Assuming you haven't obliterated the 2011 political season from your memory -- and truly, who could blame you? -- you may recall that activists were conducting a pair of write-in campaigns on the November ballot.
In the District Attorney's race, advocates for police accountability were waging a somewhat paradoxical "whisper campaign" to write in the name "Jordan Miles." Miles, of course, is the Homewood high-school student accosted and beaten by undercover police back in 2010. Critics have been hoping -- vainly -- that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala would press criminal charges against the three officers involved. And Zappala was up for re-election -- unopposed -- this year.
Elsewhere on the ballot, environmental activist Dana Dolney and her supporters sought to write in her name in the county executive race. This was a reprise of Dolney's impromptu campaign during the spring Democratic primary; environmentalists were upset that all the major candidates in the race supported drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale layer.
So how did these write-in candidates do? Here are the totals, which our very own Chris Young has delivered fresh from the county's Elections Board (which requires a few weeks to tally write-ins):
Jordan Miles: 1,476 write-in votes (out of a total of 3,520 cast)
Dana Dolney: 704 write-in votes (out of total of 1,730 write-ins cast in that race)
On the bright side, the folks behind the Miles effort did garner more support than Republicans bothered to seek. And Dolney improved on her performance in the primary, in which she polled just under 500 votes.
But it's hard to imagine either Zappala, who garnered more than 181,000 votes, or county exec-elect Rich Fitzgerlad (142,000) losing much sleep over that.
I mean, to not capture a majority of the write-in votes, at least? Oof. If you can't garner the "malcontented smart-ass" vote -- which makes up the write-in electorate -- it might be time to rethink your political strategy.
Elsewhere on the interwebs, some pro-choice activists are raising concerns about Siri, the voice-activated iPhone function that caters to its user's every whim.
Well, maybe not every whim. Siri, it seems, can tell you where to find Italian restaurants in North Beach, remind you about appointments or chores you need to do. But when it comes to abortion and reproductive health, advocates worry, the cat seems to have its tongue:
I have heard from others in the women's reproductive health community that Siri is noticeably silent on these issues.
Siri works by reading your speech, translating that into whatever action is necessary -- pulling up a contact's information, adding an appointment to your calendar, or, if information is what the asker is after, pulling from the web. ... [So] if abortion information is plentifully available on the interwebs, and Siri is pulling those types of requests from the web, why does Siri not have an answer about birth control or abortion?
(H/t to DailyKos for link.)
We were curious about how Siri would handle reproductive-health related questions here in Pittsburgh. But inasmuch as we work in print journalism, we're not what you'd call "early adopters." So we consulted Andrea Shockling, who owns a newfangled Siri-compatible phone, and is an acquaintance of our music editor.
Shockling -- who was within city limits when she sought out this information -- found that when asked for women's health options around town, Siri indeed appeared a bit tongue-tied:
Requests for information on birth-control also prompted a shrug:
Still, when Shockling asked for Planned Parenthood by name, she got locations for clinics in the area. And even a more open-ended request produced valid results -- a listing of nearby OB-GYN practices:
Shockling suspects the problem may be that the interface system isn't quite as sophisticated as it may seem.
"The thing about Siri is you can't be too conversational," Shockling says. "She's a computer not a confidante. But ask for Planned Parenthood, and she'll tell you where they are located.
"I don't think there's any conspiracy," Shockling adds.
In fact, as with the sometimes comic results obtained by a mobile device auto-correct function, Siri's search results can provide some laughs. Assuming your medical condition isn't too dire, of course.
If you ask for "family planning," for example, you get family restaurants:
Though honestly, a few visits to a restaurant with your kids in tow -- or someone else's kids at the next table -- might actually be the best advertisement for birth control I know of.
Sure, the Republican candidates for president may all seem like losers, but you can still be a winner. For the next debate -- 8 p.m. Tue., Nov. 22, on CNN -- download our Republican debate Bingo cards, and get ready to turn meaningless clichés and buzzwords into victory.
There are six different Bingo cards, created by City Paper's Al Hoff, who has sat through every GOP debate this season. Using the links below, download one, two or all six!
TO PLAY: Every time a candidate -- not the moderator -- says the word in quotes listed on your card, cross off that square. Likewise if a candidate makes a reference to a category in capital letters (e.g. says "India," for ANY ASIAN COUNTRY). The middle square is a freebie: Cross it off when the first candidate says "Obama."
Mark off any five squares in a row -- vertical, horizontal or diagonal -- and that's a winning Bingo. Alternatively, the player with the most crossed-off squares at the end of the debate wins.
Bingo turns the debate into a nail-biter: Can this many Republicans talk for so long without saying "tax and spend," or mentioning their own wonderful family?
But wait, it's also educational! Playing Bingo forces you to listen to every word the candidates say. You'll never again miss a bungled reference to a Nirvana song, Rick Perry calling Americans "untrustworthy," or Ron Paul's insistence on "real money."
No need to thank us. Let the games begin!
I spent the Tuesday evening live-Tweeting Occupy Pittsburgh protest at the Developing Unconventional Gas conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. But here are a couple quick observations from the event:
*For one of the first times during the month-long occupation, tensions between protesters and police escalated as determined Occupiers crashed an opening-night reception hosted by oilfield services company Halliburton. Five protesters were arrested and charged with failure to disperse, defiant trespass and obstruction of roadways. The Post-Gazette has the identifications here.
I was surprised the number didn't increase. At one point, about 200 protesters and 20 officers -- including three K-9 units were standing toe-to-toe. At that point the ball was in the Occupiers court. If they wanted to, certainly some of them could have made it to the conference doors. However, most seemed to stick to their guns and did not give officers any reason to take action against them, just as they have for the entire occupation thus far.
The number looked as though it might rise to six when officers surrounded a protester (pictured above,) and accused him of touching and impeding conference attendees as they made their way downtown toward their hotels. Did some of the protesters get up close and personal with some of the attendees? Absolutely, and police warned them about it.
However, officers seemed to do little when attendees laid their hands on or got a little too close to protesters. I personally witnessed three or four instances of antagonistic behavior by those at the conference, but no admonition came from the cops.
*The other thing that struck me on Tuesday night was the interaction between those at the conference and those protesting. For the most part, protesters were well behaved. They were emphatic, they were loud and they were passionate, but by and large they were well-behaved.
The same can be said for most of the conference attendees. They were either polite as they made their way through the throng of protesters into downtown.
But then you had those on both sides who did nothing but belittle the other. There were multiple middle fingers flying throughout the evening, along with harsh words.
"How the fuck can you sleep at night?" screamed one protester at the passersby.
"Go to work," yelled one conference attendee. "We've got rigs and need people to work them."
But then you had both protesters and conference attendees who actually engaged one another, listening to each other's point of view. Neither side wavering, of course, but listening just the same
One conference-goer stood and talked to protesters for at least 20 minutes, listening to their perspective and sharing his own. While he didn't wish to give his name, he did talk with me a bit about why he decided to stop and chat.
"What I was trying to convey was that I've obviously spoken to a lot of gas people … and I [wanted them to] understand that no one here is anti-earth and we're working to make sure that the drilling is done as safely as possible.
"I think we need to be working toward using renewable energy as much as possible, but I also believe that right now natural gas is better than coal."
And while some protesters listened, it was pretty clear they were still skeptical of the industry and its regulation and planned to continue their protests.
"This whole industry is like a magician who urges you to ‘keep your eyes on my right hand' and in that hand he's got jobs and promises," says activist Elizabeth Donohoe. "And then when you're not looking at the left hand they're using it to put money in the pockets of a few by raping the natural resources of this state."
Citing a "humanitarian civil rights issue," advocates want to amend the city's hiring process, so that job applications for many government posts no longer inquire about an applicant's criminal history.
Currently, city job applications require candidates to check a "yes" or "no" box about whether they have been convicted "of any felony of the law." A subsequent line requires applicants to describe the offense.
But in a joint press conference and post-agenda meeting with City Council members Tuesday, representatives from the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project, Black Political Empowerment Project, Urban League and other groups asked that the box be stricken.
"In the right situations, with appropriately placed inquiry, criminal background checks promote safety and security at the workplace," said Dean Williams, director of the Formerly Convicted Citizens Project. "However, imposing a background check that denies any type of employment for people with criminal records is not only unreasonable, it can promote public-safety issues and can also be illegal under civil rights laws."
Advocates joined council member Rev. Ricky Burgess, who proposed a bill this spring to remove the box from city applications. (Burgess' bill exempts applications for public-safety positions like policework and firefighting; applications for those posts would still require a candidate to disclose any criminal history.) Yesterday, Burgess announced plans to expand his legislation to cover vendors who do business with the city.
"It is important that a criminal conviction doesn't become a life sentence," Burgess said. "These are people who have paid their debt to society and ere entitled to employment."
Burgess says that his bill wouldn't require the city to hire anyone with a conviction. Nor would it prevent the city from asking about a criminal background; it would only delay that question until after the rest of the applicants' history had been considered. "After the first interviews, if they are being seriously considered for the job, [the city] has every right to ask," Burgess says. "Then that person -- in person -- can defend or give context for their life history."
The FCCP put forward its own legislation at a post-agenda yesterday. The group's legislation extends beyond government hires, prohibiting all private employers within city limits from asking about criminal records on their written applications. The FCCP bill looks to the city's Commission on Human Relations, which investigates claims of discrimination, to enforce the measure.
"The problem with the box is that it doesn't distinguish between a person who has committed a low-level offense many years ago and has been completely rehabilitated versus a person who has recently committed a violent crime," says Williams.
Advocates met with Burgess and councilor Bill Peduto yesterday at a post-agenda hearing on Burgess's bill. Burgess said he planned to put forward a compromise version of his legislation, with hopes of passing it by the end of the year.
Six corrections officers at SCI-Pittsburgh were arraigned this afternoon on charges including official oppression, criminal conspiracy and witness intimidation. The charges come in the wake of explosive sex-abuse charges against Harry S. Nicoletti, a CO charged in September after a lengthy grand jury investigation by the District Attorney's office. As with Nicoletti's indictment, the allegations here focus heavily on claims that inmates -- especially those convicted of sexually abusing children -- were themselves targeted by COs for physical and psychological abuse.
The PA State Corrections Officers Association, which represents prison guards, has issued a statement about the charges: "As we have maintained, every citizen is entitled to his due process under the law. The legal system should be allowed to take its course."
A summary of allegations follows:
Brian Olinger. Olinger faces charges of official oppression. Page six of the linked affidavit outlines accusations by an inmate that Olinger "urinated and possibly defecated" in the inmate's bed while other COs watched -- and then, telling the inmate "I made your bed for you," made the inmate lie in it.
Bruce Lowther. Lowther's attorney, Mark Fiorilli, said Lowther was the most recent of the charged guards to be suspended from his job as a CO at SCI Pittsburgh. He was suspended without pay on Friday. He is charged with official oppression, simple assault and conspiracy. The affidavit outlines an accusation by an inmate who said Lowther and Nicoletti put the inmate's head in a toilet and forced the inmate to say that he was forced to do it because he is "a piece of shit." Fiorilli denied the charges: "We look forward to challenging these accusations," he said.
Jerome Lynch: Lynch is charged with official oppression, simple assault, conspiracy, intimidation of a witness, terroristic threats and criminal solicitation. The affidavit accuses Lynch of threatening a convicted child molester with "a lead enema." Lynch then allegedly smacked the inmate, threw him to the floor, and began choking the inmate with his arm against the inmate's throat, shouting, "I should just fucking kill you." His attorney, R. Hagen Starz, declined comment.
Kevin Friess: Friess is charged with official oppression, simple assault, criminal conspiracy and intimidation of a witness. Pages 12, 13, and 14 of the linked affidavit outline circumstances in which Friess allegedly participated in verbal abuse against inmates with Nicoletti. Page 14 outlines a circumstance in which Friess and two other COs were heard smacking an inmate. Inmates claim that Friess was a "lookout" officer while Nicoletti and Kelly abused inmates. Friess attorney Casey White denied the charges: "Consider the sources of these allegations," he said. "We're eager to defend [Friess] in court."
Sean Storey: Storey is charged with official oppression, simple assault and terroristic threats. On page seven, an inmate says he witnessed Storey take his shirt off, go into the cell of a "Caucasian male pedophile inmate" and come out "sweating with some blood on him." His attorney, Christopher Capozzi, denied the charges.
Tory Kelly: Kelly is charged with official oppression, simple assault, criminal conspiracy, conspiracy, terroristic threats, intimidation of a witness and stalking. In August, he was charged with intimidating a witness after the grand jury investigation was initially made public. Pages 16, 17 and 18 of the linked affidavit outline multiple instances where Kelly was accused of physically assaulting inmates.
Notably, two sergeants who City Paper believes were among those suspended earlier this year do not appear to be among those charged today.
Casey White, the attorney defending guard Kevin Friess, surmised that the men had become witnesses for the prosecution. Mike Manko, press secretary for the DA's office, would not comment. Instead, he forwarded DA Stephen A. Zappala's statement on today's arrests: "My office, and this community, cannot tolerate conduct like this from persons in an authority position in this type of institutional setting."
A+ Schools announced the good news during a press conference this morning, when the Hill District-based nonprofit unveiled its Seventh Annual Report to the Community on Public School Progress in Pittsburgh. The 125-page report, which provides an in-depth look at student achievement within individual schools and which tracks improvement compared to previous years, reveals a number of positive trends. In addition to narrowing the achievement gap between black and white students, the city district also saw an increase in "Promise-ready" students, as well as a rise in the district's graduation rate.
"We are seeing a lot of progress," Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools, announced at a press conference in the Hill District this morning. "There's plenty to be proud of in the Pittsburgh Public Schools."
The racial-achievement gap has long plagued school districts across the country, including Pittsburgh. But over the last four years, according to A+ Schools, the disparity between test scores for whites and blacks in the Pittsburgh Public Schools has been steadily decreasing.
In 2008, for instance, the gap between black and white students scoring proficient or advanced in reading on state tests stood at 34.9 percent. By 2011, however, that gap has narrowed to 30.6 percent. The achievement gap in math also narrowed over the same four-year period, from 28.5 percent in 2008 to 27.2 percent in 2011.
"We are pleased to see the achievement gap beginning to be closed," said Sala Udin, chairman of the board of A+ Schools. "We're beginning to make some movement."
Here are some positive highlights from the 2010-2011 report:
"It's important for us to celebrate the gains we've made," said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. "But we know our work isn't done."
Indeed, Harris pointed out during her presentation that there are still causes for concern when it comes to the district's racial divide, especially at the high school level. For example, she said, in all eight of the city's high schools, 60 percent of white seniors were eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship program. But in just two high schools were 60 percent of black students eligible for the academic scholarship.
While Harris noted that the district's high schools need to improve, her presentation didn't highlight any specific issues. But leafing through the high school section of the report, it's easy to see there are some serious problems.
Take Westinghouse High School, for instance. In 2011, 0 percent of its 11th-grade students scored proficient or advanced in science (the district average was 22.5 percent), while just 6.9 percent scored the same in math (the district average was 47.5 percent). Also, just 25 percent of Westinghouse seniors were eligible for a Promise scholarship, nearly 35 percentage points below the district average.
The good news is that the district is in the midst of reforming Westinghouse. The bad news, however, is that relaunching it as a 6-12 school with single-gender classes has proven to be a disaster.
While the mood at today's press conference was upbeat, it's uncertain how the district will be able to build upon its successes as it tackles a $38 million budget shortfall. On Nov. 7, Superintendent Linda Lane proposed cutting 300 teaching positions next year, the latest in a long line of belt-tightening measures introduced in recent months.
"The Pittsburgh Public Schools is facing a daunting challenge to keep making academic progress with less resources," Harris said.
We'll have to wait until next year's report to see if they succeed.
Jordan Miles for District Attorney?
It's unlikely to happen, but local police-accountability activists trying to drawn attention to their efforts have started a "whisper" campaign urging Allegheny County voters to write the former CAPA student's name on the Nov. 8 ballot instead of voting for current District Attorney Stephen Zappala.
"[Zappala] runs unopposed every time," says local activist Paradise Gray. "So why not run Jordan against him?
"We're committed to trying to get justice for Jordan," he adds. "This is a great way to bring more light to the case."
Since his controversial arrest and beating at the hands of three undercover city police officers last year, Miles has been the face of efforts to reform the Pittsburgh Police.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Miles was arrested by three members of an anti-gun task force, who claimed they mistook a bottled soft-drink for a gun -- no trace of either was found -- and said Miles tried to run from them and resisted arrest. But photos taken afterward of the former CAPA High School honors student, his face swollen and his scalp raw, became a flash-point of controversy across the city.
Anger over the incident increased in early May, when U.S. Attorney David Hickton announced that the officers involved in the beating -- Michael Saldutte, Richard Ewing and David Sisak -- would not face federal charges, due to a lack of evidence. Soon after, city officials announced the officers would be reinstated to the force. At rallies held soon after, protesters hoisted signs bearing Miles' beaten and bruised face, and urged Zappala to press charges against the officers.
They're still waiting.
Gray told City Paper that the idea for the write-in campaign was first discussed as far back as May, shortly before the Justice Department decision was announced. He says word began to spread once Zappala's office began investigating Miles' arrest shortly after.
It's unclear why the write-in campaign hasn't been publicized more heavily in the months since then -- especially with less than a week to go before the election. Generally speaking, the purpose of a write-in campaign is to get as many voters as possible to take part. But the effort is being billed as a "secret" ... and other than Gray, police-accountability activists who have been active in the Miles cause, including Tim Stevens and Brandi Fisher, did not return multiple phone calls for comment.
The effort does, however, have a Facebook page. So we'll have to see how far social media can help this whisper travel.
In an effort to ensure the financial stability of Occupy Pittsburgh, nearly 100 members of the local protest movement debated a proposal last night that would link Occupy Pittsburgh to a nonprofit fiscal sponsor, allowing the group to accept tax-deductible donations.
Two hours into the meeting, however, things turned ugly when one of the proposal's authors stormed out of the room, charging that facilitators were trying to "kill" the measure.
From the outset, the Occupy Pittsburgh encampment on Mellon Green has been sustained by donations of food, water, and even portable toilets. But it lacks a formal means for accepting financial contributions. During a general assembly meeting held inside the United Steelworkers building, Downtown, the Occupy Pittsburgh "donations working group" introduced a proposal to begin doing so.
Under that proposal, the movement could receive funds under the auspices of the Thomas Merton Center, a long-established peace-and justice group.
"Having the ability to accept online and check donations, and receive cash and non-monetary donations which are tax-deductible to the donors in a legal and organized way is an absolute necessity for the movement to continue," the one-page proposal states.
Nathaniel Glosser, who presented the proposal to the audience, estimated that it costs roughly $8,000-12,000 a month to run Occupy Pittsburgh's Downtown encampment. "There is a lot of need for funds ... and a transparent system to track [them]," he said.
Some occupiers suggested that Occupy Pittsburgh create its own nonprofit arm. But that would take at least six weeks, the working group concluded. So it proposed the sponsorship arrangement instead.
Fiscal sponsorship allows a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to sponsor a "project" whose participants haven't created a tax-exempt entity of their own. Other Occupy movements, including Occupy Wall Street, have found fiscal sponsors.
"A fiscal sponsorship is not an alliance, affiliation, or collaboration," the proposal states. "It simply is use of another organization's nonprofit status so that funding can be received, while members of Occupy Pittsburgh work towards becoming financially independent."
If the Garfield-based Merton Center became Occupy Pittsburgh's fiscal sponsor, it would take care of the movement's accounting and reporting to the IRS. The center would take a 5 percent administrative fee per transaction for its services.
"The Thomas Merton Center is uniquely qualified to be a sponsor of this group," Glosser said.
Not everyone was happy with the proposal. Some raised concerns about where the money would be deposited; Merton Center chair Michael Drohan told the audience that the center has an account at PNC -- whose business practices Occupiers have protested within the past couple weeks.
"I'll be damned if my money goes anywhere near [PNC Bank]," asserted Jim Blue Thunder, who'd been involved in a demonstration at a Downtown branch of PNC.
Other critics expressed concern about implications of being a "project" of The Thomas Merton Center, since not everyone may agree with the nonprofit's mission and principles.
Indeed, although last night's discussion didn't touch on it, the Merton Center's own finances, and its relationship with protest movements, have at times been rocky. The anarchist Pittsburgh Organizing Group, for example, had been a "project" of the center, but parted ways due to philosophical differences. Merton has also experienced financial stumbles of its own, which last year prompted the Center's board to lay off full-time staffers, a process Center leaders admitted wasn't handled well.
But those who supported making the Center a sponsor argued that developing a fiscal sponsorship would make the movement's finances more transparent, possibly enticing more donors. One occupier, who is part of the food working group, mentioned his discomfort when passers-by at Mellon Green make cash donations to him directly.
"I'd like to get this [money] out of my hands," he said.
Tom Cox, 49, of Lawrenceville, said many donors feel uncomfortable putting money in tip jars at the camp site. He said supporters of the movement would be more willing to donate to Occupy Pittsburgh if they could do so in a more organized way.
Most of the crowd appeared to agree: After a two-hour debate, facilitators held a straw poll to gauge support. By my estimate, supporters of a sponsorship outnumbered opponents by roughly two-to-one. (Notably, most of the opposition seemed to come from people who have been camping out at Mellon Green; support came largely from noncampers.)
But minutes after the straw poll, Glosser started yelling and stormed out. Other participants followed, urging him to calm down. "I'm too pissed!" he said. Accusing meeting facilitators of trying "to kill this proposal," he said, "I suggest everybody walk out!"
Reached the following day by phone, Glosser said, "It's an internal matter that I am not entirely comfortable discussing for publication."
After Glosser's departure, meeting attendees decided to table the proposal until next week, so the working group can further develop it.
But without naming Glosser, some people said they wanted another representative from that working group to lead future discussions. One occupier, whose question was shot down by Glosser earlier in the meeting, said he was tired of being bullied at general assemblies.
After the meeting broke for a recess, some said Glosser's outburst was nothing new. As occupier Bram Reichbaum said, "He has a bit of a temper."
Gov. Tom Corbett last week warned that transportation funding isn't his priority for this term. Port Authority CEO Steve Bland, meanwhile, is warning yet again that if the state doesn't act soon, riders can expect more misery.
Last week, Corbett was in town for a Waterways Symposium, and told the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review that he "doesn't have a deadline in mind of this year" for addressing statewide transportation issues.
Speaking to reporters after today's Port Authority board meeting, Bland says the governor's comment "gives us not much hope that something will be done in the short term.
"Whether you're Port Authority or other transit agencies," Bland added, "you have to start planning for that eventuality."
Port Authority brass last month presented what it called the "matrix of doom": scenarios for the transit agency based on possible state funding and a new contract with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, which represents Port Authority drivers. Bland announced on Sept. 23 that without contract concessions and help from the state, the agency could face a $64 million operating deficit. That could lead to layoffs, curtailment of night and weekend buses, and the elimination of weekend light-rail service as well as up to 40 routes. The agency is already reeling from previous cuts that reduced service by 15 percent, raised fees and laid off nearly 200 workers.
"If anyone had doubts in March that we were cutting into bone," Bland said at the time, "the next round would be pure amputation."
Frustration about Harrisburg's inaction has been palpable over the last year, and increasingly so after Corbett's remarks last week. Rick Geist, Republican chairman of the House transportation committee, told the Post-Gazette, "The governor put together a commission, and it put forth recommendations and then everything just stopped."
And last week, Republican Jake Corman (R-Centre), announced he will introduce legislation for a funding package, using many of the suggestions from the Governor's own Transportation Funding Advisory Committee Report. The TFAC report identified $2.5 billion in funding suggestions, from merging smaller transit systems to increasing registration and license fees.
In a statement, Corman cited the urgency of the transportation funding situation: "We can't continue to ignore these pressing challenges, which are directly related to public safety and economic development. Now is the time to act -- the evidence is overwhelming and the need is there. The only thing holding us back is political fear."
And while Bland notes that such support indicates "statewide consensus that we have to act sooner rather then later," he cautions that "clearly without the support of the governor it's going to be very difficult."