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#LiberateWE: A Call to Action

Wed, 2015-01-21 08:08
Over 50 lawyers, including myself and my wife, just participated in a mass die-in at the California Supreme Court.

We, and many thousands of other young people, want to make change happen.

We are pro-community justice. We want to be heard and understood. And our work is just getting started.

In the months since the recent deaths of far too many unarmed people of color, a nationwide movement has been catalyzed. Young people everywhere, including myself, have repeatedly taken to the streets to call on our elected officials to change the engagement polices that result in untimely deaths. We have called for implicit bias training and a robust data tracking system to increase transparency, among other things.

Much of this work has been on a city or regional level, with disparate groups calling for specific changes in their cities. All politics is local.

People have falsely said that the movement needs a leader. But those of us from within the movement have responded that this movement is not leaderless. It is leaderful.

One group of which I'm a part, the Coalition of Young Leaders (CYL), drafted and presented the following list of demands at a symposium for changing policing in San Francisco:

• ‪#‎25MillionOver5Years‬‬: Invest in black and brown initiatives -- both inside and outside the classroom.
• ‪#‎EnforceGeneralOrders‬‬: True Enforcement of SFPD General Orders -- consequences if violations are found.
• ‪#‎DocumentStudentSearches‬‬: SFUSD must keep record and data on each search and seizure of a student on campus.

• ‪#‎LocalHire‬‬&Diversity: Hiring of SFPD must be done with focus on local hiring from communities of color.
• ‪#‎CommunityFocusTraining‬‬: Implement proper training, addressing implicit bias, de-escalation and cultural competency
• ‪#‎UnArmedPolicing‬‬: SFPD must attend community events unarmed, and implement unarmed community policing.

• ‪#‎PoliceRelationsBoard‬‬: Police Relations Board must be reinstalled and have authority to provide police recommendations.
• ‪#‎RepresentationOnPoliceCommission‬‬: Create Police Commission public seat -- appointed by BOS and confirmed by Police Relations Board.
• ‪#‎StopMilitarization‬‬: Stop purchasing and return excess military-grade weapons. Use only in Mayor-declared "Emergency."

• ‪#‎RecordsOfPoliceShootings‬‬: Police involved shootings must be recorded, stored and reported to DOJ.
• ‪#‎30DayInvestigation‬‬: All pertinent information regarding police shootings must be made public within 30 days of the incident.
• ‪#‎AssignSpecialProsecutor‬‬: Assign independent special prosecutor in police involved killing, starting with the Alex Nieto investigation.
• ‪#‎ReducePaidLeave‬‬: Mandatory unpaid leave after police involved shooting must be reduced from 10 to five days.

• ‪#‎MeetWithTheMayor‬‬&LawEnforcement to propose and implement these demands.

Despite the long hours and hard work put in by various groups around the country, the movement has been subjected to criticism from those who seemingly have no understanding of what we are doing or pushing for.

The media narrative has been framed to consistently and deliberately aim to discredit the movement through discourse about our failings, often through the lens of the 1960s movements. That criticism can be summed up in this quote from a recent New York Times article on the new wave of protests:

"You could call it rebellious, or you could call it irrational...There has not been a rational analysis in how does A and B advance your policy change X and Y?"

The protestors have been compared to those taking part in Occupy Wall Street:

"Occupy had a staying power of, what, six months?... Three years later, is there any remaining footprint from Occupy? Not that I'm aware of."

The irony in this criticism is that, for years, our generation has been derided in various hit pieces, called everything from apathetic to narcissistic, overconfident, entitled and lazy. But now, as we aim to subvert or conquer our supposed generational penchant to be entitled and lazy by strategically using the Twitterverse to make movements bubble up from hashtags to mass die-ins and disruption of consumer spending holidays and traffic in rallies for #blacklivesmatter, we are criticized for having a different approach than our predecessors. We are told that we should take lessons from film portrayals of Dr. King and others so that we can make our movement move right. The same systems and organizations that have frozen us out for years now want to dictate and advise us on how we should engage to fight for our freedom.

We reject this.

Many of us have been fighting for or thinking strategically about racial justice for years. Most of us, the media has never heard of, but that doesn't mean that we are not out here.

In my own circles, I have posed the question: Once we stop the police from killing us, then what? To that end, I have started discussing and taking actions to form a group called #LiberateWe, tasked with thinking strategically about the long term goals involved in truly bringing about systemic change.

Despite criticism of us, the journalists and scholars should begin with criticism of themselves. Our movement is necessary because they were apathetic.

Recent news stories have reported that the black unemployment rate has been double the white unemployment rate for as long as records have been kept: 42 years! The black/white wealth gap has also increased: "The average African-American household takes home around 40 percent less income than a similar white family... [T]he median wealth of white households [was] 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households back in 2009."

We are making progress on achieving collegiate credentials, but it's often at the hands of private for-profit colleges: University of Phoenix is one of the largest issuers of degrees to minorities, and this comes with a hefty price tag.

These are just some of the myriad of issues we are facing.

Some of us are working behind the scenes to ask and answer questions about which legislative/policy changes we should organize around for the next 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 years. I am reaching out to people in an attempt to put together a list of outcomes we as a movement would like to see, and to form topical working groups and begin to brainstorm long-term solutions with tangible targeted actions. I have a couple of ideas to begin, but I would like this movement to be crowd-sourced. As stated above, we are not leaderless; we are leaderful.

One such idea is: Incomes 4 Outcomes (I40). Incomes 4 Outcomes (I4O) could either be an organization or an organizing mantra created to facilitate the empowerment of marginalized communities by leveraging their consumer spending power and redirecting a portion of it to influence the political, social and policy outcomes they want to see. The communities I visualize participating in Incomes 4 Outcomes are primarily young people, millennials and under-represented minorities -- people who individually possess a very small percentage of the collective American wealth, but are high consumers, and thus the target of massive marketing campaigns that seek to turn them into customers.

We seek to change this paradigm, and instead leverage that spending power to turn them into a social and political force that uses the power of the checkbook to hold politicians and corporations alike accountable. In the new political reality post-Citizen's United, marginalized communities must be able to use not only traditional organizing methods and social media to spread our message, but also our economic strength. Individual dollars and individual donors may not be able to command attention, but as a unified force, we can move mountains.

Over the next two to three years, Black consumer power is projected to reach $1.1 trillion, Latino spending power to reach $1.6 trillion, Asian spending power to reach $1 trillion and millennials reached $1 trillion. If we could divert just 5 to 10 percent of this spending power, we could create a more inclusive and representative America.

Another such idea is making student loan debt payments adjust according to regional costs of living. This is particularly relevant given who is likely to take on the most debt for college. (Psst.... It's us.)

I have also been toying with various ways to impact the criminal justice system outside of the legislative arena. At the present time, the stats are sobering.

According to the NAACP:

  • From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people

  • Today, the U.S. makes up five percent of the world population, and has 25 percent of world prisoners.

  • Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population, is under some form of correctional control

Research from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that:

  • Felony conviction or imprisonment significantly reduces the ability of ex-offenders to find jobs, costing the U.S. economy an estimated 57 to 65 billion annually in lost economic output.

  • Male offenders constitute 90 percent of people convicted of felonies in the U.S

  • The working-age, ex-felon population in the U.S. at 12.3 to 13.9 million.

  • One in 17 working-age adult men are former prisoners, and about one in eight men are ex-felons.

  • Additionally, the research found that only 40 percent of employers said they would consider hiring job applicants.

One potential solution I have is an app/movement called "2nd Impression," a mobile platform designed to make the job search for individuals with criminal records more productive and efficient by mapping employers who are proactively working to hire individuals with criminal records, and incentivizing them through increased community financial support.

The value added by 2nd Impression is three fold:

  1. Companies that actively work to hire returned citizens benefit from the good will of the community, which increases community support of the businesses' economic growth and development.

  2. Communities can hold businesses accountable for not developing and utilizing proactive hiring practices by choosing to redirect their consumer resources to businesses that do.

  3. Most importantly, returned citizens are more readily able to find jobs that will allow them to add value both to the institution and their community.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg of the immense mountains we must conquer to make racial justice in America a reality.

Now is the time to muster the energy into a sustainable change movement -- to really build local, regional and national power.

I'm calling on all activists to join with me to build or increase or network, and show the naysayers that they are wrong about us, just like they always have been.

In honor of Martin Luther King, we continue to dream of an America that will final live up to its ideals. But, just like him, we aren't only dreaming of that reality... We are crafting it.

I hope you will join with me.

In solidarity,

Brandon Greene

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner Could Look to Former Gov. Pat Quinn for Some Dos and Don'ts

Tue, 2015-01-20 22:39
As Gov. Bruce Rauner marked his first few days in office by signing several executive orders, Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek reflected on how the new governor could make his term similar or different from the previous governor:

I know we're well into the term of Gov. Bruce Rauner, but I keep thinking about the odd and unsettling way former Gov. Pat Quinn chose to end his time in office.

Quinn took more than a day to concede, never really congratulated the winner and helped secure a platinum parachute of a job heading up the Illinois Sports Facilities Board for his campaign manager, Lou Bertuca. He tried to hand out more than 100 other appointments and issue executive orders to force his way on wages for workers with state contracts and on his successor's and future governors' financial disclosures, but Rauner nullified those in his first week. Then Quinn capped it all off by not showing up for the transition of power when Rauner was sworn in.

Clearly, it is a difficult, painfully personal rejection to lose an election. It must be especially so when you see yourself as a lifelong champion of the people, a fighter for the little guy. And those people you thought you'd toiled for all of those years reject you. Even in your home Democratic base in Chicago and Cook County, they reject you.

That's got to be rough and that rejection ought to be something most of us can understand would be tough to take. It doesn't, however, in the least bit excuse or explain Quinn's actions, which were not at all gracious, classy or even democratic.

Is there something to learn from any of this? Perhaps the lesson for us, and for our new governor, is that it's tricky, if not nearly impossible, to be both an outsider and an insider.

Read more about what Rauner can learn from Quinn at Reboot Illinois.

Rauner also will have to learn from and work with other Democrats during his gubernatorial term--Democratic legislators and their leaders. Capitol Fax's Rich Miller says that a new poll shows that Illinoisans want Rauner and his new colleagues to work together to govern the state well. See the breakdown of responses across demographics at Reboot Illinois.

NEXT ARTICLE: Illinois prison worker reinstated after firing, even with his own long arrest record

Hollywood Director, Cathryn Michon, Discusses Her New Movie, "Muffin Top: A Love Story"

Tue, 2015-01-20 21:50
I learned some interesting factoids recently. Only 4% of Hollywood films are directed by women, but women buy 52% of the movie tickets. Hmmm. It seems that there are few females who crew on film sets and that only 15% of the major speaking roles in films are enacted by women. Double Hmmm.

But here is the real kicker: there are no females hired to write music scores. NONE!

Hollywood's Cathryn Michon, director, co-writer and actress of the movie, Muffin Top: A Love Story is trying to change all that. On Muffin Top , which she is also currently promoting around the country through an impressive Kickstater campaign, Michon claims to have hired the first female composer ever to score a film. In addition, 50% of the crew on Muffin Top was women, reflecting the percentage of people who actually buy tickets.

These are staggering facts, of course, but what really struck me is how laugh-out-loud funny Muffin Top: A Love Story is. And not just for me. My boyfriend and the whole audience was howling.

I knew that a film that has a tag line, "Love hurts. Cake helps," would resonate with me. However, I didn't think my male friends would engage as much. Michon explains that, "Men are also tired of hearing how women hate their bodies and how they wish they were supermodels." So they can relate to the hilarious trials and tribulations of the average female's journey to accept her own body, and ultimately, her life.

Muffin Top is the story of Suzanne who, while going through a divorce, also goes through a period of self criticism and insecurity, which sends her down the path of mild self-destruction, but also self-discovery, coming out stronger and more grounded on the other side. She experiences some liposuction, chicken cutlets as breasts, dating younger men and a series chocolate cravings to get there, keeping us in stitches along the way.

Muffin Top: A Love Story Official Trailer #2 HD from Muffin Top on Vimeo.

It is remarkable and commendable that Michon put her labor of love , Muffin Top, together on the smallest of budgets with the smallest of crews, and yet the film overlooks no detail. The result is a film that looks like it was made for 10 times the budget.

Ah, but Cathryn hails from Chicago. She studied theater at Northwestern and went on to perform with Second City before moving to LA and writing for such TV hits as Designing Women, China Beach, Sisters, South Park and Diagnosis Murder. So it should be no surprise that she has an insatiable work ethic and that no stone was left unturned in making Muffin Top into a funny and smart film, as slick and professional as any Hollywood romantic comedy blockbuster out there today.

Enjoy the trailer for Muffin Top above and my interview with Cathryn Michon and James Beard Award winning Chef Mindy Segal for our mini Dinner Party over sweets from Mindy's Hot Chocolate below. In the podcast, Cathryn and Mindy share some words of wisdom for young female directors and chefs.

Muffin Top: A Love Story is available on On Demand, iTunes, and more. Cathryn Michon will return to Chicago on February 16th as a guest on The Dinner Party.

This Was The Best Moment Of Obama's State Of The Union Address

Tue, 2015-01-20 21:49
President Barack Obama drew some unexpected applause during Tuesday night's State of the Union address following a line he has often repeated since his 2012 re-election.

"I have no more campaigns to run," Obama said.

The comment sparked a round of applause from Republicans in the audience, drawing the attention of Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The president smiled in response and ad-libbed, "I know, because I won both of them."

That remark drew even more applause, only this time from the Democratic side of the aisle.

Republicans, on the other hand, were quick to criticize Obama for conveniently ignoring the results of the 2014 election -- which handed Republicans control of Congress by large margins.

"True to form, the President in his State of the Union speech is more interested in politics than in leadership," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wrote on Facebook. "More intent on winning elections than on winning progress, he ignores the fact that the country has elected a Congress that favors smaller government and lower taxes."

Kshama Sawant Set To Deliver Socialist Rebuttal To Obama's State Of The Union Address

Tue, 2015-01-20 17:18
For the second consecutive year, a Seattle city council member and "proud Socialist" will deliver a rebuttal to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.

Kshama Sawant was elected to city council on a Socialist Alternative platform in 2013. She's scheduled to deliver her remarks Tuesday evening directly after the GOP rebuttal, which will be given by freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) following the conclusion of Obama's address.

A college professor and proponent of the Occupy movement, Sawant touted her support for a measure to increase Seattle's minimum wage to $15 an hour as a key part of her campaign. The city later passed that wage hike in a historic vote, and in November, Sawant was arrested in a protest against an effort to deny certain airport workers that level of pay.

In 2014, Sawant also offered a rebuttal to Obama's State of the Union address, criticizing the president for not pushing more aggressively on wage stagnation and deepening economic inequality, themes that Obama is expected to address again on Tuesday. She also blasted both parties for their failures to crack down on Wall Street "criminals" and for their support of drone warfare and government surveillance programs.

Watch Sawant's 2014 rebuttal below:

'The Center For People With Things For Hands' Is Here To Lend You A Helping Hand

Tue, 2015-01-20 16:12
There's help! High five! ... Shoot, sorry.

According to the "Center For People With Things For Hands," one in 10 million people is born with things for hands every year. People with things for hands have previously had nowhere to turn for help. And sometimes they couldn't turn at all, because their hands were knives or scissors or something sharp, and if they turned too quick, they might hurt someone.

But now, thanks to comedy web series "Things For Hands," people with things for hands are getting the attention they deserve. So whether your hands are spatulas, teddy bears, or boxes of Eggo waffles, finally there's help.

Yeah, put 'er there! ... Ah, again, sorry.

Schools Should Show 'Selma'!

Tue, 2015-01-20 15:56
I was in seventh grade in Cleveland when the images of Selma, Alabama in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, flashed across my parents' black-and-white television screen on March 7, 1965.

Rev. Hosea Williams, played by Wendell Pierce in the film, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) led nearly 600 coming straight from church in that March march. [Editor's Note: This is not a typo. The march took place during the month of March.] Lewis wasn't a congressman back then. He was a student and a co-founder of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also referred to as "snick." Rev. Williams, a WWII decorated Purple Heart veteran.

In his 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, Lewis remembers the attack's aftermath "awash with sounds of groaning and weeping" inside the church from those daring, caring, crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge with Alabama state troopers, arms akimbo, waiting on the other side at US Highway 80.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of this American tragedy, the Ava DuVernay/Oprah Winfrey/Brad Pitt/Christian Colson/Jeremy Kleiner/Dede Gardner/Pathe-produced, Academy-Award-nominated Selma, hits movie screens in time for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's federal holiday. Alabama's vale of tears and fears, tear-gas-masked law enforcement officers on horseback and on foot, smashing heads, bashing backs of unarmed protestors, seeking enforcement of equal voting rights for all Americans, regardless of color.

For his trouble, John Lewis, played by Stephan James, had his skull cracked open, scars still borne. President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6.

Our nation's finest not so fine that day, Bloody Sunday, shouting ugly racial epithets, including the N-word. Oh, there was a special word, too, for white protestors, considered traitors to their race. The voice of Sheriff Jim Clark, could be heard on ABC-TV news footage yelling, "Get those goddamned niggers! And get those goddamned white niggers." Sheriff Clark's quote heard on ABC News footage is not in the film. It can be found in Rep. Lewis' autobiography, previously mentioned, published by Simon & Schuster, p. 331 and also, excerpted in Living Through the Civil Rights Movement, edited by Charles George, published by Greenhaven Press in 2007.

Selma! Seeing Oprah, playing activist Annie Lee Cooper, haul off and slug Sheriff Clark, played by Stan Houston. What wallop Winfrey wailed! Annie, it turns out, an Oprah fan in real-life, eating her tuna sandwich every afternoon, watching Oprah's show. Dear Annie passed away a few months after reaching her hundredth birthday in 2010.

Selma should be shown in every civics, social studies and history class in this nation at both public and private schools. But will it be? It's doable, but will it be done?

Why don't the filmmakers take the initiative on this one and provide Selma DVDs free of charge to schools nationwide, funding this effort through some of the film's profits? Just asking.

It's oft been said that those who don't learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. But you need to know what your history is before you can learn from it. Selma DVDs in every classroom is a start.

As a personal aside, I booked comedian/civil rights trailblazer Dick Gregory with the help of longtime friend, George O'Hare, honored by Chicago's Roman Catholic Archdiocese with the St. Katharine Drexel Award for his civil rights work. My then-sophomore niece Jacqueline, Bryn Mawr College's Co-Chair of Black History Month had asked for help getting a keynoter. Gregory singularly paved the way for black comics to get equal treatment in comedy clubs nationwide starting with Chicago's Playboy Club and to get equal treatment as guests on NBC's The Tonight Show.

Yes, it was Dick Gregory, paving the way for comics/satirists Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Anna Deavere Smith, Maya Rudolph (daughter of soul singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton), Wanda Sykes and even Bill Cosby.

On February 28, 2013, 80-year-old Gregory performed for three hours straight without a bathroom break to a packed house at Bryn Mawr College for Black History Month. Two standing ovations.

However, to my astonishment, most of the students didn't know who Dick Gregory was until they Googled him. Dick Gregory, who is called by name in Selma. Gregory's appearance at Bryn Mawr, was a teaching moment and the college did a great thing in providing the venue to make this event happen. We need more of these teaching moments. A Selma DVD in every classroom would provide a teaching moment.

The best and the brightest students in our nation attend Bryn Mawr, a highly selective and very competitive Seven Sisters school in a Philadelphia suburb, boasting a student body from all 50 states and from many countries around the globe; yet despite this tremendous geographic diversity and outreach with students coming from many different schools the world over, the vast majority of the students weren't being taught about Gregory, a living civil rights legend in their elementary and secondary schools before attending college. Who and what else has been left out?

Growing up in Cleveland, the first American big city to have a black mayor, Carl Stokes, who was not only elected in 1967, but re-elected, the civil rights history of the 1960s wasn't in our school books because we were living it. It wasn't history yet. It was now. Excellent books like Ivy League University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas J. Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (Random House Trade Paperbacks 2008), were yet to be written.

Today, 50 years later, what's the excuse for Dick Gregory, who will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 2, 2015, and others like him, not being taught in classrooms? Or the roles of women and Hispanics and Native Americans in our nation's civil rights struggles left out of students' studies on their way to getting their high school diplomas?

Selma tries to rectify these startling omissions somewhat, including real-life Selma activists Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), Richie Jean Jackson (Niecy Nash), Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson) married to James Bevel (Common), and giving a larger role to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) and representing Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), a white Detroit housewife and mother of five, murdered by the Klan for her Selma civil rights work.

Lynne Olson's Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (Scribner 2001), a book I stumbled across on a library shelf, researching the civil rights movement in preparing to see Selma, goes into greater detail than the film on many of these civil rights heroines as does John Lewis' fine autobiography.

As an attorney myself, I especially appreciated the performances of Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr. playing civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, whose clients included Rosa Parks, and Martin Sheen as Judge Frank Minis Johnson, the federal judge whose rulings made the march from Selma to Montgomery eventually possible. They are role models every student should see and learn about. The excellent all-star cast includes David Oyelowo with a pitch perfect rendition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tim Roth (Gov. George Wallace), Dylan Baker (J. Edgar Hoover).

What if Selma producers Oprah, Brad Pitt and director/producer Ava DuVernay were to step it up a notch and tour the nation's schools, giving an in-person introduction before the viewing of the Selma DVD, talking about their experiences and those of their families watching the civil rights struggle unfold? Like what it meant to them as schoolchildren. Now that would be something. What an impact that would make. Especially if parents were invited who might share, too.

Lonna Saunders may be reached at

Black Ex-Cop Shot 28 Times By White Officers Walks Free From Prison

Tue, 2015-01-20 13:24
A former Chicago cop who was shot 28 times in a skirmish with police a decade ago was preparing to spend the rest of his life behind bars — until the 63-year-old’s 40-year prison sentence was commuted last week.

Last Wednesday, Howard Morgan walked free after his was among 43 clemency petitions that were granted by former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on the final day of his term.

Morgan’s release from prison comes almost 10 years after the run-in with police that forever changed his life. On Feb. 21, 2005, he was pulled over for driving the wrong way on a one-way street while off-duty from his job as a detective for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line, a position he took after working some eight years for the Chicago Police Department.

What happened next is in dispute. Police say Morgan became belligerent, then opened fire with his service weapon when four officers attempted to arrest him. Morgan contends that the officers began firing at him as soon as they saw his weapon and that he never fired a shot, to which the only independent eyewitness testified. As MSNBC reports, Morgan was shot 28 times — 21 of them in his back — while three of the officers were wounded (Morgan's attorney at the time suggested they were hit by "friendly fire").

In 2007, a jury found Morgan not guilty on three counts, including discharging his weapon, and deadlocked on a charge of attempted murder. At a retrial in 2012, a second jury found him guilty of attempted murder and he was later sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The decision prompted an outcry from many who believed Morgan was unfairly convicted in a violation of the federal “double jeopardy” law, which generally forbids a defendant from being prosecuted twice for the same offense. Critics also say physical evidence in the case, including the van Morgan was driving that night, was either destroyed or hidden. Over 40,000 people signed onto a petition calling for his release from prison.

“What I really believe this is is an example of driving while black,” Morgan's current attorney Benjamin Crump told MSNBC. “And we don’t need to go much further than that.”

While Morgan is no longer behind bars, his conviction has yet to be reversed, something Morgan said at an emotional press conference last Friday that he hopes to achieve soon.

“Right now I’m just concentrating on clearing my name, dealing with this conviction,” Morgan said, according to WGN. “Clearing it because I’m absolutely innocent of those charges.”

Meanwhile, John Wrigley, one of the CPD officers wounded in the skirmish with Morgan, told ABC Chicago he doesn’t believe the governor carefully considered all the evidence in the case before making his decision.

"I was never asked any questions, never given a chance to give my side of the story or tell the facts of the case, the true facts of the case,” Wrigley told ABC.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez is reportedly angry with the governor’s decision, as is Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo, who told Fox he considered it “truly a slap to the faces of those very officers who were wounded that night.”

Yes, Billy Crystal DID Just Make A Homophobic Statement (And Here's Why It Matters)

Tue, 2015-01-20 12:12
On Sunday, while promoting his new FX show "The Comedians" at a Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour panel, Billy Crystal was asked about playing a gay role on the ABC show "Soap" in the late '70s and how television has changed since that time.

In his response, the comedian talked about being uncomfortable with how sexualized some shows have become and, in doing so, employed a few phrases like "a little too far for my tastes" and "shove it in our face" that always trip my homophobia sensors and make me want to protest by grabbing every man in sight by whatever appendage is handiest and dragging them into a studio to stage a gay sex telethon that will be broadcast into the living rooms of every family in the world.

Still, I wanted to give Crystal the benefit of the doubt and I initially went out of my way to find a way to excuse what he seemed to be saying. Maybe some kind of further context was missing? Maybe you had to be in the room to see his body language and hear the tone of his voice? Maybe he really wasn't separating his displeasure with viewing gay sex scenes from his displeasure with viewing straight sex scenes?

However, it didn't take long for Crystal to confirm my fears. In a follow up interview with Xfinity's tv blog, the actor addressed his earlier comments, saying in part (emphasis mine):
"First of all, I don't understand why there would be anything offensive that I said. When it gets too far either, that world exists because it does for the hetero world, it exists, and I don't want to see that either. But when I feel it's a cause, when I feel it's "You're going to like my lifestyle," no matter what it is, I'm going to have a problem and there were a couple of shows I went 'I couldn't watch that with somebody else." That's fine. If whoever writes it or produces it...totally get it. It's all about personal taste."

What supposedly began as an indictment of any kind of graphic sexual content on TV quickly revealed itself to be exactly what it is: homophobia.

That word is admittedly a scary one. Most civilized, sane people don't want to be called homophobic. Most people don't want to hear that they've done something or said something or thought something that could be construed as offensive to gay people -- especially when they're our friends and our allies. But, the fact of the matter is that we live in a homophobic society and it follows that most people -- including many gay people -- are going to fall victim to homophobic thoughts or feelings at some point, even if they don't always recognize them as such. We've all been steeping in this kind of thinking from the moment we arrived on this planet -- how could we not be homophobic? It doesn't mean that you're murdering gay people. It doesn't mean your campaigning to take away gay people's rights. It doesn't even mean that you're a homophobe. You can be the sweetest, kindest person and write checks to PFLAG and have six gay friends and two gay brothers and have officiated your workout partner's gay wedding but if you believe that gay people simply trying to live their lives (on television or off) are pushing a "cause" or if you think we're trying to force anyone to like our gay "lifestyle" (side note: we don't use that word anymore, Billy), that's homophobic.

You're effectively saying that being gay isn't normative and that our "lifestyle" is something you don't want pushed on you. And that's homophobic. You feel threatened -- in whatever small, specific ways -- by gay lives, experiences or expressions of affection and that -- say it along with me -- is homophobic.

As far as having a problem with anyone trying to push a "lifestyle," -- I think we can all read between the lines there. Let's not forget that one of the great things about being straight is that no one is ever going to accuse you of pushing your "lifestyle" on anyone else because your "lifestyle" is already the status quo. It's everywhere! You don't have to worry about your televised kisses or -- sweet baby Jesus help us! -- sex scenes being referred to as some kind of gratuitous political statement (or a "lifestyle") because your kisses and -- sweet baby Jesus help us! -- sex scenes are fundamentally seen as normal and healthy. What other "lifestyles" could he be talking about? People in relationships with balloon animals? Vegans who refuse to stop wearing leather? Whatever they are, I'm willing to bet my 401k he isn't talking about being straight as a "lifestyle."

When I pointed out all of the above on my Facebook page on Monday, I was surprised to find some people -- gay men, no less -- challenging me. The responses ranged from "you can't just say someone is being homophobic!" to "how does this impact you? who cares?"

But you can -- and should! -- call out homophobic thinking or statements when you encounter them, especially when it's coming from celebrities who have very public platforms (and who should know better). And it impacts all of us. Not only do words have consequences and influence how we think about each other and ourselves, but a moment like this matters because it's a barometer of how far we've come and how far we have to go when someone who (as far as I can tell) is an ally can make a statement like this and then not only defend it but lash out at those who question it. And that's exactly what Crystal did later in his Xfinity interview when he addressed the fact that the gay journalist conducting the interview had been asked by others who attended the panel if he had found the comedian's comments offensive:
We live in a very scary time in many ways. You can't say this, you can't say that, you can't offend this group, that group. People come up to you and ask if you were offended. I don't understand that. I understand it why everyone is watching out for the other person. That's offensive to me.

What's offensive to me is that Crystal would be offended by "everyone... watching out for the other person." Isn't that exactly what we're supposed to be doing? Looking out for each other -- especially our allies who often have access to platforms and visibility that many queer people still can only dream about.

Instead, when we speak up and say "Uh... did you really mean this? And if you did, we've got a bit of a problem..." we're labeled touchy or uptight or as shit stirrers.

But that's just the thing. Beneath all of the progress we've made, the shit -- from disgust with our sex lives to frustration with our wanting to push our "cause" and "lifestyle" -- still exists. We can pass all of the laws we want and we can give queer people all the same rights as non-queers, but if the fundamental feeling about us is still "Ew! Yuck! I don't want to see that!" or "Stop shoving that in our faces!" I hardly call that progress.

I don't hate Billy Crystal. I don't think he's a homophobe. I have a sense of humor. I'm not offended by any and everything that is said about queer people. But I do want and expect more from allies and when I hear something that I know is based on feelings that at their heart are untrue, unfair or just plain bullshit, I'm going to say something. And I think we all should. This isn't about stirring the shit -- this is about flushing it once and for all.

SOTU Preview: The State of the Union Address Is Decadent and Depraved

Tue, 2015-01-20 11:02
When it comes to Tuesday's State of the Union Address, I have a crystal ball. Gather for a gander.

As editor of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine, an 81-year-old monthly collection of the best American rhetoric, I've live-blogged every one of President Obama's five previous State of the Union Addresses.

But I haven't blogged the SOTU at the Vital Speeches website, or at the website of the Professional Speechwriters Association.

Why? Because these institutions have class, and I don't blog the SOTU sober -- or even sane.

See, the SOTU isn't primarily about speechwriting, or even communication. It's about Washington code-making and code-breaking, a process that's by turns amusing, enraging and soul-straining.

So I live-blog the SOTU at my personal blog, Writing Boots.

And I drink.

Based on what's happened every year I've covered the SOTU, here's what I know will happen this year, no matter how groundbreaking everyone claims this one's it's going to be.

1. Even if it's a great State of the Union Address -- assuming that's possible -- the State of the Union Address will be a terrible speech.

To deride SOTU as a "laundry list" is to know what an actual laundry list is. Seriously, what is a laundry list? The State of the Union is a bankrupt communication genre that could be improved in only two ways: By shortening it to a 15-minute fireside chat about one essential subject and telling everybody the rest of it's in the PowerPoint deck at Or by abolishing it altogether, as we have done with laundry lists.

2. The cable news talking heads will hoist themselves on their own punditards

Suffocated by the partisanship of MSNBC and Fox, I'll retreat to CSPAN, but the first geeky reference to a "prebuttal" will send me over to CNN -- only to be sickened by the visceral cravenness of Wolf Blitzer, not to mention his strange breathing patterns. As I point out (breath) every year, Wolf (breath) Blitzer, who Herman Cain and I (breath) call (breath) "Blitz," breathes at the strang(breath)est intervals.

During the early pundit patter, David Gergen will intone that president has to avoid being boring, Newt Gingrich will say talk is cheap, and Wolf Blitzer will analyze the president's breathing patterns. (The first two actually happened last year.)

And so, even before the speech, I will become unserious.

"Gergen declares it's 'glorious' that State of the Union is delivered by a black guy and Republican response delivered by Latino," I wrote two years ago. "But David, this country won't really be free until you can appear on TV without your comb-over."

3. The speech itself will make one wish one were young again, and alive.

After making a few temperate and boring analytical observations about the language and rhetoric, I will begin to lose my composure, about the conventions of the SOTU tradition. "Human props. Fuck Ronald Reagan for starting this repulsive ritual, and fuck these plastic Washington creeps for continuing it. I'm swearing a lot, aren't I?"

Occasionally, the State of the Union has the power to move me -- and my wife. In 2012, I wrote this at 10:19 p.m. "At the end, I'm transfixed at the top of the stairs, standing in a puddle of wine. The wife is downstairs bellowing at me: 'I told you this was going to be the big speech. He is amazing!'"

Alas, if you ask me today to name or even recognize one phrase from the 2012 SOTU, I couldn't do it.

4. The Republican response will be somewhere on a scale from boring to laughable -- and it won't be the Republicans' fault.

I always time my buzz perfectly for the SOTU, but not quite right for the GOP response. So I have a hard time listening to it, and my criticisms aren't terribly substantive. In 2010 I wrote, "An empty cab drove up, and Bob McDonnell got out and gave this speech." In 2011, I compared Paul Ryan to Eddie Haskell and called him a "bedwetter." And in 2012, I presciently observed, "The water shortage was the only thing anyone will ever remember from the Rubio speech."

But really -- if the SOTU is more political theater than persuasive communication, what can be said of the opposing party's "response," written sight unseen?

If the SOTU is laundry-list lame, the GOP response is bill-of-lading boring.

5. The SOTU-watching nation will go to bed feeling less intellectually organized for the experience.

I should probably be embarrassed to share a few of my late-night SOTU outbursts from yesteryear ...

"My mother said that before you're 30, you have the face you were born with. After 30, you have the face you deserve. Ted Cruz well over 30. He even has the hair he deserves. Shiny-ass '50s hair."

"Bachmann's speech reminds me of a speech I read the other day by the Sultan of Selangor."

"Fox is using the terribly scientific 'bing pulse' graph to see which of Obama's lines inspired orangutans to masturbate and which made them pick their asses."

... except, the whole evening of the SOTU is characterized by vulgarity and incoherence too.

Which is what makes it so much fun.

Join me at Writing Boots. Speech starts at about 9:00 eastern, but the tailgating starts a couple hours before.

These Pin-Up Photos From 'Shameless Photography' Show That Every Body Is Gorgeous

Tue, 2015-01-20 08:40
Anyone can be a gorgeous, glamorous pin-up model.

That's the idea behind Shameless Photography, started by photographer Sophie Spinelle in 2009. Spinelle, alongside fellow photographers Carey Lynne and Maxine Nienow, aims to help clients feel beautiful and confident in their bodies during their photoshoots. The result is sexy, feminist, body-positive images.

(Some images below may be considered NSFW.)

As well as providing commercial photoshoots, Shameless hosts a yearly "Love Your Body" competition, inviting women to write love letters to their bodies for the chance to win a photoshoot with the Shameless team. More importantly, according to Spinelle, the letters create a sense of online community, and spread the message of body love.

"We get hundreds of amazing letters from around the world," Spinelle told The Huffington Post. "People with cancer, rape survivors, mothers of seven, trans women, pole dancers -- you name it. We post a selection of the letters and invite people to read them and share them."

"Doing this work has transformed my life," Spinelle told The Huffington Post. "I've met the most amazing people, and they've been brave enough to share their fears and dreams with me, and to have that become part of the photographs. I've learned how rare confidence really is, and how precious. You'd be amazed how many truly beautiful people have no idea that they're beautiful, and it has a huge affect on what they feel is possible for their lives."

Spinelle hopes that clients and strangers alike will be inspired by the images and learn to love their bodies.

"The most important audience for the Shameless pinups series is the models themselves," Spinelle told HuffPost. "I hope that when they look at these images, they can see how truly powerful, inspiring, and soul-deep beautiful they really are."

See more incredible photographs from Shameless Photography below.

Obama's State Of The Union Speech Will Aim To Influence 2016 Debate

Tue, 2015-01-20 04:40

WASHINGTON (AP) — Key elements of the economic proposals President Barack Obama will outline in his State of the Union address Tuesday appear to be aimed at driving the debate in the 2016 election on income inequality and middle-class economic issues, rather than setting a realistic agenda for Congress.

Obama's calls for increasing taxes on the wealthy, making community college free for many students and expanding paid leave for workers stand little chance of winning approval from the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill. But the debate over middle-class economics is looking critical for the coming campaign.

"Inequality_and especially the growing opportunity gap_have become the top litmus test of seriousness for 2016," said Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist who has discussed inequality issues with the president and his advisers. "The entry ticket for the presidential sweepstakes is that you have a policy — some policy — for dealing with this issue."

Indeed, potential Republican candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have been talking openly about income inequality and the need to give lower-earning Americans more opportunities. On the Democratic side, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren appears intent on keeping the party focused on a populist economic agenda, even if she doesn't plan to run for president herself.

As the nation's attention increasingly turns to the 2016 election, the Obama White House is making clear that it still wants to set the terms of the economic conversation.

"I think we should have a debate in this country between middle-class economics and trickle-down economics and see if we can come to an agreement on the things we do agree on," White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

The president's advisers argue that's a debate they have won previously, including in Obama's victory over Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign and the fiscal cliff fight with Congress that led to the raising of George W. Bush-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans.

However, Obama no longer has the political advantage on Capitol Hill that he would need to enact more tax increases. When Obama addresses Congress Tuesday night, he will be standing before a Republican majority in both chambers for the first time in his presidency.

The president and GOP leaders have spoken about their desire to compromise, but the opening weeks of the new Congress have offered few glimpses of where both sides plan to find common ground. Obama's economic proposals will do little to move the White House and Republicans closer together, given the GOP leadership's aversion to raising taxes on wealthy Americans.

The president's proposal would increase the capital gains rate on couples making more than $500,000 annually to 28 percent, require estates to pay capital gains taxes on securities at the time they're inherited, and slap a fee on the roughly 100 U.S. financial firms with assets of more than $50 billion.

Administration officials said much of the $320 billion in new taxes and fees would be used for measures aimed at helping the middle class, including a $500 tax credit for some families with two spouses working and a $60 billion program to make community college free.

Obama is also asking lawmakers to increase paid leave for workers. And he's moved unilaterally to lower a mortgage insurance rate that could help attract first-time homebuyers.

The White House cast the president's measures as steps that can help keep up economic momentum amid a recent spurt of growth that has also seen the unemployment rate fall below 6 percent.

There has been little Republican support for much of what the White House has rolled out ahead of Obama's address.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the White House's tax proposal "the same old top-down approach we've come to expect from President Obama that hasn't worked." And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is weighing a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, said the president's approach was outdated.

"Raising taxes on people that are successful is not going to make people that are struggling more successful," Rubio said.

In keeping with State of the Union tradition, first lady Michelle Obama will watch the speech along with invited guests whose stories bring to life some of the policies the president will tout.

Among those joining Mrs. Obama for this year's speech are Alan Gross, who was released from a Cuban prison last month as part of Obama's decision to normalize relations with the communist island nation; Chelsey Davis, a student from Tennessee who plans to graduate community college in May; and Dr. Pranav Shetty, who has been working on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The effort to control Ebola is expected to be one of the foreign policy matters Obama addresses in a speech. While the president is not likely to make any major foreign policy announcements, he is expected to tout the formal end of the Afghan war, update the nation on the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and urge lawmakers not to enact new sanctions on Iran while the U.S. and its partners are in the midst of nuclear negotiations with the Islamic republic.


Follow Julie Pace at

#ReclaimMLK: Activists Nationwide Follow In MLK's Footsteps To Protest Racial Injustice

Mon, 2015-01-19 17:09
Martin Luther King Jr. Day held special significance for many this year, as people across the country came out to volunteer, march and celebrate the civil rights leader's legacy on the first MLK Day since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

Activist groups called for the celebrations and demonstrations this year to be tied to recent efforts to draw attention to racial inequality and police brutality. Leaders from groups like Black Lives Matter and Ferguson Action helped organize events for the holiday through a campaign called #ReclaimMLK. Several other hashtags were associated with MLK Day events as well, including #DayOfAction, #WWMLKD, #PledgeOfResistance and #BeLikeKing.

With its #ReclaimMLK events, Ferguson Action, a grassroots civil rights organization birthed out of the heightened racial tension in Ferguson following Brown’s death, encouraged activists to resurface the “radical, principled and uncompromising" nonviolent protest tactics King used during the civil rights movement.

“Martin Luther King Jr’s life’s work was the elevation, honoring, and defense of Black Lives. His tools included non-violent civil disobedience and direct action,” reads a statement on “From here on, MLK weekend will be known as a time of national resistance to injustice.”

People around the nation took that sentiment to heart:

On early Monday morning, protesters in California gathered outside the home of newly elected Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who spent her first day in office with Oakland police.

Protesters chanted “Wake up Libby!” “No sleeping on the job!” and “You chose to prioritize blue, but today you will hear black,” according to

In a statement emailed to The Huffington Post, Schaaf wrote: "We live in the best and most diverse city in the greatest nation on earth with the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. As Oakland's Mayor I am committed to connecting our police and our communities to ensure public safety and the protection of our ideals."

And on Sunday night, about 150 people marched through the streets in the Bay Area to protest against racial injustice as part MLK weekend activities.

The cast of the Oscar-nominated film "Selma" also took to the streets Sunday evening to hold their own demonstration in Selma, Alabama, in tribute to King. The film's director, Ava Duvernay, and Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Common led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Meanwhile, across the nation in New York City, hundreds gathered in Harlem and marched downtown as they chanted “No justice, no peace” and held signs saying “Black Lives Matter.”

In Philadelphia, thousands of people gathered to march through Center City, calling for police and criminal justice reform.

"[T]his year, King's legacy is being thought of in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement which has spread like wildfire throughout the United States and around the world. Ignited by the killings of Islan Nettles, Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis and too many more by police and vigilantes, Dr. King's legacy and his work take on a different meaning in today's world," #BlackLivesMatter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors-Brignac wrote in a blog post for HuffPost.

Here are more photos from protests that occurred over the MLK holiday and weekend, aimed at continuing the leader's fight for racial justice:

'SNL' Shows How Different 'The Wire' Would Be If Set In Brooklyn

Mon, 2015-01-19 15:11
On this weekend's "Saturday Night Live," Kenan Thompson, Jay Pharaoh and host Kevin Hart portrayed their own version of "corner boys," the low-ranking street-level drug dealers many associate with "The Wire." Except instead of the mean streets of Baltimore, they're just trying to survive the artisanal coffee bean streets of Brooklyn's Bushwick area, where dog-walking businesses and paint parties rule the day.

Tinder Conversations In Real Life Will Make You Question The Future Of Dating In General

Mon, 2015-01-19 15:08
Tinder messaging is like the Mad Max wasteland of social media conversation platforms.

People on Tinder say basically whatever they want, because they can. They have nothing to lose. Is it possible that some Tinder users have genuinely found matches on the app? Sure, but there's a reason more than 700,000 people subscribe to Tinder Nightmares.

The good people at Good People Media have started a new series where they take actual Tinder conversations and set them in real life settings. After you watch "Episode 1: The Park" up top, check out "Episode 2: The Gym."

[Swipes right.]

Martin Luther King Jr. Inspirations From The Black Community

Mon, 2015-01-19 09:30
Why do we have Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

In the spirit of remembering one of the most famous Civil Rights Movement heroes of all time, we asked the Black Voices community how MLK has inspired them -- to which there was no shortage of heartening responses.

We asked for your thoughts, feelings and opinions on the iconic figure of MLK:

Martin Luther King Jr. left a mountain of lessons in his legacy. We want to know how Dr. King has inspired you -- as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sister and brothers, friends and citizens. Tell us how MLK changed your life and why!

Here are some of the responses we received that prove MLK's inspirational legacy is as strong as ever in 2015.

“No one can ride you if your back is straight. Happy birthday Doc!” -- Tim Randall

“If you're gonna dream, be bold, speak loudly, clearly, intelligently, with soul force, for the highest good!” -- Noam Winter

“Hope. He gives me hope for the future. If a man can take a stand on so simple a principal there is hope for the men and women today. Stand when there is no one with you; Stand when all you have is a principal. But take a stand and defend it by any means necessary.” -- Ernie Middleton

“The biggest lesson I gleaned from Dr. King is the value of service. At its best it requires sacrifice and courage.” -- Pat J. Lissade

“Dr. King's legacy has challenge me to raise my sons to look at the person and not the color of their skin. We all are created in the image of God and therefore we all are the one.” -- Kimberley Lindeman Kenny

“I too have a dream” -- Joe Crews

“I grew up in a small, all-white town. When I was in elementary school, I read all the time, everything I could get my hands on. At some point I came across the "I Have a Dream" speech. I remember clearly how I felt when I read it: it gave me goosebumps, and it made me deeply sad, and although I didn't understand racism on a deep level at that age, it resonated with me. It inspired me. I tore it out of the book, hung it next to my bed, and memorized it.” -- Amy Lynn Miller

“He changed my life while growing up in the Caribbean. Listening to any of his speeches and to his powerful voice gives me the inner strength to deal with adversity and to push for positive change, but most of all empathy for all people-- in all walks of life. May his voice and message of peace echo throughout time forever.” -- Jason Budsan

“His views on loving your fellow man rings loudly in my ears daily.” -- James Gladden

“He inspired me to serve others!” -- Charmaine Yates

“I will not miss a voting opportunity” -- Carlita R. Grazier

“He pioneered the civil rights movement for me and my Latino brothers and sisters... I will forever be grateful.” -- Matha Lugo

“Taught me that you can be a man with flaws, and still have dreams. Inspite of severe obstacles privately and publically, he obtained leadership that helped change generations, and generations to come. #Salute MLK” -- Gregory O’Neil II

“If it weren't for Dr. King, I wouldn't have my family. My African American son, Tyler, was adopted at 13 days of age, and my wonderful granddaughter. I'm irish and Tuscarora.” - Denise Boyle

“In 1986 I was a freshmen at Norfolk State University. I was also a barber apprentice at Kappatal Cuts Barbershop. The man who's barber chair I first began cutting hair in had crazy stuff left in his station. He had passed a year earlier. One day I cleaned out the station and found a Jet Magazine Dated on the Year Day and Month that I was born. 10/24/1968... On the cover of that magazine was Dr King. He was a "HISTORICAL" figure in my mind to that point, but when I did the math, I realized that I was in the womb when he was assassinated. I know that maybe silly but that connection made me read and research more about him and who he was, how his words where about children and people like me.” -- Kevo Desh

Some responses have been edited for clarity.

Here's Who's Sitting With Michelle Obama During The State Of The Union Address

Mon, 2015-01-19 06:35
WASHINGTON (AP) — A Maryland man who returned home last month after spending five years imprisoned in Cuba will have a prime viewing spot for President Barack Obama's State of the Union address: a seat near first lady Michelle Obama.

Alan Gross and his wife, Judy, are among 22 special guests the White House invited to Tuesday night's speech.

It's become tradition for presidents to invite people whose stories of tragedy or triumph highlight an issue or public policy. President Ronald Reagan was the first to do so in 1982 and acknowledge the guests, who sit with the first lady, during the speech. Every president since has continued the tradition.

The year's group includes astronaut Scott Kelly, the president and CEO of CVS Health and eight people who wrote letters to Obama, including four he spent time with last year.

Gross is a former federal subcontractor who was arrested in Cuba in 2009. His wife and others said he was there to set up Internet access for the small Jewish community on the communist island. He was released last month as part of a historic announcement by Obama that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after five decades.

Kelly, of Houston, is preparing to blast off in March on a yearlong space mission, longer than any other U.S. astronaut. His identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. She was gravely wounded four years ago during a shooting at a political event she held in Tucson. Six people were killed and 13 were injured. Scientists will compare medical data from the brothers to understand how the human body responds to longer durations in space.

CVS Health pulled cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products from its store shelves last year, a move that was applauded by Obama, a former smoker often seen chewing nicotine gum. The decision by CVS Health earned Larry Merlo, the drugstore chain's top executive, a seat in the first lady's box.

The other guests, as identified by the White House, are:

— Malik Bryant, of Chicago. The 13-year-old wrote a letter to Santa over the holidays asking for safety. Instead of forwarding the letter to the North Pole, a nonprofit organization redirected it to the White House. Obama wrote back to say that security was a priority for him, too.

— Chelsey Davis, of Knoxville, Tennessee. Davis is scheduled to graduate in May from Pellissippi State Community College with a bachelor's degree in nutritional science. She met Obama when he visited her school this month to announce a plan to make two years of community college free for students who keep their grades up.

— LeDaya Epps, of Compton, California. The mother of three completed a union apprenticeship in construction, one of only two women to do so, and is on the crew building the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Obama has promoted apprenticeships as a way for people to get training for skilled jobs.

— Rebekah Erler, of Minneapolis. The wife and mother of two young boys wrote to Obama about how her family suffered after her husband's construction business folded. Both are working again and recently bought their first home. Obama spent a day with Erler in Minnesota last year.

— Victor Fugate, of Kansas City. Fugate wrote to Obama to share how he went from being an unemployed new father to getting his degree and helping low-income patients obtain medical care. Fugate says he and his wife are benefiting from an Obama program that caps monthly student loan payments. Obama met Fugate in Kansas City in July.

— Retired Army Staff Sgt. Jason Gibson, of Westerville, Ohio. Gibson wrote to Obama to thank the president for visiting him as he recovered from injuries, including the loss of both legs. Gibson surfs, skis, has completed marathons on a hand cycle and earned a pilot's license. He welcomed his first child in November.

— Nicole Hernandez Hammer, of southeast Florida. Hammer is a sea-level researcher who studies how cities and other areas most vulnerable to the effects of climate change also have large Hispanic populations. She works to raise Latinos' awareness of climate change. Addressing climate change is an Obama priority.

— Anthony Mendez, of New York City. The University of Hartford freshman once had to rise at 4:30 a.m. to get to school after his family was evicted and forced to live in a homeless shelter. Mendez was among students who met Mrs. Obama last year. She spearheads an initiative encouraging students to pursue education after high school.

— Katrice Mubiru, of Woodland Heights, California. Mubiru, a career-technical education teacher in Los Angeles, encouraged Obama in a letter to support K-12 adult and career technical education. She met and introduced Obama in July when he visited Los Angeles Trade-Technical College to highlight technical skills programs.

— Astrid Muhammad, of Charlotte, North Carolina. Muhammad, a wife and mother of two, wrote to thank Obama for signing the Affordable Care Act. Last year, she obtained coverage under the law and had surgery to remove a potentially fatal brain tumor that was diagnosed in May 2013, when she had no health insurance.

— Kathy Pham, of Washington, D.C. Pham is a government computer scientist who works to improve health information technology, expand access to benefits for veterans and improve the way government provides services to families like hers. Her mother received cancer treatment under the new health care law and her brother earned a Purple Heart for service in Afghanistan.

—Capt. Phillip C. Tingirides, of Irvine, California. A husband and father of six, the veteran Los Angeles police officer heads the Community Safety Partnership program in the neighborhood of Watts, once scarred by race riots and subsequent gang violence. Under the program, begun in 2011, police engage with residents.

— Catherine Pugh, of Baltimore. Pugh is majority leader of the Maryland Senate who helped pass legislation increasing the state minimum wage to $10.10. She has also introduced legislation to provide the state's workers with earned paid sick leave. Both are issues Obama is pushing at the federal level.

— Carolyn Reed, of Denver. Reed described in a letter to Obama how she expanded her submarine sandwich shop business with a loan from the Small Business Administration. Obama dined last year with Reed and other Coloradans who wrote to him. Reed also told the president she was raising her hourly employees' wages to $10.10.

— Dr. Pranav Shetty, of Washington, D.C. Shetty is the global emergency health coordinator for International Medical Corps, a partner in the U.S.-backed effort to control the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Shetty went to Liberia in August, returned to the U.S. late last month and is going back to West Africa later this week.

— Prophet Walker, Carson, California. While serving time for robbery, Walker started a prison program to help fellow inmates complete a two-year degree. After prison, Walker became a construction engineer and has worked to improve relations among law enforcement, community activists, parents and the children of local housing projects.

—Tiairris Woodward, of Harrison, Michigan. Woodward started a second job working on Chrysler's assembly line in 2010 to help support herself and three children, including one with special needs. She eventually began working only for Chrysler and after a year saved enough money to buy a car and rent a new apartment. The company's tuition assistance program is aiding her pursuit of a bachelor's degree in business management. The White House says her story is possible due to the comeback of Detroit and the U.S. auto industry.

—Ana Zamora, of Dallas. A student at Northwood University, Zamora was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child and has benefited under Obama's program to defer deportations for eligible immigrants. Zamora wrote to Obama about her experience and says her parents will also be eligible for protection under Obama's recent executive actions on immigration.

NFL Hall Of Famer Mike Ditka: I Wouldn't Want My Child To Play Football

Sun, 2015-01-18 18:07
NFL Hall of Famer Mike Ditka has dedicated his life to football. But if he had a son today, he wouldn’t want that child to do the same, according to a Saturday report by the Chicago Tribune.

In an episode of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” set to air on HBO on Tuesday, Ditka asks sports reporter Bryant Gumbel if he himself would want his child to play football.

“I wouldn’t,” Gumbel says. “Would you?”

“Nope,” Ditka replies. “I wouldn't. And my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward. I really do.”

Ditka’s and Gumbel’s views are in line with those of fully half the country. A 2014 Bloomberg survey found that 50 percent of Americans don’t want their children to play football. Only 17 percent said they expect football to be more popular 20 years from now than it is today.

The “Real Sports” episode will focus on the use of drugs by a team Ditka coached: the NFL 1985 champion Chicago Bears. The NFL named Ditka Coach of the Year for his work that season, but the HBO report claims that Bears players regularly used painkillers and other drugs to play through injuries, much to their detriment later in life.

Ditka confirmed to Gumbel that drugs were “plentiful” during his time in the NFL. “There’s no question about it,” he said.

A number of Bears were among the 500-plus NFL players who sued the league in 2014 for allegedly providing illegal drugs to injured players so they could stay on the field. Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon even said he suffered a broken neck at one point in his career but played through it simply because he was never informed of the injury. Instead, he was allegedly given drugs to allow him to keep playing.

The players in the suit claimed that as a result of the drugs, many have had to struggle with long-term drug addiction and deteriorating health in retirement.

"I was provided uppers, downers, painkillers, you name it, while in the NFL," said J.D. Hill, a former wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, in a statement at the time of the lawsuit. "I became addicted and turned to the streets after my career and was homeless. Never took a drug in my life, and I became a junkie in the NFL."

Dave Duerson, a star safety for the 1985 Bears, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2011 after complaining to his family of severe headaches and memory issues. He was later found to have CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease most often found in people with a history of concussions or other head injuries. There were more than 120 concussions in the NFL in 2014.

More Than Half Of American Schoolchildren Now Live In Poverty

Fri, 2015-01-16 18:28
For the first time, more than half of U.S. public school students live in low-income households, according to a new analysis from the Southern Education Foundation.

Overall, 51 percent of U.S. schoolchildren came from low-income households in 2013, according to the foundation, which analyzed data from National Center for Education Statistics on students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Eligibility for free or subsidized lunch for students from low-income households serves as a proxy for gauging poverty, says the foundation, which advocates education equity for students in the South.

The report shows the percentage of schoolchildren from poor households has grown steadily for nearly a quarter-century, from 32 percent in 1989. "By 2006, the national rate was 42 percent and, after the Great Recession, the rate climbed in 2011 to 48 percent," says the report.

Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation, told The Washington Post that the analysis shows poverty has reached a "watershed moment."

The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years,” McGuire said. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.”

The analysis shows the highest percentages of poor students in Southern and Western states. Mississippi had the highest rate of low-income students -- 71 percent. New Hampshire had the lowest, at 27 percent.

“No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low income students simply a matter of fairness," the report says. "... Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future."

Being a Person Who Stutters Shouldn't Hold You Back When Pursuing a Career

Fri, 2015-01-16 16:51
I didn't know what to think when I read the headline and heard the news that a cadet from the Cleveland Police Department was allegedly not allowed to graduate with his class (even though he finished his training) because of his stutter.

Jane Fraser from The Stuttering Foundation commented:

If press reports out of Cleveland are accurate, we must be very concerned about the chilling effect this sort of decision will have on the stuttering community, especially those seeking employment. Every day, we hear stories of those who stutter being denied gainful employment. In most cases, unfortunately, it is because the potential employer does not understand stuttering.

I grew up with a stutter. Does this mean I shouldn't have pursued journalism because I stutter? Does this mean I shouldn't conduct interviews, speak up in meetings or ask questions when I want more clarification?

Does this mean that my voice doesn't matter because at times I may need an extra moment or two to get my words together?

I remember in high school and college when, as students, we were preparing to choose what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. Many of my friends had ambitions -- and are successful at what they do -- in teaching, graphic design, engineering, as nurses and doctors, as account executives and media buyers.

Some of my friends crossed careers off the list simply because they didn't want to pursue that particular field. No ulterior motive. They just didn't want to go down a certain path.

For me, I self-limited options because of my stutter. I crossed off being a television anchor since I would have to talk fluently for long periods of time. I'm clearly not going to be an orator. I shied away from being a teacher and standing in front of a classroom full of students.

As I look back now, I realize that the thing holding me back wasn't stuttering.

It was fear.

Fear of being made fun of because of a stutter. Fear of not being able to achieve my dream because the stutter would hold me back. Fear of having anxiety in a situation where I would have needed to say something but was unable to. Fear of people not taking me seriously when sometimes my spoken words go awry but my thoughts are clear.

Fear should never hold us back.

Words hold so much power, and to read that a cadet wasn't able to graduate in his class because of his stutter has been extremely disheartening to myself and to those in the stuttering community.

"Conflating a person's stuttering with an inability to succeed in professional employment is wrong and reinforces negative and false stereotypes," said Kenny Koroll, chairman of the NSA, in a statement.

This news not only impacts Mr. Jackson and other people who stutter, but countless other individuals with various communication disorders seeking employment, especially those who have proven capable of the career they are pursuing despite their challenge. People who stutter have achieved success in every profession imaginable. Stuttering should not be a barrier from entering any profession.

We should be able to follow our dreams wherever they may take us. Nothing should stop us.

There are so many celebrities and people who have made it despite having a stutter that it gives me hope that I am able to pursue what I want to do, when I want to do it and how I want to do it as well.

Of course, the road isn't perfect. It hasn't been paved in a while, and it needs a bit of upkeep.

Sometimes, I thought I couldn't go on. Maybe I should've picked out something else -- anything else -- and hidden behind a computer screen.

But something in my thoughts wouldn't allow that. This is where I need to be. There is a relentless drive instilled in me that continues to push me toward my pursuit of my goals and dreams.

Through hard work and dedication, I've learned that the sweetest feeling is triumph.

I want everyone to be victorious. I want people who stutter to experience the feeling of victory, the feeling of walking on clouds, of walking into a room of applause, to the adrenaline coursing through as if riding on a roller coaster.

There is nothing like feeling triumphant.

I've pursued the more-challenging career, and I've never looked back.