Why Doctors Medical Center Can’t Close

Commentary, Melvin Willis

Back in March 2014 while I was visiting my mom at her home she suddenly lost her breath, and couldn’t catch it. Her breathing was so labored she could barely talk. An ambulance came and took her to the nearest public hospital, just 5 minutes from her house—Doctors Medical Center.

The team there quickly went into action and by the time I arrived, she was stabilized. Now, the fate of Doctors Medical Center is undetermined and I keep wondering what if her ambulance drive had been fifteen, or twenty minutes longer? That’s about how long it’d take to get to the next nearest public hospital in Oakland.

Thankfully, my mother’s health is good now, but anything can happen in the future, and until now, she has always been able to rely on Doctors Medical Center when a real emergency came up.

Doctors Medical Center is the only public hospital that serves West County residents; it has 25 emergency room beds and serves 40- 45 thousand people per year, according to California Nurses Association spokesperson and registered nurse (RN) Liz Jacobs. But, the hospital is on the brink of closure. A closure that I, along with other members of the community, is fighting.

Earlier this year, a parcel tax measure to generate funds to go toward keeping the hospital open failed to get the necessary support. Just a couple of weeks ago, the county approved an emergency influx of six-million dollars to keep the hospital open while officials try and figure out how to keep funding it.

I work with a community group called ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment) and we’ve attended several meetings with the Contra Costa County supervisors, as well as health care board meetings to constantly call on our decision makers to do whatever it takes to keep the hospital open. We think it would be catastrophic for everyone in West Contra Costa County if the only public hospital that serves this area closed. In many of the meetings I’ve been to, I’ve heard many community members say, “If the hospital were to close people will die.”

I understand the sentiment, Doctors is my hospital too. Until I got health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, I’d go there when I got really sick or injured. It was comforting to know that I would be treated at Doctors Medical Center.

The most recent proposal is to down size the hospital and keep only the emergency services open. Those who needed to be admitted to a hospital after emergency care would have to be transferred to a different location for inpatient care. But, this proposal is far from popular.

“We need a full hospital and we can not accept stripping Doctor’s down to only an emergency room,” said Mike Parker, a Richmond mayoral candidate.
Others have expressed their personal issues with Doctors as well, from the quality of care to the condition of the building. Despite these problems, the hospital is an important part of the community. It may have its fair share of issues but it is there as a safety net, and to service the health of our community when a real emergency arises.

If the hospital were to close it would be devastating, and the problems we have with it now will be nothing compared to the ones we’d have if Doctors shut down. If someone were to have a heart attack or severe asthma attack, the chances of them surviving a 15 to 20 minute trip to a hospital in Oakland become extremely low.

There continues to be an ongoing effort to save the hospital from closing. Community groups like ACCE, RPA (Richmond Progressive Alliance), REJC (Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition) and the California Nurses Association (CNA) know how important this hospital is and we are all working together to ensure that Doctors stays around for the long term.

On July 1st 2014, there was a rally in front of Doctors medical center with about 150 people against the closure of the hospital or it being downsized to a emergency care only center. “Our union, that is the nurses at Doctors Medical Center believe that the only sustainable solution would be for Contra Costa County to take over Doctors Medical Center and make it part of their medical system,” said Maria Sahagun, a nurse at Doctors and also part of CNA.

Doctors is an important part to many people in the community and for my family too. My mom is in good health now, but anything can happen at any time. I want to be able to know that if my mother’s health becomes compromised again, there is a hospital not to far from where she lives. A full hospital that can take care of all her medical needs and that is close enough for me to visit her. That is what everyone who depends on Doctors deserves.

Teresa Jimenez: Food as Power

by Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Teresa Jimenez, 22, found a surprising way to deal with the stress of high school.

“Honestly, I wasn’t doing so [well],” Teresa explains. “I was cutting a lot of school. There was a lot of pressure to be a certain way and I didn’t feel I could socially relate to that. I feel that the teachers just saw me as, ‘Well, she is cutting class and she may not be that bright.’”

TereJA daughter of parents who had migrated from Mexico to the United States in search of the American dream, Teresa says she had trouble finding something she was passionate about.

Then her teacher, Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl, invited her to be part of the AP classes he was teaching.

“At that moment,” says Teresa, “I thought, ‘You think I am that smart to be in those classes?’ He believed in me.”

He also encouraged her to start working in the Richmond High School garden.

Teresa found the garden to be a sanctuary for her — a space that was different from the pressure of the high school hallways. She felt a sense of accomplishment whenever she completed a physical task in the garden. She had found a way to let go of stress.

Hands“Whenever I am experiencing stress, I need to let it out in a physical form. What better way than to do gardening instead of doing something negative with all that energy we carry around sometimes?”

In Mexico, Teresa’s family had owned their own livestock and grown their own produce. Fresh fruits, vegetables and meats had been a constant in her home.

But when they moved to the United States, they started taking on American eating habits. They did what other American families deemed normal: buy groceries at a store.

“I was very disconnected [from the land] in the moment we migrated over here. There wasn’t so much gardening and growing your own foods here,” recalls Teresa.

When she started gardening and learning about healthy eating at school, Teresa tried to apply the lessons at home.

But it wasn’t easy.

“My parents were advocates for eating healthy but only in their perception of what healthy was. A lot of it was processed foods and heavy on the meats,” says Teresa.

So she took baby steps, introducing her family to collard greens and other green vegetables. While the changes were subtle, she knew the change in diet would reap benefits, particularly in her parents’ health. Both of her parents had high cholesterol and suffered from depression. Teresa researched how changes in diet could improve people’s moods, and began incorporating them into her family’s meals.

TereGardenThat’s when she realized the potential of gardening and growing your own food.

“I’m beginning to see food not just as something to consume but food as power. Food can determine your moods, and how healthy you are going to be,” she says.

“Where is your food coming from? Who controls the food we consume? What about access?” she asks. “We have the power to teach about gardening,” she says, “and even if we plant a seed, that is power already.”

After completing a summer apprentice program, Teresa got a job at Urban Tilth, a non-profit organization in Richmond that cultivates community gardens and small urban farms.

“My parents would rather see me working at a bank than seeing me coming in with my hands dirty,” says Teresa, who explains that her father used to work for years in the fields and didn’t want to see his daughter do the same thing. But, she explains, what she is doing is different kind of farming than what her father did.

Eventually, she says, her parents started to see the benefits she was getting from her work.

She wasn’t just bringing home fresh food. She was taking a leadership role in her community and was launching her goal of going to college to study psychology.

It’s still hard for her to explain what she does to her parents, but Teresa says she knows they support her. Now when she takes her family to visit the gardens, she says, her dad looks over her work and gives her tips on how to grow food efficiently and effectively.

Resident Reactions to the Richmond Housing Authority Investigation

Interviews • Edgardo Cervano-Soto | Photos • David Meza

Editor’s Note: The Richmond City Council convened a special meeting on March 12 to review the results of an independent investigation of  highly publicized accusations of neglect by the Richmond Housing Authority at the city’s public housing complexes. At the meeting, lead inspector Michael Petragallo of Sterling Company Inc.  presented the group’s findings from the five public housing properties that were assessed, including the Hacienda housing project, which was a focal point of the investigation.  The City Council voted for an evacuation of all residents of the Hacienda complex, which will cost the city roughly $500,000.  Richmond Pulse asked residents who attended the meeting to weigh in on the council’s decision.

4Terrence L. Griffiths, 57:

I am a resident at the Hacienda apartments… and I am here to protest the terrible conditions that I have been living in for the last three years. I am interested in seeing the Hacienda torn down and the residents be given vouchers to go to other Section 8 [housing] until something is done about that complete building site. That building has been here since the 1940’s and has all types of problems. The living conditions are so sub-standard, no one would want to live there. My own family won’t even come and visit me because the building is so deplorable, with roaches and rats. I am disabled and I don’t even have access to the elevators. What I would like to see is that all of the residents be moved out of that dinosaur building and [that it] be torn down and rebuilt with quality substance materials [so that we can] start off fresh. Then, as residents, if we’d like to come back into the new Hacienda, I think that should be our privilege.

 

5Mary Elizabeth Samson, 66:

I would hope the City Council would put their personal problems behind them and try to focus on the problems that we are having with our buildings. Personally, my apartment is in good shape — I am one of the lucky ones. I have a neighbor who has lived there (Nevin Plaza) since the 60’s. For the people who have lived there for that long, in order to get their apartment taken care of, painted, new carpet and stuff, they have to move out. If you are 80 something odd years old, you can’t pack and move. So when they told us they were going to be moving some of us and moving us out a few at a time, and refurbishing our apartments, we were ecstatic. We thought that was wonderful. That was sometime last year that they told us that. I don’t bite my tongue — I let the Housing Authority know there is something wrong and it needs to be fixed: “When can you come? When are you going to send somebody out?” And they did. But I’m nice about it; you have to be. My mom always said, “You can get more with honey than with vinegar.”

 

6William Taylor, 63:

What they need to do is get up off their behinds and admit to what they have done: took money and misused it, and that’s appropriating funds. Stop lying to the people that they are going to do something and it takes them ten years. It took five years for them to come out and fix some dangerous electric plugs and sockets in my apartment. I still have leaks and there is dust on the vents. If it’s cold and I turn the heat on, you can see the dust that comes out of the vent — straight into your room and into your lungs.  I have to use my CPAC machine at night for breathing because of all of this.  I cough up dust and stuff out of my lungs.  Before I came up here I had already put in a work order last week. There is only one person doing the work orders and she told me, “Mr. Taylor, we will get to your apartment tomorrow, and that’s a promise.” The person they had sent out to do my electricity blew the whole electrical system out.  So I had to get extension cords and run electricity from outside my apartment to the inside, to use my CPAC machine, and I was out of electricity for two days.

 

7Sybil J. Hill, 68:

We have been living in the same complex, 2400 Nevin Plaza for 8 years but it’s very difficult to sleep. We keep the fan and windows open and then take cough syrup to stay asleep. You can’t really function being a senior citizen. I’ve been coughing and sneezing just going out of my mind in there. I have asthma and bronchitis and it’s really bad for breathing in that place. They had a flood upstairs about two years ago and there is water that ran down my ceiling and down the side of the wall there. That stuff is still there. I have a difficult time with my health in that building.

 

8Sylvia Gray-White:

The City Council wants to try to get to the root of the problem on what’s going on at the Housing Authority. I worked for the Housing Authority for 18 years before I retired. Right before I retired they had a position available for a Housing Authority analyst, which would have been a perfect job for me because I had been working at the Housing Authority for 10 years at the St. John’s Apartments as the administrator there. So in total I had exactly 37 years of experience.  I had worked all those years but I never got a promotion at the Housing Authority… There’ve been so many people who are not experienced, without any Housing Authority experience, and [yet they] are assigned as supervisors. They want to hire their cronies — that’s what they do.

They need to remove these people now. I really believe they are stealing. I saw a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting that shows the person who works in Nevin Plaza, who is supposed to be the manager, has got [paid] $28,000 in overtime. Why? He is supposed to be on call for 24 hours. That’s his job. A lot of stuff is going on that we just don’t know, and they need to really look at the bank account… to see where the money actually goes.

 

3Francis Clam, 59:

This has gone a little bit too far.  I am suing them (RHA) for $556,000. They have asbestos, lead paint, they have mold.  People can’t breathe in the rooms, even the lady from Channel 5 came over and had to get out [of] there and said,“Open up the windows.” They couldn’t breathe, [they were] scared to get caught up in the elevator.

They (the Housing Authority) haven’t even told you they evicted a lady and she committed suicide there (in a complex).

First they should fire Tim Jones and Kathleen Jones and get them out the way. You got to get rid of the manager. If me and you did a job like this, no doubt we would have been fired a long time ago. And you see he is getting $187,000 plus a $31,000 raise. He is making more than the president of the United States. These people are dying; these are human lives… We talking about your life, my life, it could be my grandmother’s life. It’s a lot of money disappearing.

Q&A: George Livingston, Jr. on Black History and the Power of Images

Interview • Chanelle Ignant

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Livingston, Jr., age 61, the son of former Richmond Mayor George Livingston, Sr., grew up in Richmond and achieved wide success as a professional photographer of musicians and celebrities. He took some time to speak with Richmond Pulse about his photography career, the importance of Black History Month, and the value of Richmond’s rich cultural history.

Richmond Pulse: Why is it important to celebrate Black History Month?

George Livingston: Our past is always a vehicle for our future, and as people that have gone through many years of pains and pleasures, it’s always good to reference those [as] support vehicles to your future. It all comes from our struggle to obtain what we’ve obtained. We had to come from somewhere to get here…

[Black History Month] is not only for us, but for other cultures to see us and know of our activities — they will have more respect for us knowing that we have endured so much devastation, so much celebration.

I remember the days [when] we weren’t visible in the media. We would call our neighbors and say, “There’s a negro on TV.” We wanted to see someone that looked like us.

RP: How did that lack of visibility for black people in the media influence your photography career?

GL: One of my ultimate heroes is John H. Johnson (the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines). He would display images in his publications of us doing activities that are to be complimented… Muhammed Ali, Oprah Winfrey, Shirley Chisholm… These are black images of us achieving higher goals. That was so endearing to my photography, because I saw what they did and I wanted to capture those who did the same thing.

The first job I ever had was selling the newspaper door-to-door. I saw our image[s] in the entertainment areas, in the political areas, and… that told me that there are opportunities, if we follow a productive road.

RP: You listed a Jackson 5 appearance as one of your favorite memories growing up in Richmond. What do you remember about that day?

GL: They came to a department store. I was 17 and working as a clerk. There were screaming girls, and they didn’t have any security. I was working and they said, “Hey, the Jackson 5 are here. We need you and about ten other guys to walk around them and escort them to the autograph area.”

So we escorted them there and they signed the autographs… About two years later I met a young lady, whom I started dating. And she was one of those screaming girls. She is now my wife of thirty years.

RP: What are some common misconceptions about Richmond?

GL: I wish that the city’s image was more complimentary than what the news media gives it. A lot of times when you hear something about Richmond you’ll hear something negative. We need to stress this for our up-and-coming citizens — that Richmond does have a positive history.

RP: What advice would you offer the next generation of photographers and storytellers?

GL: Pursue positive things and absorb as much knowledge as you can. There are going to be circumstances and challenges that cross your path, but you have to keep on striving.

 

This is part of a series of Richmond Pulse stories for Black History Month looking back on the moments and people that helped define the African American experience.

FACTS ON ETHNIC ELDERS: Little Help for Prisoners Released After Decades

News Feature, Paul Kleyman | New America Media

After devoting over 20 years as a prison social worker, Fordham University researcher Tina Maschi, PhD, declared, “There’s something wrong with society when in some ways staying in prison is better than getting out. The people who are older have a much greater struggle, because they have special needs that a younger population doesn’t.”

Current efforts to release prisoners from the nation’s overcrowded and increasingly costly prisons, such as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s new initiative to let out more nonviolent federal inmates, barely touch on the needs of older inmates, which Maschi and other researchers say will be more likely to be paroled because of their high health care costs and low recidivism rates.

Yet, even the 15 states that developed early-release programs for senior prisoners, according to a 2010report by the Vera Institute of Justice, need to “implement effective reentry programs and supervision plans for elderly people.”

America’s escalation of harsh sentencing and probation policies since the 1970s, such as three-strikes convictions and mandatory sentencing laws, swelled the United States prison population to 2.4 million, the highest incarceration level in the world.

Some End Up Homeless

One result of long-sentencing policies, said Maschi, coauthor of the forthcoming book chapter, The Crisis of Aging People in Prison (Oxford University Press), is that one-in-six state and federal inmates is 50 or older—a level that will increase to one in five by 2030. Nationally, a disproportionate 45 percent of 50-plus prisoners are African American.

Advocates like Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch say medical treatment of elderly prisoners costs from three to nine times higher than for inmates under 65 and can turn prisons into “nursing homes without bars.”

When they are set free, older offenders “can be dropped off on a corner somewhere,” Maschi said in an interview. She explained, “People are getting out, and if they’re eligible for Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare, they don’t have that put in place before they are released.”

Maschi stressed, “Many people end up homeless, and if they end up in shelters, they are at risk of being robbed or [becoming a target] of violence, which is shocking. They say they’d rather go back to prison, because at least you’re getting regular meals and a secure place to sleep — ‘the three hots and a cot.’” Violent as prisons can be, she added, unlike shelters they have officers on hand to keep the worst abuses in check.

She recalled one man she met in her research: “Even though he had a job, he was still homeless two years after being out of prison. He just wasn’t being paid enough, and he didn’t have a major diagnosis that could get him support — substance abuse, mental health or HIV. So he was in this catch-all category, where he couldn’t get services.”

 

Major obstacles to reentering community life, Maschi said, are housing, employment and health care. She cites a 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts study showing that released prisoners typically earn no more than half of what they made before incarceration.

She continues, “If you get out, you’ve barely earned any Social Security, and you have to start from scratch. Some of the reentry organizations will simply say, ‘Go apply for something,’ so they don’t necessarily provide assistance.”

Barriers to Successful Reentry

Beyond practical help, Maschi said both service professionals and aging former prisoners in her research say they need emotional support: “They need a network. That seems key. And family, if they have family.”

“The biggest hurdle that a person faces when he comes home from prison,” said Lawrence O. ‘Larry’ White—“is what they call collateral consequences”—especially psychological stress and community bias against former felons.

White, 79, faced the struggle of reentry after serving a 32-year sentence for robbery in New York State prisons. He explained that released inmates are told they are rehabilitated and need only to improve themselves to start over.

He should know. White has devoted over two decades both in and outside of prisons developing workshops and support groups for prisoners—working through organizations such as the Fortune Society prisoner-support organization and Fordham University’s Be the Evidence Project.

For instance, his “Sentence Planning” courses have helped prisoners refocus their attitudes and energies on serving the shortest sentence possible and preparing to rejoin their communities.

But communities also need to change, he said. Once on the outside prisoners initially believe, “I’ll get a skill or training, I’ll get me a job, get my home in the country, have a dog named Spot, and I’ll move up to the American dream.” They soon learn, though, that a felony conviction frequently locks them in a box—such as the box on applications asking, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

White stated, “Once you check that box, you’re dead–your ability to improve your quality of life by getting a job, new place to stay, even going to college is out the window.”

Eliminating those boxes, as Target stores did in November on its job applications is only one of the crucial reforms experts recommend to remove employment hurdles for former prisoners. (To date 10 states and over 50 cites—most recently San Francisco–have passed laws to “ban the box” on job and housing applications. Employers can consider applicants’ criminal justice records only after deciding to offer them a position.)

Bridges to Community

White, paroled in 2007, considers himself fortunate to have his basic needs covered. Like most long-term inmates, he earned too little while incarcerated to contribute to Social Security. But he qualified for $800 per month from the program in survivor’s benefits due to his late wife’s work history, plus $160 in food stamps.

He lives in a low-income subsidized studio apartment at a fairly new building in Manhattan developed by Fortune Society.

Although he has found regular wages hard to come by–“Nobody wanted to hire me because of my age”– White has been able to supplement his income now and then through fees from leading courses for nonprofits when they can receive grants to work with the prison population.

Medicare and Medicaid cover him, including surgery for cancer that doctors told him was not caught early enough in prison, and recent fainting spells linked to an irregular heartbeat.

Starting this year, about 9 million low-income former inmates are eligible for Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but only in the 26 states and district of Columbia that agreed to expand the health care program.

Overall, Maschi stressed, that when it comes to post-release, “Even if you’re fairly well functioning, there’s nothing for you if you’re older.”

She and colleagues have cited model reintegration efforts, such as the Senior Ex-Offender Program based in a San Francisco Senior Center and England’s Restore 50+ support network. But these are few and far between.

In her book chapter, Maschi and her coauthor note, “Providing a seamless bridge between prison and community is not only a key component of providing individual, family and community cohesion, it may also reduce the $60 billion in reentry costs that will increase as more prisoners age with complex health and social care needs.”

Paul Kleyman wrote this article as part of New America Media’s initiative on elders’ income security, with support from The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Mayor Calls for Independent Investigation to Address Problems of the Richmond Housing Authority

Press Release • February 20, 2014

Richmond, CA. Earlier this week, the news media reflected some serious issues in regard to public housing of the Richmond Housing Authority. I would like to thank the news media for bringing this important matter to the City Council’s attention. We are fortunate to have a free and investigative press bringing focus to such an important issue.

Our City Manager, Bill Lindsay, has provided the City Council with a specific outline of the actions they are taking to address the problems in the Richmond housing developments. In terms of immediate steps, every residential housing unit in all five Richmond Housing Authority properties will be inspected. This process has already begun and will conclude within approximately one week. A full reporting of data will be presented to the City Council and the public. I can assure the residents of Richmond that I will monitor progress on this with a diligence that reflects the seriousness of this matter.

One of the priorities of my office will be to determine exactly what led to these problems and address them. We know there are some very serious conditions that need rectifying and require immediate steps. We don’t know the extent of the problems nor the systemic cause. We need to know why these problems exist and what we need to do to prevent them from happening again. To that end, I am calling for an independent investigation to be conducted by a neutral party that will answer directly to the City Council.

Lastly, the Richmond City Council is in the processing of determining a date in the very near term to hold a special meeting where we will get a full report on this matter and to take appropriate action.

Q&A: Richmond Gospel Legend Dorothy Morrison on Music, Faith and Home

Interview • Malcolm Marshall

EDITOR’S NOTE: Singer Dorothy Combs Morrison Henry, 69, was born in Longview, Texas and raised in Richmond, CA, a city she still frequents. Morrison found fame as the lead vocalist on the 1968 hit song, “Oh Happy Day,” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. The song went on to become a gospel standard and has been re-recorded by many artists. She recently spoke to Richmond Pulse publisher Malcolm Marshall about her life in music, the role of faith, and her love for Richmond.

How did singing and recording “Oh Happy Day” change your life?

When I recorded that song in 1969 with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, it changed my life [in] that I got a chance to sing to the world about God and how he can wash your sins away. I’ve been in church all my life. My parents had their own church and so I’m considered a “PK kid,” a Preacher’s Kid. So I always did sing. My family, we all grew up singing. There are ten of us. So I’ve always wanted to sing about how good God is and I finally got a chance to sing.

Edwin Hawkins asked me if I would like to sing in the choir so that’s how I got in. He told me he had a song for me and the title was, “Oh Happy Day.”  And he said, “Now I need you to get some verses.” So I went home [and] talked to my brothers – Jerry Combs who is now deceased, and my brother Bill Combs – and I asked them for verses … but the verses that they gave me were like preaching. I didn’t want to go there because it was forbidden in the Church of God in Christ for women to preach. They can be called teachers but not preachers. So I didn’t want to do any preaching. On the way [to the recording session], my husband at the time, Mr. Isadore Morrison, said, “Why don’t you just say, ‘When I get to heaven I’m going to jump and shout, be nobody there to put me out.’” So I used that. I wrote that down on my hand and when I got to the recording session, I read it off my hand … We put it together and that’s how “Oh Happy Day” was born on the stage in Berkeley at the old Ephesian Church of God in Christ that was pastored by Tramaine Hawkins’s grandfather, Reverend E.E. Cleveland.

What was it like growing up in a musical family?

Oh, awesome, awesome. I mean, because there was singing, music, going on every day… When we got up in the morning, the music was on. My brothers would turn on the gospel music as we cleaned the house, as we washed dishes, as we mopped the floor, whatever we had to do… The music was on from morning until night… So we were kind of saturated by music, and at that time it was Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones, and Shirley Caesar and Inez Andrews… It (the music) just kind of stuck in our subconscious minds.

Who has had the greatest influence on your life and why?

Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and Bessie Griffin. Those are the three ladies that I would say were my role models, my statues of a lady singing. And I admire how, when they sang, they would give their all. They didn’t hold back … You would feel it. So that’s why I always wanted to sing like Mahalia Jackson and those people. I wanted to sing songs that I could feel and I wouldn’t sing anything I couldn’t feel.

February is Black History Month. Does this month hold some significance for you?

That’s the month that we celebrate the black role models that have went forth before us, that have plowed the ground and made the foundation for different things. I mean, from the streetlights to the peanut butter to the open-heart operations. The singers put it out there, where we can relate to it. Martin Luther King, you know, he tried to share it with people whether they received it or not. We got it … I got it. And so it means a lot to me to celebrate and be reminded of our heritage and the culture that we come from.

What is your connection to the City of Richmond?

When I came from Texas I was five months old… so Richmond is my home. I love Richmond. I’m now in Sacramento but I still come to Richmond as much as I can; every other weekend I’m in Richmond, just because it means a lot to me. As I go through the different streets, it brings back memories of different points in my life. I went through kindergarten there, I went through high school there, I went to college there. My home church is still there. A lot of my family members were buried in Richmond; our burial plot is in Richmond. We’re from Richmond; we represent Richmond. The Combs Family is known in Richmond. We got to sing at everybody’s celebrations [and] home-goings.

What was the most challenging day of your life? What was your best day?

When I was about 21 years of age, we were going across the railroad tracks on 47th Street on the south side … [We were] going across the railroad tracks in my car. We were coming from a rehearsal and all of a sudden – I don’t know what happened, somebody else was driving – we got hit by a train. So that was my most trying day in Richmond. And of course, I said, “Oh Lord help us.” And he did help us you know – I didn’t get a scratch on me, but it was a scary moment for me. I guess the best day was when I heard “Oh Happy Day” on the radio, playing every hour on the hour. And everybody said, “That’s Dorothy Morrison.” That was one of the best days… I have one child; her name is Kimberly Morrison, and when she was born, that also was one of my best days.

What advice do you have for the young people in the community?

The advice I have for them is to find a church and get to know Christ for themselves, because everywhere you go it’s getting rough… If you don’t know Christ, you will kind of be left behind. I advise the young people, “It’s okay to live in Richmond, but be a role model” – be a role model so the other little kids that are coming can see what [the young people] are doing and follow them. Just like I left a legacy in Richmond – I left “Oh Happy Day.” Richmond is proud of that. “Oh Happy Day” came from their land, and when I go overseas — I just got back from Switzerland and I’m getting ready to go to Malaysia — when I sing, I tell people I’m from Richmond, California. I let it be known that’s where I’m from, and I want other young people to [become] role models so that they can also be happy that they came from Richmond. I still love Richmond, even North Richmond. I still love it.

 

This is part of a series of Richmond Pulse stories for Black History Month looking back on the moments and people that helped define the African American experience.

Vigil Honors Memory of Fallen Southeast Asian Community Members

Photo Essay, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Gwai Boonkeut wore a white t-shirt, emblazoned with an image of his deceased daughter, Chan Boonkeut, holding a rose. Her murder, he told a group of community members, was the undoing of his immigrant family, the failure of their American Dream.

If there is anything positive to be taken from Chan’s murder back in 2003, it’s that it galvanized Richmond’s Southeast Asian community to organize against gang violence. From those efforts emerged a group called South East Asian Youth Leaders (SEAYL), which promotes “leadership, community improvement and sharing of cultural practices.”

On Saturday October 12th, SEAYL members and supporters gathered for a candlelight vigil at the public library to honor their ten years of existence and to remember five of their fallen community members. The vigil included speeches by Mayor McLaughlin, the Boonkeut family, Torm Nompraseurt and Councilmember Jael Myrick, as well as a dance tribute by current members of SEAYL, and additional words from SEAYL alumni.

Below are the five community members who were remembered:

Chan Boonkeut was murdered at her front door in October 2003. She was a student of Middle College High School at Contra Costa Community College.

Alan “Ace” Lee was murdered in October 2009, at the age of 19. He was a member of SEAYL.

Mearn Leepom, 56, his wife Bounkeo Viengvilai, 50, and their son Chandee Viengvilai, 28, died in house fire this past July.

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At San Quentin, Reflections on Personal Space

by Pendarvis Harshaw

SAN QUENTIN — As I walk down the hill, beyond the blind curve, “the yard” reveals itself. I walk past groups of men congregated around tables. There are more inmates over on the running track, and about another dozen on the basketball courts. Men play catch on a baseball field in the distance, and three men surround a punching bag in the foreground.

“CDCR” (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) is written in yellow letters on the back of prisoner’s jean jackets. “Tennis Shoes Only – No Boots Allowed” is written on a sign near the tennis courts. The words “Lower Yard Shack” label a small building, smack in the center of the yard, and another sign reads, “No Toilet Paper Allowed On Lower Yard.” I wonder to myself why, without breaking stride.

There is racial division in the yard, with African American men near the basketball courts, and the majority of white inmates near or on the track and on the baseball field. Latino inmates are between the tennis courts and the punching bag. There are also a few Asian inmates, who sit amongst themselves. With so many people on the yard, I wonder: how many are in the cells?

As I walk, I use head nods to acknowledge everyone I make eye contact with — I believe every human being deserves at least that much respect. I also give a nod of respect to the Corrections Officer as I sign one last tablet with my name, the date and military time.

Then I walk into the San Quentin newsroom. I’m here with my journalism teacher from UC Berkeley, William Drummond, and another student. We’re at the headquarters of the San Quentin News, a monthly publication that is printed and distributed to inmates at this prison and which is also available online at SQnews.com. It is one of the only newspapers currently written by and for incarcerated people in the United States.

The newspaper’s offices are nestled away in a portable, which is on the opposite end of the yard from the prison entrance. It has the feel of a traditional newsroom with chairs, desks, and computers. There’s a TV off to one side, and a whole bunch of old copies of the San Quentin News mounted in the rafters of the single-story trailer.

Anywhere from 6 to 10 men of all ages and races come in to write and edit stories. The articles consist of recent happenings in the prison, their personal stories, and their perspectives on life.

One of those writers is a man by the name of Watani Stiner, who is serving time in connection to the murder of Black Panther leaders Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. He once escaped from San Quentin, lived in exile for 20 years and then turned himself in – just so the kids he fathered while in exile could have U.S. citizenship. He writes a column called, “From an OG’s Perspective,” which he uses as a platform to voice his opinion on issues having to do with the generation gap, as he sees it, and to create dialogue between people with conflicting perspectives.

In the June 2013 edition of the San Quentin News, Stiner wrote about the perceived lack of respect between elder and younger inmates. He cited a conversation that he had with a young inmate who claimed that he knew the rules of the game and showed respect to his cellmate, an older gentleman, only to have the older man not reciprocate the respect.

“Some of these OG’s around here don’t deserve no respect!” Stiner quoted the young man as saying, while they spoke in a stairway. “If you don’t give none, you don’t get none,” continued the young man. “That’s the way I think.”

In his analysis of the young man’s experience, Stiner wrote:

“While initially the young man wanted to know ‘who is wrong,’ I don’t believe that’s the real issue. It’s not a question of who is wrong — the young man or his ‘OG’ cellmate — it’s a question of what is wrong. And what’s wrong is two grown men being forced to live together in a cage half the size of a small bedroom closet. Such a condition, by any stretch of the imagination, is certainly not conducive to a harmonious relationship between any human being(s).”

In prison, it’s true that many of life’s basic needs are met: There is shelter and nourishment. There are religious buildings and hospitals. There are places for exercise and places to write. But in California prisons, where overcrowding is the issue of the day (and has been for years), the question that begs to be asked is: How can humanity truly be achieved in prison without the one key thing that’s missing — personal space?

I leave the newsroom, give the CO a head nod and sign the tablet confirming my exit.
I walk past the baseball field, the basketball courts, and the “No Toilet Paper Allowed On Lower Yard” sign. I walk up and around the blind curve, and past the patio where the well maintained garden is. After showing my I.D. to the guard and signing out on two different tablets, I’m back in a world where we value personal space. •

Racist Remarks Put Obscure Elected Official Under Spotlight

News Report,  Malcolm Marshall

Racist statements about African and Asian Americans made by West County Wastewater District director Leonard Battaglia, who was quoted in a news report, have led some Richmond city officials to call for his resignation.

Battaglia, 84, a former Korean War fighter pilot who has served as an elected official for three decades, made the statements to Bay Area News Group reporter Thomas Peele who published them in a recent article about the exorbitant salaries earned by some part-time elected officials.

According to Peele’s article, Battaglia said:

“I flew with black pilots. I’d say ‘break’ (suddenly turn right or left) and they’d hesitate. They’d miss it because they think slower. They have an African-American mentality. They can’t help it. It’s the way God made them… Like in Richmond. It’s a mess.”

The article mentions that Battagglia made “racial slurs” against Asian, but did not go into detail.

Battaglia was also quoted by Peele as saying that he “is not a prejudiced person,” and that his constituents shouldn’t be offended because he is only saying “how things are.”

In response, Richmond councilmembers Jim Rogers, Jael Myrick and Jovanka Beckles issued a statement during Tuesday night’s council meeting to demand that Battaglia apologize for his remarks.

Rogers read the proclamation on behalf of the councilmembers, referring to Battaglia only as “the speaker.” “We call upon the speaker to rethink the assumptions that the remarks were based on,” said Rogers. “We’re not mentioning the name of the speaker because we wish to focus on the dangerous nature of the quoted remarks, not on attacking or name-calling against the speaker.”

Councilmember Beckles said the comments were reprehensible coming from an elected official who represents Richmond, a community that is largely comprised of people of color.

The West County Wastewater District constructs and maintains the sewer system for western Contra Costa County, and serves approximately 93,000 people.

“For him to make a statement like that scares me, quite frankly. It scares me because this is someone who’s supposed to be working on our behalf, and if he thinks that we are less than… I wonder, then, is he really working on our behalf.”

Battaglia had not returned phone calls made by Richmond Pulse by the time this article was filed.

“My initial thought was [that] he should apologize, but on second thought I really believe he needs to be removed from office, however that (apology) looks,” said Beckles.  “I think the honorable thing for him to do would be to resign, but if he refuses to do that, then voters can… remember this and have him removed at the next opportunity.”

His term as board director expires December 2014, according to the agency’s website.

Councilmember Myrick said there is some urgency to resolving the matter, because the council still has to work with Battaglia and the West County Wastewater District.

“It is not acceptable for us to have somebody that we’re dealing with, representing this community, to blatantly and unapologetically be claiming that he believes that the majority of our community, and frankly the majority of our council, are less than, are biologically, predisposed to not being as intelligent as others,” said Myrick.

If he was misquoted, he needs to explain that.  If not, I agree with Council member Beckles that he needs to go. He needs to do it tomorrow.”

“It’s clearly out-and‑out racist,” said Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, “and I don’t think any elected official, regardless of the community they represent, should be holding that perspective.”

Many of those in the audience were hearing about Battaglia’s comments for the first time and some began to ask for the name of this public official, regarded to only as “speaker.” Someone eventually yelled out “Battaglia.”

After the three councilmembers spoke — councilmember Tom Butt said nothing on the matter, and councilmembers Boozé and Bates were absent from the meeting – audience members were given an opportunity to make public comments.

“He actually ran for the Board of Supervisors many years ago against Nancy Foden, but lost the race because his loose lips got him in trouble when he said that Nancy should not be running and she should go back into the kitchen where she belongs,” said Andres Soto, a Richmond resident. “So, he’s got a long record of this kind of… behavior.”

Vivien Feyer of the Richmond Human Rights Commission commended the council for acting quickly to address the issue.  “I think you made a powerful statement. Thank you for the effort to bring it as not so much an issue about one person, but about behavior that’s unacceptable.”

“He is what he is,” sad Richmond resident Jackie Thompson. “He’s a bigot, and he needs to be identified just as that. That’s Archie Bunker, that’s who that is. You have to put the cards on the table and call a spade a spade.”

“I know Leonard for over 25, 30 years,” said Mark Wassburg, a Richmond resident. “Leonard, he was an ex-pilot in Korea.  That’s why he’s kinda prejudiced against Asians.  He’s just a good ol’ boy.  He’s just like Archie Bunker.  I know Leonard and he’s just the type of guy… he’s just a hard headed white man.  That’s all he is, and he will say it again. It’s gonna be tough to get Leonard off of there (his elected seat), but you guys can do it.”

Others warned against rushing too quickly to judgment.

Pamela Hampton said it was important to not attack a person’s character without a full review of the facts. “I really was emotionally moved to hear [about the] racism. Those types of words are strong, but… I’m saying innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent.”