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The latest updates on some of the stories we reported on in 2003

The Spokespeople

The efforts of local bicycle activists to work with city officials to make New Orleans' streets safer for -- and more conducive to -- bicycling ("The Spokespeople," Sept. 23) are proceeding well, according to several involved. "We are very pleased with what the City Planning Commission has done thus far," says Musa Eubanks, a member of the Metro Bicycle Coalition, a recently formed group of bicyclists that meets with city planners working to overhaul the city's Transportation Plan. "Their initial response has been great and shows that they've really listened to us."

Construction of a bike path along Wisner Boulevard from City Park to the lake will begin soon using federal funding. A revised plan for bikes on city streets can be viewed on the city's Web site (www.new-orleans.la.us); purchased at the CBD Kinko's (762 St. Charles Ave.); or reviewed at three Orleans Parish library branches: Main (219 Loyola Ave.), Algiers Regional (3014 Holiday Drive) and New Orleans East (5641 Read Blvd.). This second draft of the transportation plan will be open for public input at five meetings organized by neighborhood during the month of January; city planners hope the plan will be finalized by late February.

Eubanks admits that some "disputes" remain, but bike activists applaud the CPC's work to this point. "They're not just giving us lip service," Eubanks says. "It seems like something they really want to accomplish."

Time Served

Red, white and blue balloons greeted Edith "Toni" Balot, a 69-year-old local grandmother and former nun, as she left federal prison in Marianna, Fla., on July 4 after serving 90 days. Balot says the balloons symbolized the notion that "peace is patriotic," a belief that compelled her to cross onto the grounds of Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga., in an act of civil disobedience during the annual School of the Americas protest ("Crossing the Line," Feb. 18).

Balot's stint in prison was part of a campaign to close the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) started by Lutcher native Father Roy Bourgeois. Protesters view a link between the school's training of Latin American police and military with numerous murders in the region, including the deaths of six American nuns and Bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980.

In jail, Balot received a constant stream of letters that she says "kept me going." After her release, she addressed students at Cabrini High School as well as a "Theology on Tap" meeting, a happy-hour gathering geared toward young Catholics. Otherwise, she says, she's been "debriefing and sharing, and even going fishing, spending time with God and grandchildren, relatives and friends." Balot is also considering a lifetime commitment to join a "contemplative" Catholic order in the mountains of Latin America and teaching about what she describes as "the harshness and unfairness of drug-law sentencing," based on her experience in jail with fellow prisoners.

And in November, Balot once again made the six-hour trek to Georgia for the School of the Americas protest with members of local Catholic groups, ranks of which "have grown in number and in focus," she says.

Golden Girl

Putting Patricia Clarkson on our cover as Big Easy Entertainment Awards' Entertainer of the Year was a no-brainer ("In Character," April 15). The pride of Algiers had been in, and was going to be in, so many TV and film projects that you needed separate issues of TV Guide and Movieline just to keep up with her. When she earned the honor last spring, Clarkson had already snared an Emmy for her guest appearance in HBO's critically acclaimed Six Feet Under and received a special acting award at the Sundance Film Festival for appearances in films including All the Real Girls. (She had, according to insiders, just missed out on an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in last year's Far From Heaven.)

Just two weeks ago, Clarkson, daughter of City Council member Jackie Clarkson, earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in Pieces of April, which recently finished a run at Canal Place. Next up: a co-starring role with Nicole Kidman in Lars Von Trier's latest project, Dogville, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is slated for a 2004 release. Clarkson also has three other films scheduled for the coming year.

So Many Murders, So Few Funerals

After his inauguration as Orleans Parish District Attorney, Eddie Jordan Jr. agreed with our editorial suggestion that members of his office attend the funerals of the more than 200 people murdered in our city each year ("Jordan's Message," Jan. 21). "The protection of witnesses and victims is a top priority in my administration," Jordan wrote. ("Letters," Feb. 11). "I believe that members of my staff should attend the funerals of victims of violent crimes, both to deter retaliation and, of course, to express my administration's sincere sympathies to the families. Working closely with the families of murder victims, my office will determine whether our law enforcement mission will be served by having a staff member attend a funeral."

As 2003 drew to close, few families had taken Jordan up on his offer. As of Dec. 18, members of the district attorney's office had attended the funerals of only eight of the more than 271 people murdered in 2003. Melanie N. Roussell, public information director for the district attorney, says she is not sure why so few families had taken Jordan up on his standing offer. Members of Jordan's 20-plus investigative staff have attended those funerals to which an invitation has been extended, she adds.

Funk in the Brig

"The worst that could come of this is that I would go to jail," United States Marine Reserve Lance Cpl. Stephen Funk told Gambit Weekly prior to his court-martial in New Orleans on charges he deserted his unit as it mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom ("Sir, No, Sir!" Aug. 5, 2003).

The worst did not happen to the openly gay marine who declared himself a conscientious objector after weeks of training. A military jury on Sept. 6 sentenced Funk to six months in the brig for a 47-day "unauthorized" absence from his reserve unit in California. The 20-year-old was acquitted of the more serious charge of desertion.

As 2003 drew to a close, Funk was serving his sentence in the military brig at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He is the first known member of the U.S. armed forces to be jailed for refusing to serve in Iraq. And he remains a cause celebre for anti-war activists and radical groups. After staging a "Free Funk" picket in a nearby town, a group of activists on Nov. 15 visited Funk in jail. He wore an orange prison jumpsuit and was in "strong spirits," according to a Nov. 27 edition of Workers World newspaper. "Funk explained that many of those locked up in the brig have been to Iraq and the majority of them are against the war," the leftist paper reported. Funk also told the group he has been harassed by guards but has encountered little anti-gay hostility from other prisoners.

Funk's prison sentence ends in February 2004; after his release, he plans to attend the March 20 Global Day of Action marking the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Homeless Voter Wins

In October 2002, homeless man Myron Barnum attempted to register to vote using a "non-traditional address" -- namely, the spot in Jackson Square where he typically lived and slept ("Missing the Vote," Oct. 29, 2002). Instead, the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters placed him in a different precinct, the one for the Multi-Service Center, a daytime drop-in center for the homeless and the place where Barnum picks up his mail.

In many cities, homeless people like Barnum routinely register to vote by mapping out the location of their "home," whether it be park bench, cardboard box or doorway. That wasn't the case in New Orleans because Louisiana has been one of two states (Virginia is the other) that doesn't allow homeless people to vote without a specific street address.

In light of Barnum's experience, the New Orleans Legal Assistance (formerly NOLAC) asked the Louisiana attorney general's office to revisit its earlier opinion, which had barred homeless voters who did not have a traditional street address. The result was good news for Barnum. "We are of the opinion that homeless people may register and vote, notwithstanding their lack of a permanent place of residence," read the opinion, which also cited court decisions from other states in support of homeless voters.

"I was actually quite surprised and really happy," says Barnum, who is now selling cars for a Honda dealership in Palm Beach, Fla., and is no longer homeless. He says he hopes that those who are currently homeless will organize themselves and get to the polls. "Because unless they're registered to vote, politicians won't take them seriously -- they're the cast-out people who no one has to listen to."

Money for Charity?

On October 3, Charity Hospital in New Orleans closed W-16, the walk-in clinic that served 40,000 patients last year ("Who's Caring?" Oct. 7). It was part of a last-minute effort to slash $40 million from the budgets for Charity and University hospitals. Also eliminated in the cuts were a diabetes clinic and one-third of the surgical suites for the two hospitals, which are formally combined into one entity known as the Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans (MCLNO).

In November, Charity officials were hoping for some help from the federal Medicare-prescription drug bill, which promised about $125 million in additional funding for Louisiana. State Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary David Hood had expressed optimism that some of that money would go to Charity, but warned that state legislators had the final say. At the end of November, the Medicare bill passed the U.S. Congress, with $101 million earmarked for Louisiana. MCLNO promptly issued a press release noting that this was "a great opportunity to address the unfortunate budget reductions we have had to manage this year."

Hood acknowledges that the charity hospital system has its eyes on this money but says that would not be his top recommendation to lawmakers. Instead, he says, he'd prefer to put the money toward "the big gaping hole" that he sees in next year's budget. No way, says Charity-University spokesman Jerry Romig. "This is new, federal money that we didn't have yesterday," Romig says. "As far as the public hospitals of Louisiana are concerned, we're convinced that the way that bill is written, it was meant to support our hospital system." He believes that, with so many people uninsured, the Legislature will see fit to come up with the required $40 million in matching state funds and then allot the full $101 million in federal funds to the charity hospital system.

Motion Granted

"The state agreed to give little Ashley her wheelchair," says Maureen O'Connell, attorney for the Southern Disability Law Center, which had in June 2002 filed suit in federal court on behalf of plaintiffs who were denied motorized wheelchairs by the state's Medicaid program ("Their Fair Chair," Sept. 16). The law center was joined in the suit by New Orleans Legal Assistance and Acadiana Legal Services in Lafayette.

The state responded by agreeing to change its Medicaid rule, but O'Connell and others found that many disabled people were still unable to qualify for the motorized chairs. For instance, Ashley Kreyssig, a 6-year-old who has spina bifida, submitted a request three times and was denied each time by Medicaid. But O'Connell says that the lawsuit has now been officially dismissed because all of the plaintiffs have received a chair.

O'Connell says the center will continue to fight the existing rule, "which has lots of problems." For now, however, she's happy to know that some of the children represented will soon be motoring along on their own. "It's life-changing for these young kids to be able to be independent, to be able to move from this point to the next without waiting for someone to move them," says O'Connell. "They suddenly have some control over their life and it's pretty cool."

Goodbye Tallulah

On July 7, Gov. Mike Foster signed what is known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2003, which -- among other things -- shuts down the Tallulah juvenile prison facility by the end of 2004 ("The Other Tallulah," June 17; "Little Angolas," Aug. 19). It was a legislative victory for the staff at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) and for the bill's authors, state Rep. and Lt. Gov.-elect Mitch Landrieu and state Sen. Don Cravins.

Juvenile justice also emerged as an issue in the recent gubernatorial race, with both Bobby Jindal and Kathleen Blanco signing the "Platform for Effective Juvenile Justice Reform." The document began with the words "Louisiana's juvenile justice system is broken" and went on to commit the candidates to supporting the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, closing Tallulah to all youth before June 30, 2004, and creating a separate Office of Children, Youth and Families. The latter is necessary to get juvenile justice out from under the auspices of the adult Department of Corrections (DOC), youth advocates say. Currently, only Louisiana and 10 other states still operate youth programs within their DOC. Some critics, including JJPL director David Utter, look at the Louisiana DOC and say that the blame should be placed at the feet of its secretary, Richard Stalder.

Since Stalder took office in 1992, juvenile prison beds in this state increased from 900 to more than 1,900 by the end of 1998. Critics say this increase reflects Stalder's reliance on large, adult-style prisons instead of smaller facilities that focus on rehabilitation. Stalder supporters -- notably the district attorneys' and sheriffs' associations -- argue that Stalder didn't beef up the numbers alone. He took office, they note, just before a juvenile crime wave that prompted legislators to pass "tough on crime" bills aimed at violent juveniles. Stalder could not be reached for comment by presstime.

Team Spirit

"It's not over," Kevin Brooks says of his dream to play professional football, weeks after he was profiled during his unsuccessful tryout with the New Orleans Voodoo Arena Football League team ("Proving Ground," Nov. 25). After the story was published, coaches from the Houma Bayou Bucks -- a team competing in the National Indoor Football League and, like the Voodoo, featuring a roster filled with players with NFL and major college experience -- called Brooks to invite him to an open tryout for a spot on the team, to be held Jan. 17 at Tulane University.

click to enlarge In 2003, activist Edith "Toni" Balot, a 69-year-old - local grandmother and former nun, served 90 days - in a federal prison for her part in a School of the - Americas protest. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • In 2003, activist Edith "Toni" Balot, a 69-year-old local grandmother and former nun, served 90 days in a federal prison for her part in a School of the Americas protest.
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