A Woman’s Art Is Never Done: The Feminae Exhibition
A striking juxtaposition between the past and present courses throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March, which occurred 37 years after the print’s first appearance.
Among the 50-plus works in the Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women By Women exhibit is Yolanda Lopez’s “Women’s Work is Never Done.” Lopez’s title is particularly ironic, given the exhibit’s gender-based subject matter. The show spans work from the past 50 years, making it easy to understand how much society is still grappling with its themes of gender inequality. Culled from the archives of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, the graphic images of protest, persuasion and empowerment are truly works of art in their own right.
However, political posters aren’t made to merely spruce up walls, but to help figuratively bring barriers down as well.
Two silkscreens from the 1970s, Liliana Porter and John Schneider’s “This Woman is Vietnamese” and See Red Woman’s Workshop’s “So Long As Women Are Not Free People Are Not Free,” are particularly powerful, underscoring, as they do, the fact that the subjugation and persecution of women crosses borders and cultures as an unfortunate shared global experience. These two pieces’ stark simplicity exemplifies most of the work in the exhibit. In the former, a New York Times photo of a distraught Vietnamese woman with a gun held to her head is centered above these basic words typed out in a typewriter font:
This woman is
By juxtaposing the photo with these words, the creators take the plight of this woman and immediately globalize her pain. In the latter, three female demonstrators are silkscreened in red onto a yellow background. They are marginalized by being stuck in the lower left third of the poster, but two of them are raising their fists skyward and their mouths are open, screaming in defiance. Its non-serif, eponymous type reads:
This piece’s message takes the global message even farther, making the plight of women a human one — a common theme in the exhibition.
There is also a striking juxtaposition between the past and present that seethes throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March that would take place 37 years later. See Red Woman’s Workshop’s 1977 “Black Women Will Not Be Intimidated” could easily be repurposed to address the recent spate of blue-on-black brutality. Notable works by Barbara Kruger, Sister Corita Kent and the Guerilla Girls are also included.
Ironically , while it can be surmised that most of these works were made as populist posters to be distributed at the time as banners of protest, their beautiful simplicity and nostalgic elegance probably have resulted in the originals (mostly now found in art museums) sporting hefty vintage-resale prices.
But it is not just the art that has stood the test of time. The fact that the issues addressed in the show — feminism, choice, gender equality, war, immigration, police brutality or violence against women — are all issues at the forefront of debate in 2018 ultimately engenders conflicting feelings.
On one the hand, it is inspiring to see a vibrant exhibit that showcases such diversity in artistic styles, no doubt spawned by the diversity of the artists’ own backgrounds. On the other hand, there is a realization that while there has been some progress over the past half century, there is so much work to be done.
Art Center’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, 950 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through May 15.
Copyright Capital & Main
Golden State Green Rush: A Trimmigrant’s Tale
Trimmers make from $100 to $300 for a day that can run 15 hours. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are stressed out and high.
What’s to become of trimmers, the untold thousands of minimally skilled laborers who haunt the new cannabis horizon, is one of this industry’s most compelling issues.
Matilda reclines on a Northeast Los Angeles couch she’s paid $25 to sleep on for one night. The young woman, who earlier in the day had returned to the U.S. from Mexico, talks about her job as a cannabis trimmer. Matilda—not her real name—gives a heads-up on her epilepsy, and through the night she’ll make a number of unusual, loud sounds in her sleep.
Matilda has worked most in Mendocino on trimming jobs good and bad. At most black-market marijuana grow operations, she’s found there are guns. She grew used to the constant, noisy whirr of the high-powered generator that powered the lights growing the plants. The bad gigs are the grows where weapons are numerous and the bosses are stressed out and high.
She left one trimming gig where the volume of open gunplay made her uncomfortable, and moved to another one in the Emerald Triangle–– Northern California‘s Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties –– that featured consistent pay. The farm’s generator operated at lower decibels and the guns were out of sight. Sweet gig. Except for the bathroom, which sat a good 30 yards from the house. Every midnight tinkle run was an adventure.
“You shouldn’t have to worry about bears on the way to the bathroom,” Matilda said.
Briefly, about five years ago, I trimmed for room and board in Oakland and Marin County. My top boss was a retired Russian circus clown who tooled about the Bay Area with a briefcase full of many thousands of dollars and, of course, a heater. While riding with — let’s call him Yuri — it became clear the industry could not function without trimmers, who are generally unseen and often as high as the strain they’re cutting will let them get. What’s to become of these untold thousands of minimally skilled laborers who haunt this new cannabis horizon is one of the industry’s most compelling issues.
The adult-use and medical marijuana markets may collectively think pot magically goes from a plant in the soil to that jarred nugget in your local dispensary display case. But that eye-catching product was prepared by a worker who’s been at the mercy of their employers. Unlike growers, whose value derives from the training and practice necessary to grow pot on a large scale, trimmers are often regarded as disposable. Almost any stoner—or even nonstoner—can do their job. The profile of this work will only become more visible as adult-use marijuana goes mainstream.
A sizable subset of trimmers like Matilda are called “trimmigrants” due to the nomadic nature of their seasonal outdoor labor. Word of workers like Matilda coming together to improve their working conditions has begun getting out, however uncertainly. Matilda herself was unaware of any such movement; however, trimmers are indeed getting organized in a movement that’s as undeniable as it is necessary.
Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers because their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.
California labor law requires that any cannabis licensees with 20 or more employees be prohibited from operating in the state without a labor peace agreement between the business and a union representing cannabis workers. With the peace agreements in place, labor organizers can then recruit workers to join their union without interference from the employer. If the workers join, union negotiators will seek basic workplace protections: freedom from sexual or other harassment, regular pay schedules, incremental wages, just-cause termination and consistent, scheduled breaks.
Down the road, labor contracts hope to include health insurance and other benefits for the folks who trim California’s cannabis, as has happened with the unionized licensees since 2010. Union negotiators want to make sure protections now in place become industry-wide standards, and that all jobs (including trimming) allow a living wage and mobility.
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 770 consultant Robert Chlala said that by organizing trimmers, “My hope —and what we are seeing in our work already—is that we can avoid trimmers being treated as contingent workers or falsely labeled as independent contractors, that they can get the same protections as other workers.” (Disclosure: UFCW is a financial supporter of this website.)
Along with the Teamsters, the UFCW has greeted California’s adult-use cannabis-legalization era with a spate of organizing among trimmers. “From what I have also seen, it’s rarely just one-off,” Chlala said. “Trimmigrants do this work, but many also work in other aspects of the industry, from cultivators to retailers.”
Trimmers have little recourse to being asked to work topless or perform fellatio to receive earnings.
Trimmers are taken less seriously than growers and testers, and even bud tenders and deliverers, because their labor is viewed as an easily scalable craft that can be completed while thoroughly baked.
Before pot ends up in the hands of a distributor and, in the legal marketplace, a lab tester, it is cultivated. After cannabis “colas”–– the flowering site of a female cannabis plant––are grown, dried, and cured, it’s the trimmers’ responsibility to manicure the plant. Leaves, which contain less tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, are cut away, leaving only the cola’s bud. Bad trimming can be aesthetically unpleasant and a waste of time and product. Great trimmers are a business asset.
Their pay can range from $100 to $300 a day. Some in the off-the-books grows, as mentioned earlier, trim as barter. Work days can run as long as 15 hours. The work is inherently repetitive and often done while high and listening to music and, increasingly, podcasts.
Work conditions can be as varied as the strains of cannabis cultivated in the state. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal reported in 2016 that sexual assaults on female trimmers are frequent and woefully undercounted. Because of the vagabond nature of these workers—many are college students on break and travelers from Europe—there’s little recourse to being asked to work topless or perform fellatio to receive earnings.
However, there’s no single way to summarize the trimmer experience, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “A licensed grow and a trespass grow on wilderness land are two different experiences, and the needs are very different,” said Allen. “California’s a very, very diverse marketplace, with a lot of different practices, from best to worst. And it’s very important to avoid generalizations.”
The arrival of industrial-sized pot farms raises concerns that worker treatment will more resemble that found in big agriculture than the kind seen in traditional mom-and-pop pot growing.
Criminal grows are most likely where openly stored guns are found, Allen told me. Small farms that employ family and friends are more the norm, and firearms are not out in the open. These farms, particularly in the Emerald Triangle, are grappling with the California industry’s volatile changes—new regulations and massive companies—and the demands of finding a path to legal status. Allen compares the concerns of these workers to Detroit just before President Obama’s auto company bailout. Simply maintaining jobs is the primary on-site issue.
Big marijuana businesses such as the Oakland-headquartered behemoth Harborside Farms and the average pot cultivator are incorporating these changes differently. Harborside Farms came factory style to ag iconic Salinas, bringing a 360,000-square-foot grow with it. The typical grow is smaller than 5,000 square feet. Flower greenhouses have been largely replaced by cannabis farms. Land costs have skyrocketed as other cannabis operations have streamed into Monterey County. The Harborside Farms effect has raised concerns that worker treatment will more resemble that found in big agriculture than the kind seen in the county’s previous mom-and-pop pot growing.
“That workforce is a lot more interchangeable with the traditional ag workforce,” Allen said, noting that he’s unfamiliar with the specifics of Harborside’s business practices. “You run into a lot of traditional issues. You run into the same safety and wage issues that you do with criminal grows, oddly enough.
“Big industrial ag is pretty well known for human rights abuses, the same sort of human rights abuses that cannabis workers are used to seeing on those criminal grows.”
At the opposite end from the skeletally policed Emerald Triangle, in a small Los Angeles warehouse, two trimmers luxuriate in just how satisfying the craft can be. While classic rock plays from an old-school radio, Francisco, 44, lovingly prepares a nugget to go out into the world. The cola has just come from the curing room. He and his partner that day were waiting for their boss at the door, eager to work.
“Every time I trim one I’m like… ahh,” he says, clipping at a bud while explaining. “You just make it look the way you like it. Trim it until the little red hairs are showing, until you can see all of the really good crystals. I really enjoy looking at it.”
The two sampled the cannabis and explained to their bosses how the product was working. Two thumbs up. It’s a much more satisfying job than Francisco’s previous work as a landscaper. The closest thing there is to a labor of love that he would do for free.
Yet, the trimmer’s work needs protection and recognition, noted Chlala, who’s also President of Latinos for Cannabis. Southern California, with its vertically integrated cannabis companies—where grows are owned by the same people who sell and move green product—is likely to lead the way in trimmer organizing around the state. Santa Barbara has seen an influx of big pot businesses and is likely to be a big target for unions.
The organized shops could not come soon enough for a workforce too often on the lookout for bears and regarded as an industry stereotype.
“While trimmers are often treated like they do one discrete task,” Chlala said, “their work is key to the production chain for cannabis—no different from any agricultural process like harvesting tomatoes or processing cut flowers or almonds.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Rick Scott Super PAC Donations Challenge Federal Anti-Corruption Rule
Co-published by Fast Company
The Florida governor led a group that raked in cash from Wall Street firms after Scott’s administration gave them pension deals.
Co-published by Fast Company
A super PAC led by Florida Gov. Rick Scott raked in donations from two private equity executives after Scott’s administration directed lucrative state pension investments to their firms, according to government records reviewed by MapLight and Capital & Main.
The donations were made to a committee that’s now supporting Scott’s U.S. Senate bid, despite a federal rule designed to prevent financial firms from bankrolling the election campaigns of public officials who oversee state pension investments.
Scott, a Republican, began chairing the New Republican PAC in May 2017 and announced his former campaign manager would serve as its executive director. Soon after, the group received $5,000 from New Mountain Capital Chief Executive Officer Steve Klinsky and $50,000 from Energy Capital Partners founder Douglas Kimmelman.
The contributions flowed to the super PAC after New Mountain Capital and Energy Capital Partners received a combined $250 million worth of new investment commitments from Florida’s state pension system in 2014 and 2015. Scott is one of three state officials who oversee the $160 billion pension system. During the most recent fiscal year, the Florida investments generated more than $3 million in fees for the firms.
A 2010 Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule prohibits firms from receiving investment fees from public pension systems if their executives donate campaign cash to pension overseers like Scott. SEC officials aimed to prevent investment decisions from being shaped by political influence.
But the commission didn’t explicitly bar donations to “independent” political groups, unless the donations were deliberately designed to circumvent the restrictions. And it hasn’t addressed whether a state official can lead a super PAC that received donations from firms with pension business and later be supported by the super PAC.
John Kuczwanski, a spokesperson for the Florida State Board of Administration, told MapLight/Capital & Main that Florida’s first investments in the two private equity firms happened in 2005 and 2009, and he said Scott had nothing to do with new investments during his governorship, which started in 2011.
“The [state’s] initial relationships with both managers predate Governor Scott’s time in office,” said Kuczwanski, whose agency manages the day-to-day operations of the pension system. “Neither the trustees, nor their appointed investment advisory council members are involved in the investment manager/fund selection process.”
Scott’s campaign and the super PAC did not respond to questions from MapLight/Capital & Main. New Mountain Capital and Energy Capital Partners did not return requests for comment.
Energy Capital recently completed the purchase of Calpine, whose natural gas power plant near Tampa is regulated by Scott’s appointees at the Florida Public Service Commission. Kimmelman, who is now a director of Calpine, also donated $35,000 in 2017 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is backing Scott’s Senate campaign.
“A Very Clear Case”
Under the SEC rule — which GOP state parties have tried to overturn — investment executives are not prohibited from donating to independent political groups. But the rule allows regulators to apply restrictions to donations that are deliberately routed through third parties in order to support public officials — a situation that critics argue is happening with Scott and his super PAC.
After the governor announced his Senate bid last week, New Republican PAC’s website began promoting his candidacy. End Citizens United, a Democratic-leaning political action committee based in Washington, DC, filed a complaint alleging that Scott has violated Federal Election Commission rules and is using the super PAC, which can accept unlimited donations, to evade contribution limits. Scott’s campaign says he stepped down as New Republican PAC’s chair in February.
In writing the original rule, SEC officials noted that while they could not restrict all donations to political action committees, contributions to third parties “may effectively operate as a funnel to the campaigns of the government officials.” They said the final rule “prohibits acts done indirectly, which, if done directly, would violate the rule.”
One ethics expert said that those anti-circumvention provisions should apply to the donations to Scott’s super PAC.
“This appears to be a very clear case of close coordination and circumvention of the pay-to-play rule,” said Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist at the government watchdog group Public Citizen. “This is something that I’d like the SEC to pay attention to.”
The SEC has only occasionally enforced the pay-to-play rule, and the agency hasn’t applied the provisions dealing with third parties to donations to super PACs. Because Scott is a sitting governor who can influence pension investments, he is covered by the rule, which has hampered the fundraising of past governors who tried to run for federal office.
A spokesman for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign said the rule prevented him from raising enough money to be competitive in the 2012 race. Bloomberg reported that during the same election cycle, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was rejected as the vice presidential nominee, partly because Republicans feared the rule would prevent them from raising money from Wall Street firms that do business with his state’s pension system.
“There is no way around it, and there are no loopholes,” said Bill Palatucci, Christie’s longtime advisor.
Even so, in recent years the rule has not deterred financial executives from donating to groups that help lawmakers who can influence pension investments. Financial executives whose firms received New Jersey and New Mexico investments continued to donate to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) when Christie and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez led the group. During the 2016 election cycle, executives at firms managing state pension money donated nearly $1.3 million to the GOP association, even as the group boosted the campaigns of Republican governors with power over state pension investments.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called for the SEC to apply the pay-to-play rule to outside groups “to ensure that no one is able to circumvent these laws by using super PACs, dark money groups or other campaign spending vehicles.” The RGA has argued that because it funds multiple candidates and does not allow donors to earmark contributions for particular races, it can accept donations from firms with investment business that can be influenced by individual governors. The SEC said in 2016 that donations to outside political groups “are independent expenditures that do not trigger” the rule.
“So long as the PAC faithfully observes the requirement to operate independently of candidates, a contribution to a super PAC will not trigger the [rule], even if the super PAC supports a covered official,” Sam Brown, a former advisor to Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, wrote in 2016. “Super PACs are increasingly being used in novel ways, and it remains to be seen whether these changes will result in increased circumvention risks.”
This story is a collaboration between MapLight and Capital & Main.
LISTEN: How Two African-American Entrepreneurs Are Determined To Change Diets In The Black Community
On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, Naturade’s Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook share how their own families’ experience with diabetes has spurred them to promote healthy eating options.
Many entrepreneurs pride themselves on solving some sort of “pain point” for their customers. But as Claude Tellis and Kareem Cook, the co-owners of health-products provider Naturade make clear, some pain points are a lot more serious than others.
“I had an uncle that went into the doctor, wasn’t morbidly obese or anything, lived in Louisiana and . . . the family was faced with, ‘Do we amputate both of his legs or not?’” Tellis told me on the latest episode of my podcast, The Bottom Line. “He never made it out of the hospital. He died, and he was about 55 years old.”
Another uncle, says Tellis, who serves as Naturade’s CEO, “was faced with losing a couple toes.” Eventually, “they had to take his leg from the knee down.”
In the African-American community, dealing with this grim loss of life and limb—often brought on by diabetes and peripheral arterial disease—has become disturbingly routine. “You just kind of grew up with insulin in the refrigerator,” says Cook, Naturade’s chief marketing officer.
And so Tellis and Cook have set out to combat this crisis by helping underserved populations—especially those in black neighborhoods—eat better. Their vehicle for sparking change is Naturade, which they acquired in 2012 for $8 million.
Although the Orange, Calif., company is nearly a century old, Tellis and Cook have revamped it completely, including introducing a new product that is now their No. 1 seller: VeganSmart, a plant-based meal replacement that is high in protein, low in sugar, and full of vitamins and minerals. Its suggested retail price is $35 for 15 servings.
“What we really wanted,” says Tellis, “was something that had Whole Foods quality that could be sold to a Walmart consumer.”
To achieve that vision, they’ve built the brand methodically. Step one, Tellis says, was making sure that vegans bought in, so that “people when they look online will see that there’s an authenticity and there’s a rigor” to what’s being offered.
From there, they handed out VeganSmart at Wanderlust yoga festivals, aiming to attract a hip, upscale crowd. This helped advance a “premium viewpoint of the product,” Tellis says.
Finally, there came the last step: bridging into urban America. To catch on there, they’ve adopted an influencer strategy, tapping rappers like Styles P and Da Brat and professional basketball players to promote VeganSmart. (Grant Hill, soon to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, is an investor in Naturade.)
The result is a profitable company that is now selling into, among other retailers, both Whole Foods and Walmart—just as Tellis and Cook had planned it.
Not that any of this has come easy. The duo, who met as Duke University students in the early 1990s, have played in the health-food space for more than 15 years now.
Their first venture, launched in 2002, was a vending machine company called Healthy Body Products, which supplied nutritious snacks and drinks instead of junk food and soda. The business won contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District, but it was difficult to scale. So Cook and Tellis ultimately sold the venture—but not before gaining some insight into what it takes to persuade those in the mainstream to eat right.
At one point, they brought in actor Michael Ealy (then fresh off one of the Barbershop films) to talk to the students about the importance of maintaining a good diet. “One of the biggest things we learned in our first business was how to make it cool,” Tellis explains.
And, of course, if that doesn’t work as a motivator, there’s always a second message to fall back on. “Everyone wants to be cool,” says Cook. “And no one wants to die.”
You can listen to my entire interview with Tellis and Cook here, along with Bridget Huber reporting on Impact America Fund’s efforts to help improve low- to moderate-income areas, and Karan Chopra laying out what small rice farmers in West Africa can teach American business leaders.
Golden State Green Rush: A Grower’s Story
Co-published by Fast Company
Bryant Mitchell drove the 450 miles between Los Angeles and Guerneville twice a week, learning, among other facets of horticulture, how distillation practices could be applied to making marijuana concentrates. In time he would become a master grower.
“This is not something people welcome a lot of blacks into. We’re the guy who’s selling it. That’s all we are, and that’s the way they look at us.”
Co-published by Fast Company
A slim hall leads into a dark room where one enters the soul of the Blaqstar Farms cannabis grow, an 85-light operation rooted in East Los Angeles. On the other side of this warehouse where the lighting is standard luminosity, a couple of cool brown cats in their forties trim a strain called Birthday Cake and fill bags with the fluffy, freshly coiffed green nuggets. But it’s in this dark room where Blaqstar begins. Its owner Bryant Mitchell, 40, shows the soul of his business, a clutch of genetics — prime cannabis plants for breeding.
“Dah-nale,” Mitchell says in his Texas drawl, “all these plants here come from those plants back there.” He points to some weed that’s ready to join the cool brown guys at the breakdown table. The plants, he says, “come from buddies, from respect, from people trying to see if I could grow their old stuff.”
If the cannabis equity movement in America is to ever be more than just Green Rush theater —an inconsequential sideshow to the emerging multibillion-dollar legal marijuana industry — it’s going to need a lot of anomalies like Mitchell. Black people didn’t get our 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War, and we’ve yet to gain the trust and money to be brought into the cannabis industry at a foundational level. In a world where black celebrities endorse cannabis brands that people of their racial heritage don’t own, Mitchell is the rare black grower operating at the 85-light level and in the light of adult-use legal scrutiny. Necessity brought Mitchell from dispensary owner to grower after he hired someone who couldn’t repeat what he’d previously cultivated. In only a few years, Blaqstar has earned the endorsement of the popular rap act Migos and the admiration of cannabis equity supporters.
This grower is not blind to the turnabout he represents.
“This is not something people welcome a lot of blacks into,” says Mitchell. “We’re the guy who’s selling it. That’s all we are, and that’s the way they look at us.”
The enabling real estate, money and cannabis have not come together for the hundreds of aspiring legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs presently struggling to get in.
Who is this cash-rich black dude whose eyes shine with intelligence? He’s not a rapper or actor or a man who plays with a ball. Bryant Mitchell is a master marijuana grower. Cross the street from his warehouse for a cup of coffee — where his neighbors “know, but they don’t know” — and the joy that folks show from just seeing him is apparent. They won’t let him be, and it’s not just because of the pot.
Sit down with Mitchell over that coffee and see him let loose a single tear while running through the list of family and friends he’s lost to the war on drugs. That lone tear tells a story with dimensions the nation’s only beginning to comprehend.
Mitchell comes from sales, but in a first-class sense. The son of a cop, he’s taken operations and strategy as the basis of his training. After graduating from historically black Prairie View A&M University, just outside of Houston, he received an MBA from the University of Chicago. Mitchell flew around America pointing out to corporate executives whom to fire, telling his clients the time while using their own expensive wristwatches to do so.While he was in the Bay Area in his twenties and consulting for Chevron, Mitchell complained to a colleague that travel aggravated his sciatica, and the colleague introduced cannabis to his world. Not long after, Mitchell began buying and growing for himself, both in California and at his home in Houston. His oil industry consulting after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill brought the trove of money that allowed Mitchell to buy and invest in cannabis so heavily. In a sense, that Birthday Cake in East L.A. comes from hours billed to British Petroleum, a kind of bonus treat.
Women Abuv Ground CEO: “Most underground growers don’t want to come out. It took me years to find a lot of black growers.”
He bought a medical marijuana dispensary in the San Fernando Valley called Valley High. It was a smash hit, but Valley High was raided at the end of 2013. Mitchell says he lost $250,000.
But he had $400,000 banked, he says, part earned from consulting, part earned from his dabbling in the marijuana market. He’d put another $400,000 into building an indoor grow. But Mitchell’s cultivator was proving unable to repeat the dope work he had done for Valley High.
“Here’s my chance to do it,” he said. “I don’t know how to grow at this volume. As a consultant, one thing you learn is how to learn. I’ve got to learn fast as I can, and I can’t learn from my grower because he doesn’t know how to grow.”
Mitchell resigned from his day job and decided to go all-in on cultivating cannabis, big time. Then he headed to Sonoma County and Guerneville, California, 75 miles north of San Francisco.
Most Californians couldn’t find Guerneville on a map. Mitchell drove the 450 miles between Los Angeles and Guerneville twice a week. He started off watering outdoor plants on a partner’s 78-acre property. He also volunteered at Sonoma County wineries, learning, among other facets of horticulture, how distillation practices could be applied to making marijuana concentrates. In Sonoma County the newbie Mitchell unearthed the goods to become a master grower.
After Bryant did a second harvest, this MBA learned that he still needed to learn.
“I’d go out with the guys and would be like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna help,’” he says. “They’d say, ‘Come on in.’ No roadblocks. I’d be out for a week and would be one of the best trimmers. Never told ‘em I was growing.
“I wanted to see the plant from start to finish.”
Back at the East L.A. indoor grow, the first post-Guerneville harvest came in. The first large-scale weed came out larfy — immature and lacking in structural density.
“You ever cook eggs?” he says. “Easiest thing in the world, right? Ya throw ‘em in the pan, you get ‘em out. But cook eggs for 200 people, it’s a lot more complicated — even though it’s not that complicated. You’re not going to be consistent.”
He did a second harvest. The pot came out better. But then the thing that sets this MBA apart kicked in yet again. He learned that he still needed to learn.
“I’m doing these damn [harvests] every six months,” he says. “I gotta change that shit. Why does everybody do it that way? It’s a project. So why don’t I make every room a project —stagger it, and make sure I can deal with cash flow issues. It was out of necessity, but when I staggered it, guess what? My learning curve turned over so much quicker.”
It’s a characteristically African-American approach, turning necessity into productivity. Improvisational like basketball, if not as innovative as jazz.
“Bryant represents what we want to see in the culture, someone who’s compliant and doing business the right way,” said Bonita Money, CEO of Women Abuv Ground, a networking organization assisting people of color enter the cannabis industry. “Most underground growers don’t want to come out. It took me years to find a lot of black growers.”
Compliance has come because Mitchell’s money is cleaner than most. His techniques are organic, so his marijuana is also compliant. He says that living in the warehouse with his product nudged him toward clean growing; if spraying chemicals made him sick, the stuff could not in the end be good for customers, he surmised. Most black-market growers don’t know what he knows.
The legion of small-time pot farmers knows nothing of Guerneville tactics. Certainly, they don’t have multi-acre, outdoor Cali grow money, prompting this question: Until the state’s cannabis equity programs set aside opportunities for those with no legacy of having land, are we just doing theater?
“They are; I’m not,” Mitchell says. Cannabis equity programs “don’t know how to make sure social equity is delivered. Not defined, but delivered.”
The enabling real estate, money and cannabis have not come together for the hundreds of aspiring legitimate cannabis entrepreneurs presently struggling to get in. Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento have defined the strategy of a business initiative, but the means for realizing the goals aren’t yet in place. Help connecting investors and developers and building relationships with money sources is still missing in action.
So, too, are relationships with the weed veterans still deep in the black market.
“You treat adult-use marijuana like a business, then forget that there’s been a business here for 35 years,” Mitchell says, growing animated. The fact is that the underground pot market, in large part popularized by Californians of color, is far, far older than that.
“Today I’m gonna learn how to do this,” he continues. “And I’m going to share this. We need an ecosystem. That ecosystem doesn’t preclude white people participating. I want to include. But I want them to understand: You’re coming to us, ya dig?
“We made it because once they got our shit, they had to keep getting it,” Mitchell goes on. “Once you get into a motherfucker’s spot, and they’ve got to have your shit? They’ve got to have it. You turn from a want to a necessity. That’s what I had to position Blaqstar as — a necessity.”
Tomorrow: The Trimmigrant’s Tale
Copyright Capital & Main
Irvine man charged with hate crimes for allegedly having ‘kill lists’
Published by The Orange County Register
Nicholas Rose, 26, is facing felony hate crime charges for allegedly having “kill lists” with names of prominent Jewish community members.
Golden State Green Rush: Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs?
Co-published by Fast Company
Oakland’s cannabis equity program may have gotten off to an awkward start, but it is spreading across the state and beyond.
No state has a relationship remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We annually consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug and produce more than 13 million pounds of it.
Co-published by Fast Company
The summer mixers had not done the trick. Last year Oakland, California, which was launching the partnership component of its groundbreaking Cannabis Equity Assistance Program, found that City Hall meet-and-greets between the street-level victims of the war on drugs and those who had gotten rich by growing and supplying marijuana weren’t going to instantly result in legal-weed deal-making whoopee.
As part of California’s 2018 adult-use marijuana legalization, Oakland sets aside half of its marijuana business permits to grow, test, manufacture, transport, deliver and dispense pot for equity applicants — — newly up-from-the-underground residents who make up to 80 percent of the city’s median income ($53,000) and either have “a cannabis conviction out of Oakland or [have] lived for 10 of the last 20 years in police beats that experienced a disproportionately higher amount of law enforcement with respect to cannabis.” The city’s cannabis equity program has a tiered qualification system, as do California’s other three existing programs in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles.
Oakland’s cannabis equity program may have gotten off to an awkward start, but that hasn’t stopped the idea of equity in adult-use marijuana economies from spreading even beyond the state. However, if this bold concept is to cohere into a concrete approach that can work both statewide and nationally, the challenges of addressing wildly mixed signals at the federal level, relations with the still-illegal cannabis market — whose economy and membership dwarfs legal weed in size — and embedded bureaucratic forces must be overcome.
Oakland earmarked $3.4 million in interest-free loans for those whose experience with pot had been demonstrably more toxic than those of white residents.
“General applicants” (the mostly white entrepreneurs who have conducted business at a remove from Oakland’s worst drug war suffering) gain improved marketplace access by partnering with equity applicants — who are mostly black, but not always. Cannabis Equity bureaucracy most shared asset is physical space — which the moneyed entrepreneurs can offer the city’s disadvantaged pot businesspeople. Cannabis equity can appear to be the nearest thing, conceptually, to reparations in America.
However, last year’s City Hall mixers had failed to create much chemistry between the cannabis haves and have-nots. Darlene Flynn, the city’s director of the Department of Race and Equity, realized that between the mixers’ interactional awkwardness and municipal government’s usual bureaucracy, Oakland’s cannabis office would have to farm out the matchmaking.
“We needed some tools for helping people meet,” Flynn later acknowledged in an email.
No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. While an illegal market nearly five times the size of the legitimate marketplace comports itself in the shadows, less than 10 percent of the state’s adult-use market is legal. Relations between the cannabis underground and California’s above-board pot sales sector haven’t been more tense than in recent memory.
Still, governments had begun to follow Oakland’s lead in assuring that the newly legal marijuana market will be open to historically discriminated-against populations. Oakland earmarked $3.4 million in interest-free loans for those whose experience with pot had been demonstrably more toxic than those of white residents.
Only about three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 American storefront marijuana dispensaries — among the more scalable categories in cannabis — were black-owned in 2016.
Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland all have cannabis equity programs in development, under those states’ medical marijuana laws. Advocates from all over are studying the approach.
“I used the work on equity in cities like Oakland as both a technical starting point and conceptually,” says Shaleen Title, a member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, “to wrap my head around how to approach the question of equity in the context of the war on drugs.”
Oakland isn’t the only California city playing in the cannabis equity space. In San Francisco, all new permits, with a few nuanced exceptions, are run through that city’s Equity Program — for cultivation, manufacturing distribution, testing and retail. “Not until 50 percent of each permit category reflects permits from the Equity Program will permits become available for new business,” says Nicole Elliott, director of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis.
Los Angeles has started its Cannabis Social Equity program, while Sacramento is preparing to launch Cannabis Opportunity, Reinvestment and Equity. These programs are primed to issue permits before 2018 is done. Among the 34 California legal adult-use cities — representing 12percent of the state’s population — is Berkeley, which has a cannabis equity program in development.
But as the newcomers amended Oakland’s program, the founding municipality was still contending with the matter of hooking up general and equity applicants. Early in the fall Darlene Flynn asked two volunteers with the innovation nonprofit OpenOakland, Richard Ng and Angela Gennino — respectively, a social impact consultant and an information architect — to build a digital tool.
Last August the pair began developing a back-end software application. Throughout the fall of 2017 there were mock-ups and beta tests.
A journey that began with one “Where the weed at?” shout-out had evolved into a credible business plan.
“The concept was, really, a dating site,” Ng, told me over breakfast at Awaken, a café just around the corner from City Hall. The code beneath the weed biz interactions was about the same as that of Craigslist. Functionally, CannaEquity, as the site would be called, was brass-tacks eHarmony. Instead of the user’s status, pot entrepreneurs list their application stage: not submitted yet; submitted; received an inspection card. On the Partner Search page, rather than the object of consideration’s profession, their type of business is put out there: cultivation or delivery, dispensary or distributor — you damn sure wouldn’t want to be in bed with someone who doesn’t know the difference.
“The most important qualities in an equity partner are: honest and open communication and an ability to learn and grow as a partner,” writes CannaEquity user ecooke, a cannabis manufacturer and distributor.
Rolling up among the site’s potential partner profiles was Linda Grant, 49. Mother of six, grandmother of two. Purveyor of marijuana since eighth grade. She was looking for a partner in her non-storefront dispensary — a delivery service. The cost of renting space in the East Bay would be the difference between her working legit or returning to the black market.
“I’m the poster child for cannabis equity,” Grant said in a telephone interview.
Though educated largely in the local weed trade, Grant clandestinely moved, by her estimation, millions of dollars of the stuff that now fuels the Green Rush, as Wall Street calls it. She started at the age of 12, dealing out of the girl’s bathroom at Elmhurst Junior High School. Instead of advancing through high school, Linda Grant sold weed.
She worked for her older brother. The cops once busted her for a $5 bag of weed. Of course her brothers were arrested and did time, too. Years ago, she spent time at Alameda County Jail in Santa Rita for dealing. She was pregnant. Thereafter, she would pull back on her participation in the marijuana marketplace.
“I didn’t want to lose my kids,” Grant said.
The people trying to connect with Grant on CannaEquity.org shared few such stories. That chasm is an open and ugly secret among Americans who’ve chosen to look. Last year, Oakland produced a report showing that 77 percent of cannabis-related arrests in 2015 were of black people, who in that year made up around 30 percent of the city’s residents. (At the height of the government’s drug crackdown, the city’s population was about 10 percent blacker than it is today.)
While San Francisco was sparking a national trend by expunging felony convictions, Oakland’s no-interest loans were failing to materialize.
People of color who’ve been anywhere near the approximately $7 billion North American cannabis industry still talk about Buzzfeed’s 2016 reporting — based on 150 interviews with dispensary owners, sales people and cannabis insiders — about the unbearable whiteness of the U.S. game. About three dozen of the 3,200 to 3,600 American storefront marijuana dispensaries — among the more scalable categories in cannabis — were black in 2016.
Three dozen. The prevalence of black celebrity brands and front men can make the industry seem racially diverse when it’s actually profoundly exclusive. Since the jazz age, black people have been foundational in the development of American cannabis culture, and that fact makes the low stat especially egregious.
Although she was looking through CannaEquity for a partner to provide her with space for an office and inventory storage, Grant already had a partnership with the Hood Incubator, a local nonprofit with Ivy League credentials that at its outset sought only to improve the presence of brown and black people in a cannabis industry that, according to a Marijuana Business Daily survey, is 81 percent white.
The aspiring entrepreneur had made the connection with Hood Incubator co-founder Lanese Martin before there was a website or even the City Hall mixers. In 2017 Grant posted on Facebook about a scarcity of grass for purchase on Oakland’s streets. Instead of a mere comment on how to score quickly, she found herself talked into attending an open house for Hood Incubator. It was here that she began seriously entertaining the idea of wading into legit waters.
“We want you to own a business,” Grant said Martin told her.
Grant was unsure whether the neighborhoods she’d lived in, going all the way back to Elmhurst, had been city-designated as unfairly policed. Perhaps equity wasn’t for her. She thought longer on the matter, figured she was indeed an eligible resident, and then tracked down records to prove it. More paper chasing followed. For six months Grant attended pro bono legal workshops put on by lawyers affiliated with Hood Incubator. (Beyond the development of marijuana enterprises, Hood Incubator was beginning to expand its scope to include criminal-records expungement clinics and business workshops, as well as policy development for local municipalities. The tech company Haze entered into a million-dollar partnership with the incubator earlier this year.)
“Close” is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug when one’s trying to ride the 2018 cannabis wave from blueprint into an actual business.
Grant was incubated — given commerce-minded nurturing — twice by Martin and her crew. The office space and legal access took the street dealer’s concept for a delivery business, Herbin Collective, from sketchy idea to business reality. A journey that began with one “Where the weed at?” shout-out had evolved into a credible business plan, one that looked to be finalized in time for California’s adult-use legalization date, January 1 of this year.
CannaEquity had been up and running by December 2017. A crush of participation followed. Gennino and Ng knew they had a hit matchmaking site on their hands when ancillary businesses — CPAs, attorneys, security companies — began popping up on the site. In the first quarter of the year, 300 equity applicants were currently on cannaequity.org, with about 600 suitors.
Would-be bride Linda Grant linked up with AmeriCann, a B-Corp company that bills itself as “a national leader of sustainable cultivation and processing infrastructure for the medical marijuana industry.” Its flagship brand is Gummi Cares. The edibles company wanted to hook up with Herbin Collective.
It was something like a love connection. Gummi Cares offered Grant 1,000 square feet near the city’s airport to help get Herbin Collective off the ground. As business rentals in Oakland go for more than $50 per square foot, she was instantaneously with that plan.
“I wouldn’t mess with anyone else,” Grant told me over the phone. She focused on getting her delivery service in compliant, above-ground business for her March 1 launch. Meanwhile, AmeriCann would get to move its cultivation and processing operations ahead of those outfits that lack newly privileged partners such as theirs.
“The incentive was very high for the general applicants,” Gennino said, “because they want to get pushed to the top of the list.”
Speed bumps on this road to equality began popping up in February. While San Francisco was sparking a national trend by expunging felony convictions, Oakland’s earmarked $3.4 million in no-interest loans was failing to materialize. And Linda Grant was scrambling. Yes, she had the physical space provided by AmeriCann and Gummi Cares, which was now up to 1,200 square feet. Her product would be purchased on consignment, so that wasn’t a primary concern. But there were branding and peripheral start-up costs to going legit that were making the March 1 dispensary opening date seem less realistic. On CannaEquity.org there had been numerous come-ons from general applicants. Yet Grant felt they sought her partnership for her oppressed face, not to fully embrace all that Herbin Collective might become.
“This system they created is punishing the cannabis industry, not the police . . . It creates a sharecropper system for young black people.”
It’s innocent in a way that only those completely outside the cannabis industry can be innocent, the notion that one’s partners have to like you for you.
Transitioning street dealers “have the business sense of cannabis, but maybe not of the environment,” Hood Collective’s Martin told me by phone. “You have to understand what the weather patterns will be.
“You engage white people you don’t like all of the time,” she continued. The trick is figuring how to engage those at least complicit in your social marginalization. Still short on cash and less than two weeks out from Herbin Collective’s launch date, Grant’s outlook had taken a turn for the fatalistic.
“I’m in a fish tank full of shit,” she said in a February 18 phone interview.
When I passed on word last month that the program was, in the words of one critic, “in a slump,” Darlene Flynn’s assistant administrator Greg Minor claimed not to know the meaning of that assessment. This month Flynn acknowledged that the $3.4 million in loans that was to sustain the program had not materialized.
Minor explained that the first loans will come from future cannabis tax revenue, “So there was no money to give out at first.”
“We wanted a sufficient baseline amount, $3.4 million, which was how much our non-cannabis small business commercial loan program requires to serve 30-35 businesses, for the loans to be meaningful,” he explained in an email. “Now that the cannabis tax revenue has been collected we are working on selecting a consultant to administer the program and begin implementing the revolving loan program later this year.”
“We are just beginning to put that part of the program together,” Flynn wrote in an email. “It is phase two because it has to be funded by new cannabis revenue and we are getting close.”
“Close” is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug when one’s trying to ride the 2018 cannabis wave from blueprint into an actual business. In the Trump era, close is a risky thing to be. Some have taken this month’s news that the White House promised to pull back on interference with state marijuana laws as a sign that threat is diminished and improved relations with banking are ahead. Others remain wary.
“The President has made numerous promises to the public and then failed to deliver on those promises over and over again,” said Elliott of San Francisco’s Office of Cannabis, “either by walking back his promise or not succeeding in getting Congress to deliver.”
But there are other considerations, too. One municipal cannabis administrator told me that a strict reading of federal policy could make it difficult for jurisdictions to provide funding through loans to new operators in some circumstances, “because at the end of the day, everything associated with cannabis has a tinge of risk based on the federal government’s stance.”
“If that funding,” the official continued, “is focused towards meeting the rigorous regulatory standards established by the state, then it could present less of a conflict with federal policy, but loans spent on other things could potentially prove to be a bit more complicated.”
So, the feds are a hindrance to the empowerment of cannabis entrepreneurs. But what about that overwhelming California weed wealth: the illegal marijuana market. Multiple seasoned — although presently unpermitted — California marijuana figures told me throughout the reporting of this story that the four cities with equity programs are hamstrung by their lack of relationships with the black-market marijuana world. Old illegal pot people know people who know people who can barter goods and services, and Hood Incubator, for all its unique set of skills and great above-ground network, cannot access this tantalizingly low-hanging, multimillion-dollar fruit.
With too many California legal dispensaries closed or slowed by paperwork, early 2018 was a fine time for unsanctioned pot. That any up-and-comer might be struggling in the midst of the Green Rush would be laughable were it not so sad.
That’s the take of 20-year cannabis vendor-space vet Chip Moore, owner of the 4&20 Blackbirds lifestyle brand and delivery service. He applied for a dispensary application last year, but didn’t qualify for equity status. Veteran business people like Moore are shouting that California’s storied tradition of pot independence and innovation is being ignored in this process of creating equity. These critics say that a dramatically improved road to compliance must be established, so that, beyond the loans that entrepreneurs like Linda Grant spent the winter waiting on, pot’s illegal mainstream can contribute ideas and — most importantly — meaningful amounts of space in which to develop their businesses.
“It can’t just be a thousand square feet. That does not equal equity within cannabis,” Moore told me at his West Oakland warehouse, his baritone gravelly from years of cannabis enthusiasm. “It creates a sharecropper system for young black people, where I’m giving you a thousand square feet to compete in one of the most competitive cannabis markets in the world.”
Beyond the malleability of land value in cannabis industry terms, there’s the inherent punishment that comes with rewarding only those who dwelled in demonstrably overly policed Oakland or who managed to elude arrest there. If cannabis equity programs are to ever be more than a fig leaf, this built-in bias will need to be addressed on a statewide basis. (California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control will consider such an action when it meets in Oakland next month.)
“This system they created is punishing the cannabis industry, not the police,” Moore said. “I’m a black man, underfunded, undervalued in the market, but I live in Berkeley [Oakland’s northern neighbor]. I don’t get the point allotments to become an equity applicant and participate in the program. I have to go up against the big-money guys.”
Open Oakland’s Angela Gennino described the purpose of cannabis equity as being “to right a wrong and change the balance.” The notion is lofty, the means to achievement simultaneously complicated and mundane. At press time, Linda Grant’s Herbin Collective was not yet more than a name on the Internet.
Tomorrow: A Grower’s Story
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Golden State Green Rush: Cannabis’ Promise and Problems
Will the marijuana El Dorado bring new wealth to California and its inhabitants, or will it produce an historic buzz kill?
Although medical marijuana use had been legal in California since 1996, it wasn’t until New Year’s Day that adults in this state could lawfully light up a joint for the sheer pleasure of it. Yet unlike the end of Prohibition 85 years before, the response was surprisingly subdued, and ever since then life in California seems to be business as usual. Except that it isn’t.
Everything is going to radically change, and probably sooner than later. For the legalization of pot is slowly unleashing a new gold rush — the so-called Green Rush — that, like many gold rushes before it, will likely lead to environmental dangers, racial injustices and economic disparities that we can only dimly perceive today. Will the cannabis El Dorado bring new wealth to California and its inhabitants, or will it produce an historic buzz kill?
Nearly two years ago Capital & Main presented a series of stories examining some of the possible effects of legalization, and this week, as the reefer-centric date of 4/20 approaches, veteran journalist Donnell Alexander looks at the ways some Californians are preparing for the coming wave of change. As he notes, “No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana.” Partly that’s because annually we consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug, while producing more than 13 million pounds of it.
In a report from Oakland and copublished by Fast Company, Alexander writes of the attempts by that city to legislate “cannabis equity” in order to prevent marijuana’s perennially victimized neighborhoods of color from being completely left out of the Green Rush. The strategy is to give would-be pot entrepreneurs there a leg up on deep-pocketed competitors.
Alexander also profiles an African-American grower, Bryant Mitchell, whose journey has taken the University of Chicago MBA from being a Chevron consultant to a master grower whose Blaqstar operation in East Los Angeles has produced an artisanal strain of weed called Birthday Cake. (Also co-published by Fast Company.) And, in a third story, Alexander interviews an Emerald Triangle bud trimmer, a woman living on the lowest-paying and most exploited rung in the cannabis hierarchy. “Matilda” describes a world of guns, loutish bosses, outhouses and wild bears. And yet marijuana’s legalization may offer the nomadic workers employed by larger pot farms hope in the form of state-enforced workplace protections and the chance to join a union.
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Lawsuit: Immigrant Detainees Forced to Work for $1 a Day
Co-published by International Business Times
Attorneys say private-prison company CoreCivic is engaged in a “deprivation scheme” aimed at forcing detainees to keep the detention center running at a fraction of the cost of hiring local workers.
Co-published by International Business Times
CoreCivic, a for-profit prison company with annual revenues of nearly $1.8 billion in 2017, has further enriched itself by forcing immigrant detainees in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center to work for as little as $1 a day under threat of criminal prosecution, solitary confinement or transfer to substandard living quarters. That’s according to three men – all current or former detainees — who have filed a federal lawsuit against the company, alleging they have worked at the detention center under such threats.
Some 1,700 men are held at Stewart as they await deportation, or fight for asylum or relief from deportation.
One detainee alleges a guard denied his request for toilet paper, saying the detainee could use his hands instead.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say CoreCivic is engaged in a “deprivation scheme” aimed at forcing detainees to mop floors, scrub toilets, do laundry, cook and essentially keep the detention center running at a fraction of the cost of hiring local workers.
“CoreCivic deprives detained immigrants of basic necessities like food, toothpaste, toilet paper and soap — and contact with loved ones — so that they have to work in order to purchase those items at CoreCivic’s store (the Stewart commissary),” the complaint claims.
The alleged forced labor also denies Stewart County residents, who are among the state’s poorest, employment opportunities they could have if it weren’t for a ready supply of nearly free detainee labor, the plaintiffs’ attorneys allege.
Detainees told Homeland Security’s inspector general that they weren’t given mandated hygiene items promptly or that they weren’t replaced after they’d been used up.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules specify that work is to be voluntary and compensated at the rate of $1 per day. The regulations also state that detainees must be provided with hygiene supplies like toothpaste and soap.
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox wrote in an email that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation. However, he noted that “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody.” Cox wrote that Stewart is subject to announced and unannounced inspections and has repeatedly been found to be in compliance with the agency’s standards.
However, a report released last December by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General noted that Stewart detainees reported that they weren’t given such items promptly or that they weren’t replaced after they’d been used up.
Wilhen Hill Barrientos, a 23-year-old asylum seeker from Guatemala, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, alleged that a Stewart guard once denied his request for toilet paper, saying Hill Barrientos could use his hands instead. The lawsuit notes that Hill Barrientos now uses his earnings to purchase such basic supplies from the detention center commissary.
Last February, Hill Barrientos, who works in the Stewart kitchen, told Capital & Main that he suffered a burn on the job, but wasn’t allowed to leave his post to seek medical help. He also claimed that forced work played a part in 33-year-old detainee Yulio Castro Garrido’s death of pneumonia last December. Castro, also a Stewart kitchen worker, became sick and weak, but wasn’t allowed to skip work to see a doctor, Hill Barrientos said.
Hill Barrientos alleged in his lawsuit that he’d been put in medical segregation for two months last year in retaliation for filing a grievance against a guard who forced him to work while he was ill. Another plaintiff, Shoaib Ahmed, an asylum seeker from Bangladesh, said he was punished with isolation for 10 days for threatening a work action.
A CoreCivic spokesman didn’t comment on the lawsuit in time for this story.
Core Civic segregation (solitary confinement) rosters obtained by Capital & Main show that seven detainees were placed in solitary at Stewart for similar protests, between June and October 2017. A Haitian man endured 26 days in solitary for encouraging others to participate in a work action. Six other detainees were punished for “inciting a group demonstration,” including three men who each spent nearly a month in isolation on that charge.
The plaintiffs seek class action status, and demand an end to the alleged forced labor regime, and disgorgement of CoreCivic profits that resulted from it, along with compensation and damages for detainee workers.
Attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Project South represent the plaintiffs, as do several attorneys who have made similar claims in cases on behalf of detainees in Colorado in 2014, and San Diego and Adelanto, California last year.
The Colorado case—against another private prison company, the Geo Group, was granted class action status this year, and a settlement conference is scheduled for May, while the California cases—against CoreCivic in San Diego and Geo in Adelanto — are in early stages of litigation. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson also filed suit on behalf of detainees at the Geo Group’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma last year, alleging unjust enrichment and violation of the state’s minimum wage law.
“I hope the fact that so many of these cases are pending will lead to momentum that will result in the end of forced-labor practices at detention centers nationwide,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Meredith Stewart, of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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Is a Conflict-Minerals Law Helping or Harming African Miners?
A Dodd-Frank rule requires Silicon Valley tech companies and others to reveal whether minerals in their supply chains fund conflicts in Central Africa. Why do some progressives oppose this requirement?
The conflict-minerals law’s opponents include progressive journalists and academics who say the rule rests on an overly simplistic analysis of a complex crisis.
By the end of next month Intel, HP and more than a thousand publicly traded companies are expected to report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on whether the minerals in their cellphones, laptops or other products were used to fund armed conflict in Central Africa.
This, despite concerted attempts by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress to do away with an Obama-era rule that requires them to reveal whether their supply chains include tin, tantalum, tungsten or gold from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and surrounding countries.
The survival of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act may look at first glance like a case of blue-state resistance with California’s tech companies—backed by their ethically minded consumers—standing strong against Republicans bent on destroying progressive, forward-looking regulations.
“The legislation has actually made the situation worse for these [miners].”
“Tech companies are the ones leading the way,” says Annie Callaway, deputy director of advocacy at the Enough Project, a Washington, DC-based human rights organization that led the campaign to pass the conflict mineral law. Their due diligence efforts have been among the best arguments against those who say the law is too burdensome, she says.
But the law’s opponents include progressive journalists and academics who say the rule rests on an overly simplistic analysis of a complex crisis. Some say it has done more harm than good to Eastern Congolese mining communities, whose livelihoods are already precarious.
The law has deprived “very vulnerable populations, already very poor people, of their sole means of livelihood,” says Séverine Autesserre, a political science professor at Barnard College and Columbia University, and a former humanitarian aid worker who studies the DRC. “The legislation has actually made the situation worse for these people.”
The law seems to have staying power, nonetheless. Eight years after its passage, tech companies have changed their sourcing practices, making it unlikely that the law’s repeal would alleviate companies’ concerns about having their products associated with violent militias, supporters and a critic of the measure say.
There are “very strong business reasons” to maintain the relationships and programs connected to Dodd-Frank, according to Michael Rohwer, who worked on conflict minerals for the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, now known as the Responsible Business Alliance.
Companies increasingly recognize the efficiencies as well as the “risk mitigation” benefits, says Rohwer, now with BSR, a non-profit business network focused on sustainability.
The risks of sourcing from the DRC were made clear to companies in 2008 when U.S. human rights organizations launched a campaign that highlighted the role that the minerals found in jewelry and electronics play in funding violence, including sexual violence used as a weapon of war against women and girls, in the eastern DRC.
The goals of multinational companies—and their ethically-minded consumers—are not identical to those of any region, war-torn or otherwise.
That campaign drafted high profile celebrities, like actors Ben Affleck and Robin Wright, as well as idealistic college students eager to leverage their buying power and social media prowess to help a region that has seen millions die over the last two decades in the deadliest conflict since World War II.
Last fall, the Enough Project, a lead organization in the campaign, released a progress report that ranked the 20 largest jewelry retail and consumer electronics companies—industries that consume the most tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold–on their sourcing practices. Four of the five best performers—in terms of responsible sourcing practices–were Silicon Valley-based tech companies, with Apple securing the lead spot.
Thus far, the rule has withstood a lawsuit brought by the National Association of Manufacturers, a threatened executive order and House legislation aimed at its elimination. (The biggest threat to the rule remains the attachment of a rider to a continuing resolution in Congress, according to Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch.)
The law has also withstood criticism from more than 70 critics who signed an open letter in 2014 that blamed Dodd-Frank for driving some unemployed miners to join militias or to turn to smuggling, and for misunderstanding the cause of the conflict. Last year, a journalist completed a two-part investigative series that found that the law imposed a monopoly on miners that suppressed prices and forced some to trade their wares illegally.
Both the rule’s advocates and critics agree that its roll-out was problematic. The DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, instituted a six-month ban on mining shortly after the law was passed in 2010 but before it was implemented. A United Nations Working Paper, published in 2016, attributed a child mortality increase of 143 percent in mining communities to the implementation of the Dodd-Frank conflict mineral rule.
The Enough Project’s Callaway argues that most of the criticism of the Dodd-Frank rule relies on information from 2014 and earlier, in the aftermath of its implementation. “Since then, there’s been tons of progress,” she says. She points out that of miners producing tin, tantalum and tungsten, 79 percent of those surveyed in 2016 by the International Peace Information Society are no longer working under threat of armed groups and that less violence can pave the way for other improvements, “once the conflict is out of the mines.”
But “overall, armed presence at mining sites has persisted over the last years in eastern DRC,” according to the study by the Belgian International Peace Information Service that Callaway cites. That’s because the majority of gold mines – the most important mining sector in the region – remain under the influence of armed actors, even as the tin, tantalum and tungsten mines have seen dramatic reductions in violence, according to the report.
The law has supporters from the region. Representatives from more than a 100 Congolese civil society organizations signed letters in support in of the rule when SEC commissioner Michael Piwowar opened up public comment to explore whether it should be implemented early last year. “The people who are most impacted by these changes are saying please don’t mess with this,” Callaway said.
Ben Radley, a British doctoral student, who helped make a 2015 documentary sharply critical of the Enough Project, remains a skeptic of the law. But he argues that repealing it would also constitute “a backward step” and a futile one at a time when the DRC and the European Union are creating sourcing standards for mining.
It’s very difficult to measure the impacts of the law because information is so hard to come by in the region, adds Radley, who lives in Kinshasa. “The numbers are so easily manipulated from both sides of the debate” because of lack of quality data, he says.
Furthermore, the Dodd-Frank rule is not the only force affecting miners’ livelihoods for better or worse. The price of minerals has been falling in recent years. Meanwhile, a U.N. peacekeeping force of 18,000, the world’s largest, is stationed in the eastern part of the country.
The laws’ critics say there are lessons to be learned for consumers and businesses that want to make a positive difference in the region. Autesserre would like to see Western advocacy groups do a much better job consulting Congolese mining communities as they develop their policy agenda. Radley suggests that advocates focus on labor and human rights issues instead of ensuring products are “conflict free.”
The Enough Project’s report calls for increased investment in “livelihood projects” on the part of end-user companies doing business in the region. So far, such investment has been inadequate . Apple, Microsoft Corp., Google, Signet and Tiffany contributed a paltry $500,000 toward improvements in Congolese mining communities in the last fiscal year, a mere “rounding error of the more than $3 trillion combined market capitalization of the 20 companies Enough ranked,” as the report points out.
Most of the due diligence work conducted by multinational corporations happens outside the DRC, at smelters, the factories that extract the minerals from the ore. Radley says companies would have more credibility if they undertook the more resource-intensive approach of working directly at the mine site, where advocates hope to improve conditions.
Some companies are already moving in that direction. Bloomberg reported in February that Apple is in negotiations to secure cobalt, a mineral used in batteries, directly from miners. Cobalt is not covered under the Dodd-Frank rule, but a 2016 investigation conducted by Amnesty International found cobalt was mined by child laborers.
Still, the goals of multinational companies—and their ethically-minded consumers—are not identical to those of any region, war-torn or otherwise. Perhaps partly with the tangled politics and human rights landscape of Central Africa in mind, Apple pledged last April to one day end its reliance on mining entirely and make products only from renewable resources or recycled material.
That has BSR’s Rohwer feeling optimistic. “I’m eager to see more companies get involved in product reuse, repair, refurbishment and recycling,” he says. “I think that would be a huge benefit for the tech sector.”
Copyright Capital & Main
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