Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shepherd Bending

by M. David Hornbuckle

On November 30, Dr. Willy Rice, a prominent UA alumnus and big donor to the school, wrote a letter to the University of Alabama National Alumni Association saying he would donate only $40 this year because he is concerned about the fate of the Black Warrior River, especially with regard to coal mining in its watershed area. In the letter, Rice waxed poetic about his boyhood along the banks of the Black Warrior River, and he promised that, “under the right circumstances,” if the UA system showed it would “be a good steward” of the money, he was prepared to leave the bulk of his seven-figure estate to the University of Alabama.

“But what exactly does the University of Alabama have to do with the coal mining along the river?” you might ask. In October 2010, a permit was issued to allow a new coal mine, known as the Shepherd Bend mine, on the banks of the Black Warrior River. However, it won’t be practical to build the mine unless the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System decides to allow it. That’s because the UA System owns significant land and mineral rights in the area designated for the mine.

It’s been noted in this newspaper and elsewhere that the proposed mine will release waste a mere 800 feet from one of the major water intakes for the city of Birmingham. What has not been discussed as often is the fact that this proposed mine is also near popular recreational areas.

Charles Scribner from the conservational group Black Warrior Riverkeeper says, “The mine’s multiple discharge points would be a problem for the river itself and the many people who recreate there. The Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork is a hotspot for public recreation, particularly boating, fishing, and swimming. Countless citizens actually eat the fish they catch in that area. The public usage of this stretch of the river is enhanced by the fact that Reed’s Ferry is a popular boat launch location right by Shepherd Bend.”

Dr. Robert Angus, a professor in the Biology Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, testified, “ADEM’s exemption of iron, manganese, and TSS from almost all precipitation events, and failure to include limits on TDS, sulfate, chlorides, aluminum and other heavy metals at all, will cause a violation of Alabama’s water quality standards because of its harm to fish and wildlife in the Mulberry Fork and its tributaries.”

Environmental engineer Warner Golden reported that the sediment discharged from the site is “is the equivalent of 160 dump trucks of sediment resulting from one storm event.”

Scribner adds, “Dozens of private property owners in the immediate Shepherd Bend area have echoed these concerns. Many of them fish, boat, and swim in the area. They are also concerned about the reduction of their property values and quality of life as a result of a strip mine starting a Shepherd Bend.”

The Board of Trustees has been implored by student groups, environmental groups, concerned citizens, the media, and even the Birmingham City Commission to refrain from leasing this land for coal mining, but the Board has thus far been eerily silent about its intentions. Last month, 1000 students from UAB, Sanford, and UA signed a petition asking the Board to take a stand. Students from Montevallo sent another 300 signatures a few days ago. And, now there is Dr. Rice’s letter to the Alumni Association.

So far, there has been no response. Scribner says, “While we expect to hear the same boilerplate response from UA, we hope that each signature, letter, call, or news report further convinces UA that stopping the Shepherd Bend Mine is the right decision.”

Bring Us Your Healthy White Babies

by Eden Anesidora

Domestic adoption is a multi-billion dollar industry where money talks and the laws benefit those with deep pockets. Adoption facilitators, including agencies and private attorneys, profit from arranging a successful adoption for paying clients. This has significant implications for women who find themselves faced with an unplanned pregnancy. The demand for white, healthy infants is high, and the adoption industry strives to supply white, adoptable babies for prospective couples. In this widely unregulated system, efforts are made to encourage women to relinquish their child to adoption. Furthermore, adoption laws don’t provide safeguards that allow a birth mother to make a fully-informed decision. If they did, there would simply be fewer infants available for adoption.

State laws that govern a mother’s consent to adoption provide for a hastily made decision and serve the best interest of the adoptive couple. These laws vary from state to state. Kansas allows consent 12 hours after birth, while the mother is still reeling from anesthesia. In California a mother’s consent is irrevocable. Alabama allows the birth mother five days after birth or after signing consent, whichever comes last, to make up her mind. After those five days, she has nine days to revoke her consent, but must prove she is in best interest of her child. Her “right to revoke” doesn’t include a “right to parent.” In 14 days, she’s stripped of her natural ability to parent and must fight in court, battling a system where the scales weigh in favor of the more affluent adoptive couple. She will also need to come up with over $100,000 to fund this expedition.

Possibly one of the most corrupt tactics in the Alabama Adoption Code is the pre-birth agreement. Yes, mothers may commit to an adoption before seeing her child; unaware of the legal red tape and resources it takes to withdraw her consent. This agreement assures the prospective adoptive couple of a successful adoption. It also makes it more difficult for the birth mother to change her mind and “disappoint” the couple who depended on her for nine months.

Stigma surrounding unwed mothers helps perpetuate a system that breeds infants for respectable white folks. The media usually presents adoption the way most perceive the process. A poor, unwed and unfit mother surrenders her child to an affluent and fit couple—everyone goes on their merry way. Sadly, the adoption process is not this simple. Unwed and pregnant does not make a woman unfit to parent. Furthermore, all adoptive couples are not fit to be parents just because they are in leadership positions at a big Presbyterian church or offer the right sum of money.

The truth is the birth mother is often desperate. She may seek help from an adoption agency or close friend. A permanent solution to a temporary problem is presented to her—adoption. This solution may be presented as the only or best one. She may hear, “Do you really want to farm your child out while you try to finish college?” or “God meant for a child to have two parents.” Gifts of little monetary value, “Dear Birth Mother” letters, religious guilt, and promises of future communication with her child are all tactics used to keep her on the right “path.” The couple may even offer to pay her medical and living expenses (this is legal in Alabama if approved by a judge). A lack of knowledge concerning legal matters in adoption, as well as a lack of resources, put the birth mother at a disadvantage. Because of their resources, the adoptive couple has an attorney to guide the process.

One successful attorney, Drew Whitmire, helped draft the Alabama Adoption Code under which he conducts adoptions for prospective adoptive couples. He is also president of Villa Hope Adoption Agency that offers domestic and international adoptions. Would a prominent adoption attorney draft a law that would make his job harder? Absolutely not. I’m sure Whitmire feels confident his adoptions will go smoothly, as the law includes safeguards for the prospective adoptive couple. According to Villa Hope’s website, 75% of Whitmire’s practice is in adoptions.

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute wrote that Whitmire had been “considered by many in Alabama as its premier adoption attorney.” Furthermore, his “dedication to adoptive parents and their children makes him an outstanding choice” for Alabama’s Angel of Adoption Awards, a signature public awareness program for the CCAI.

Unknown to the birth mother, the visits with her child that were promised in a letter will not occur, as these letters are not legally binding. The letters with updates on her child will not arrive. Those gifts (flowers at the hospital, candles and baked goods, etc.) do not have “monetary value;” therefore they are not considered coercive. How subtle. The language used by the adoption facilitators was not undue influence, just encouragement. In addition, the poignant interviews with the social worker, in which the birth mother discloses every detail of her life because “it’s important to be truthful,” will come back to haunt her if she contests the adoption in court. Medical records, dating back to the birth mother’s adolescence and teenage years, may be used to prove her “unfit.” Her decision, because it is based on emotional appeals and granfalloons, is one she regrets.

These stories fail to garner media attention, widening the gap between truth and fiction. The stigma surrounding birthparents will continue, as facts are not able to surface. Adoption practitioners and private attorneys will continue to depend on vulnerable, young women to supply healthy infants for those who can pay big bucks.

Until legislation enacts laws that ensure best practice and provide safeguards, birth mothers will continue to be exploited.

Pepper Spraying Our Teens

By M. David Hornbuckle

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been about a hundred cases, since 2006, of students in Birmingham city high schools being pepper sprayed and arrested by police officers stationed in the schools. These officers are titled “School Resource Officers (SROs),” but they are employed by the police department, not the school system. The SPLC has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six current or former students in these cases. Named in the lawsuit are four SROs, the Birmingham Board of Education, and the Chief of Police. The group claims it can find no other school district in the country where pepper spray has been used as frequently or in the same way it is used in Birmingham.

Now, that sounds bad, right? It gets worse. The Birmingham school system argues that it has no federal constitutional duty to protect students’ safety from the actions of third parties—in this case, the police. Because, you see: the police don’t work for the school system. So the police are there because these teens are out of control gangsters, right? They are breaking up knife fights and such, right?

No. Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney on this case, says that many of these incidents involve nothing more than normal adolescent misbehavior, such as cursing or being too loud. In one instance last year, a pregnant teenager at Woodlawn High School was crying hysterically in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. When the officer asked her to calm down, and she didn’t, he put her in handcuffs (I know that always calms ME down). When that didn’t work, out came the pepper spray.

So then what happens, you might ask. Well, the kid is arrested. But first, the officer is required to allow the student to seek medical attention, so they go to the hospital. At the hospital, the teenager is told there is nothing that can be done about pepper spray, and they’ll just have to wait it out (which isn’t actually true—they could remove the clothes that are still reeking of pepper fumes and help the kid wash off with soap and water, but they usually don’t do that). They tell the teenager to sign a piece of paper, and they usually do without knowing that it is a waiver saying they refused medical treatment. After that, the teen is taken to the juvenile detention center, where they call the parents and schedule a hearing. At the hearing, they usually decide not to prosecute the student any further. For crying. Because she was pregnant and boys were calling her a slut.

One problem here is that the officers are not given sufficient training to deal with youth, particularly special needs youth. And that can lead to them becoming a little too trigger happy when a situation becomes a little frustrating. There is also a huge problem with kids being exposed to pepper spray because they happen to be standing nearby when the incident happens.

These problems are concentrated in certain high schools; Jackson Olin, Woodlawn, Carver, and Winona. These schools all serve a mostly African-American community. So can you say these problems are racially motivated? Howard says, “It’s not so simple. The staff and SROs at these schools are also mostly black.”

But you can bet that if these problems were occurring in a different part of town, there would be a lot more outrage.

Heavy Machinery: The University of Alabama's Sinister Secret Society

by Stephen Smith

The photo of the founding crew from the 1905 Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa is creepy as hell. It looks like something from a horror movie. The skull really adds to it. These were the original Alabama “skulls.”  The fraternity is associated with Yale’s Skull and Bones and has been controlling the politics at the university, and to a large degree the state, for the past century. The group has often been accused of rigging school elections through bribery and intimidation. It almost always wins.

Here is an excerpt from the campus newspaper, the Crimson White, from 1913 describing an early initiation into the group when it was mostly known for its colorful promenade:

Eight men were taken into ‘Skulls’ last Friday night. The initiation of the ‘Skulls’ is somewhat public in its nature, and the parade yesterday afternoon was one of the most original and [ludicrous] that the people of Tuscaloosa and the students at the University had ever witnessed. This “Pee-Rade” was led by Richard Foster, who, in the guise of a negro, wore a scarlet blazer over a dress shirt, pink pajamas for trousers, and carrying an old broom for a baton. He was followed by Pete Jarman, another blackface who was garbed in dress attire also…After Pete came “Judge” Glenn, wearing a lavender dress, pink stockings, a black, jaunty cap covered with a grey veil, and with his cheeks painted, and his eyes blacked until he looked like a militant suffragette or a chorus girl…Sidney Smith, another pajama man, followed Pratt, and after Smith came Lister Hill, who was jauntily attired in a part dress suit, part pajama effect that was most stunning.

That’s Lister Hill, as in Lister Hill Library at UAB, Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications in Bethesda, Maryland, and Lister Hill six-term Democratic senator of the great state of Alabama. Lister Hill, freemason and “Skull” of the Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity. There are many prominent members of Theta Nu Epsilon: Don Siegelman, Richard Shelby (though he will deny it), Bill Blount, your boss, everyone who is anyone in the state, etc.

Dubbed the “Machine” in 1928 by the Crimson White, the fraternity (now a group of fraternities and sororities) has welded substantial influence over the university’s politics and various positions of power by managing to control student elections through various means, some legitimate, many questionable.

Here is what the Crimson White had to say about the organization in 1949:

Today, you hear very little about Theta Nu Epsilon on the campus. But the so-called ‘machine’ is still with us—operating in after-hours secret meetings, getting together its slate of sure-to-win candidates for the coming student elections.

Thus a potential 2500 votes are organized for every name on the ‘machine’ slate each year. A winning proposition? It can’t lose. It can’t as long as no party of equal strength exists on the campus—and we’ve yet to see one that proved effective.


Unknown to the vast majority of students at the University of Alabama but nonetheless true is the fact that political life, membership in many ‘honoraries,’ and, indeed, even to some extent social life on this campus is dominated and controlled by a well-organized political machine. Ask any of the bigwigs of the campus and of the machine about its existence, and they will respond with the innocent expression of a newborn babe, and ask, ‘What machine?’ They believe that the students of this campus are so naïve as to swallow so incredible a line.


The Machine is bad for this campus. Obviously, it steers control of student activities into the hands of its members, leaving those outside its ranks to do as best they can against serious handicaps. The Machine is a source of much-talked-about student apathy, as Joe College sees positions of leadership going to the same clique year after year. It is a clear breach of the democratic ethic, secreting much of the working of student government.

In the 1960s a group was formed in opposition to the Machine. The Mallet Assembly managed to get one of its members, Jim Zeigler, elected to student body president in 1970. Soon afterward, Zeigler’s room in old Mallet Hall was burned.

In 1991, the Crimson White accused the Machine of stealing 4,000 of its papers the day before campus elections to prevent the students from reading an exposé on the fraternal order. But as powerful as the Machine is, it was incapable of preventing Esquire magazine from running a cover story introducing the “skulls” to the nation that same year. This was soon followed by a series of incidents that started the group spiraling out of control.

In 1992, a female non-Machine candidate for student body president was beaten, cut with a knife, and had a cross burned on her lawn. A note left on her door read, “Machine rules bitch.” Following this, the Student Government Association was shut down for three years. In 1999, a student from the Republic of Congo, Fabien Zing, was threatened and subjected to numerous racial slurs when he decided to run as a non-Machine candidate. It is impossible to say if the secretive group was behind these or the many similar incidents.

The Machine’s iron grip over UA politics influences the attitudes and power structure of the entire state. It is the old guard that is too entrenched to effectively oppose. These sorts of secret organizations are so much a part of American culture it is foolish to try to fight them. If you want to get ahead in Alabama you would be doing yourself a favor by trying to get into the Machine. If you are black, you are probably out of luck. Gay? Forget about it.