2011 - %3, April

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [13]

| Sat Apr. 30, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

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Mother Sues Anti-Choice Groups Behind Billboards

| Fri Apr. 29, 2011 7:56 PM EDT

On Tuesday, New Jersey mother Trisha Fraser announced she's suing anti-choice groups that used images of her 6-year-old daughter for a race-baiting ad campaign. "The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb" proclaimed billboards in New York and Florida that featured a then-4-year-old Anissa Fraser. Controversy over the ad erupted late last year when a billboard first went up near Manhattan's high-traffic Holland Tunnel. The ad was by the Holland Tunnel for four months before it was taken down following complaints by city officials, Al Sharpton, and Trisha Fraser. But in February 2011, the billboard went up again, this time near a busy intersection in Jacksonville, Florida.

The ad with the the larger-than-life photo of Fraser was paid for by Majella Cares aka Heroic Media and its affiliate Life Always, both Texas organizations dedicated to discouraging reproductive freedom. The agencies use large ads to drive site traffic and spread their message, like many other organizations do. But it's the content of the ad that's making it so controversial. "I would never endorse something like that," Fraser told the Associated Press. "Especially with my child's image." Fraser's lawsuit against both companies claims that her daughter’s picture was used for "defamatory, unauthorized, and offensive" purposes.

The picture of Fraser's daughter seen on the billboards comes from ImageSource, a stock image broker, and its parent company, Getty Images. To purchase stock photos from Getty Images, advertisers like Heroic Media are required to sign an agreement stating the photos won’t be used "in connection with a subject that would be unflattering or unduly controversial to a reasonable person." The agreement also says the images can't be used in a defamatory way. If the image is used for something controversial, like anti-choice messages directed toward black women, advertisers are required to get clearance from the model or indicate somewhere on the billboard that the model is not affiliated with the message. According to Fraser's complaint, this didn't happen.

"The billboard was defamatory of Anissa and/or her mother in that it gave the false suggestion, impression, and implication that they approved of the racist and offensive message contained therein," reads Fraser's claim. Fraser's lawyer Andrew Celli says "the issue isn't [Life Always and Heroic Media's] position on abortion. It's the statement that children of color are at risk because African-American women are exercising their right. That's the racist part, that African American women are dangerous to their children."

Fraser’s complaint says Anissa has booked fewer modeling jobs as a result of her image being associated with the campaign. Fraser was also forced to discuss reproductive choice issues with her six-year-old daughter to explain the attention she received from the media and people who know her family. Mother Jones contacted Life Always, a group led by tea party darling and FOX Nation commentator Stephen Broden. Here's a portion of its statement:

Life Always did not violate its contractual obligations but rather properly exercised its constitutional rights to engage in free speech on a matter of significant public interest. Life Always will continue placing advertisements across the country to educate and raise public awareness of confrontational truths about abortion. The billboard, which read, "The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb," was erected to draw attention to the New York City Health and Mental Services statistics report that in 2009, 60% of African American babies in New York City never made it out of the womb.

For the record, about 47 percent (not 60 percent) of black women in New York City reported abortions in 2009. Mother Jones has covered the "abortion equals black genocide" debate before. At its core, the rhetoric is less about care for black people's well-being, and more about controlling all women's reproductive choices, regardless of race.

Education Roundup: Handcuffing First Graders?

| Wed Apr. 27, 2011 3:34 PM EDT
  • After a special education first grade student became upset that his Easter egg painting didn't work out, police restrained him using metal handcuffs, Huffington Post reports. The New York Police Department says the 7-year-old boy was "spitting, cursing and acting in a threatening manner." The boy's mother has retained a lawyer. Handcuffing first graders is apparently a trend. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of a Louisiana first grader who was handcuffed by an armed security guard at school. And in Florida, a first grader was handcuffed last year and then committed to an adult mental health facility by her school without her parent's knowledge.
  • Tanya McDowell, a Connecticut homeless woman, may face up to 20 years in prison and pay up to $15,000 in fines for enrolling her son in kindergarten using her friend's address. Like Kelly Williams-Bolar, the Ohio mom who was jailed for using her father's address to send her kids to a better-performing school, McDowell is black, sparking questions of race and poverty's role in these prosecutions. The NAACP has appointed a lawyer to McDowell's case.
  •  Ironically, about 400 Baltimore parents faced possible jail time this school year because their kids are repeatedly absent from school, The Baltimore Sun reports. Critics, on the other hand, argue courts are not the way to improve student attendence.
  • Out of 2 million undocumented minors in the US, only an estimated 20 percent enroll in college. Mother Jones reporter Kristina Rizga tells one undocumented teen's harrowing tale of defying deportation to make it to college.
  • Definitely biased is SB 49, the Tennessee bill banning kindergarten through eighth-grade teachers from talking about homosexuality in their classrooms because if teachers talked about gay sex, it would suddenly exist? To be clear, Tennessee teachers can teach human sexuality if the bill passes; just hetero human sexuality. 
  • Which outspoken public education reformers never taught in a public school in their life? In Education Week's latest forum, teachers comment on the negative portrayal of educators in the media and dish out on some education reformer bios.
  • No Child Left Behind has yet to be revised. But in 2009, Arne Duncan granted 315 waivers so schools and districts to circumvent some NCLB requirements.

Inflating Test Scores in Los Angeles?

| Wed Apr. 27, 2011 1:07 PM EDT

Natalie* is a smart and witty sophomore at Mission High in San Francisco. Despite her struggles with ulcers and depression, she tries to make it to school on time every day. But since Natalie commutes across town, taking two buses in the process, some days she is late for her 8:10 a.m. history class. Last time she walked into class 10 minutes late, her teacher Ms. Bowman nodded and smiled at her without interrupting the lecture.

If Natalie went to public school in Los Angeles, though, she might have been stopped by a police officer at the bus stop or near the school entrance. The police officer would question her about her tardiness, might search her bag, and would write up a ticket for $240. That's because until recently, the Los Angeles city and school police would do "sweeps" near schools and give out tickets to students who were late or not in class. The San Fernando Valley Sun reports that student Gustavo Fernandez was slapped with five truancy tickets from the LAPD during his senior year at Los Angles High School, and he now owes the city close to $2,000 in fines. Because of this debt, he can't get a driver's license. Los Angeles police issued more than 47,000 citations for high school students who are not in class from 2004 to 2009, according to the Los Angeles Times. Manuel Criollo, the lead organizer against this trend with the Labor and Strategy Community Center, says that increasing number of such citations are going to students who are actually on their way to school, but are running late for often legitimate reasons. Criollo and other advocates also noted that these tickets were issued primarily to students of color: 62 percent were issued to Latino students, 20 percent to Afrian-American and only 7 percent to white students.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

| Mon Apr. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Morgan Spurlock downed a month of McDonald's for our fast-food sins in his notorious 2004 film Super Size Me. Now he's aiming to show us how ad-soaked our lives have become by financing an entire doc about the ubiquity of product placement using—what else?—product placement. The title is no joke; Spurlock pitches POM the naming rights on camera. From then on, he is shown imbibing only the pomegranate beverage, while other drink brands are visibly blurred out. He flies exclusively on JetBlue, wears Merrell shoes (giving a pair to Ralph Nader), and drives Mini Coopers. His contracts obligate him to interview anti-commercialization advocate Susan Linn at a Sheetz gas station, and to stay at a Hyatt when he travels to São Paolo to cover the city's outdoor ad ban.

While amusing as a meta-commercial packaged as an inquiry into artistic integrity, the film inevitably feels like a stunt. The slyest touch may be that amid the hawking and well-worn revelations about advertising, the biggest sell is for the amiable Spurlock as the genre's reigning goofball tour guide. All that's missing is the obligatory survey question: Are you more or less likely to purchase this brand in the future?

This review appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Mother Jones.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [12]

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 7:09 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

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Vancouver’s Bold War on Drugs

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 6:46 PM EDT

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

For many years Vancouver has had a serious heroin addiction. So it's heartening to see that one of the city's boldest strategies for confronting the problem, launched eight years ago, is continuing to meet with serious success: Vancouver's government-backed "supervised injection site"—the first of its kind in North America—has helped reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city by 35 percent, according to a new scientific report detailed in the Vancouver Sun.

The news is gratifying for me personally, having invested deeply in the issue with a reporting project I did for Salon beginning in 2003. (My initial story from Vancouver's notorious Downtown Eastside—a neighborhood much changed these days, particularly since the 2010 Winter Games—is linked above.) Reporting another piece in 2006, one of the most striking things I found was that early results from Insite, as it's called, had already converted some hardcore conservatives. Then city councilor George Chow—who had campaigned vigorously against the injection site when running for office—told me in fall 2006 that conservatives' ideological fears had been misguided. They had declared that a government-sponsored facility for helping drug users shoot up would only breed more chaos.

Peep Show: The Best and Worst Peeps Art on Etsy (Photos)

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 1:40 PM EDT

I love a good Peep. Besides the Hunky Jesus Contest, the Peeps invasion of every drugstore and bodega in San Francisco is one of my favorite things about Easter. But why limit your Peeps intake to Easter-time? As these crafty folks on Etsy show, it's easy to get your Peeps fix year-round. My top 5 favorite Peeps-related crafts are below. And below the jump, the worst Peeps crafts found on Etsy. Prepare yourself.

1) Love Peeps AND Star Wars? Look no further! I can only speculate as to what a peeping Darth Vader would sound like. But really, can anything beat Boba Fett in knitted Peep form? I think we both know the answer to that one.

2) This woolly chick is not only very cute, she's well-proportioned for a Peep. I'd recommend it for a child if it wasn't a choking hazard.

3) While there are a number of cute, felted Peeps dolls on Etsy, these are the only ones I've seen that come in "screaming" and "regular."

4) Mama and baby Peeps. These are just too sweet. I love how the mothers seem so pleased to have three babies strapped to them with a piece of felt. We should all be so lucky.

5) Peeps scarf. You actually can't buy this scarf, just the pattern. Still, it's crafty, fun, and Peeptastic, even if they do kind of look like roadkill on the pavement.

Okay, those are the ones I liked. Below, my pick of the worst. And believe me, there was a lot to choose from.

1) I like the idea of a Peeps wreath. But for $20? And some of the Peeps are busted. This is surely the fastest shortcut to an epic ant infestation.

2) This is the equivalent of a scary clown painting, but with Peeps. I can feel them following me with their beady little asymmetrical eyes.

3) Peeps candle. Peeps are made out of marshmallow, right? So to show a group of them bathing in marshmallow stew is bit like me sitting in a hot tub full of blood. As the candle burns, I can only imagine the wax Peeps slowly melt into a vat of their own innards. Keep the kids away from this one.

4) Love on Peepback Mountain. This artist has combined a great romance movie, Brokeback Mountain, with Peeps. It is quite obviously shot in someone's backyard, but I kind of love that they've stolen some little girl's toys as props. I wonder how much of the $20 sale she'll get?

5) Unzip this artist's heart, and inside you will find a dirty, battered, Peep.

What We Didn't Know About Internet Controls

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 5:20 PM EDT

A new Freedom House report has uncovered increased threats to internet freedom worldwide. It's no news that politically restrained countries like China, Iran, and Burma are among the worst offenders, but as the report details, similar practices are fast spreading. Some surprising findings:

  • Even relatively democratic countries—notably Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—are seeing increased threats to internet freedom, such as "legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance." In many cases, censors target content related to illegal gambling, child pornography, or inciting violence, but censorship incidents are also politically motivated. South Korea, for example, blocked access to some 65 websites related to North Korea, including the official North Korean Twitter account launched in August 2010.
  • Arrests of online activists are on the rise. In 23 of the 37 countries assessed, a blogger or other internet user was arrested for content posted online. Authorities in Vietnam sentenced four activists to a total of 33 years in prison for posting human rights violations and pro-democracy views on the internet.
  • In all the countries studied, governments made decisions about restricting internet content arbitrarily and without transparency. Even in democratically governed countries, censorship decisions are made without public discussion, and appealing the decisions "may be onerous, little known, or nonexistent."
  • If you thought Egypt's internet shutdown in January was bad...in recent years 12 of the 37 countries were known to exploit their control over telecom infrastructure to restrict access to politically relevant information.
  • More websites, activists, and dissidents are self-censoring. China is known for pressuring websites to censor their own content, an issue that led Google to move its search engine operations off the mainland to Hong Kong in early 2010. Since 2007 Thailand, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Venezuela have issued new laws or directives that put the onus of politically unfavorable comments on the media outlet. At least one editor in Thailand, for example, is facing criminal charges over comments that criticized the monarchy.

All in all, what we're seeing is "a very worrisome trend," with the state of internet freedom around the world "on the decline," and cyber attacks "against regime critics intensifying," said the report's co-editor Sanja Kelly on Monday at a panel hosted by the World Affairs Council. Alex Fowler of Mozilla, also on the panel, noted that as we celebrate the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and Google in spurring discussions of protest, "those things are centralizing information about individuals" that create "a lot of new risks."

Electronic Frontier Foundation's International Director Gwen Hinze says a company based in a more free internet country like the US can't really get around censorship rules in countries with tighter controls. She notes that expansions in US laws on wiretapping and invasion of privacy can set a bad precedent for countries around the world.

Fowler, Hinze, and Yahoo!'s Ebele Okobi-Harris add that while internet and telecom companies are bound by the laws of the countries they operate in, there are ways in which they can prevent a bad situation from getting worse: stepping up consumer protection measures by alerting users when their information is requested by authorities.

The Teachers You Loved

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

"I am 47 years old and I still carry, tucked away in my briefcase, the note Mrs. Charlene Snyder wrote in my yearbook when I graduated from high school. 'Please know,' she wrote, 'what a fine person you are and the great ability you possess. A little confidence never hurt anyone.' Whenever I read it, I remember how I felt. Those words gave me wings. I strive to live up to her view of me every single day." —Peyton Taylor, Public Insight Network

As the editor of Mother Jones' Mission High School series, I've developed a new respect for how hard many teachers work to help the kids in their care. I started wondering: What moments do kids and parents remember years later about the teachers they loved or respected? In what ways did these educators change people's lives? Below, teacher tales from Mother Jones' recently launched Public Insight Network (join here to help MoJo reporters with a range of future stories):