Signs of Life

Small Stories About Big Change


You Can Go Home Again—If You Organize

Public housing residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina have erected a tent city outside the 1,300 empty apartments on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans. The Survivors Village group demands the “right to return” to safe, decent, and sanitary housing for all people displaced by the hurricane; the preservation—not privatization— of all current public housing stock; and the reopening of all public housing.

Rather than fixing up housing units in New Orleans for the 5,146 displaced, predominantly African Americans, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) spent $1.5 million to board up the units. HUD plans to tear down 5,000 of the city's 7,100 public housing units. Many are undamaged by the hurricane or sustained only minor damages. Only 880 families have been allowed to return, says Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights and racial justice organization.

“HUD plans to keep low income families out of New Orleans,” says Browne. “HUD and HANO's [the Housing Authority of New Orleans] plan discriminates against black residents by excluding them with no clear plans of when, how, and if they will be able to return.”

According to Browne, many of those displaced from the city cannot return due to the loss of nearly half the rental housing and a 25 to 30 percent increase in rental rates.

A class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of public housing residents by the Advancement Project, Bill Quigley, Tracie Washington, and the law firm of Jenner & Block, LLP against HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson and HANO demanding that they reopen public housing.

“The ‘reconstruction of New Orleans' has become a euphemism for the destruction of the city's cultural, historic, and ethnic heritage,” said Tracie Washington, counsel in the lawsuit. “We've got to bring back all of the people—not just those who are rich and white.”

—Daina Saib

Interested? See survivorsvillage. com or

UN: Indigenous people have rights

In its first meeting, the new UN Human Rights Council adopted a “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

It affirms that indigenous peoples—about 370 million people worldwide, according to UN estimates—have the right “to determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,” and it holds member states responsible for implementing these rights.

The Council replaces the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was criticized for the composition of its membership.

—Rik Langendoen

Interested? See

ALSO ...

Refugee girls will soon have better access to a formal education., a new global online campaign launched in June by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) seeks to raise awareness of issues faced by the nine million refugee and displaced children worldwide. It plans to encourage attendance with improvements to camp schools. Also planned is Right to Play, a program that allows girls to engage in sports to overcome physical and psychological trauma.


Two Strikes, Corporations are Out

In the June 6 primary election, voters in Humboldt County, California, ejected non-local corporations from local politics.

The new ordinance, known as Measure T, passed with 55 percent of the vote. It forbids a corporation from donating to local campaigns if it is not based in the county—or if even one employee or shareholder lives outside the county.

Nonprofit organizations may donate if all board members live in the county, and labor unions need to have only one local member to contribute. This measure challenges the long-established legal principle that corporations are “persons” under the law, and that corporate “free speech,” in the form of campaign donations, is protected.

Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, co-manager of the Measure T campaign, said two cases in which out-of-town corporations each donated more than $200,000 to shift local politics show why the new law is needed.

The first was Wal-Mart's effort in 1999 to change zoning laws to allow the siting of a Wal-Mart store on the Eureka waterfront. The second was Texas-based Maxxam, Inc.'s attempt in 2004 to recall the local district attorney for trying to enforce environmental regulations against the company. Both corporate efforts failed, but Sopoci-Belknap said such cases erode citizen confidence in the political process.

“By challenging corporate personhood, Measure T has reshaped the whole debate about corporate hegemony,” said Ward Morehouse, co-founder of the Program on Corporations Law and Democracy, which works to address corporate abuse of power.

—Michelle Wallar

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In November more than 1.6 million voters in Minnesota, California, and Washington state will decide whether to use Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in future elections. In this system, the voter ranks the candidates—first choice, second choice, and third choice in a three-candidate race. When the votes are tallied and it becomes clear which candidate is in last place, that candidate's votes are redistributed to one of the two top contenders, based on the voters' priority rankings. IRV has the support of the League of Women Voters and is already in use in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, California, as well as Burlington, Vermont, and Ferndale, Michigan.

Interested? See

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At its annual national convention in June, the League of Women Voters endorsed voter-verified paper balloting, noting that electronic voting systems, which the League had previously supported, “are not inherently secure, can malfunction, and do not provide a recountable audit trail.”


Blix Commission wants U.S. WMDs out of Europe

“So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them,” says a report released June 1 by the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. The only way to prevent proliferation, the report says, is to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Chaired by Hans Blix, former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq, the independent, 14-member panel of international experts represents five of the eight nuclear countries. Its report, Weapons of Terror, calls for the destruction of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons worldwide, and for better controls on nuclear fuels.

Demanding that the nuclear countries, particularly the United States, honor their commitments to reduce weapons, it calls for the removal of U.S. WMDs from Europe. It also criticizes U.S. disregard of signed treaties, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and condemns the U.S. “drive for freedom of action to maintain an absolutely global superiority in weapons and means of their delivery.”

But the Blix Commission disappointed nuclear power critics by failing to call for a phaseout of nuclear power. All new nuclear weapons states such as India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea, they note, developed their nuclear weapons as a result of their “peaceful” nuclear programs.

The Commission was established by the Swedish Government at the request of the UN Under-Secretary-General.

—Alice Slater

Interested? You can find the report at


“Adios” to Nuclear Power

In his state of the nation address, Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero confirmed plans to phase out the country's eight nuclear reactors in favor of clean, renewable energy.

Spain follows the example of Sweden, Italy, Belgium, and Germany, who have introduced phase-out legislation. Five other European countries have no nuclear reactors at all.

Nuclear energy has proven unnecessary in Spain, its opponents argue. New windpower generators, installed in 2005, now generate four times as much electricity as the Zorita nuclear power plant did before it was closed in April.

—Lilja Otto


On June 16, the European Parliament voted to spend 1.6 billion euros on research and development of renewable energies. With this decision, it has dedicated two-thirds of its total research budget for non-nuclear energy to renewables and conservation.

Interested? and Nuclear Information and Resource Service at

ALSO ...

According to a recent survey of 20,000 people in 19 countries, popular support for nuclear energy is lukewarm (49 percent), while 80 to 90 percent of respondents favor tax incentives to encourage the use of alternative energy. Eighty to 90 percent worry about environmental impacts of energy policies. Nevertheless, the G8, the world's eight richest nations, voted at their summit on July 16 to support nuclear energy as part of a drive for “energy security."


Charter signing points to growing role of NGOs

Amnesty, Greenpeace, Oxfam, and other prominent charities have pledged to walk their talk. This June, the heads of 11 leading human rights, sustainable development, and environmental organizations joined forces to endorse the first global accountability charter for international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The charter recognizes NGOs' growing global responsibility. NGOs routinely rank higher in public trust surveys than the UN, governments, or for-profit companies. Public funds are increasingly channeled through nonprofits, and NGOs often influence public policy.

A number of recent NGO scandals have spurred calls for accountability. “If we are to point the finger at others we need to be completely clean in our own back yard,” Burkhard Gnaerig, director of Save the Children, told Ethical Corporation.

The Charter outlines basic operating principles for international NGOs, such as ethical fundraising, political and financial independence, responsible advocacy, annual reporting, effective programs, and good governance.

—Elle McPherson


South Central L.A. Farm under Siege

South Central Farms was a 14-acre plot of vacant land in gang-ridden South Central Los Angeles when the city offered it to 360 low-income Latino families in 1992.

The families brought in their own dirt, seeds, and recycled fencing, and planted over 500 trees. They created a safe place for children to play, a venue for cultural festivals and a Sunday farmers market, and a vital source of food for upwards of 3,000 people. But in 2003, without public input, the city sold the land, which it had bought in the 1980s under eminent domain laws, to developer Ralph Horowitz, one of the original owners.

The farmers challenged the sale in court. But on May 23, before they could complete the legal process, the sheriff posted an eviction notice. The farmers sent out an urgent appeal, and an encampment of supporters was formed to hold the land. Julia Butterfly Hill, Joan Baez, Daryl Hannah, and John Quigley began a tree-sit, and celebrities and political and spiritual leaders visited the farm to show their support during the three-week standoff.

The farmers and their supporters raised $16 million—full market value for the land and triple what the developer paid for it—but Horowitz refused to sell. The police moved in with a massive show of force, paving the way for the developer to destroy the farm with a phalanx of bulldozers one week before the farmers' final July 12 court date.

Despite the devastation, the farmers and their supporters have vowed to take back the land and replant the gardens. At press time, supporters were awaiting the court decision.

—Velcrow Ripper

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