Ten Groups Who Make a Difference
Here at CounterPunch we get the querries from you scores of times a month,tell us where the good groups are. You want who’s worth supporting. Andso now, in our final issue of the year, just in time for you to make tax-deductiblecontributions that could truly work wonders, we give you some groups weknow are doing fine things. As always, our search for these groups has toldus that there’s never a dearth of capable organizers fired with high ideals,never a national horizon that doesn’t blaze forth victories great and small.
The Southern Center for Human Rights, ananti-death penalty group, performs heroic feats on a budget of about $650,000per year. That money supports a staff of 16, including nine attorneys, nonethat is paid more than $25,000 per year. In 1998, the Center saved the livesof a number of people facing the death penalty, including that of FloydHill, who was sentenced to death in Cobb County, Georgia in 1981 for allegedlykilling a police officer. Hill has always maintained his innocence and therewere no direct witnesses to the crime. Lawyers for the Center finally wona new trial for Hill in March when the 11th US Circuit Court of Appealsruled that the district attorney who prosecuted the case, Tom Charron, hadflouted the trial judge’s repeated warnings to not refer to Hill’s refusalto talk to police before seeing an attorney. (The Supreme Court ruled in1976 that silence at the time of arrest cannot be used against a defendantduring trial.). Another big victory came with a Center lawsuit that woncompensation for prisoners abused by guards in Georgia. The suit involvedseveral raids made on state prisons during which unresisting and restrainedinmates were savagely beaten by guards (“Blood went up the wall,”one guard, not involved in the beatings, testified. “Blood went allover the wall, all over the inmateI heard a sickening cracking sound.) Damageswon by the Center — $283,000 – are the largest ever paid by the GeorgiaDepartment of Corrections. In a case that has yet to be decided, the Centeralso filed suit last year against Alabama’s Loxley Community Work Centerover its practice of incarcerating up to 11 prisoners in an 8 x 10 “holdingcell” for stretches of several weeks. The cell has no windows or ventilationsystem and inmates’ uniforms, sheets and mattresses are not cleaned, evenafter covered with dirt and sweat. A prisoner kept in the cell for one weekhad to be rushed to the hospital with severe dehydration.
Southern Center for Human Rights,
83 Poplar Street NW,
Up in Fairbanks, Alaska a small environmental group is fighting one ofthe biggest battles of the decade: the move to open the vast and untrammeledUS National Petroleum Reserve to oil drilling. The NorthernAlaska Environmental Center maintains a small staff and a hardy corpsof volunteers, ranging from trappers and back-to-the-land types to Inuits,botanists and former oil pipeline workers. The challenge ahead of them isformidible. Arco, Exxon, Chevron and British Petroleum have steamrolledthe Clinton administration into giving the green light for the oil giantsto big exploration in the heart of the 24-million acre reserve. Throughthis process, the Northern Alaska Center has been nearly alone on the frontlines,attacking the Administration’s cowardly capitulation to big oil. “TheClinton Administration is operating in a vacuum,” Sylvia Ward tellus. “They have no energy policy, except to extract whatever’s leftin the ground. It makes all the high-minded talk about global warming ringhollow as a spent oil drum.” Many of the national environmental groupshave failed to put any energy into the fight to save the largest swath ofundeveloped land in North America. Why? Because they are anticipating atrade-off. By giving the NPR-A to Arco, they feel they can secure protectionfor the smaller, but more high-profile Arctic Wildlife Reserve. But theNorthern Alaska Center realizes that the oil companies want it all and theplace to stop them is at the banks of the Colville River in the NPR-A. Thenext year will determine the fate of this irreplaceable landscape.
Northern Alaska Environmental Center
218 Driveway Street
Fairbanks, Alaska 99701-2806
Tel: (907) 452-5021
Jobs with Justice works with labor, communityand religious groups to organize campaigns for workers rights. Fred Azcarateat the group’s office in Washington, DC tells us that 1998 was a good year,marked by local victories around the country. In Oregon, the County Councilof Multnomah (which includes Portland) passed a living wage ordinance thatrequires companies that contract with the county to pay their workers atleast $8.65 (if they offer benefits as well the companies can pay slightlyless). In Washington state, JwJ helped mobilize support for an initiativethat ensures that the minimum wage is indexed to inflation. Voters approvedthe initiative handily in November. JwJ also helped organize support fornationwide bargaining campaigns that resulted in major contract gains forhundreds of thousands of workers employed by US West, Bell Atlantic andSouthwestern Bell. In Massachusetts, JwJ helped workers for the first timewin union recognition from two big – and violently anti-union – nursinghome companies, Sun Health Systems and Genesis.
Jobs With Justice,
501 3rd Street NW, Washington, DC 20001,
It’s been nearly two and a half years since the San Jose Mercury Newspublished Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance series, which exposed the CIA’s complicityin Contra drug running and its role in the rise of the California crackcocaine trade. Webb has been run out of the journalism business and hisstory has been smeared by mainstream press, but the evidence against theCIA continues to mount. Three internal government reviews, including twoby the agency’s own Inspector General Fred Hitz, have backed up Webb’s centralthesis and raised even more troubling questions about the US government’sabetting of drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises by its hand-pickedtroops during the war against Nicaragua. The story could have died, whenWebb was forced out. But a coalition of groups has kept the pressure up,hounding the Agency and media. One of the leaders of this campaign is theCitizens’ Truth Commission, sponsored by theInstitute for Policy Studies. The project is run by Martha Honey and SanhoTree. “We are convening a panel of experts take testimony in Los Angelesand Baltimore on whose profiting and whose paying the price for the waron drugs,” Martha Honey tells us. “Our intent is to map the drugand money laundering networks in these cities and the ties of governmentofficials and police the police to the drug trade. There are two sides tothe issue: the moving of drugs and the profiting from war on drugs.”Hearings will be held in Los Angeles in March and in Baltimore later inthe year. Honey said the Commission will also work with journalists to keepthe story alive and to explore how the press failed this story in the past.”It’s important to link up journalists in Latin America with US reporters,”Honey says. “Here ere you might lose your job by reporting honestlyon this story, but in many Latin American countries you might lose yourlife.” Honey says the project needs voluteers
Citizens Truth Commission
c/o Institute for Policy Studies
733 15th Street NW Suite 1020
Wasington, DC 20005
202 234-9382 ext. 266
Essential Information, a group founded byRalph Nader and that fights for corporate accountability, also notched upsome impressive wins this year. Near the top of the list, says Rob Weissman,was Essential’s successful effort (in coalition with a number of other groups)to block a move that would have given tobacco companies immunity from civillaw suits. Weissman also points to a lobbying campaign by Essential thatled the World Bank to review its support for siting medical waste incineratorsin the Third World. Such incinerators account for one-half of all dioxinproduction in the North, and they are being phased out or heavily regulated.Hence, incinerator companies have begun dumping new facilities in the South,with the help, until now, of the World Bank and other international organizations.Thanks to Essential’s lobbying campaign, which has been backed by ThirdWorld countries such as Haiti, Mozambique and South Africa, the Bank hasagreed to rethink its policy. Weissman also pointed to two other victoriesthat Essential can take some credit for: the federal government’s surprisingdecision to pursue an anti-trust case against Microsoft and the Clintonadministration’s issuing of an executive order last September that commitsthe federal government to buying recycled paper. Because the governmentis the biggest single paper purchaser – the feds buy 19 billion sheets peryear – the decision will have a major impact.
PO Box 19405,
Washington, DC 20036,
Though it can’t take credit for the event, the fall of Indonesian dictatormade 1998 an especially sweet year for the East TimorAction Network. The Network, which fights for self-determinationfor East Timor – which was invaded by Indonesia, with US backing, in 1975– can take more direct credit for some important victories in Washington.In October, the House and Senate passed a law that bans the use of US-suppliedweapons in East Timor and forbids the Pentagon from offering InternationalMilitary Education Training to the Indonesian armed forces. Lynn Fredriksson,who works out of ETAN’s DC office, says the bill’s passage “could bethe most support any Congress has shown for rights of East Timorese”since the invasion. A few months earlier, the Senate unanimously passeda resolution urging the Clinton administration to “support an internationallysupervised referendum on self-determination”. Even the State Departmenthas begun to timidly offer support for the Timorese. It now has an officialposition – though an unpublicized one – calling for the release of jailedresistance leader Xanana Gusmao and other political prisoners.
East Timor Action Network,
PO Box 1182,
White Plains, NY 10602,
Tim Shasta of the DC-based Center for CommunityChange, which helps local groups in low-income communities organizecampaigns for housing, jobs and other critical issues, says 1998 has been”a year in which things started to reverse themselves. There’s a lotof energetic work going on around the country, a lot of life out there.”Saasta says an especially important win this year was buried in the Transportationbill, which set aside $750 million that is to be used to improve publictransportation in poor neighborhoods. The bill also gives community groupsan unprecedented role in helping develop plans for using all federal transportationmoney. The Center also helped a local group in Los Angeles, which succeededin forcing contractors on a major freeway project set aside millions ofdollars to train and hire low-income workers. The Center also helped wina number of victories in attempting to crack down on insurance redliningagainst poor neighborhoods. In one case, a jury in Richmond, Virginia orderedNationwide Insurance Company to pay more than $100 million in damages toa local housing group which charged it with refusing to sell homeowner policiesto black residents.
Center for Community Change,
1000 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007
For the past five years, Nike, one of the world’s most profitable companies,has been relentlessly hounded by a fierce outfit called Pressfor Change, a group that fights for workers’ rights around the world.Press for Change has exposed Nike’s brutal labor practices in its Asianfactories. It has brought attention to the shoe-makers use of child labor,forced overtime, hazardous working conditions and sub-living wage payscales.They have also revealed the cozy ties the company cultivated with the Suhartoregime in Indonesia. Working closely with other first-rate groups such asUNITE and Global Exchange, Press for Change has brought Nike and its egomaniacalpresident Phil Knight nearly to its knees. Nike’s bottom line has sufferedits worst losses in the company’s history and Knight himself has been forcedto make one concession after another. Many of Nike’s fixes have been hollowand the press has often picked up on this because Press for Change’s directorJeff Ballinger has been able to quickly point out the weak spots, such asthe recent Nike-brokered “no sweat” labelling scam. The pummellingof Nike is one of the great triumphs of the year and no group played a greaterrole in the battle than Press for Change.
Press for Change
75 Cambridge Parkway
Cambridge, MA 02142
When other organizers sank down in their foxholes after Chiquita hitthe Enquirer with a law suit and brought charges against its star reporterMike Gallagher, the Council on Hemispheric Affairsheld firm. They kept the story available to the public on its website andexplained to any one who would listen that Gallegher’s reporting had exposedfor all to see the heinous behavior of a company that has caused untoldmisery across Latin America. For years the Council has also kept of thepressure on General Augusto Pinochet, demanding that the Chilean butcherbe brought to justice for his bloody crimes. When organizations like FreedomHouse, and its director Adrian Karatnycky, took to the op-ed pages of theWall Street Journal decrying the move to extradite the general, the Councileffectively countered with a jolting reminder of the dictator’s genocidalcrimes. “The Clinton administration has abdicated a hemispheric policy,except for one subject, trade,” Larry Birns, the Council’s president,tells us. “They mistakenly believe that ideology is dead in Latin Americaand instead just focus on trade, a policy crafted by the Treasury Department.Meanwhile, issues of social justice are totally overlooked. But ideologyis not dead. Look at the recent elections in Venezuela. Look at the gapbetween the rich and poor. Throughout Latin America we see the greatestconcentration of wealth in history. Next year we’re also going to stressthe bankruptcy of the policy on Cuba. The Clinton administration shows anabsence of courage and rationality. They adopted a policy of economic asphyxiation,which has been repudiated by nearly every country in the world.”
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
1444 I Street, NW, Suite 211
Washington, DC 20005
One of the most improbable victories of the year was engineered by thecoalition of groups in Texas who fought off the nuclear waste dump slatedfor the Hispanic community of Sierra Blanca, in west Texas. The victorywas improbable for three reasons: the nuclear industry usually gets whateverit wants; the opponents were poorly financed; and the advocates of the dumpranged from George Bush, Jr. to Anne Richards and Bernard Sanders. The fightwas led by the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund andthey never once flinched from standing up to the likes of Sanders. Theirmessage was simple: just because people are poor, brown-skinned and disenfranchiseddoesn’t mean their communities can become the dumping groups for affluentregion’s toxic waste. The campaign against the waste dump skillfully unitedthemese of economic and environmental justice. But they realize the battleis far from over. Now the waste merchants want to shift the dump site afew hundred miles to the northwest in the parched cattle country near theNew Mexico border. The Sierra Blanca Legal Defense plans to continue thefight.
Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund
517 Navasota, Austin, Texas