February 2012 | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

February 2012

Watch "Slavery By Another Name" Q&A

Slavery by Another Name, the true story of how black Americans were re-enslaved after Reconstruction under the guise of prison labor, premiered Monday on PBS.

On Feb 2, the Sidney Hillman Foundation sponsored a preview of SBAN followed by a lively panel discussion with director/producer Sam Pollard, source book author Douglas A. Blackmon, and SEIU executive vice president Gerry Hudson. The full video of the event is available on the Sidney Hillman YouTube Channel, broken down into clips for your watching and sharing convenience. In this clip, producer/director Sam Pollard explains how he got involved in the SBAN project:


Susan Greene Wins February Sidney for Outstanding Reporting on Solitary Confinement

Susan Greene is the winner of the February Sidney Award for The Gray Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement, a story and documentary video about the agony of solitary confinement in American prisons, published in the Dart Society Reports.

Some 80,000 prisoners are housed in isolation on any given day in U.S. prisons, typically in cells no bigger than a pair of queen-sized mattresses.

Solitary confinement was invented by Quaker prison reformers in the 1800s. They hoped that keeping prisoners in strict isolation would encourage them to reflect and repent. However, it rapidly became clear that instead of spurring reform, solitary confinement was literally driving inmates insane. “[Solitary confinement] devours the victims incessantly and unmercifully,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of a New York prison in the 1820s. “It does not reform, it kills.”The practice was banned as inhumane by the late 1880s, only to reappear in 1983 as a response to prison violence.

Over the course of years of reporting, Greene was able to piece together the lives of some of the most isolated people in the world. She corresponded with prisoners in solitary and interviewed others after they were released. She found that survivors of solitary confinement are ill-equipped to rejoin society after prolonged isolation.

Read my interview with Susan Greene at The Backstory.

The Sidney Award is given once a month in recognition of an outstanding work of socially conscious journalism.


Crime Wave: Bosses Stealing Millions from U.S. Workers

American workers are being robbed of millions of dollars in hard-earned wages each year, Kathy Mullady reports for Equal Voice News:

Workers nationwide are losing millions of dollars each week to wage theft as their employers, some unscrupulous, others scrambling to keep their businesses afloat, fail to pay the mandated minimum wage or overtime wages, or, in some cases, don’t pay their employees at all.

Wage theft is far more common than was known just a few years ago, according to a new report from the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University.

“Employers are under a tight squeeze and looking for different ways to save money. Some are using wage theft as a business model to cut costs,” said Cynthia Hernandez, co-author of the report.

The research institute’s study comes just as Florida is debating how to handle wage theft allegations. The state hasn’t had a labor department since former Gov. Jeb Bush dismantled the department a decade ago.

The U.S. Department of Labor has recovered an astonishing $28 million in stolen wages in Florida alone over the past two-and-a-half years, but that’s surely just a fraction of the total amount stolen in Florida alone. DOL can only enforce violations of federal law, and Florida has no state enforcement for wage theft. A recent study by the the National Employment Law Project estimated that workers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago are robbed of $56 million per week.

Read the rest at Facing South.

[Photo credit: Nisha A, Creative Commons.]

#Sidney's Picks: Panic Buttons, Dr. Stephen Levin RIP, Caterpillar vs. Canucks


  • Workers at New York City’s biggest hotels will get panic buttons, along with raises and fully paid health coverage, as part of their new long term contract, Patrick McGeehan reports for the New York Times.
  • TWU Local 100 mourns Dr. Stephen Levin (1942-2012), a champion of workers’ health and safety: “Dr. Levin devoted his life to worker health and safety and to the prevention of work-related illnesses, injuries and deaths. Dr. Levin may have known more about the health status of transit workers than anyone else. He was our “primary care doctor” for work-related health problems for decades. When we met with Steve it was like meeting with another worker, but a worker who not only knew our problems, but also knew the difficulty of getting our employer, New York City Transit/MTA, to take our work-related health problems seriously.”
  • The highly profitable Caterpillar corporation is closing its 62-year-old locomotive plant in Ontario, Canada and relocating to newly right-to-work state of Indiana, throwing nearly 500 members of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) out of work, Mike Elk reports for Working In These Times. The auto workers are considering occupying the plant.

[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]

Just Do It: Victory for Nike Workers in Indonesia

Nike workers in Indonesia have won nearly a million dollars in back wages with the help of an NGO called Team Sweat. The Jakarta Post profiles Jim Keady, the 40-year-old American who runs the non-profit.

Keady was a semi-pro soccer player studying theology at New York Univeristy when his school started negotiating a $3.5 million sponsorship agreement with Nike:

Believing that Nike’s corporate practices were far from his Catholic religious ideals, he lobbied school officials to reject the contract until he was eventually given an ultimatum: “Wear Nike and drop the issue or get out.”

He said he became the first athlete in the world to say no to Nike because of the sweatshop issue.

Team Sweat is currently grappling with the issue of jam molor or forced overtime. Keady is working on a book and a script for documentary about his work in Indonesia.

[Photo credit: edtrigger, Creative Commons.]


Ex-Komen VP Opposed Voting Rights

Karen Handel resigned as a vice president of the Susan G. Komen Foundation amid allegations that she urged the organization to cut off breast health grants to Planned Parenthood. When the news broke that Planned Parenthood had been defunded, suspicion centered on Handel because she had recently campaigned on a pledge to defund Planned Parenthood during her unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in Georgia.

Handel’s links to the anti-choice movement have been well-reported, but her opposition to voting rights remains obscure. Chris Kromm of Facing South has the story:

Who is Karen Handel? A Republican from Maryland, Handel got her start in politics as deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle’s wife, Marilyn. But her rise to national prominence began in 2006, when she became the first elected Republican secretary of state in Georgia.

Handel’s aggressive changes to Georgia’s election systems provoked a quick backlash. She became a leading figure in the push for a restrictive voter ID bill, which was enmeshed in litigation for more than three years over charges that it disenfranchised African-Americans, Latinos, students and the elderly.

Even more controversially, in 2007 Handel engineered a system to “purge” thousands of Georgia voters who didn’t match Social Security Administration and other government data. The purge system, which a federal panel later ruled had been wrongfully implemented without approval from the Justice Department, identifed more than 200,000 “no match” voters. […]

Read the rest at Facing South.

[Photo credit: Jon Scheiber, Creative Commons.]

Golden Retriever Gives Boy With FAS a New Lease on Life

The New York Times Magazine has a feature about how a service dog transformed the life of a boy with severe fetal alcohol syndrome. Chancer the golden retriever started life as an ordinary pet, that is, before his adoptive family got tired of him. Chancer got a fresh start as a service animal for a 13-year-old boy named Iyal who suffers from debilitating rages and tantrums.

Chancer is trained to disrupt tantrums by distracting Iyal before his rages get out of control.

Since Chancer came into his life, Iyal has made remarkable cognitive and emotional progress:


The science behind Iyal’s cognitive leaps is still in its infancy. Alan M. Beck, the director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is among those intrigued by it. “There is a real bond between children and animals,” he told me. “The younger the child, the greater the suspension of disbelief about what an animal understands or doesn’t understand.” According to Beck, more than 70 percent of children confide in their dogs, and 48 percent of adults do. “The absolutely nonjudgmental responses from animals are especially important to children,” he says. “If your child with F.A.S.D. starts to misbehave, your face may show disapproval, but the dog doesn’t show disapproval. The performance anxiety this child may feel all the time is absent when he’s with his dog. Suddenly he’s relaxed, he’s with a peer who doesn’t criticize him.”

The hypothesis is that the sudden drop in Iyal’s anxiety level — the sudden decrease in his hypervigilance, the lowering of his cortisol level and the disarming of the fight-flight physiology — frees up cognitive energy that he can use for thought and speech. “A child with a disability feels freer not to suppress his ideas and behaviors when he’s with his dog,” Beck says. “There’s a level of trust and confidentiality he has with no one else. And it’s a good choice: the dog is his true confidant and friend.”


[Photo credit: Rick Leche, Creative Commons.]

Sneak Preview of "Slavery By Another Name," Coming Soon to PBS

Last night, the Sidney Hillman Foundation kicked off Black History Month with an exclusive preview of the documentary Slavery By Another Name, which premieres Feb 13 on PBS. The film’s Hillman Award-winning director, Sam Pollard, and the source book’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Douglas Blackmon, joined SEIU executive vice president Gerry Hudson for a spirited panel discussion and audience Q&A at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Slavery By Another Name debunks the cherished assumption that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, as Blackmon and Pollack show, the enslavement of black Southerners persisted under the guise of convict labor from the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of World War II. This new kind of slavery wasn’t a necessarily a life sentence, and it didn’t pass from generation to generation, but it was every bit as brutal and arbitrary as the old system.

The polite term for the new slavery was “convict leasing.” Southern states criminalized the slightest infractions by black people, real or imagined. It was a crime to be unemployed, or to be employed and look for a better job without permission. Unauthorized black job-seekers could be sent back to their employers to work off their “debt” as convict laborers. Walking along the railroad tracks or speaking loudly in the presence of white women could also condemn a black person to a term of hard labor. 

Strictly speaking, debt peonage was against the law. So, a farmer couldn’t force a black person to work to pay off a private debt; if he did, the U.S. Department of Justice might step in. However, the state could force black people to work to pay off fines levied against them; and the state could sell that labor to factories and farms. The Justice Department couldn’t do anything about that. A loophole in the 13th Amendment abolished slavery except as a sentence for a crime.

Director/producer Sam Pollock added that the convict lease system was comforting to white Southerner because it allowed them feel like the South hadn’t lost the Civil War after all. Defeat did nothing to extinguish the white ruling class’s sense of entitlement to indentured black labor.

Employers paid the state to “lease” the prisoners. As under slavery, the hardiest-looking men fetched the highest prices. About 95% of the people in the convict labor system were black men between the ages of 14 and 30, because they were the most desirable laborers. Some women were also forced to work as laundresses and cooks. Blackmon’s resesarch shows how arrest rates rose to meet the demand for labor.

When black and white coal miners joined forces under the banner of the United Mineworkers in 1908, the mine owners used convict labor to help break the strike.

“Money explains most things,” said Blackmon, a longtime Wall Street Journal reporter. He later observed that a “potentially diabolical” conflict of interest arises when the people responsible for making arrests stand to profit by arresting more people.

Blackmon dates the technical end of slavery to 1943, when the first prosecution of de facto slave owners took place. FDR had decided that the plight of blacks in the South was too good a propaganda tool to hand to the Japanese and empowered his Attorney General to go after the neo-slavers. Whites were occaisionally prosecuted for enslaving blacks into the late sixties.

Today, the private prison industry stands to benefit from harsh laws and strict enforcement and lobbies accordingly. At least today the state doesn’t have the same direct profit motive to lock up more people as it did under the convict lease system. However, the criminal law was the lynchpin of the convict lease system. The state decided what was a crime and the elites who profited from prison labor had a vested interest in criminalizing black people to ensure a steady supply of convict labor. The energetic private prison lobby fosters a similar dynamic today, although today’s private prisons aren’t as powerful as the mining and farming barons of the old South during the era of neo-slavery. The explicit legal double standard for whites and blacks is gone, but the war on drugs has the effect of putting disproportionate numbers of black Americans behind bars.

As Douglas Blackmon pointed out, the convict lease system was how our society got used to “locking up large numbers of similar-looking people.”

[Photo: Gerry Hudson, Douglas Blackmon, and Sam Pollard. By Lindsay Beyerstein. More photos of last night’s screening, here.]

Arrested 'Gasland' Journalist Speaks Out

Academy Award-nominated documentary film director Josh Fox was arrested Wednesday as he tried to film a congressional hearing on a new EPA draft report linking hydrofraking chemicals to groundwater contamination of Wyoming. Fox was gathering footage for a follow-up to his acclaimed 2010 fraking documentary, Gasland

Fox spoke to Democracy Now! about what happened in the Rayburn building yesterday. He said House Republicans had him arrested after he refused to stop filming at a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Science, Space, and Technology. In theory, the hearing was open to the media, but only to credentialed members of the press. Fox was filming for HBO, but he didn’t have the right credential. An ABC camera crew was also turned away, ostensibly because they hadn’t arranged in advance to film the hearing.

The ranking Democrat on the committee urged chairman Andy Harris (R-MD) to postpone the hearing for a week so that Fox could attend. Harris refused.

Why were the Republicans so keen to keep the press out of the hearing? “Well, virtually every Republican candidate right now is out for elimination of the EPA, which shows the deep, deep influence of oil and gas on Congress and on the Republican Party,” Fox told host Amy Goodman. Pro-fraking Republicans are trying to sideline the the strict well-funded EPA in order to give more power to permissive state-level regulators, Fox explained.

[Photo: Filmmaker Josh Fox. By Public Herald, Creative Commons.]

'Gasland' Journalist Arrested for Filming in Congress

Award-winning documentarian Josh Fox was arrested by Capitol Hill police this morning by order of the House Republicans, Zach Carter reports for the Huffington Post:

WASHINGTON – In a stunning break with First Amendment policy on Capitol Hill, House Republicans directed Capitol Hill police to detain a highly regarded documentary crew that was attempting to film a Wednesday hearing on a controversial natural gas procurement practice. Republicans also denied the entrance of a credentialed ABC News news team that was attempting to film the event.

Josh Fox, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Gasland” was taken into custody by Capitol Hill police this morning, along with his crew, after Republicans objected to their presence, according to Democratic sources present at the hearing. The meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment had been taking place in room 2318 of the Rayburn building. Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, is currently seeking to secure a procedural maneuver that would allow the detained film crew to re-enter the hearing, which is open to the public. Miller’s motion is not expected to succeed.

Fox was nominated for an Oscar for Gasland, a 2010 documentary about the environmental impact of hydrofraking for natural gas.

[Photo: darthpedrius, Creative Commons.]