Press Release: Candidate Damon Krane’s response to Athens (Ohio) City Council considering banning discrimination against Section 8 tenants

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, April 13, 2021
FROM: The Committee to Elect Damon Krane

I’m very happy Athens City Council is finally considering expanding affordable housing by prohibiting landlords from discrimination against Section 8 tenants within Athens city limits. 19 other states and 10 other Ohio cities already prohibit source of income discrimination — it’s past time for Athens to catch up! 

The issue was put on Monday’s council meeting agenda by 1st Ward representative Arian Smedley. (The full meeting can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/CityOfAthensOhioInfo/videos/922174201968914/ )

A lot of folks have worked long and hard for this policy, and I am among them. But you’re not likely to hear our local political establishment acknowledge my role. That’s because my record on this issue is a great example of how I’m helping move our city in a more progressive direction.

I’ll review my record now.

OPERATION SLUMLORD SMACKDOWN 

Not only did my April 8 campaign announcement include my call for banning source of income discrimination as the second policy initiative listed — I have been calling for a local ban on source of income discrimination ever since I ran for mayor of Athens in 2019. That year I included a SOID ban within my package of proposed housing policy reforms, “Operation Slumlord Smackdown,” at the urging of Ellie Hamrick’s city council campaign. 2019 council candidates Ellie Hamrick and Chris Monday both ended up endorsing OSS with the SOID ban included.

THE 2019 CAMPAIGN & CANDIDATE FORUMS

When OSS supporters questioned all the 2019 candidates for Athens City Council At-Large about an SOID ban during an October 24, 2019 candidate forum, Democrats Sarah Grace and Beth Clodfelter both joined Hamrick and Monday (as well as independent candidate Pat McGee) in endorsing a SOID ban. Beginning at the 1:47:17 mark in the video of that night’s candidate forum, Grace said in no uncertain terms

“Yes, absolutely. I support a ban on source of income discrimination. In fact, I’ve already brought it up in committee in City Council. This is something that came forward from discussions with members of the Affordable Housing Commission. This is something that we decided, this can happen very quickly and can take effect right away.”

At the 1:51:52 mark, Clodfelter replied, “I’ll be very brief because we’re near the end of our closing time. Yes, I would support a ban on source of income [discrimination].”

(Note: The full video can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/CityOfAthensOhioInfo/videos/552020318904409 ) This 2019 candidate forum was hosted by the Far Eastside Neighborhood Association and moderated by Alan Swank, now a 2021 candidate for Athens City Council who also has endorsed a SOID ban.)


But after Grace and Clodfelter won the election, they failed to introduce a SOID ban to Council, stopped acknowledging the issue, and even ignored constituents who questioned them about it on Facebook on March 26, 2020.

While Grace, chair of Athens City Council’s Affordable Housing Commission, stated in October 2019, “This is something that we decided; this can happen very quickly and can take effect right away,” it would take 17 more month of continuous pressure from housing justice activists, and finally the threat of new left-wing campaigns for city office in 2021, before a member of council other than Grace or Clodfelter would finally introduced a SOID ban to council yesterday.

UNITED ATHENS COUNTY TENANTS


In contrast to Grace and Clodfelter, I continued working for a SOID ban after the 2019 election, both individually and alongside other housing justice activists as a member of United Athens County Tenants. This is reflected in UACT’s social media posts and an October 19, 2020 Athens Messenger article ( https://www.athensmessenger.com/news/housing-authority-says-hud-and-prokos-incompatible/article_89051e3a-b703-5735-a562-deba3b4a8e8d.html ), which reported the following.

Damon Krane, also a member of United Athens County Tenants, ran for Athens City Mayor in 2019, using a platform of increasing the city’s housing code, to update the city’s housing infrastructure, and increasing the Code Office’s budget to help the office crack down on infractions. He says the issues have not changed, despite endorsements of better housing options for low-income residents of the area from two members of city council: Sarah Grace and Beth Clodfelter.

They specifically expressed support of a ban on income discrimination which would prevent landlords from choosing not to offer housing off that criteria.

“Since elected Grace and Clodfelter haven’t followed through with any proposed ordinance, and a few months back they both chose not to respond when tagged in questions about the issue on the SEO Mutual Aid Facebook page,” Krane told The Messenger on Thursday.

He also noted that according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s nation-wide 2020 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, Athens County has the worst housing problems in the entire state of Ohio. The severe housing issues is listed as a health factor regarding an individual’s physical environment, utilizing data from 2012-2016.

To help address the issue, Krane and Boegerhausen say the United Athens County Tenants group will be seeking action from the city council to create a ban on income discrimination. Whether this can be extended across the county remains to be seen, as does whether the Athens City Council will be receptive and supportive to the measure.

URGING SOLVEIG SPJELDNES TO TAKE UP THE ISSUE & PRESENTING THE LEGAL ARGUMENT

Furthermore, as part of my individual advocacy for a SOID ban, on January 8 of this year, when new 2021 Democratic candidate for City Council’s 1st Ward Solveig Spjeldnes first announced her candidacy on the Athens West Side Facebook page, I replied to the post, once more criticizing Grace and Clodfelter for dropping the issue of an SOID ban, and challenging Spjeldnes to commit to introduce a SOID ban if elected to council. 

Spjeldnes’ initial response was to state that a SOID ban was not legally permitted. After I explained to her why that was not true, she thanked me and promised to do more research. Now she supports a SOID ban. I will briefly review the course of her evolution on the issue.


“If landlords decide not to accept Section 8 vouchers at all, it is my current understanding that City Council has no power under Ohio law to force them to do so,” Spjeldnes initially replied to me on Facebook. “Athens City Council has law making restrictions related to being a Statutory rather than a Charter city. Ohio law along with ordinances dictate when and how our city council can and cannot intervene.” 

I responded by explaining the following.

Thus far, all of the Ohio cities that have passed SoID bans are charter cities. However, that is not terribly surprising considering that, of all Ohio cities, 3 out of 4 are charter cities. And this does not mean that a statutory city like Athens is forbidden from passing an SoID ban by adding “source of income” to the existing list of classes protected from housing discrimination.

Indeed, if you compare the list of protected classes in Ohio’s current fair housing law –ORC 4112.01(H)(1)– to the current list of protected classes in the Athens City Code –ACC 3.07.62(C)(1)– you will see that Athens, to its credit, already includes two classes not protected by state fair housing law, those being “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.” The latter was incorporated as a protected class in 2010; I assume the former was incorporated even longer ago.

And again, ACC 3.07.99 states, “Any person, firm, or corporation violating any provisions of Sections 3.07.61 through 3.07.68 of this Code, or any amendment or supplement thereto, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined in accordance with Section 2929.21(D) of the Ohio Revised Code.”

Thus it seems to me that there is no reason Athens could not also add “source of income” to the list of classes protected from housing discrimination.

Spjeldnes replied, “Thank you for your well studied information on this issue. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and time to prepare this, which I have copied and kept… I will continue to study and pay attention so I can be a productive advocate.”

(My entire exchange with Spjeldnes can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/groups/athenswestside/permalink/1818326744992166 )

To her credit, Spjeldnes made good on that commitment. Three months after our exchange on the West Side Facebook page, she spoke at Monday’s council meeting to express her support for adding “source of income” to the list of classes protected by Athens’ current anti-discrimination ordinance.

She described this as “an excellent first start” but added that to enforce the anti-discrimination measure against resistant landlords additional language may need to be added to city code regarding penalties for non-compliance.  

“I’m afraid some landlords are not going to be welcoming this change,” she said. “So I think if we can make this as appealing as possible, with some teeth — that might need to have some additional portions to this ordinance or a separate ordinance altogether — I think that would be beneficial for making this really work.”

RAISING THE ISSUE IN THE 4TH WARD COUNCIL PRIMARY RACE BETWEEN CHRIS FAHL & ALAN SWANK

Another example of my individual advocacy for a SOID occurred at the 4th Ward City Council Candidate Forum with Alan Swank and Chris Fahl, held by the Athens County League of Women Voters on March 23. There Swank and Fahl were asked the following question 49 minutes and 2 seconds into the event.

Many Ohio cities have outlawed housing discrimination against Section 8 tenants by adding ‘source of income’ to the list of ‘protected classes’ within their local fair housing ordinances. The Athens fair housing ordinance already goes above and beyond state fair housing law by protecting gay and transgender tenants from discrimination. If elected, will you push to add ‘source of income’ to the list of classes that are protected from housing discrimination in Athens?

As my email records show (I can provide a screenshot to media upon request) and the Athens County League of Women Voters should be able to confirm, I am the person who submitted that question via email to the candidate forum held over Zoom.

Swank replied, “Absolutely. Whether you’re getting your income from Section 8 subsidies, from a rich uncle in Utah or out of your bank account at the Hocking Valley Bank, it should not matter as long as you have the money to pay the rent… Source of income should not matter. It should not matter at all. We have a dearth of affordable, quality housing for our senior citizens, and similarly we have a dearth of affordable — and I’ll put emphasis on ‘quality’– housing for individuals who may not have a great deal of money.” 


Fahl replied, “I would have to see whether the state actually preempts those sort of things because the state does try to preempt some of the more progressive things that cities have been trying to do, especially over the last couple of years.”  

Fahl doesn’t appear to have investigated the issue herself since the March 23 candidate forum — but 1st Ward council member Arian Smedley did exactly that.

MONDAY’S COUNCIL MEETING

I attended Monday’s council meeting as a very interested observer, but I did not speak. Katherine King, my colleague at United Athens County Tenants, delivered public comment. In addition, Council invited comment from Southeastern Ohio Legal Services Senior Staff Attorney Peggy Lee, who in addition to SEOLS Managing Attorney Lucy Schwallie, has participated in UACT’s recent educational series of workshops and panel discussions.

(Lee and Schwallie also co-authored this December 29, 2020 Letter to the Editor of the Athens Messenger in which the two provided information on SOID bans — https://www.athensmessenger.com/comment/editorials/supporting-tenants-seeking-housing-using-vouchers/article_a9b45fe0-4612-510a-87a3-ef95b72e9fd0.html )

With King and Lee already providing the necessary information, I did not feel the need to add my voice. But I listened with great interest as Smedley explained “a little story of how we got here.”

“A resident on the West Side reached out to me [and asked] if the City of Athens would be in position to adopt an ordinance that would ban discrimination on source of income,” Smedley stated. “And included in the communication was a news article about how Bexley, Ohio had done this similar change about a year ago.” 

Smedley apparently was referring to a March 11 post made to the Athens West Side Facebook page by David Kurz, in which he described a SOID ban like that passed by Bexley as “A simple solution to help some of our most vulnerable people” and added, “It’s past due in Athens.” (See https://www.facebook.com/groups/athenswestside/permalink/1863958590428981 )

Kurz then tagged Smedley in the comment thread, and she replied, “Thank you for sharing. I will bring this up with Council Members.” 

Kurz and I both “liked” Smedley’s response.

At Monday’s meeting, Smedley explained that in response to the West Side resident’s Facebook post, “I reached out to Law Director Lisa Eliason for her to take a look.” 

“And my ask was simply, ‘Is this something we can look at, or at least talk about?'” Smedley continued. “And after some communications, she discovered and recommended that if this was something of interest for Athens that we could simply amend our current ordinance that’s called ‘Unlawful Discriminatory Practices’ by adding the language ‘source of income.'”

“This is a fairly simple change,” Smedley continued. “We’re including this ‘source of income’ as another thing we want to protect people for.”

This, of course, is the exact process I outlined back on January 8, also on the Athens West Side Facebook page, in my discussion there with Spjeldnes. 


“THE LOCAL BERNIE SANDERS EFFECT” CONTINUES

The bottom line here is Council’s enactment of a SOID ban –apparently now imminent enactment– is just one more example of what I call “The Local Bernie Sanders Effect” — whereby new independent candidates and community activists are pushing the Democratic establishment in a more progressive direction. 

Even when candidates like me lose an election, we are slowly but surely winning the policy battles. 

Back in 2019, Athens Democratic politicians mostly dismissed the issues progressive independent candidates like me raised. (See https://www.thepostathens.com/article/2019/09/election-change-rental-housing-policies-athens?fbclid=IwAR3_u5J6Fez6u8NoIdKZJEKVG0Ou3yJWpDK4FSxXGYaIzegJHY7xXpjfo4g )But even that year, Athens City Council responded to “Operation Slumlord Smackdown” by increasing penalties against landlords who repeatedly violate our housing code. (See https://www.athensnews.com/news/local/athens-election-challengers-city-enables-slumlords-over-tenants/article_d6a897d0-c9b8-11e9-9747-57846ebf9888.html and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgjeHuiLvJU&ab_channel=DamonKrane ) While that’s nowhere near enough to reign in predatory slumlords, it is also the most substantial pro-tenant legislation council has passed in decades. 

Now, two years later, all of the new Democratic candidates — Ben Ziff, Solveig Spjeldnes and Alan Swank — have adopted large parts of the 2019 candidates’ housing justice platforms, and Swank has begun adopting racial justice activists’ positions on city issues, too.

I realize some folks get upset at me for demanding better things from city officeholders. That’s why my opponents have once again nominated me for “Politician We Hope Will Go Far Away” in this year’s Athens News “Best of Athens” awards. But like Frederick Douglass said about what he called “the whole philosophy of reform” — “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” 

I am very happy to continue to be part of The Local Bernie Sanders Effect, as both a candidate for city office again this year and as a social justice organizer every year. Just think how much more I could do if elected to city government! 

But to win a much more just and equitable Athens, more of us need to be willing to rock the boat. It’s the sort of thing that will win you as many enemies as friends. People will say mean things about you. But it is what’s necessary to get the job done.

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Athens, Ohio: Where have all the leftist candidates gone?

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By Damon Krane 
The New Political(Athens, Ohio)
Friday, April 9, 2021 
Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
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In 2019, I was one of 4 new progressive and leftist candidates for local office in Southeast Ohio — all of us working class renters, including Chris Monday and Ellie Hamrick, who ran for Athens City Council, and McCray Powell, who ran for Nelsonville City Council.

A January 25 Athens News headline declared, “Athens could have its most competitive election season in years, and it would be thanks to Damon Krane.” 

Damon Krane? That’s me — a social justice organizer and independent journalist here in Athens since 1999. In 2019 I ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Athens as a democratic socialist with a detailed plan to crack down on predatory landlords and improve rental housing conditions. Last year I co-founded United Athens County Tenants and Athens County Copwatch, organizations that have stayed busy fighting to improve tenants’ lives and combat racist policing, making plenty of headlines along the way. 

This year I decided to run for Athens City Council to continue advancing a housing, racial and economic justice agenda. But my main priority has been finding other like-minded people to run — hence the January 25 headline.

Unfortunately, though, it looks like that headline won’t come to pass. So an explanation is in order, as well as a final appeal to anyone who wants to see a better, more equitable Athens.

With all eight seats on Athens City Council up for grabs this year, I spent the past three months encouraging nearly 100 people to run. Seven people expressed serious to moderate interest, and we spent hours talking about logistics. 

I was proud of the prospective candidates I identified. While our current City Council is comprised entirely of affluent, white homeowners — all apparently cisgender and heterosexual with an average age of 55 — the prospective candidates I identified are all working-class renters and mostly people of color, including three students, two transgender people and a military veteran. At an average age of 28, they’ve all grown up in today’s world. Their intersectional, progressive, working-class politics are informed by lived experiences shared by the majority of Athenians, but not by any current Council member. 

Eventually, though, all but one of these prospective candidates decided not to run. 

If I group them with the several dozen more folks who immediately declined, the barrier to running most commonly cited was economic insecurity. Many potential candidates had to search for a job or housing outside Athens, couldn’t find the time to run between multiple jobs, were stretched too thin to handle the stress, or worried that opposing the city establishment would get them fired and blacklisted. Sometimes economic insecurity was compounded by additional factors making people feel vulnerable, such as having done sex work to pay the bills, having battled addiction or previously run afoul of the law, and/or having to endure the daily strains of being a member of an historically oppressed group. 

Back in 2019, a member of the Athens County Democratic Party Central Committee — also a landlord, business owner and officeholder — assured me that Athens rarely has competitive elections where voters get to pick who governs them because most residents are so happy with the status quo they can’t be bothered to run for office. He also said the mayor’s $90,000 salary would be “a pay cut for anyone qualified to hold the position.”

That’s an interesting take, considering we live in a city with a poverty rate three to five times the national rate, a median household income half the national level, and a rate of homeownership half the national rate, while located in a county with the absolute highest income inequality and worst housing problems in Ohio where nearly 40% of residents are paying more for housing than they can reasonably afford.

Outside the party leader’s fantasy world, the truth is that most of us aren’t in love with the status quo. We’re the ones suffering. That gives us the knowledge and will to solve our community’s problems, but also meager resources with which to do it. So, at the end of the day, we typically don’t run for office or even vote in city elections.

By abstaining from city politics, we withhold consent from politicians so blinded by their own privilege that they call the public subsidization of our most affluent residents’ luxury home-buying an “affordable housing initiative,” and they unanimously pass a sweeping racial justice resolution they never intended to implement. 

But unfortunately, these politicians don’t need our consent, and the wealthiest members of our community — typically about 10% of eligible city voters — continue to elect a local government of, by and for themselves. That’s why, if you’re an Ohio U student or a local service worker, you most likely live in over-priced, dangerously run-down rental housing.

Another shot from the 2019 campaign trail, this one taken shortly after I cast my vote on Election Day.

When I worked to register voters in 2019, most people looked at me like I had the plague or had just insulted their mother. I sympathize with those feelings of disgust toward electoral politics, but I’m also serious enough about revolution to realize that none is on the horizon. History isn’t coming to save us. So, while we build toward the more radical change we need, we must also make the most of every current opportunity, including local elections. 

Do you want to create an Athens that actually fights for housing, racial and economic justice? I do. But no one can do it alone.

After spending so much time encouraging others to run, I’m now down to the wire and need help gathering about 100 signatures by May 3 to get on the ballot. Will you sign my petition, help me collect signatures, or consider running yourself with my support? If so, email damon DOT krane AT gmail DOT com.

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Yes, Athens (Ohio) police and politicians are racist, too

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By Damon Krane 
Athens News (Athens, Ohio) 
Wednesday, July 15, 2020 
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As the largest social movement in US history calls to end policing as we know it, local politicians from both parties are lining up on the wrong side of history.

Sunday, July 5, a few dozen people staged a “Defend the Police” rally in Athens to oppose the Movement for Black Lives. The crowd came equipped with more Trump flags, white power tattoos and guns than masks to inhibit the spread of COVID-19. Of about 50 total demonstrators, many chanting “all lives matter,” no more than 4 were masked — a considerable step up from Athens police officers present, who were maskless without exception. Demonstrators included not only Republican state representative Jay Edwards but Democratic county commissioner and former local union president Charlie Adkins.

Like Edwards and Adkins, Democratic city council member and Appalachian Peace and Justice Network board member Beth Clodfelter also defends the status quo. According to the Athens News, “Clodfelter said she recently met with Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle and was confident in what the department was doing to hold officers accountable in combating racism and police brutality” due to APD’s “implicit bias training and crisis intervention training; a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints; and a full-time social worker, as well as a former psychologist, who serves as an officer on staff.”

Yet just as Minneapolis police had five years of implicit bias training before they murdered George Floyd, and San Jose police in May shot their own implicit bias trainer of three years, most or all of what Clodfelter cited has been in place for years. Nevertheless, Black people, while just 5.3% of Athenians, were subject to 8.9% of APD traffic stops and 7.7% of arrests from 2015 to 2020. And while Athens and OU are 84% and 78% white respectively, a full 59% of those cited or arrested for an open container violation were Black, Asian, Indigenous, or of “unknown” race.

Also, on September 28, 2019, Ethan Doerr (already facing two lawsuits alleging excessive force) twice punched in the face, tasered and, with fellow officers, pinned to the pavement African-American college student Ty Bealer before a crowd of outraged onlookers, all for Bealer’s alleged crime of attempting to elude police. Bealer’s charges were later reduced to minor misdemeanor disorderly conduct, equivalent in severity to a speeding ticket. 

After video of the arrest went viral, the Ohio University chapter of the NAACP called APD’s use of force “extremely unnecessary,” and OU Student Senate denounced the “discriminatory and brutal behavior” of the arresting officers.

Democratic Athens mayor Steve Patterson responded by convening a press conference September 30 regarding the incident, where he was joined by Athens police chief Tom Pyle and City Service-Safety Director Andy Stone.

Although Pyle acknowledged at the conference that APD had not yet completed any investigation into the use of force, he nevertheless issued his conclusions that the arresting officers were “justified” and “restrained,” while declaring, “I don’t see racism in this incident. I just don’t.” Patterson, meanwhile, took the opportunity to accuse those critical of Bealer’s violent arrest of spreading “misinformation.”

At a council candidate forum three days later, Clodfelter stated, “What is portrayed in the video [of Bealer’s arrest] looked to me like excessive force” but she expressed confidence in Pyle’s ability to properly handle the situation. No findings of any internal investigation ever were publicly announced, and Clodfelter did not address the matter again.

Perhaps most telling, on February 1, 2017 — 12 days after Trump took office — APD, Ohio University Police Department and the Ohio State Highway Patrol violated the civil rights of hundreds of anti-racists by illegally dispersing the textbook definition of a constitutionally-protected demonstration held in Baker Center to denounce Trump’s first travel ban and to demand OU and Athens become a sanctuary campus and city. 

While dispersing the lawful assembly, police targeted 70 anti-racists for the second largest campus arrest in OU’s 216-year history. And just as recent demonstrations across the country have been marred by police attacks on journalists, police arrested a journalist from The Post and threatened to arrest others from the Athens News and Athens Messenger.

Democratic city law director Lisa Eliason not only chose to prosecute those wrongfully arrested on their original false charges, her office managed to win 15 convictions by pressuring some anti-racists into pleading down to lesser but equally false charges before the original charges were thrown out in court — thereby concocting criminal records for people who, the court later agreed, never should have been arrested. 

City council then grabbed headlines by passing a toothless resolution denouncing Trump’s travel ban, while, in much finer newsprint, Patterson rejected the demand to make Athens a sanctuary city. 

Sound familiar? 

In response to the current uprising against racist police brutality, council passed another toothless resolution, this time declaring racism a public health crisis, while in the same breath Clodfelter denied such a crisis actually exists in local policing and rejected calls for change.

That’s not the only way February 2017 reverberates today. After city police and politicians signaled their willingness to violate the law in order to help OU suppress anti-racism, administrators imposed restrictions on campus speech and assembly the Ohio ACLU immediately denounced as unconstitutional. Public backlash forced OU to abandon several restrictions, but a ban remains on demonstrations in Baker Center’s 4th floor rotunda.

When the ban was created, and for the three years it has persisted, Patterson and OU President Duane Nellis have sat together on the Joint Police Advisory Council to coordinate APD and OUPD and met privately each month. Thus in 2020 we have every reason to expect a repeat of the Baker 70 incident, with city and university officials once again abusing police power to illegally suppress anti-racism. 

So Clodfelter is just plain wrong. 

Local police, city and university officials disproportionately target Blacks, other people of color and anti-racist activists for selective enforcement of the law, violence and illegal abuse of power. And they do so with impunity: no one was ever held accountable for the misconduct above. 

Instead, nearly $10 million dollars was spent last year on APD and OUPD — two departments whose jurisdictions are contained within a city of 25,000 (school year) to 15,000 (summer) residents, located in Ohio’s poorest county. That’s almost 20 times more than city spending on rental housing safety regulation, when our housing stock is 72% rental. It’s also more police spending per capita for just APD and OUPD than Ohio spends per capita on all campus, village, city, county and state police forces combined. Meanwhile, city government spends no money to directly alleviate local poverty. 

This is why police should be defunded locally as well as nationally.

Damon Krane is a longtime local social justice organizer and independent journalist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year as a democratic socialist on an anti-slumlord platform. He contributes to https://athenscountypolicingdata.org

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Athens, Ohio’s response to COVID-19 highlights health hazards of landlord rule

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By Damon Krane 
Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
Thursday, April 2, 2020
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Beginning on March 12, municipalities all over Ohio and the U.S. began heeding the advice of public health experts by halting residential eviction hearings to slow the spread of COVID-19. Mayors, city councils, county officials and judges all stepped up to make this happen. But here in Athens County, elected officials either passed the buck or acted directly to carry out evictions for much longer.

When I urged local officials to halt evictions at the March 16 Athens City Council meeting, council President Chris Knisely replied, “I’m not sure that the city actually governs evictions,” and Athens Mayor Steve Patterson stated, “It would be a Municipal Court decision, in terms of managing evictions or putting a moratorium on them.” The following day, Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason told the Athens Messenger, “We don’t have any authority when it comes to that.”

Yet on March 16, Cleveland City Council announced it would halt evictions if Cleveland Municipal Court didn’t act first. Oakland, California’s City Council already had done the same thing on March 12. The mayors of Seattle and San Francisco banned evictions on March 13, as did the mayors of Los Angeles on March 15 and San Diego on March 16, with the support of their city councils. In Mayor Patterson’s former hometown of Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury jointly issued an eviction ban on March 17.

Meanwhile, beginning on March 13, municipal courts all over Ohio began halting evictions, including those in Franklin, Hamilton, Montgomery, Bellefontaine, Shelby and Adams counties, as well as Dayton Municipal Court and Toledo Municipal Court.

On March 16, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services Director Lucy Schwallie sent a letter to Athens County Municipal Judge Todd Grace in which she argued, “Proceeding with the eviction hearings now forces our clients to make a dangerous choice in light of a public health crisis: come to court and risk being exposed to the virus, or stay home and risk a default judgment that will result in homelessness down the line.”

That same day multiple residents spoke at Athens City Council’s meeting to urge local officeholders to halt evictions, and a petition signed by 800 residents (934 eventually) demanded the same.

Yet on March 16 and 17, Judge Grace publicly stated he would continue holding eviction hearings. By then courts covering all of Ohio’s major cities and many outlying areas already had halted evictions, and two days later, on March 19, the Ohio Supreme Court urged all remaining courts to follow suit. Thus it was not until March 23, on the eve of Ohio’s March 24 State of Emergency declaration, that Grace finally relented and suspended eviction hearings along with all other in-person hearings.

So what gives?

Every single partisan office in Athens County is held by a Democrat. The Democratic Party is supposed to be on the side of low-income renters and on the side of science. It was Democrats who passed Oregon and California’s rent-control laws, which former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris praised, and which Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders seeks to expand into a national policy.

Likewise, most officeholders across the U.S. who heeded medical experts’ advice and quickly halted evictions are Democrats. Yet here in Athens – the bluest county in Ohio – it took pressure from the Republican-controlled Ohio Supreme Court to get Democratic officeholders to stop hurting low-income renters and exacerbating a public health crisis by ignoring medical science.

And there’s no mystery as to why.

Judge Grace is a landlord. His wife, Athens City Council member Sarah Grace, is a landlord. Grace’s fellow council member, Pete Kotses, is a landlord. And while Mayor Patterson is not a landlord, the majority of top donors to his last two mayoral campaigns are four landlords who together own more than 1,000 bedrooms in the city of Athens alone and collect an estimated $6 million annually from residential city renters.

What we call the Athens County Democratic Party is actually a bipartisan coalition of landlords and politicians beholden to landlords. During last year’s mayoral campaign, Patterson bragged to The Post that Republicans don’t run against him because he’s already the mayor they want – and, indeed, his supporters included 15-year chair of the Athens County Republican Party, Pete Couladis, and major landlord Demetrios Prokos, who has donated $4,000 to Republican state Rep. Jay Edwards.

And it doesn’t take a global pandemic for local officeholders to put landlord profits before public health and safety.

Even after city negligence contributed to the Carriage Hill Apartments fire of 2017, the city of Athens still won’t hire enough rental housing inspectors to adequately enforce the housing code, and city Law Director Lisa Eliason (wife of County Commissioner Lenny Eliason) continues to violate the code herself by ignoring its stated penalties for violations in order to let offending landlords off the hook.

The only difference now is that local officeholders aren’t just continuing to put tenants’ lives at risk by refusing to adequately regulate the local rental market. Now, they’ve put all Athens Countians’ lives at risk by increasing everyone’s chance of contracting and spreading a deadly virus.

We can’t ignore this problem any longer.

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Damon Krane is a longtime local social-justice organizer who ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Patterson last year as an independent democratic socialist with a platform focused on housing issues. He was actively involved in recent efforts to halt evictions.

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When the Confederate Flag Wasn’t Racist for Me

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By Damon Krane
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
Thursday, August 21, 2019
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(Note: The following column was written in response to controversy surrounding the sale of Confederate flag items at the Athens County Fair and the Nelsonville Parade of the Hills, both in Athens County, Ohio.)

I grew up in the country, and I grew up with the Confederate flag.

On the other side of the Ohio River I learned how to ride a horse when I was 3 and handle a gun by the age of 10. I requested a John Deere tractor on my 3rd birthday cake and the monster truck Bigfoot another year. I spent my summers fishing in farm ponds, dodging livestock, and going to the county fair. Sometimes I wore a Confederate flag T-shirt.

I wasn’t an aspiring Klansman – I just liked Dukes of Hazard. It was the 80s. I liked Mr. T and Michael Jackson, too. I had a happy childhood, and the Confederate flag was part of it.

Aside from one machine gun-collecting neighbor who’d drop the maximum number of N-bombs in every conversation, I wasn’t aware of much racism as a child. Confederate flags were on pickups everywhere. But that was just Dukes of Hazard stuff, right?

Granted, my family didn’t have any friends who weren’t white like us. If we had, I wonder if they’d have liked the Dukes’ General Lee as much as we did. They probably wouldn’t have barbecued with our well-armed neighbor.

When I was 16 in 1995, I ran into my best friend from grade school, who I’d lost touch with after he moved to another district. Suddenly, he was eager to tell me all about “The 14 words,” Mein Kampf, and the new friends he was trading weapons with.

When I was 18 in 1997, a woman in an all-white town down the road began dating a southwest Asian man from out-of-town and some of her neighbors burnt a cross on her front lawn. The NAACP chapter from a nearby city organized a protest march in response. Protesters of the march wore swastika armbands and KKK t-shirts and stood together waving Nazi and Confederate flags. What they said to marchers made me angry, so I joined the march. They called me a “race traitor” and said I should be killed. A state trooper who escorted me out of town said, “You’re not from around here, are you?” I had never lived more than 15 miles away.

I got home and searched online for the KKK. The Confederate flag always was the first thing I saw. “Fly the battle flag with pride for we are at war again!” declared the web site of “America’s Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” That wasn’t what the flag had meant to me, so I kept reading – not from KKK websites, but about US history.

I learned that in the lead up to the Civil War, 20 – 25% of the South’s people enslaved 32% of the South’s people, while the majority of people living in South Carolina and Mississippi were enslaved. And when that smaller group of rich Southerners who used government power to enslave a much larger group of Southerners went to war with the US, they did so to protect fortunes built on slavery, not to protect “states’ rights” – something clearly proclaimed in Confederate states’ secession declarations. And to symbolize the war they fought to keep slaves, they created the Confederate flag . Or, rather, they created a bunch of different Confederate flags.

The consistent version of the Confederate flag – the one we know today – didn’t emerge until many decades after the Civil War, when Southern Blacks began to organize to achieve greater democracy. In response, the KKK reformed with the modern Confederate flag as a main symbol, and its allies in Southern state governments ran that symbol up every flagpole and built monuments to heroes of the white supremacist cause.

But white supremacists weren’t trying to leave the US anymore – they were trying to go mainstream. That meant publicly pretending racism really wasn’t racism at all. This wasn’t a totally new trick. The KKK had always tried to portray itself as first and foremost a Christian organization, as it burned crosses and bombed churches. But now, a flag created to symbolize horrific white supremacist violence also became emblematic of an effort to cloak white supremacy in a fog of plausible deniability. “States’ rights,” “heritage, not hate” – those were all lies told to get whites who weren’t consciously racist to unwittingly support to racism, as the Confederate flag was marketed to rural white folks all across America as a supposed symbol of rebellion and freedom. People of color always knew better, but now when they criticized the Confederate flag, white supremacists could turn around and say people of color were the real racists, who hated both freedom and white people, and therefore didn’t deserve equality.

If swastika belt buckles and Nazi T-shirts were the only “war memorabilia” on a vendor’s table, you wouldn’t say the vendor was operating a single-attraction history museum in the middle of a bunch of beer and truck logos, or promoting German “heritage, not hate.” But if you’re one of the folks putting on the Athens County Fair or Nelsonville Parade of the Hills, you probably grew up with the Confederate flag like I did. And now some people telling you to get rid of it are white collar, college-educated, middle class transplants to the City of Athens. You might feel like they’re looking down on you and trying to push you around.

But that’s not what this is about. The Confederate flag isn’t about standing up to self-righteous, suburban snobbery any more than it’s about Christianity, muscle cars, sates’ rights, freedom, or country living. It’s about what it’s always been about – hurting people of color and trying to bring back history’s worst horrors.

So no one should have to force you to get rid of the Confederate flag. You should be able to do that all by yourself.

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Damon Krane is a member of the Southeast Ohio Democratic Socialists of America and an independent candidate for Mayor of Athens.

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Athens incumbent mayor responds to challenge with false, misleading figures

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By Damon Krane
Blog Exclusive
March 8, 2019
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Athens, Ohio mayor Steve Patterson has good reason to want to give the impression that Athens doesn’t have a slumlord problem and that he has a good handle on rental housing code enforcement. Information included in a class-action lawsuit recently filed by former Carriage Hill Apartment tenants suggests that under Mayor Patterson’s direction inadequate code enforcement endangered the lives of dozens of city residents and contributed to approximately 41 residents losing their homes and personal belongings to fire in February 2017. What’s more, I just announced I’m running against Patterson in this year’s mayoral race, and I’m an independent democratic socialist with a plan to improve rental housing conditions that I call “Operation Slumlord Smackdown.”

But now Patterson is in a real pickle because, aside from Athens having a slumlord problem and current rental housing code enforcement being severely inadequate, Patterson appears to have knowingly misrepresented city data to suggest otherwise.

When the Athens News questioned Patterson about my campaign launch this past Wednesday, he responded by substantially under-representing the actual size of the Code Enforcement office’s rental housing inspection workload and by substantially over-representing the size of its rental housing inspector workforce. Those two misrepresentations, taken together, give the impression that Code Enforcement is much better equipped to do its job than it actually is, and that Mayor Patterson is doing much more to ensure safe rental housing in Athens than he actually is.

First, Patterson told the Athens News that 5,625 rental housing inspections were performed last year. So that must mean code officers inspected rental housing units in Athens 5,625 times last year, right?

Wrong.

5,625 actually is the exact number of registered rental housing units listed on the current February 1, 2019 edition of the “City of Athens Registered Rental Housing List” published on the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website. Code officers are responsible for inspecting each of these rental housing units once annually. But code officers also are responsible for conducting follow-up inspections to determine whether landlords have corrected previously identified violations. (You know, like the follow-up inspection of Carriage Hill Apartments that reportedly wasn’t scheduled to occur until almost an entire month after code officers discovered several faulty smoke detectors and at least one expired fire extinguisher. That is, the follow-up inspection that never occurred because part of the apartment complex burned down first.)

What’s more, on top of annually inspecting each rental housing unit and conducting follow-up inspections code officers are responsible for responding to tenant complaints by investigating alleged code violations. A reasonable person might also term these investigations “rental housing inspections.” Indeed, under the heading of “Inspections,” the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website states, “The compliance facet of our daily responsibilities includes investigations for rental housing permits. There are currently four officers conducting these inspections annually.  The office also handles other inspections which address legislatively determined needs of the community, such as… Rental housing complaints.”

As it turns out, code officers are expected to perform quite a lot of these follow-up and complaint-initiated inspections each year in addition to all those regularly scheduled annual inspections. Just how many? Well, the city hasn’t published its data for 2018 yet, but the 2017 Office of Code Enforcement and Community Development Annual Report is available on the City of Athens website, and it provides information for other recent years.

The report states that in 2017 there were 5,587 registered rental units in the city of Athens and that, in addition to the 5,535 “rental inspections” (i.e. regularly scheduled annual inspections) performed that year, code officers conducted 3,791 “re-inspections” and 647 “complaint investigations.” So in 2017 fewer regularly scheduled annual inspections were performed than the number of total registered rental housing units (i.e. 5,535 regular annual inspections of 5,587 units). But when we add to that year’s 5,535 “rental inspections” the 3,791 “re-inspections” and 647 “complaint investigations,” we find that code officers actually inspected city rental housing units 9,973 times in 2017 – a number of inspections 44% greater than the number of rental units.

What about 2016? According to the report, there were 5,607 registered city rental units in 2016. Meanwhile, code officers conducted 3,285 regular annual “rental inspections” that year, plus 3,096 “re-inspections” and 593 “complaint investigations.” Thus code officers inspected city rental housing units 6,974 times in 2016 – a number of inspections 20% greater than the number of rental housing units.

What’s more, given that the 2017 report boasts that the Code Office was able to implement new practices that year that reportedly doubled the number of daily inspections over those conducted in 2016, it seems more likely that the 2018 inspection total would be more like the higher 2017 total figure than the relatively lower 2016 total figure. But given that the 2017 total includes 4,348 more inspections than the 5,625 inspections Patterson claimed code officers performed in 2018, while the 2016 total included 1,349 more inspections than Patterson’s alleged 2018 total count, both year’s previous inspection totals are much higher than Patterson’s 2018 figure.

So what are we to make of Mayor Patterson’s claim that, as the Athens News paraphrased him, “Code Enforcement officers performed a total of 5,625 inspections” in 2018? –that is, his claim that code officers conducted precisely the same number of rental housing inspections as there are registered rental housing units in the City of Athens – when, according to the 2017 report, during both 2017 and 2016 code officers conducted fewer regular annual inspections than there were rental housing units, but substantially more total inspections than there were rental housing units?

Whether intentional or not, Patterson appears to have given the Athens News a false figure – and one which most likely substantially under-represents the actual workload of rental housing inspections.

If so, it’s not the only false figure Patterson gave the Athens News and its readers.

Just as a smaller workload is easier to tackle than a larger workload, any workload is easier to tackle with a larger workforce than with a smaller workforce.  And – again, perhaps coincidentally — just as Patterson appears to have severely under-represented the rental housing inspection workload, he also appears to have severely over-represented the rental housing inspection workforce.

Patterson told the Athens News that those 5,625 inspections were performed “with five, six if you count (Code Enforcement Director) Rick Sirois, code enforcement officers.” But why would we count anyone as a code officer responsible for rental housing inspections who is not actually employed as a code officer responsible for rental housing inspections?

The City of Athens website and the 2017 report both list the Code Enforcement staff to include 1 director, 2 administrative assistants, 2 solid waste inspectors, and 4 code officers.

Similarly, remember that the Code Enforcement website states, “The compliance facet of our daily responsibilities includes investigations for rental housing permits. There are currently four officers conducting these inspections annually.”

And finally, the 2017 report states,

“Three of the four Code Officers do rental inspections 3 of the 4 weeks a month, the other Code Officer assists with permits in the office and patrols the city for issues such as trash, signs, etc. The fourth week of the month the officers will do re-inspections from the previous month. Every Friday, each officer patrols his particular zone, looking for any of the above mentioned items. So to summarize, in a 20 day work month with 4 officers, a total of 80 man work days, the Code Officers doing inspections 48 of those days and 32 days are spent doing their other job obligations.”

So, contrary to Mayor Patterson’s claim that there are 6 code enforcement officers inspecting rental housing, it would appear there are actually 4 — and that even those 4 inspectors are not solely tasked with rental housing inspections but expected to perform a grab bag of other duties as well. Indeed, if the above statement from the 2017 report still applies, then there are only 3 code officers performing rental inspections — just half the number Patterson claimed!

As the mayor, Patterson is ultimately responsible for the operation of the Code Enforcement office. Shouldn’t he know how many people work there and what they do?

Intentionally or not, Mayor Patterson has misrepresented city data in a way that would mislead Athens News readers to conclude the city is better equipped to enforce the code in rental housing than it actually is. To me that kind of misrepresentation doesn’t look like the work of a mayor who’s striving to solve our slum housing crisis – it looks like the work of a mayor who’s either woefully uninformed about his own administration or who’s desperately trying to sweep our slum housing crisis under the rug. Maybe Patterson is nervous because it’s no longer just the health, safety, privacy, and financial security of the vast majority of Athenians who live in rental housing that’s on the line; now it’s Mayor Patterson’s job, too.

The fact of the matter is that the City of Athens has never allocated to its Code Enforcement office anywhere near the staff and resources necessary for that office to adequately enforce the city’s existing housing code. With just 4 inspectors not even solely tasked with rental housing code enforcement and 5,625 registered rental units in Athens, too few inspectors are stretched too thin to be able to actually perform the thorough inspections we need, especially after the quality of rental housing has been allowed to progressively deteriorate during so many decades of neglect. At the same time, the City has never enacted a housing code strong enough to prevent predatory slumlords from running rampant. Among other measures, we need a much stronger code and much more aggressive code enforcement. Finally, we need a mayor who will oversee a more determined and successful Code Enforcement office — one with the staff and resources necessary to fulfill its mission.

Unfortunately, Mayor Patterson is content to pass the buck. According to the Athens News, “The mayor noted that his job as mayor is not to create legislation in regards to housing or other matters; that’s the responsibility of the legislative branch, City Council.” But I have a decidedly different take on Athens City Council. I believe that if Athenians elect me on the basis of Operation Slumlord Smackdown, they’ll send a powerful message to every single city officeholder: start doing right by renters or get replaced by someone who will. So rather than being a mayor who hides behind council’s inaction, I’ll be the mayor who compels council to join me in making Athens a better place for its residents, whether council members like it or not.

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Stop Politicians and Landlords from Corporatizing Athens, Ohio

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By Damon Krane
The Athens News
Monday, April 2, 2018
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The author in 2016, working at Hot Potato Food Truck, which he owns and operates in Athens, Ohio.

 

Ask Athenians why they love their town, and you’re sure to hear about our local independent food and beverage scene, our arts scene, and our progressive politics. And what’s interesting is how deeply these three elements of our community are intertwined.

Our local food and beverage scene is nationally renowned, not because of the ubiquitous corporate fare of chains like Applebees and Starbucks, but because of the innovative culinary diversity of independent local businesses like Casa Nueva and Cantina, Restaurant Salaam, Jackie O’s, Bagel Street Deli, Donkey Coffee, Village Bakery and many more.

But how many local art openings does Ruby Tuesdays host? How many local musicians or poets perform at Starbucks?

Could you purchase bus tickets to a national demonstration against the Iraq War at Jimmy Johns? Did Papa John’s CEO join indigenous water defenders at Standing Rock? How much bulletin board and table space does Wendy’s devote to literature on community and campus organizing?

Who’s got solar panels on their roofs? Who buys from local, organic farmers?  Who participates in Rural Action’s Zero Waste Initiative? Who strives to pay employees a living wage? Who is a worker-owned cooperative?

As a socialist, far be it from me to romanticize entrepreneurship – including my own (I own and operate Hot Potato Food Truck). Not every local independent food and beverage business supports our arts scene or participates in our progressive politics. But a very large percentage of them do – as compared to about zero percent of their corporate counterparts – and that difference matters.

That’s why it’s so infuriating that our Democratic mayor and city council are undermining the food, drinks, arts and politics that we love so much about Athens by helping landlords corporatize our food and beverage scene.

Last summer the Athens News reported on four commercial spaces for rent uptown and on the Near Eastside – each a prime location for a food or beverage establishment – that had been sitting vacant for months. The reason is simple. To maximize their profits landlords have demanded higher rents for these spaces than local independent operators can afford to pay. That’s why nine months after the News’s article, three of those spaces remain vacant and one is occupied by a Starbucks.

But that’s only half the story. While landlords are holding out for high volume corporate chains, city officials are making it harder than ever for independent local operators to enter the market through mobile vending.

Only brick-and-mortar restaurants can provide the experience of indoor seating, table service and cozy ambience. But mobile vendors can follow hungry crowds of pedestrians throughout the day, providing a convenient bite to eat outdoors. In food truck-friendly cities, vendors are permitted to operate from most public parking spots. Cities charge vendors a fee to compensate for parking meter revenue and then collect income tax from mobile vendors’ sales. Residents enjoy more diverse dining options. Cities gain funds to pay for expanded public services. And because parking spots aren’t auctioned off to the highest bidder, local vendors don’t get displaced by inferior corporate chains.

Yet Athens city officials have immobilized mobile vending, long confining vendors to a fraction of a single city block and preventing them from operating on private property during the springtime neighborhood festivals. When our current mayor, Democrat Steve Patterson, was on city council in 2013, he drafted an ordinance that slashed reserved vending hours on Union Street by a whopping two-thirds, thereby making it nearly impossible for vendors to serve dinner at an event on private property elsewhere and then return to College Green for late night operation. Then last November Independent council member Patrick McGee set out to reduce the number of vending spots on Union Street, and at the February 26 council meeting Mayor Patterson pointed out that some cities don’t even allow mobile food vending on city property outside of occasional special events. (The cities Patterson cited were Chillicothe, Marietta and Oxford, Ohio, none of which is known for a thriving food, beverage, arts, or progressive political scene.)

By immobilizing mobile vending and making it ever more difficult for vendors to operate, city officials have prevented vendors from traveling with the times.

When I first moved to Athens in 1999, College Green was like a beach. In fall and spring it was packed with sunbathers and Frisbee players, groups of people relaxing on blankets as they talked or read – and, of course, abundant mobile food options. When I began working at the Burrito Buggy in 2006, the old student center was still right next door and its Front Room provided climate controlled indoor seating and a spacious outdoor patio.

But in 2007 OU moved Baker Center to the other side of campus, taking with it the daytime crowds from College Green and the dining space of the Front Room. As bar goers gradually became more concentrated near the intersection of Court and State streets, late night business along College Green also dissipated. Finally, in 2012 OU switched from quarters to semesters, thereby removing May from the regular school year and depriving vendors of what had been their best month of student business.  Yet despite changing pedestrian traffic patterns and a shortened school year, city officials kept mobile vendors trapped in the same spots since the 1980s.

In the face of gentrifying market forces, mobile vending is a vital way to protect our progressive local culture – but not if city officials continue to stand in the way. Athens needs to revise its antiquated vending ordinance to either 1) make most public parking spaces available to mobile vendors or 2) open up additional restricted vending areas in other locations.

If you agree, then it’s vital that council and the mayor hear from you – at this Monday’s council meeting at 7:00pm on the 3rd floor of the City Building, and via phone and email. Because right now they’re discussing a new ordinance that would not only keep mobile vendors immobilized but also reduce vending space. They couldn’t do worse for Athens if they tried.

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Damon Krane is a longtime Athens, Ohio-based progressive activist, campus and community organizer, and journalist. He owns and operates Hot Potato Food Truck.

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Ohio University students can defeat their school’s new protest ban just like they defeated past speech restrictions

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By Damon Krane
The Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
October 19, 2017
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Restrictions on speech and assembly intended to suppress student activism are nothing new at Ohio University. Much like the new indoor campus protest ban, administrators used to ban protest from most outdoor areas of campus.

Likewise, just as current administrators have tried to use the fascist violence in Charlottesville to justify silencing nonviolent anti-fascist students at OU, past administrators tried to use a violent, misogynistic homophobe’s desire to demonstrate on campus to justify silencing students resisting misogynistic and heterosexist campus violence.

Times and faces have changed, but the administration’s playbook remains the same. As today’s students and their allies fight to defeat OU’s current assault on the First Amendment, it is helpful to review past campus speech struggles in which students ultimately prevailed, and to more closely analyze the current protest ban.

In February 2002, I joined with other OU students to organize a walkout in protest of administrators’ response to campus sexual assault and anti-LGBT hate crimes. During an eight-day stretch that January, three female students had reported being sexually assaulted, and one lesbian student had reported being jumped and beaten by multiple assailants as she walked home on campus from an LGBT dance party uptown.

Back then OU led all public universities and colleges in the state of Ohio with the highest number of rapes reported in residence halls. But not many people knew, since, as I discovered in the lead-up to our walkout, from at least October 1998 through March 2002 OU had been violating federal law (specifically, the Clery Act) in order to hide from its students and employees not only campus crime statistics, but also information on crime prevention, reporting and survivor support – all illegal actions by administrators that likely increased sexual violence at OU. (For more information, see my February 27, 2017 Athens News column.) Meanwhile, administrators kept busy telling female students to drink less alcohol and not walk alone at night. 

Needless to say, we student activists had a lot to talk about, and we wanted to be heard. So we planned for our walkout to culminate in an open mic style rally at the most iconic, accessible, centrally located, highly visible location we could think of – one we knew from black and white photos from the Vietnam War era had been the site of countless demonstrations over the years: the Civil War Monument on College Green.

Administrators quickly stepped in to tell us the monument was off-limits, and that OUPD would arrest students for trespassing on our own campus if we tried to rally there. (See my video footage of OU officials making, and later denying, this threat.) The 2002 version of the recently updated Ohio University policy 24.016 “Use of Outdoor Spaces on the Athens Campus” restricted outdoor student protests to a limited number of mostly out-of-the-way campus locations (pejoratively dubbed “free speech zones”) that students had to apply to reserve in advance. The Civil War monument on College Green was not one of these locations.

What’s more, administrators informed us that OU was being sued by an off-campus group that wanted access to the monument – namely, a traveling band of misogynistic, heterosexist, Christian fundamentalist street preachers led by Charles “Brother Chuck” Spingola, an imposing, wild-eyed body builder with slicked-back hair who carried his bible in a gun holster. For years he had appeared on various Midwest campuses to denounce students as fornicators, sodomites and baby-killers in highly animated sermons which, at OU and elsewhere, were occasionally marred by violence and dozens of times ended with his arrest.

Spingola had made headlines in 1998 for an altercation in which he broke the nose of a Kent State University student, and in 1999 for climbing a flagpole at the Ohio Statehouse to tear down and then burn a rainbow flag during the Columbus Pride Parade. At the 2001 Pride Parade, he was arrested for splashing gasoline on a female parade security worker.

A year after the 2002 OU student walkout, the group The Army of God published a letter in which Spingola praised James Charles Kopp, Eric Rudolph and Clayton Lee Wagner for being what Spingola called “Christian terrorists” and “[t]hose blessed few who actually terrify the wicked.” (Kopp was convicted of the 1998 sniper-style murder of OB/GYN Barnett Slepian; Rudolph of bombing the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, as well as the 1997 bombings of abortion clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham, and of an Atlanta lesbian bar; and Wagner of a foiled 1999 plot to bomb multiple abortion clinics, a 2001 anthrax hoax, and a 1992 bank robbery.)

“As cream rising to the top of the milk, so the Christian terrorist rises above the huddled masses of churchgoers and the many voices which denounce their violent attempts to defend the innocent from their murderous assailants,” he wrote.

At the same time, Spingola’s own violence had already endeared him to other militant fundamentalist Christians.

“The student turned and swung at Chuck, but he ducked and countered with a punch that broke the degenerate’s nose in three places. Praise the Lord!” the fundamentalist newsletter Campus Ministry, USA gushed after the 1998 incident at Kent State. “[Another student] came charging at Chuck flaring his arms like a sissy, but one swing from Chuck sent him to the pavement. Hallelujah!”

 Spingola wanted to flex his muscles and spew his hate from the monument, but administrators had ordered him off university property and onto the adjacent public sidewalk. On at least one occasion, he refused and had been arrested. His 2002 lawsuit alleged that the First Amendment entitled him to preach on campus property.

Surely students and administrators could all agree that Spingola should be kept off campus, right? And although it wasn’t true, administrators claimed the consequence of allowing students to rally at the monument against misogynistic and heterosexist campus violence would be opening campus to the violent misogynist and heterosexist Spingola.

“Whatever space is made available we have to make equally available to anyone regardless of their message,” then Dean of Students Terry Hogan told us in the video linked above.

“If an event such as [the 2002 walkout rally] is held at the monument and we don’t act consistently with what we’ve done in the past with the preachers, it kind of ruins our case,” claimed then Associate Director of Baker Center (and Terry’s brother) Tim Hogan, who handled reservations for College Green sites. “For example, I would go out to ask the preachers [to leave campus property] and they would ignore me. We’d call OUPD. They’d ask them to leave. They’d be ignored. And then [the preachers] would be arrested… If they stay and resist the order to disperse, police have arrested them. That’s what we’ve done in the past. We’re being advised that we should stay consistent with that if we want to win our legal case.”

But if letting Spingola and company speak on campus was the price of our rally, many student activists were willing to pay it.

“I would rather sacrifice having to listen to [Spingola] talk to me for like 30 seconds, so that I can be able to say what I want to say, too,” then OU student Sarah Robertson told Terry Hogan and then Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Sostarich at an impromptu meeting in Cutler Hall.

“I feel way less offended by them preaching to us on the sidewalk than [by] us not being able to talk without getting an ultimatum of getting arrested. That’s way more offensive to me,” then OU student Yvette Nepper stressed.

Regardless, the whole issue was a smokescreen. What OU officials told students was patently false, and they knew it. Well-established case law allowed (and still allows) university administrators to make a distinction between, on the one hand, groups and individuals affiliated with the university (such as students, faculty, and staff) and, on the other hand, groups and individuals unaffiliated with the university (such as the street preachers of 2002 –or the prominent white supremacists of today– who aren’t students, faculty or staff), and to then place greater restrictions on members of the latter category when it comes to providing, denying, or otherwise regulating access to university facilities. Furthermore, in 2002, the university already had in place longstanding policies and practices that made such distinctions.

“Clearly there are areas on campus that are available for groups affiliated with the university, and those same areas are not available for groups unaffiliated with the university,” I pointed out to Tim Hogan in the video above. “For instance, you mentioned the Howard Hall site when we spoke yesterday. So my question is, if a distinction can be made at the Howard Hall site between students and non-students, those affiliated with the university and those unaffiliated with it, what’s so special about the monument? Why can’t that same distinction be made there?”

Tim Hogan’s response: “It can be, but it’s not.”

Shortly after our walkout, a court dismissed Spingola’s lawsuit and upheld OU’s right to separately regulate affiliated and unaffiliated entities’ access to campus facilities. It is highly unlikely that a student rally at the monument ever would have jeopardized OU’s case. But much more telling was that even after Spingola’s lawsuit was out of the way, OU continued to ban student protests at the monument.

Because organizers of the 2002 walkout did not want to subject survivors of campus sexual and heterosexist violence to potentially violent arrest at the hands of university police, we had grudgingly agreed to move our rally from the monument to West Portico of Memorial Auditorium. Luckily, the 300-person walkout rally was large enough and attracted enough media attention that, along with the campaign for university reform that followed, we succeeded in forcing OU into compliance with the Clery Act and, according to then Student Senate President Katherine Smith, played an instrumental role in pressuring the administration to agree to Smith’s proposal to set aside space in the planned construction of the “new” Baker Center to create OU’s campus women’s center, which first opened its doors in 2007. But we still believed the monument would have been a better, more visible location for our walkout rally and for many other campus protests.

In the years that followed, student resistance to OU’s outdoor restrictions on speech and assembly continued. In the brick walkway a dozen feet from the monument, in a location then still officially off-limits to student protests, the Class of 2005 inserted a plaque defiantly stating, “College Green has served as a forum for the voices of Ohio University students throughout its history. Whether supporting civil rights, advocating for the abolishment (sic) of women’s curfews, or in protest, students have and will continue to play a vital role in shaping Ohio University.”

After OU again threatened to arrest students for trespassing at the monument in order to disperse an anti-war rally there in the fall of 2006, the OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society made opposing OU’s limited free speech zones one of its top priorities. In 2007 SDS held two demonstrations at the monument in violation of OU policy and marched into Cutler Hall to demand that all of campus be made a free speech zone.

Undergraduate Student Senate began lobbying administrators to increase the number of outdoor free speech zones, but after Graduate Student Senate stepped in to support SDS’s goal of totally abolishing the restrictions, students finally won. According to then GSS president Dominic Barbato and then SDS organizer Will Klatt (both of whom I interviewed for this column), in Fall 2007 OU administrators agreed to students’ demands to make all outdoor campus property available for students to engage in constitutionally protected speech and assembly, as long as students gave administrators 24 hours advance notice.

Indeed, even current OU policy states, “The unscheduled use of outdoor spaces for the purpose of engaging in constitutionally protected speech shall be permitted provided the space has not already been reserved by another user and that the unscheduled use does not result in disruption as defined [in the policy] below.”

But now, ten years after students triumphed over OU’s outdoor restrictions, administrators have launched a vicious new offensive against student activism indoors, beginning with what appears to be the largest ever mass arrest of students on campus in the university’s entire 213-year history.

(CORRECTION: According to the Ohio University Post, Ohio University police arrested a larger number of students on March 10, 1972 after students occupied ROTC headquarters in Lindley Hall to protest US aggression in Southeast Asia. 77 students were arrested at the 1972 protest, whereas OU arrested 70 students at a protest earlier this year. Thus it now appears that OU’s 2017 mass arrest of students was the largest in 45 years and the second largest ever.)

This February 1, the Ohio University Police Department — acting with the assistance of the Athens Police Department and the Ohio State Highway Patrol– arrested 70 students who had gathered in OU’s student center to peacefully protest the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban and to demand that OU become a sanctuary campus. This stunning attack on the Baker 70 — and by extension, all students — was condemned by OU’s Undergraduate Student Senate, Graduate Student Senate, Faculty Senate and scores of university alumni.

After a resounding courtroom defeat, administrators were forced to drop all charges against the Baker 70. But rather than learning to respect students’ First Amendment rights, administrators followed up in August by doubling down on their commitment to silence students with a new Orwellian “Freedom of Expression” policy that declares, “Demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests, and similar assemblies are not permitted in the interior spaces of university buildings.”

In trotting out this reprehensible policy, OU’s in-house spin doctors have falsely claimed administrators lost their case against the Baker 70 because there had been no policy regulating protests in the student center. Unfortunately, this deceptive ploy has led many policy critics to mistakenly conclude that administrators have drafted new rules that make it easier for the university to win convictions against arrested student protesters. But as someone who has worked on First Amendment issues at public high schools and universities for the past two decades, I believe OU’s new policy is even more likely to fail in court than were its charges against the Baker 70 — and that OU’s legal department is as aware of this as I am. 

Policy or no policy, OU administrators are legally permitted to place constraints on the time, place and manner of student expression if, and only if, specific evidence shows that such constraints are most likely necessary to stop (or to prevent, based on a reasonable forecast of the impending situation) a specific instance of major disruption of normal university operations, an invasion of the rights of bystanders, or a public safety hazard. The university’s entire case against the Baker 70 and its statements to the press last spring all centered on administrators’ claim that OU’s mass arrest of students was necessary to stop such a disruptive and hazardous situation. However, the university lost its case because an overwhelming body of evidence refuted administrators’ claims of hazard and disruption. Therefore, the February 1 Baker Center sanctuary campus demonstration itself is irrefutable proof that a student protest can occur indoors at OU without creating a situation that meets the standard necessary for administrators to legally suppress student speech and assembly. As a result, OU’s new blanket ban on any and all protests, within any and all university buildings – which has nothing whatsoever to do with the specific circumstances of any particular location or any particular protest – is as blatantly unconstitutional a policy as could be dreamed up by the most ambitious campus despot: namely, policy author and OU General Counsel John Biancamano.

It is precisely because Biancamano knows the law is not on his side that OU’s top (Il)legal counsel has put forward an audacious bluff that, far from being designed to achieve a courtroom victory, is constructed to trick students into thinking administrators have greater legal power than they actually do, and to thereby intimidate and confuse students into silencing themselves — all so that the university won’t end up in court again, where Biancamano knows he would only lose. And as a potential side benefit, the new policy may also fool students into thinking that since the law isn’t on their side, they may just as well engage in truly illegal protest activities, for which the university actually could win criminal convictions.

That Biancamano, as the top attorney of a public institution of higher learning, seems to have dedicated himself to both circumventing the law and miseducating students, all in order to violate students’ constitutional rights and to prevent students from becoming informed, engaged citizens, is something that should give everyone serious pause. OU not only needs to abolish its shameful new Anti-Freedom of Expression policy, it needs to fire Biancamano, whose behavior could not be more at odds with the most fundamental values for which Ohio University claims to stand. Meanwhile, the protest ban’s other signatories, new OU President Duane Nellis and interim Provost David Descutner, both really could use a high school civics lesson.

Thankfully, despite the exceptionally regressive administration currently running OU, today’s OU students are in a much better position than were their predecessors who defeated OU’s outdoor restrictions a decade ago. This time around faculty has come out strongly on the side of students, and students have organized an impressive, ideologically diverse coalition of campus groups to oppose the policy, spanning from the International Socialist Organization on the left all the way over to the College Republicans on the right. So forget the five years it took students to defeat OU’s old outdoor restrictions. Today’s students and their allies have the power to defeat the indoor protest ban in more like five weeks! And they should set their sights higher — on the corrupt university officials responsible for both this policy and the wrongful arrests and civil rights violations of the Baker 70.

“Just keep organizing” was the advice last week from former Graduate Student Senate president Dominic Barbato, now a graduate employee union organizer in Michigan. “The only time I see student activists lose in situations like this is when they fail to organize to leverage their superior numbers and only turn out a handful of people to their protests. Because the superior numbers of students and their allies is the source of students’ strength.”

I agree. That’s why I plan to support today’s OU students in their struggle to make their voices heard by joining the mass rally against OU’s protest ban this Friday, October 20, beginning at the Athens County Courthouse at 5:30pm. If you care about freedom of speech and democracy in these dire political times, it’s absolutely vital that you show up, too.

Defeating OU’s latest attack on progressive activism and student speech rights – and indeed, its lawless authoritarianism and shameful miseducation of all students – isn’t just a campus issue. It is a crucial part of how we keep burgeoning American fascism from taking root in our town.

 

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Damon Krane is a longtime Athens, Ohio-based progressive activist, campus and community organizer, and journalist. He owns and operates Hot Potato Food Truck.

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Local News Reporting the Silver Lining of OU’s Recent Mass Arrest

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By Damon Krane
Athens News
Monday, February 27, 2017
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Ohio University’s Feb. 1 arrests of the pro-“sanctuary campus” demonstrators dubbed the Baker 70 marked a dramatic change from past university responses to campus activism. Local media coverage of the incident also departed from past practice. The difference is that local reporting has changed for the better.

Thanks to Conor Morris’s reporting for The Athens NEWS and his paper’s one-time collaboration with the New Political’s Austin Linfante, we know that Ohio University Police arrested a greater number of protesters Feb. 1 than were arrested at any demonstration in Athens in over a quarter century, and only slightly more than at any protest of the Vietnam Era. As The Post reported, 77 students were arrested in 1972 after occupying ROTC headquarters in Lindley Hall. Thus the Baker 70 incident appears to be the second largest mass arrest of student activists on campus in OU’s 213-year history.

Furthermore, as Morris reported in a Feb. 1 online article, “The arrests for trespassing are a far cry from a student-led sit-in protest that occurred in the exact same part of Baker Center in 2014. No students were arrested, and they were allowed to stay past Baker Center’s closing time (midnight, at the time).”

OU officials have attempted to portray the Baker 70 arrests as thoroughly unremarkable. Thus by accurately reporting the arrests historic nature, local media are directly challenging the authority of OU officials to issue a false narrative. Yet The NEWS’ challenge to authority has been even more direct.

In his Feb. 1 online article, Morris reported, “[OUPD Chief Andrew Powers] said one of the main issues was access to the building’s entrance and exits, although at one point, this reporter observed the protesters clearing a path for people to walk through after being asked to by police.”

And in the Feb. 5 print edition, Morris reported, “By the time the protesters were arrested, the police had cleared the room of all media and onlookers and barred further entry to the room. This reporter was threatened with arrest if he didn’t exit the room, although the officers present at the time refused to say on what grounds.”

Reporting that gives historical context and challenges authority is especially important to our community. Athens is made up of about 20,000 college students and only several thousand permanent residents. As OU graduates are continuously replaced by first-year students, nearly one fifth of our population changes every year. Five years from now the vast majority of faces on Court Street will belong to different people. This high turnover rate means most Athenians lack local knowledge and the time to accumulate it – something that makes students vulnerable to all sorts of predators, from rapists and slumlords to corrupt university and city authorities.

Meanwhile, much of our local reporting is produced by student journalists. So when journalism professors and local media professionals fail to impress upon young reporters the importance of research that situates current events in a broader context of local history, the result is a kind of superficial, amnesiac journalism that reinforces the strength of local predators and the weakness of their prey.

One striking example of this kind of insufficient reporting is an absolute bombshell of a story about administrative culpability for violence against female and LGBT students that local (and statewide) media totally missed not very long ago. Reviewing it now sheds light on how far local reporting has progressed since then and on how little, if at all, OU has progressed in its responses to concerned students striving to make Athens a safer and better place.

After an eight-day period in January 2002 during which three sexual assaults and the homophobic beating of a lesbian student were reported to have occurred on OU’s campus, I (then an undergraduate student) discovered OU administrators for many years had been violating federal legal requirements for informing students and university employees of itemized crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support resources.

Speaking Feb. 4, 2002, at a videotaped rally on College Green held after a crowd of about 300 students walked out of class to protest OU’s response to sexual and heterosexist violence, I criticized local media’s failure to cover OU’s violations.

“I wish that the college media would spend less time criticizing people who are trying to address these issues [The Post, OU’s student newspaper, that day had issued an editorial opposing the walkout] and do a little investigative reporting into something called the Clery Act,” I told the crowd before explaining OU’s violations in detail.

The Columbus Dispatch responded by reporting, “And [students] criticized the university for posting old crime statistics on the OU police Web site. A university spokeswoman acknowledged the error and said it has been corrected.”

The Athens NEWS followed suit two days later: “OU is not in compliance with the Clery Act because statistics are only available through 1999, Krane said. (In the Columbus Dispatch on Tuesday, an OU representative said that the oversight had been corrected.)”

Meanwhile, a Feb. 5, 2002 online article for Athensi.com quoted then Dean of Students Terry Hogan responding to my charges by asserting, “OU is doing more than the Clery Act requires.”

A letter I co-wrote published by local papers in early April 2002, further described the administration’s response.

“At an open forum regarding assault prevention on Feb. 10, one student [me] even went as far as to read the text of the Clery Act verbatim to OU administrators, who still continued to deny that OU was in violation. Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Matthews claimed that the Department of Education told him OU did not have to directly notify students of the [comprehensive annual campus security] report [by Oct. 1 of each year, as stated in the act]. Because the DOE is charged with enforcing the act, OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan suggested the agency might have modified the law’s written requirements,” we wrote.

The letter then described an interview I conducted with the Department of Education official responsible for heading up enforcement of the Clery Act.

“[David] Bergeron, chief of Policy and Budget Development for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Post Secondary Education, confirmed that schools are required to notify all students and employees [of the annual report] in precisely the manner described in the act’s text,” we wrote.

On March 6, 2002, amid an ongoing student campaign, OU finally came into compliance with the Clery Act when it sent emails and postcards to all students and employees, notifying them of the availability of OU’s newly published campus security report more than five months after the Oct. 1, 2001 deadline had passed. The notifications stated, “This information is required by law and is provided by the Ohio University Police Department.”

Then OU simultaneously admitted and denied it had violated the Clery Act.

“University representative Leesa Brown ackowledged OU’s delay in releasing the report this year, but said that the university did comply with the Clery Act,” The Athens NEWS reported on April 1, 2002. “The delay was caused by a change in administration in the OU Police Department and a mix-up over who was putting the report together and getting it out to the public, she explained.”

The Athens News neglected to do its own research to fact-check Brown’s claims, or to even interview student activists who contested her claims for the same article.

However, OU’s response to my subsequent public records request supported students’ assertion that OU was not only late in issuing its 2001 security report but also had failed to properly issue any previous year’s report. From 2002 on, each year’s report took the form of a bound booklet, some 30-40 pages in length, characterized by a consistent design format, which OU provided to me along with a postcard notifying students and employees of the report’s release. However, for 1999, 2000 and 2001, OU did not provide any postcards. Meanwhile, the 2000 “report” was printed on the flipside of an 11″ x 17″ campus map, and the 2001 “report” was contained on the front and back of a single, 8 ½” x 11” sheet of paper. Neither the 2000 or 2001 report contained sufficient information required by law. Finally, OU provided no report of any kind for 1999.

All of this became more troubling in December 2004 when the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that during a three-year period spanning 2001 through 2003, more rapes in residence halls were reported at OU than at any other public post-secondary school in our state. Since OU officials spent nearly half of this time period neglecting to fulfill their legal duties to inform students of crime statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs and survivor support resources, the Plain Dealer’s report could have proven disastrous for several administrators. But no local journalists took notice, so shameless administrators seized the opportunity to lie and give themselves a pat on the back.

“Relatively speaking, our numbers reflect that we have a well-developed and aggressive system of encouraging students to report these crimes,” then OU Dean of Students Terry Hogan told The Athens NEWS in January 2005.

“One thing we really pride ourselves on here at OU is that we educate our students on sexual assault,” Director of OU Health and Wellness Char Kopchik told The NEWS. “Victims feel comfortable coming forward and reporting crimes.”

Of course, the reality was that OU was neglecting to inform students of reporting procedures as mandated by federal law during the period in question. Had local reporters and editors even looked backed three years in their own publications’ archives, they would have been able to put that together. But they didn’t.

So a letter to the editor published shortly thereafter took things even further.

“As an attorney with a primary focus in representing victims of sexual assault on college campuses, I want to applaud Ohio University for its reporting of sexual assaults and its stance on addressing this pervasive problem,” wrote Amanda A. Farahany of the law firm Barrett & Farahany. (Local media also failed to investigate why the Atlanta, Georgia-based law firm was weighing in on the issue from afar.)

“Only when a college takes the stance that OU has by encouraging reporting, educating students, and creating an environment where victims are not punished and perpetrators are held responsible will this problem be eradicated,” she continued. “OU should not be singled out for its ‘high crime rate,’ but should instead be singled out for its commitment to the safety of its students.”

Thus an absence of solid local reporting not only enabled OU officials to successfully cover up their violations of federal student safety laws at a time of especially high reports of campus violence – it actually helped these corrupt officials exploit the unsafe environment they helped create to advance their own careers. Indeed, the LinkedIn profile of former Assistant Director of OUPD Mark Mathews, whose department bore particular responsibility for OU’s Clery Act violations — and who publicly lied to cover up those violations in 2002– currently lists one of Mathews’ specialties as “Clery Act compliance”!

Fast forward to the present, and whether we’re talking about OU’s cover-up of its Clery Act violations 15-20 years ago or the university’s arrests of 70 peaceful protesters on bogus charges earlier this month, the main takeaways are the same. OU’s upper administration, its police force and their allies have a history of acting to the detriment of students and then blatantly lying about it. Local media can help us hold these people accountable — but only when journalists do the necessary research and have the courage to report the truth. The Athens NEWS’ coverage of the Baker 70 arrests is a commendable example of the kind of coverage the people of Athens deserve. Here’s hoping we see more of it!

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-Damon Krane of Athens is formerly a grassroots organizer, Post columnist, Athens News contributor, co-founder of The InterActivist, editor of that magazine from 2005 – 2008, and director of the high school student press rights and independent journalism education project Free Student Press. He currently owns and operates Hot Potato food truck.

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