New Orleans artist Jackie Sumell has made a career out of building a house for a client who may never live there. There are a few other hitches: He can't pay her. He's not great at visualizing big spaces. His demands are at once idiosyncratic and utterly ordinary: a bear rug and mirrored ceilings, a garden and a pool. He's very slow on correspondence. But for Sumell, it's deeply rewarding work, emotionally if not financially. "I have an amazing life because of this project," she says.
Sumell's client is Herman Wallace, a member of the inmate crew known as the Angola 3 who has been held in solitary confinement for 41 years and counting, for a conviction based on highly questionable evidence. (That included witness testimony from jailhouse informants who had been promised special privileges, including two who have since recanted and one who was legally blind.)
Sumell is one of Herman's longest-standing pen pals, and guided by his vision—sketched in hundreds of letters over the past 12 years—she is building his dream digs. Their project is the subject of Herman's House, a documentary premiering Monday night on PBS.
Herman's cell, reconstructed by Sumell Mizue Aizeki
The story has taken on a new urgency. In June, Wallace was diagnosed with an aggressive liver cancer. The prognosis is grave, and the activists who have fought for his cause for decades—Sumell, Wallace's sister, Amnesty International, and many more—are mobilizing to urge his release. For them, the film's premiere has new magnitude: What began as a work of art and activism has, for better or worse, become Wallace's only lifeline to the outside.
"I never thought this would become Herman's only way to get out of prison," Sumell told me recently. But that's how she sees it now.
It's old news that the United States fares quite poorly on the sick leave front: Unlike most developed countries, we have no federal law mandating paid days off for ill workers. Only four cities and one state have passed their own.
So unless you're dining in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, or Connecticut, your state's waiters could very well give you whatever nasty bug they're nursing while preparing and serving your grub because they don't have the option to stay home without losing pay.*
To make matters even worse for restaurant workers and diners, a spate of "preemption bills"—which bar localities from makings laws requiring paid sick leave—has been surging through state legislatures with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Restaurant Association, one of ALEC's members. The first of these bills was passed in May 2011 in Wisconsin. Last week, Gov. Rick Scott signed Florida's version into law, making it the eighth state to preemptively block paid sick leave for its workers (and the 13th to try) in just two years.
Read moreabout how Disney and Darden Restaurants helped pass preemption legislation in Florida.
In many states, a number of chain restaurants and other establishments have come out in support of these bills, monetarily or otherwise. A few examples:
Their efforts have been successful. Here's how the sweep of preemption bills has played out nationwide: (Click on each state for more details.)
Preemption Bills: 2011-2013
So how did this rapid spread come about? Known for writing model legislation and then shopping it around the country, ALEC set to work doing just that with Wisconsin's preemption bill soon after it passed in 2011. At a meeting of the group's Labor and Business Regulation subcommittee a few months later, attendees were given a copy (PDF) of the legislation, as well as a map of cities and states with paid sick leave mandates, prepared by the NRA.
The NRA got involved because it considers paid sick leave a threat to its industry, says Saru Jayaraman, codirector of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United: In 2011, the group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to successfully shut down a sick leave measure in Denver. But as morecities have tried to enact rules guaranteeing paid sick leave, bills preempting that possibility state-wide, says Jayaraman, have become the NRA's faster, cheaper alternative.
"I think they've come to the realization that it's not a sustainable model to pour a million dollars into stopping this," Jayaraman says. "So they found another way to do it. It's undemocratic. It's kind of like the Republican party deciding, 'We're not gonna get votes the normal way, so let's not let people vote.'"
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 76 percent of restaurant workers don't get paid sick days. By Jayaraman's estimates and her organization's surveys, it's actually closer to 90 percent—about 9 million people nationwide.
Soon after the 2011 ALEC meeting, one preemption bill passed in Louisiana in 2012, and soon a few more were introduced. In the last six months, though, their momentum has surged: Since February, six more states have passed these laws, while five others have introduced them.
Update (6/27/2013):This morning, the Fort Worth Star-Telegramreported that, according to Joel Burns, who holds Sen. Davis' former Fort Worth City Council seat, Davis was equipped with a catheter during her filibuster. When contacted to confirm, Davis' office responded that the senator "made all necessary preparations."
While obsessively watching state Sen. Wendy Davis' heroic filibuster in the Texas Legislature yesterday, I couldn't help thinking the obvious: 13 hours without peeing is a long time. Was she just holding it? Or wearing some sort of, er, contraption? (The options on suchthings, by the way, are many.)
For the most part, the logistics on this tend to be something politicians keep mum about. "It's a kind of urological mystery," Joseph Crespino, biographer of legendary filibusterer Strom Thurmond, told the BBC last year.
But over time, filibustering heavyweights have tried some pretty incredible tactics to avoid defeat by bathroom—and have gone on to share their tales. A few of them below:
1.Steam baths and a surreptitious urine bucket: Thurmond, who completed the longest federal filibuster in US history (24 hours, 18 minutes) in 1957, took the minimalist route with a bucket. His aides set it up in the cloakroom so that Thurmond could pee while keeping one foot on the Senate floor.
But even before that, Thurmond took daily steam baths to prepare for the epic speech, to make it easier for his body to absorb, rather than expel, fluid.
Thurmond also got lucky: After speaking for about three hours, Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater asked him to temporarily yield the floor for an insertion in the Congressional Record. This gave Thurmond a few precious minutes to make his one and only trip to the restroom.
2. When without a bathroom, bring the bathroom to you! In 2001, then St. Louis Alderwoman Irene Smith staged a filibuster during a City Hall debate to protest a ward redistricting plan that she believed would have hurt the city's black communities. Nature called, but rather than yielding the floor and ending her filibuster, Smith's aides came down and surrounded her with a sheet, quilt, and tablecloth while she relieved herself in a trash can. Here's video of the incident:
Later, she was charged with violating the city's public urination prohibition, but was never convicted: Given the sheets, there wasn't any hard proof of the act.
3. Astronaut bags and a light diet: In 1977, then-Texas Sen. Bill Meier staged a 43-hour filibuster over a bill he believed to be an attack on the state's open records laws. He wore an "astronaut bag" on the Senate floor, and when it filled up, then Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby would arrange to take a message from the House, while Meier ran to the women's restroom (closest to his desk) to empty the bag. On each trip, two sergeants-at-arms came with him to ensure he never sat down. Meier also said he ate lightly in the days preceding his filibuster. Today, Meier is a judge on the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth.
4. Catheters: After his filibuster protesting the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, Rand Paul told Glenn Beck that he'd considered fitting himself with a catheter for the speech, but decided against it, even though he'd tried them before.
5. Adult diapers: Lots of jokes and rumors have flown around about various filibustering politicians pulling a Lisa Nowak and using these, though we haven't been able to find any confirmed instances.
Update (7/1/2013): Gideon's Army, a film about public defenders in the south, premieres tonight on HBO. In the video below, you can see clips from the film, and also watch its director, Dawn Porter, talk further about the US public defense system.
Watch: Public defenders and legal advocates discuss ways to solve the nation's public defense crisis, 50 years after the Gideon decision:
In January 1962, a man sitting in a Florida prison cell scrawled a note to the United States Supreme Court. He'd been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn't pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon's penciled message eventually led to the high court's historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can't afford one.
Fifty years after the ruling, many legal advocatescontend that the justice system is still failing the poor. Last week, the Supreme Court disappointed reformers when it refused to rule on a case involving a Louisiana man serving a life sentence after waiting five years in jail while the state came up with money to pay his court-appointed lawyer. (The federal system for defending the poor is relatively well resourced, though it's also struggling with budget cuts. Several of the attorneys defending Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev face up to three weeks of sequester-mandated furloughs later this year.)
Just how bad is the state of public defense in America? The charts below detail some of the biggest challenges plaguing the system.
The mother of both Boston bombing suspects claimed today that the men drew the attention of law enforcement long before the bombings. Zubeidat Tsarnaeva told Russia Todaythis morning that her sons told her the FBI was monitoring them for three to five years, ever since Tamerlan had grown more interested in Islam. She also said the bureau had warned her about her son's use of extremist websites:
FBI was scared of my eldest son. They always told me that he is a leader. He talks about Islam a lot. They were talking to my son. They called me officially and they told me that my son is an excellent boy and they have no problem with him. At the same time, they were telling that he is getting information in really extreme... sites, so they were very, very afraid of him.
Tsarnaeva's defense of her son aside, the possibility of FBI surveillance in this case is not outlandish: As Mother Jones' 2011 investigation, Terrorists for the FBI, showed, the bureau—which has made counterterrorism its top priority since 9/11—has assembled a roster of some 15,000 domestic informants, many tasked with keeping tabs on Muslim communities.
On Friday afternoon, the FBI admitted they had in fact interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev two years ago and found nothing incriminating, CBS news reports. The agency conducted the interview at the request of a so-far unnamed foreign government, CBS says, to see if the elder Tsarnaev had any extremist ties—but their search turned up none.