Chertoff Says Disciplinary Action Will Be Taken Over FEMA California Wildfires Press Conference

Officials involved in the phony press conference staged by the Federal Emergency Management Agency this week are now facing disciplinary action, says Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.“I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government,” said Mr Chertoff.

“I have made unambiguously clear, in Anglo-Saxon prose, that it is not to ever happen again and there will be appropriate disciplinary action taken against those people who exhibited what I regard as extraordinarily poor judgment.”

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Louisiana Senator Landrieu Angry About Bogus FEMA Press Conference

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D) is demanding answers from the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after it was revealed that a bogus news conference was staged by FEMA earlier this week.

“I am disappointed to learn that (FEMA Deputy Administrator Harvey Johnson) misled the press and the public by taking questions from his own staff pretending to be reporters and that the agency did not disclose this misrepresentation,” said Senator Landrieu. She also said she hoped the fake press conference was “not a substitute for the necessary reforms” needed to improve FEMA’s delivery of emergency services.

California Wildfire Response Took Lessons From Katrina

Wildfires burning out of control for the fourth day have forced nearly a million southern California residents from their homes in the largest mass evacuation in the US since hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.With the eyes of the world on California, the federal government is anxious to ensure there is no repeat of its lackluster response in the aftermath of Katrina.

California Wildfires Burn as Schwarzenegger Declares Emergency

Nearly a thousand homes have been reduced to ashes and 300,000 residents evacuated as wildfires continue to rage unchecked across southern California.

One person has been confirmed dead and 41 injured, including 25 firefighters.

Homes and businesses have been consumed by sweeping walls of flame that leapt highways and joined forces to torch hundreds of thousands of acres across the state’s southern regions.

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in seven counties so far. “It is a tragic time for California,” he said.

US Air Force Fires, Disciplines Officers For Nuclear Missiles Mistake

The US Air Force has fired four officers and disciplined 65 other members after discovering that six nuclear missiles were flown by mistake from North Dakota to Louisiana on August 30.

“In the countless times our dedicated airmen have transferred weapons in our nation’s arsenal, nothing like this has ever occurred,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Newton, announcing the results of the military’s six-week investigation into the incident.

Jena Louisiana Protest: Sharpton, Jackson, King Lead Justice March

Twenty thousand protesters from across the United States converged on the small town of Jena, Louisiana on Thursday to march against what they call flagrant double standards for blacks and whites in the justice system, epitomized in the case of the ‘Jena Six’.

Despite the massive number of protesters, the emotionally charged issues and the threat of white supremacist counter-demonstrations, the event concluded peacefully. “There were no incidents and no arrests during the rally and march,” said Lieutenant Lawrence McLeary of State Police headquarters in Baton Rouge. “It was uneventful.”

Before dawn on Thursday, about 500 buses began bringing protesters into Jena, a town with a population of 3,000 – 85 percent of whom are white.

Communications technology played a major role in the ability of organizers to coordinate the national event, which had been promoted on black and civil rights web sites, blogs and radio programs. At the same time, student protesters had shared information through social-networking web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

News releases from the Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday also warned that white supremacist web sites had indicated that some counter-demonstrations might be staged to confront the protesters – information it had passed onto State Police.

“I think the crowd is a peaceful crowd, in spite of the number,” Dr Doris Small of Natchitoches told the Town Talk of Alexandria. “I feel a spirit of unity.”

The demonstration was addressed by prominent black civil rights leaders including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton.

Rev. Sharpton, leader of the New York-based National Action Network, told the crowd at the local courthouse that the protest was not a rebuke against the town or its inhabitants. “This is a march for justice,” he said. “This is not a march against whites or against Jena.” He also emphasized the need for a peaceful protest. “No violence,” he stressed. “Not even an angry word. They will try to provoke you. You have to stand strong.”

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader, also attended the rally. He said that while some punishment might be in order for the Jena Six, “the justice system isn’t applied the same to all crimes and all people”.

Wayne Curry, a former executive of Prince George’s County in Maryland, was more emphatic in his criticism. “This is a shocking abuse of justice in the 21st century and harkens to our sort of Neanderthal era of politics in America fashioned around legalized racism,” he told the Washington Post. “For this to be happening now is such a jolt. The absence of dialogue on the subject from many of our elected officials is astounding … Exultations of attempted murder for a fistfight in a school. What’s going on?”

Although most of the protesters in Jena were black, there was also a sizeable contingent of young white people.

Mallory Flippo, a white university student from Shreveport, told the Associated Press, “I think what happened here was disgusting and repulsive to the whole state. I think it reflected badly on our state and how it makes it seem we view black people. I don’t feel that way, so I thought I should be here.”

As the protesters made their way from the courthouse to Jena High School and back they shouted, “No Justice! No Peace!” and carried banners which read “Enough is Enough” and “Get to the Root of the Problem”. They also chanted, “Hey hey ho ho! DA Reed has got to go!”

In anticipation of the march, and due to fears of violence, the town’s schools and most businesses were closed for the day. Most residents also remained indoors, but many who watched the march felt that the entire town had been accused of racism.

While most of the protesters confined their criticism to the justice system, as requested by the organizers, local resident Pam Sharp heard one woman shout “Shame on Jena!” A furious Ms Sharp told the Los Angeles Times she wasted no time responding to this outburst. “I shouted back, ‘No, shame on you!’ How can they include the whole town? That’s the shame.”

Ms Sharp also noted that the Jena Six case centered on a white student who had been beaten unconscious. “Protesters don’t want to talk about him,” she said.

One black family who sat in lawn chairs at the front of their property sold jambalaya and barbecue to the protesters as they marched past. The Town Talk reported that family member Hazel Epps, who now lives in Shreveport, also felt the need to defend her home town as she talked to some of the protesters.

When one woman from California asked why a local barber doesn’t cut the hair of African Americans, Ms Epps replied, “because they don’t know how”. Ms Epps also corrected the protester’s impression that Jena restaurants don’t serve black people, and said that everyone is welcome in the town’s restaurants.

In one local Jena restaurant, WBRZ television news of Baton Rouge interviewed two men who decided to mark the day with a quiet lunch together. Joe Clement (who is black) and George Ristick (who is white) appeared to be in their 60s and seemed oblivious to the excitement outside.

Mr Clement said he was not surprised by the controversy, while Mr Ristick hoped that the protest would help the country to better deal with the issue of racial equality. “Well, I’m sure other parts of the country have these problems,” he said. “I think it’s a real good eye opener. I really do – that it is being put under the spotlight for everybody.”

Elizabeth Redding, a 63 year-old resident of Willingboro, New Jersey said she was marching on behalf of her great-grandchildren and recalled how she had participated in the civil rights movement when she was in her twenties. “This is worse, because we didn’t get the job done,” she told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “I never believed that this would be going on in 2007.”

As the procession marched on, some remnants of the Old South were still visible: two white Jena residents watching the march from their pickup truck were flying the confederate flag from their vehicle’s antenna. “It means Southern pride – tradition,” the passenger of the truck (who did not wish to be named) explained to the Town Talk. “The marchers are carrying their flags, so I’m going to have mine.”

Meanwhile, 17 year-old April Jones, who had travelled from Atlanta with her parents, Diana and Derrick, said she could not understand why the hanging of a noose had not been punished severely. “I just feel like every time the white people did something, they dropped it, and every time the black people did something, they blew it out of proportion,” she told the New York Times.

Latese Brown, 40, of Alexandria, also challenged the perceived disparity in the justice system. “If you can figure out how to make a school yard fight into an attempted murder charge,” she said, “I’m sure you can figure out how to make stringing nooses into a hate crime.”

Jena Six Timeline – The Events

Aug 31, 2006:  During a Jena High School assembly, a black male freshman student asked permission to sit in the shade of the “white tree” (where traditionally only white students sat). The principal responded that the students could “sit wherever they wanted”. That afternoon, he and his friends sat under the tree.

Sep 1, 2006:  That morning, three nooses were found hanging from the tree – a clear reference to the historical lynching of blacks once widely practiced by white racists, especially in the southern states of the US.

When the principal learned that three white students were responsible, he recommended expulsion from the school which was overruled by the local Board of Education. They were instead punished with a three day in-school suspension.

School Superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed with the Board and said, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”

Local black residents said this further inflamed racial tensions in the town.

Sep 6, 2006:  The principal called a student assembly, in which students sat in segregated black and white sections. LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters addressed the assembly and is alleged to have threatened the protesters that if they didn’t stop complaining about an “innocent prank”, he could “take [their] lives away with the stroke of a pen”.

Sep 7, 2006:  Police began patrolling the halls of Jena High School.

Sep 8, 2006:  The school was declared to be in “total lockdown”.

Sep 10, 2006:  Dozens of black students attempted to address the school board but were refused because the board believed “the noose issue” had been resolved.

Racially charged confrontations between white and black students continued throughout the fall.

Nov 30, 2006:  The main building of Jena High School was set on fire and later needed to be gutted and demolished. Black and white students blamed each other for the arson.

Dec 1, 2006: At a mostly-white party held at the Fair Barn, five black students attempted to enter the party but were told they were not allowed in without an invitation. They persisted and said they had friends who were already at the party. A white man confronted the students and a fight ensued, which caused him to also be banned from the party.

Outside, the black students became involved in another fight with a group of white men (not students). Sixteen year-old Robert Bailey (later one of the Jena Six) alleged that a beer bottle had been broken over his head, although there are no medical records to indicate treatment was provided.

Dec 2, 2006: A white student who had attended the previous night’s party encountered Mr Bailey and his friends at a convenience store. An argument ensued and the white student is alleged to have run back to his pickup truck and produced a 12-gauge shotgun. Mr Bailey said he wrested the gun from the white student and took it home with him. Because the white and black students’ versions of events contradicted each other, police formed a report based on the testimony of an independent witness.

Mr Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student was not charged.

Dec 4, 2006: Jena High School student Justin Barker, 17, was allegedly beaten unconscious by black students including Mr Bailey. It was reported that Mr Barker had boasted earlier in the day that Mr Bailey had been beaten by a white man at the party on Dec 1, which Mr Barker denied. Mr Barker was treated at the local hospital and released after two hours. He attended a school function that evening.

Meanwhile, the six black students accused of the attack were arrested. Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw were initially charged with assault. The sixth suspect, Jesse Ray Beard, was charged as a juvenile because he was 14 years old.

District Attorney Walters upgraded the assault charges to attempted murder.

June 26, 2007:  On the first day of Mychal Bell’s trial, in which he was tried as an adult, Mr Walters agreed to reduce the charges for Mr Bell to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same crime, arguing that the “deadly weapon” used was Mr Bell’s tennis shoes, to which the jury agreed. There were conflicting witness accounts on whether Mr Bell had been involved in the attack.

Mr Bell was found guilty and faced a sentence of up to 22 years in prison. He was remanded in custody to be sentenced on September 20, 2007. There was public outcry because Mr Bell’s public defender did not call any witnesses in his attempt to defend his client.

Later, Mr Bell received new defense attorneys who requested a new trial on the grounds that Mr Bell, who was 16 years old at the time of the incident, should not have been tried as an adult. They also argued that the new trial should be held in another parish.

Aug 24, 2007: A request to lower Mr Bell’s $90,000 bond was denied due to his juvenile record, which showed that he had been previously convicted of four violent crimes.

Sep 4, 2007: A judge dismissed the conspiracy charge but upheld the battery conviction, although he agreed that Mr Bell should have been tried as a juvenile.

On this day, charges against Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.

Sep 10, 2007: Charges against Robert Bailey were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.

Sep 14, 2007: Mr Bell’s conviction for battery was overturned by Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Lake Charles on the grounds that he should not have been tried as an adult. District Attorney Reed appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Sep 20, 2007: On the day Mr Bell was initially due to be sentenced, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles ordered a district judge to hold a hearing on why Mr Bell is still being held in jail.

 

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