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Peace and justice coalition renews call for police accountability, oversight

Don’t Shoot, a coalition of about 50 groups in the St. Louis area that formed in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, renewed its call for police accountability and oversight following the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

“We will redouble our efforts to secure justice for Michael Brown and demand police and criminal justice system reforms across the board,” said Michael T. McPhearson, co-chair of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and executive director for Veterans For Peace. “We learned a long time ago that police are not held accountable for killing people and especially not black and brown people. Instead, law enforcement and the judicial system have been used most aggressively and unfairly against us.”

The coalition on Nov. 25 issued a series of demands:

• A thorough federal investigation of possible criminal violations by Wilson.

• Amnesty for all those engaging in protest activity including dismissal of all state, county and municipal charges against individuals participating in civil disobedience since the Aug. 9 shooting.

• Police practices and criminal justice reforms that address systemic and prolific racial bias in policing.

Justice for Michael Brown remains a critical concern for Don’t Shoot, the group said in its statement. Now that the grand jury has declined to file any changes against Wilson, Don’t Shoot looks to the federal government to continue its investigations into the shooting and into the Ferguson Police Department. Don’t Shoot urged the Justice Department to “expend every possible resource to realize a fair and just outcome.”

“Don’t Shoot also seeks amnesty for the protestors arrested as a result of engaging in civil disobedience,” said Montague Simmons of the Organization for Black Struggle. “We ask all involved government agencies to drop these charges. How can you prosecute people for taking action to change a guilty system?”

Don’t Shoot’s vision for police practices is based on the concept that the role of police is to defend the safety and constitutional rights of the citizens they serve, and in which the first priority is preservation of life.

“Policing priorities should reflect community priorities. We need to shift the fundamental power dynamic between the broader community and those it assigns to protect them and keep the peace.” said Don’t Shoot member John Chasnoff.  Don’t Shoot also wants to see police agencies engage the best and most progressive practices and meet the highest standards for professionalism in the field.

To achieve this vision, Don’t Shoot has developed an agenda of reforms needed at the municipal, county, state and federal levels. Its immediate priorities for reform include:

• Establishment of an independent countywide citizen review board in St. Louis County to hear complaints of police misconduct, make policy recommendations and report on the activities of departments. For such an entity to be effective, it must be independently commissioned and empowered with adequate funding, subpoena power and access to internal affairs files.

• Strengthening Missouri’s racial profiling measure to include repercussions for departments that have demonstrated patterns of racial profiling or failed to comply with the law.

• Expanding Missouri’s training requirements for officers to include mandatory in-service training on topics such as interacting with people with mental illnesses, use of force, responding to sexual assault, unarmed combat, conflict resolution, anti-racism and other critical issues.

• Revision of Missouri law to allow individuals with prior felony convictions to serve on juries.

“We will not allow the grand jury’s decision to set us back,” said Denise Lieberman, Don’t Shoot co-chair and senior attorney with Advancement Project, which on over the weekend filed a legal demand letter on behalf of coalition partners promising to protect the constitutional rights of demonstrators in the wake of the decision. “We view this as a beginning, not an end. We look forward to working with people from all concerned communities to bring a new era of change and end the fear and suffering of communities targeted and harassed by police.”

On the Web…


Ireland’s gay bull saved from slaughterhouse

He faced execution for failure to perform. But Benjy, the gay bull of Ireland, has been saved following a worldwide appeal backed by “The Simpsons” co-creator Sam Simon.

Ireland’s Animal Rights Action Network said Tuesday that Simon is paying for Benjy’s transportation to an animal sanctuary in England. Simon, who is battling colon cancer, has been giving away much of the fortune from his television career and is a leading donor to animal welfare causes.

Benjy, a Charlerois bull, failed this year to impregnate any heifers at a County Mayo farm in western Ireland. Veterinarians determined he was fertile, but was more attracted to the bull that replaced him.

After the farmer announced he planned to send Benjy to an abattoir, activists last week launched a social media campaign seeking 5,000 pounds ($7,825) to send the bull to the Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Norfolk, England, which is home for about 2,000 unwanted farm animals and horses. About 300 donors contributed 4,000 British pounds ($6,200) to an ongoing fundraising drive organized by the British online magazine TheGayUK.

Simon, who funds a Malibu dog shelter and many other animal rights projects, said he heard about Benjy’s case through friends at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pressure group. He said he was happy to donate the full original cash target to buy Benjy and ship him to England.

“All animals have a dire destiny in the meat trade, but to kill this bull because he’s gay would’ve been a double tragedy,” Simon said in a statement. “It thrills me to help PETA and ARAN make Benjy’s fate a sanctuary rather than a sandwich.”

ARAN campaigns director John Carmody said Simon and other donors were buying the bull “a one-way ticket to freedom.”

County committee approves Abele’s donation and other community news

The Milwaukee County Board’s Finance Committee recently voted to approve Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s personal donation of $7,147 to pay overtime costs associated with keeping the courthouse open outside regular hours for same-sex couples to get married.

After learning of the federal district court ruling overturning the state ban on same-sex marriage, Abele ordered the courthouse to stay open late on June 6 and also on June 7, a Saturday. Nearly 150 couples exchanged vows in a 24-hour period.

Abele, in a news release, said, “It’s safe to say this is the best $7,000 I’ve ever spent. By keeping the courthouse open we helped loving couples marry and sent a message that Milwaukee County supports equality.”

In other community news …

• Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools is hosting its leadership training institute Aug. 14–17, bringing together 40 students from around Wisconsin. GSAFE is seeking kitchen volunteers for the camp, located about 30 minutes north of Madison. For more, go to www.gsafewi.org.

• Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce and Roundy’s teamed up to plan for a Pride picnic at 5 p.m. on Aug. 14 at Milwaukee County’s Gordon Park, 2828 N. Humboldt Blvd., Milwaukee. For more, call 414-678-9275.

• Emerge Wisconsin presented a 21-member graduating class this summer. The nonprofit trains Democratic women to seek elected office. The graduation ceremony took place at a residence in Madison and featured a speech by Emerge adviser Peg Lautenschlager, the first woman elected Wisconsin attorney general. For more, go to www.emergewi.org.

• The National LGBT Bar Association will present the Dan Bradley Award on Aug. 22 to Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson. “Great lawyers don’t just win cases; they change lives,” said D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the bar. “Evan is a true visionary in the movement to expand marriage equality to LGBT couples.” For more, go to www.lgbtbar.org.

• Key West Womenfest, the East Coast’s alternative to the Dinah Shore Weekend, takes place Sept. 4-7. Thousands of women attend every year — for the morning excursions on the Gulf of Mexico, evening sunset celebrations on Mallory Square and late-night parties in the island clubs. For more, go to www.womenfest.com.

• The NAACP unanimously passed a resolution at its summer convention in Las Vegas supporting fast-food workers’ fight for a living wage of at least $15 and to unionize. For more, go to www.naacp.org.

• Human Rights Campaign Foundation, in partnership with the National Education Association and the American Counseling Association, will hold the national Time to Thrive youth conference in Portland, Oregon, Feb. 13–15, 2015. For more, go to www.hrc.org.

• Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele recently went to New York City to kick off the new fundraising campaign — “Great Futures” — for the all-inclusive Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Abele is a member of the nonprofit’s national board of governors. For more, go to bgca.org.

• The Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce received the national Rising Star Chamber Award from the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which held its national business conference in Las Vegas in late July.

— Lisa Neff

In the Photo…

Milwaukee Film recently announced Times Cinema is the newest venue to join the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival. Organizers also unveiled the promotional artwork for the festival, which takes place Sept. 25–Oct. 9. For more, go to mkefilm.org. — PHOTO: Courtesy Milwaukee Film

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Jason Rae awarded for leadership diversity

Jason Rae, executive director of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, was honored earlier this month with a scholarship from the American Chamber of Commerce, under its new program to encourage leadership diversity among its members. 

The national organization established its leadership diversity program to help provide information, training and resources to enhance the leadership skills of women, members of racial/ethnic minorities, LGBT-identifying individuals or those with disabilities.

Rae has led the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce since its founding in September 2012. He also is a public affairs consultant at Milwaukee-based Nation Consulting, the chair of the Milwaukee County Human Rights Commission and board chair of Fair Wisconsin.

Radler makes major donation to UWM Libraries, hosts Cream City fundraiser

Local philanthropist Will Radler has donated $65,000 to the UWM Libraries’ LGBT Collection in honor of fellow philanthropist Joe Pabst, already a significant contributor to the collection. In 2008, Pabst established the Libraries’ LGBT Outreach History Endowment, as well as provided a planned gift. 

According to assistant director Michael Doylen, the gift will help the libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Department do more with their substantial holdings, which mostly date from the period following the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

Radler also hosted his annual Garden Party on July 12, which he combined with Cream City Foundation’s My Best Friend is Straight fundraiser. The 425 guests contributed more than $45,000 for the Cream City Foundation.

In other community news …

• The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce holds its business and leadership conference July 29–Aug. 1 in Las Vegas. More than 300 business owners are expected to attend. For more, go to www.nglcc.org.

• We Are Water: Beachfront Celebration of Milwaukee’s Water, presented by Milwaukee Water Commons, takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 3 at the north end of Bradford Beach, 2400 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee. Organizers say the Overpass Light Brigade, DanceCircus and the Strawberry Moon Singers are involved. For more, go to www.greatlakescommons.org.

• The Milwaukee Chapter of the ACLU of Wisconsin is preparing for its annual meeting, “Safeguarding our Future: Education and Civil Liberties,” which takes place at 3 p.m. on Sept. 6 at North Shore Presbyterian Church, 4048 N. Bartlett Ave., Milwaukee. Journalist Barbara Miner is the featured speaker and recipient of the Eunice Z. Edgar Lifetime Achievement Award. For more, go to www.aclu-wi.org.

• Wild & Scenic Film Festival, presented by the River Revitalization Foundation, is set for 5 p.m. on Aug. 1 at RRF Riverhaus, 2134 N. Riverboat Road, Milwaukee. For more, go to www.milwaukeerrf.org.

• Doors Open Milwaukee seeks volunteers for its annual event this September. Volunteers work four-hour shifts greeting visitors and distributing materials to the 25,000 people expected to visit hundred of buildings Sept. 20-21. For more information, go to doorsopenmilwaukee.org.

— from WiG reports

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How to honor Pete Seeger? A park? A bridge? A song?

Someday, it might be possible to take the Pete Seeger Bridge to Pete Seeger Park and listen to Pete Seeger music by the Pete Seeger statue.

Plans abound to honor the recently deceased folk icon — a few early events were held Saturday, on what would have been his 95th birthday. But trying to honor a hardcore egalitarian like Seeger raises some questions.

How do you single out a singer who revered the masses? Is it OK to bestow honors on Seeger that he declined during his life? And would the old eco-warrior want his name on a $3.9 billion bridge serving suburban car culture?

“He did everything possible to not take credit for anything. It was always a group effort,” said George Mansfield, a council member in Beacon, the Hudson River city near where Seeger and his late wife, Toshi, lived for decades. “People say `How do you best memorialize Pete?’ and everyone agrees the best way to memorialize him is to continue what he started.”

Seeger, who died in January at age 94, was known around the world for his activism and gentle voice on such signature songs as “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” He was also known closer to home for his deep connection to the Hudson River and his tireless efforts in the movement to clean it up.

That’s why Beacon plans to rename its riverside park for Seeger and his wife, who were instrumental in converting the former dump into Riverfront Park. And more controversially, some people want to put Seeger’s name on the massive span that will replace the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson just north of New York City.

“I just imagine a family driving across the bridge years from now and some kids says, ‘Who is Pete Seeger?’ That kind of thing. That would be cool,” said Bill Swersey, a New York City resident who liked the bridge-naming idea so much he created a Change.org petition that has more than 14,000 signatures.

Critics say naming a bridge for Seeger that carries some 140,000 cars a day between sprawling Westchester and Rockland counties would fly in the face of the singer’s live-simply ethos. One counterproposal has been to rename the more ecologically friendly Walkway Over the Hudson about 45 miles upriver.

Seeger declined such honors in his life, so the idea of lending his name to bridges sits uncomfortably with some.

“He hated the spotlight,” said family friend Thom Wolke, who believes living up to Seeger’s ideals is a more fitting remembrance.

Mansfield said Seeger’s family approved of renaming the Beacon park, provided Toshi was included. He said the family also will have a say in what sort of sculpture or plaque will grace the renamed “Pete and Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park,” which could be anything from a representational statue to something abstract. One Seeger family member, grandson Kitama Cahill-Jackson, said he’s for naming anything that keeps his grandfather’s name alive.

“Whenever someone wanted to name something after him I’d ask him, and he’d say, `Do it when I’m dead,” Cahill-Jackson recalled. “And he’s dead, so I think this is a good time to do it.”

Cahill-Jackson is among the people who will honor Seeger in the most obvious way: with song. He is raising money for Seeger Fest, a five-day series of music and events in the Hudson Valley and New York City —including a concert at Lincoln Center’s outdoor performance area — starting July 17.

Seeger’s birth date on Saturday will be marked with shows featuring his songs in Woodstock, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota, and Wolke organized a show in Fontenet, France. The shows will be held in different places with different artists, but the thought is the same.

“I think part of me is doing this because I want to keep them alive,” Cahill-Jackson said. “And I’m hoping that weekend, they’ll be alive.”

San Francisco Pride organizers name Chelsea Manning honorary grand marshal

Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower in prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, is the honorary grand marshal of this year’s San Francisco Pride parade.

Manning, in a statement released through her support network, said, “As a trans* woman, I appreciate the Pride movement’s significant role in bringing together diverse communities and elevating the public profile of the fight for queer rights. I have always enjoyed attending Pride celebrations given the opportunity, and I’m deeply honored to receive this title.”

The statement noted that Manning uses an asterisk after “trans” to “denote not only transgender men and women, but also those who identify outside of a gender binary.”

Last spring, Manning was selected as one of several grand marshals in the 2013 parade. But within 24 hours of making the selection public, the Pride parade board president rescinded the honor, trigger widespread controversy and debate in the national LGBT community.

Since then, Manning has been convicted of multiple offenses for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks. She also has come out as transgender and is waging a campaign for fair and respectful treatment of transgender people in the federal and military prison systems.

This year’s San Francisco Pride board president, Gary Virginia said in a statement, “SF Pride’s oversight of the Electoral College community grand marshal nomination and election process in 2013 was mishandled. Even with this controversy, thousands of Manning supporters in the 2013 Pride Parade represented the largest non-corporate, walking contingent in the parade.  I want to publicly apologize to Chelsea Manning and her supporters on behalf of SF Pride, and we look forward to a proper honor this year.”

The parade takes place on June 29 and the Chelsea Manning Support Network plans a large presence.

The network is working to help raise money for Manning’s legal appeals, as well as to further her request for hormone replacement therapy and a legal name change.

IMAGE THIS PAGE: How Chelsea Manning sees herself as a trans woman. This image was created by artist Alicia Neal, in cooperation with Manning, according to the Chelsea Manning Support Network.

Gay activist’s New Orleans home vandalized

A gay activist in New Orleans says somebody tore a rainbow flag from his balcony and spray-painted a slur on the house he and his partner share.

Police say they and the FBI are investigating the vandalism early on Aug. 3 as a hate crime.

Sixty-eight-year-old John Hill says a neighbor got surveillance video of the vandal, but it doesn’t show the man’s face.

Hill is an equal rights activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. He says he thinks he may have been targeted because he wrote an opinion piece in a newspaper saying Louisiana is still hostile toward gays.

Police have the video up on YouTube and are asking the public to help identify the man.

Colleagues detained and released in death of gay activist in Cameroon

Police in Cameroon held two employees of a human rights organization for three days in connection with the killing of a prominent gay rights activist, their lawyer said, sparking criticism over how the investigation is being handled.

The two employees, Michel Engama and Cedric Mbarga, were released on July 30 without charge, said Michel Togue, a member of the legal team representing them as well as the family of the slain activist, Eric Ohena Lembembe.

Engama and Mbarga worked with Lembembe at CAMFAIDS, a human rights organization based in the capital of Yaounde, and were among the last people to see him alive on July 12, Togue said. Three days later, Lembembe’s body was discovered at his home bearing signs of torture.

Lembembe’s friends suspect he was killed over his activism. Just weeks before his death, he had warned about the threat posed by “anti-gay thugs” in Cameroon, one of the most hostile countries for sexual minorities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Human Rights Watch had earlier expressed doubt over whether law enforcement officials were willing and able to carry out a thorough, effective investigation of Lembembe’s death, pointing out that previous incidents of anti-gay threats and violence had only resulted in the taking of statements.

A law enforcement official in Yaounde, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case, told The Associated Press that Lembembe’s colleagues had been arrested “to give the impression that headway is being made in the case.”

He said Lembembe’s case had “really embarrassed” President Paul Biya’s government. The killing drew statements of concern from France, Britain, the United States and the United Nations.

“There are fears that Cameroon may be further blacklisted by donors and denied foreign aid in the near future,” the official said. “But the investigation was flawed from the start. The interrogators arrived at the scene of the murder several hours late, and all they did was collect testimonies from the late Lembembe’s neighbors. I think they are onto the wrong lead.”

Togue said the two rights workers should not have been held for three days. Cameroon’s criminal procedure code says suspects can be held a maximum of 48 hours before being charged.

Law enforcement officials in Yaounde declined to speak on the record about the case.

The only official response from the government to Lembembe’s death was a statement on July 19 condemning the international media for tarnishing the country’s image and warning that future “provocative commentary” on the case would be illegal.

State Department responds to torture, murder of gay activist in Cameroon

The U.S. State Department has issued a statement deploring the murder of Eric Ohena Lembembe, a prominent gay rights activist who was found tortured to death in his home in Yaoundé in Cameroon.

The statement from deputy Secretary Marie Harf said, “We condemn this terrible act in the strongest terms and urge the Cameroonian authorities to thoroughly and promptly investigate and prosecute those responsible for his death.”

Lembembe was tortured and killed just weeks after issuing a public warning about the threat posed by “anti-gay thugs,” Human Rights Watch said.

Friends discovered the the body at Lembembe’s home in the capital, Yaounde, on July 15 after he was unreachable for two days, the rights group said in a statement yesterday.

One friend said Lembembe’s neck and feet looked broken and that he had been burned with an iron.

Lembembe was among the most prominent of gay civil rights activists in one of Africa’s most hostile countries for sexual minorities. First as a journalist and later as executive director of CAMFAIDS, a Yaounde-based human rights organization, he documented violence, blackmail and arrests targeting members of Cameroon’s gay community. He was also a regular contributor to the Erasing 76 Crimes blog, which focuses on countries where homosexuality is illegal, and he wrote several chapters of a book released in February on the global gay rights movement titled “From Wrongs to Gay Rights.”

“Eric was an inspiring activist whose work was deeply appreciated by human rights activists in Cameroon and around the world,” said HRW senior LGBT rights researcher Neela Ghoshal.

Lembembe is the most high-profile African gay rights activist to be killed since 2011, a year that saw the deaths of Uganda’s David Kato and South African lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza.

Homosexuality is punishable by prison terms of up to five years in Cameroon, and the country prosecutes more people for gay sex than any other in sub-Saharan Africa, according to Human Rights Watch.

Lembembe was among the first activists in the country to mobilize following a sharp increase in anti-gay prosecutions beginning in 2005, said Yves Yomb, executive director of Alternatives-Cameroon, a gay rights group based in Cameroon’s largest city, Douala. A local office of the group was set on fire June 26, Harf said in her statement.

She said, “We will continue to support activists, like Mr. Lembembe, who stand up for the human rights of all people, regardless of who they are or who they love.”

“It is a big loss for our community, and we are a bit scared about what can happen to us,” Yomb said. “He was one of the leaders of this community. So what can happen to the other leaders?”

Yomb said Lembembe was known as “Princess Erica” because of his designer clothes and his gracious way with visitors, offering them fresh juice and an attentive ear.

But he was also a tenacious journalist and activist, Yomb said.

“He was very, very, very active in the fight for LGBT rights in Cameroon,” Yomb said. “In his work as a journalist, when he wanted to have information he would call you until you gave him the information that he needed.”

Just two weeks ago, Lembembe spoke out against a recent spate of break-ins at organizations advocating for gay rights in Cameroon.

“There is no doubt: anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Lembembe said in a statement on July 1. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

Ghoshal told The Associated Press that friends grew concerned for Lembembe on Saturday when he uncharacteristically missed a meeting.

On July 15, they visited his house and found the door locked from the outside, though they could see Lembembe’s battered body through a window.

Law enforcement officials in Yaounde could not be reached on July 16. Ghoshal said officials had transported the body to a hospital and begun taking statements.

The precise motive for the killing was not immediately clear, but Ghoshal said Lembembe’s friends indicated he had no enemies.

“As far as they know he didn’t have any other disputes, relationship disputes or money matters, so they attribute this to a likely homophobic killing, but that’s just speculation at this point,” Ghoshal said.

She added that while the initial steps of an investigation appeared to be underway, it was unclear whether officials would follow through.

“What worries us is that in the previous incidents of homophobic threats or violence, the police have done the basics but it’s never gone beyond taking statements,” she said. “It remains to be seen whether the police will carry out a serious investigation into this matter.”