophobic groups have rallied around the election of Donald Trump. And by signaling acceptance of this violent agenda, Trump has tacitly aided their rise. Rhode Island and other states must step up and make it clear that we will not tolerate their hate and violence here, and recognize them for what they are: terrorists who aim to destroy what makes our nation great,” said Regunberg.

The resolution, which is similar to one introduced by Senator Gayle Goldin last week (2018-S 2696), calls the Charlottesville incident confirmation “that white nationalism and neo-Nazism remain very real threats to social and racial progress,” and point to the “senseless acts of violence that continue to terrorize members of racial, ethnic and religious minority communities” carried out as a result of white supremacy groups’ message of racial and social intolerance.

The legislation urges law enforcement to recognize white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups as terrorist organizations, and to “pursue the criminal elements of these domestic terrorist organizations in the same manner and with the same intensity used to protect the United States from other manifestations of terrorism.”

16. Senator Frank Ciccone (Democrat, District 7, Providence, North Providence) will be withdrawing legislation (2018-S 2584) that would require internet service providers to provide the capability, if the consumer requests, to block sexual content and patently offensive material on the internet.  The bill was scheduled for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and Senator Ciccone requested that the legislation be removed from the meeting agenda.

“In light of recent nationwide reporting about the dubious origins of this bill, I have requested that the legislation be withdrawn from today’s Judiciary Committee hearing. Also, after learning that Elizabeth Smart was in no way involved with this legislation, and the fact that 18 other state legislatures have received the same erroneous information leading to similar bills being sponsored across the country, I am withdrawing this legislation from the 2018 Senate session,” said Ciccone.

17. Picture of the week is a State House Library full of kids while their parents engage directly with our democracy on their behalf.

That is that. I’m sure I missed a bunch of stuff, though…

See you next week!

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