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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

US, Cuba patch torn relations in historic accord

US, Cuba patch torn relations in historic accord

AP Photo
Alan Gross, waves as he and his wife Judy leave following his statement at his lawyer's office in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. Gross was released from Cuba after 5 years in a Cuban prison.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations - a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations.

President Barack Obama's dramatic announcement in Washington - seconded by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana - was accompanied by a quiet exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years.

The shift in U.S.-Cuba policy was the culmination of 18 months of secret talks between the longtime foes that included a series of meetings in Canada and the personal involvement of Pope Francis at the Vatican. It also marked an extraordinary undertaking by Obama without Congress' authorization as he charts the waning years of his presidency.

"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked," Obama declared at the White House. "It's time for a new approach."

Obama spoke as Castro was addressing his nation in Havana, where church bells rang and school teachers paused lessons to mark the news. Castro said that while the U.S. and Cuba remain at odds on many matters, "we should learn the art of living together in a civilized manner in spite of our differences."

Obama's plans for remaking U.S. relations with Cuba are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry to visit and review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.

Obama and Castro spoke by telephone Tuesday for nearly an hour, the first presidential-level call between their nations' leaders since the 1959 Cuban revolution and the approval of a U.S. economic embargo on the communist island that sits just 90 miles off coast of Florida. The two men are also expected to meet at a regional summit in Panama next spring.

Obama did not rule out traveling to Cuba before his presidency ends, telling ABC News: "I don't have any current plans to visit Cuba, but let's see how things evolve."

Despite Obama's declaration, the Cuba embargo was passed by Congress, and only lawmakers can revoke it. That appears unlikely to happen soon given the largely negative response to Obama's actions from Republicans who will take full control of Capitol Hill in January.

"Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom - and not one second sooner," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "There is no `new course' here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies."

The response from around the world was far more welcoming, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. policy toward Cuba has been despised.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called Obama's action "a gesture that was courageous and historically necessary."

The Vatican said Pope Francis "welcomed the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."

In Cuba, a sense of euphoria spread through Havana as people gathered around televisions to watch the Obama and Castro announcements.

"For the Cuban people, I think this is like a shot of oxygen, a wish come true, because with this, we have overcome our differences," said Carlos Gonzalez, a 32-year-old information technology specialist.

Half a century ago, the U.S. recognized Fidel Castro's new government soon after his rebels took power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. But before long things began to sour as Cuba deepened its relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1961 the U.S. broke diplomatic relations, and then came the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion meant to topple Castro. A year later a U.S. blockade forced removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Since then, the number of Americans who see Cuba as a serious threat has declined. A 1983 CNN/Time poll found 29 percent considered Cuba a very serious threat. That dipped to 13 percent in 1994 and 12 percent in 1997.

Under the changes announced Wednesday, licensed American travelers to Cuba will be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. 

This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.

Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans.
The financial impact on Cuba is unclear, though some American businesses welcomed the prospect of expanding into a new market. Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his organization stands "ready to assist as the Cuban people work to unleash the power of free enterprise to improve their lives."
While Obama has long spoken of his desire to open ties with Cuba, the 2009 imprisonment of Gross, an American government subcontractor, became a major obstacle. Gross was detained while working to set up Internet access for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which does work promoting democracy in the communist country.

Cuba considers USAID's programs illegal attempts by the U.S. to undermine its government, and Gross was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Last spring, Obama secretly authorized two of his senior advisers to hold exploratory conversations with Cuba about securing Gross' release. Over a series of nine clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican, the talks expanded to include broader discussions of normalizing relations.

Pope Francis raised the issue with Obama when the U.S. president visited the Vatican in March. And in early summer, the pontiff sent separate letters to Obama and Castro urging them to end their decades-long freeze.

The details of the prisoner releases and policy changes were largely finalized during a meeting at the Vatican last fall.

Wednesday morning, Gross boarded a U.S. government plane and flew out of Cuba, accompanied by his 
wife and three U.S. lawmakers. Waiting for him on board were big bowls of popcorn and a corned beef sandwich on rye.

"This is game changing," Gross declared in brief, emotional remarks later in Washington. He flashed a broad grin with missing teeth - lost during his imprisonment - after taking an admiring glance at the American flags posted behind him and taking note that his release came on the first day of Hanukkah.

The two nations also released spies that they were holding.

The Castro government released a Cuban spy who had spent nearly 20 years in prison after working for the United States and accessing closely held intelligence information at the highest levels of the Cuban government. U.S. officials said the spy was responsible for some of the most important counterintelligence prosecutions that the United States has pursed in recent decades, including convicted Cuban spies Ana 
Belen Montes, Walter Kendall Myers and Gwendolyn Myers and a group known as the Cuban Five.

In exchange for the spy's release, the U.S. freed the three remaining members of the Cuban Five who were jailed in Florida. The men, who are hailed as heroes in Cuba, were part of the "Wasp Network" sent by Cuba's then-President Fidel Castro to spy in South Florida.

Two of the five were previously released after finishing their sentences.

U.S. officials said Cuba was taking some steps as part of the agreement to address its human rights issues, including freeing 53 political prisoners and allowing greater Internet access on the island.
Obama said he continued to have serious concerns about Cuba's human rights record but did not believe the current American policy had been advancing efforts to change the government's behavior.
"I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result," he said.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sydney cafe siege ends; 3 dead, including gunman

Sydney cafe siege ends; 3 dead, including gunman 

AP Photo
A hostage runs to armed tactical response police officers for safety after she escaped from a cafe under siege at Martin Place in the central business district of Sydney, Australia, Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. New South Wales state police would not say what was happening inside the cafe or whether hostages were being held. But television footage shot through the cafe's windows showed several people with their arms in the air.

SYDNEY (AP) -- The deadly siege began in the most incongruous of ways, on a sunny Monday morning inside a cheerful cafe in the heart of Australia's largest city. An Iranian-born gunman burst in, took 17 people hostage, and forced some to hold a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith above the shop window's festive inscription of "Merry Christmas."

It ended after midnight with a barrage of gunfire that left two hostages and the gunman dead, four others wounded, and a nation that has long prided itself on its peace rocked to its core.

After waiting 16 hours, police stormed the Lindt Chocolat Cafe early Tuesday when they heard gunfire inside, said New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione.

A loud bang rang out, several hostages ran from the building and police swooped in amid heavy gunfire, shouts and flashes. A police bomb disposal robot also was sent into the building, but no explosives were found.

"They made the call because they believed that at that time, if they didn't enter, there would have been many more lives lost," Scipione said.

The gunman was identified as 50-year-old Man Haron Monis, who once was prosecuted for sending offensive letters to families of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monis had "a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability."

Scipione wouldn't say whether the two hostages who were killed - a 34-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman - were caught in crossfire, or shot by their captor.

One of the victims was Sydney lawyer and mother-of-three Katrina Dawson.

"Katrina was one of our best and brightest barristers who will be greatly missed by her colleagues and friends" Jane Needham, president of the New South Wales Bar Association, said in a statement.

The other victim was identified in Australian media as the manager of the cafe, Tori Johnson.

Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said three women were treated in hospital for gunshot wounds and were in stable condition. A police officer was treated for shotgun pellet wounds and discharged, she said.

Burn said another two women were treated for "health and welfare purposes." Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that those women were pregnant.

Burn said police do not know what had motivated Monis. She declined to detail his demands.

"This is a man who had serious history of criminal offences and a history of violence. This was a man that we do believe had some extremist views and we also believe that he was unstable," Burn told reporters.

She confirmed that Monis was free on bail when he died. Police were investigating whether he was the registered owner of the shotgun that he used.

Monis was convicted and sentenced last year to 300 hours of community service for sending what a judge called "grossly offensive" letters to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2009.

At the time, Monis said his letters were "flowers of advice," adding: "Always, I stand behind my beliefs."

Monis later was charged with being an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. Earlier this year, he was charged with the sexual assault of a woman in 2002. He has been out on bail on the charges.

"He had a long history of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability," Abbott said. "As the siege unfolded yesterday, he sought to cloak his actions with the symbolism of the ISIL death cult. 

Tragically, there are people in our community ready to engage in politically motivated violence."

"This is a one-off random individual. It's not a concerted terrorism event or act. It's a damaged-goods individual who's done something outrageous," his former lawyer, Manny Conditsis, told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness," Conditsis said.

Flags were lowered to half-staff on the landmark Harbour Bridge as Australians awakened to the surreal conclusion of the crisis. The state's premier expressed disbelief that the attack could happen in Australia - a place he dubbed "a peaceful, harmonious society which is the envy of the world."

The siege began about 9:45 a.m. in Martin Place, a plaza in Sydney's financial and shopping district that was packed with holiday shoppers. Many of those inside the cafe would have been taken captive as they stopped in for their morning coffees.

Hundreds of police flooded the city. Streets were closed and offices evacuated. The public was told to stay away from Martin Place, site of the state premier's office, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the headquarters of two of the nation's largest banks. The state parliament house is a few blocks away, and the famous Sydney Opera House also is nearby.

Throughout the day, several hostages were seen with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the window of the cafe, with two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.

The Shahada, which translates as, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger," is considered the first of Islam's five pillars of faith. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the Shahada in their own black flag.

Channel 10 news said it received a video in which a hostage in the cafe had relayed the gunman's demands. The station said police requested they not broadcast it, and Scipione separately asked media that might be contacted by the gunman to urge him instead to talk to police.

Australian Muslim groups condemned the hostage-taking in a joint statement and said the flag's inscription was a "testimony of faith that has been misappropriated by misguided individuals."

In a show of solidarity, many Australians offered on Twitter to accompany people dressed in Muslim clothes who were afraid of a backlash against the country's tiny Muslim minority of some 500,000 people in a nation of 24 million. The hashtag (hash)IllRideWithYou was used more than 90,000 times by late Monday evening.

Seven Network television news staff watched the gunman and hostages for hours from a fourth floor window of their Sydney offices, opposite the cafe.

The gunman could be seen pacing back and forth past the cafe's windows. Reporter Chris Reason said the man carried what appeared to be a pump-action shotgun, was unshaven and wore a white shirt and a black cap.

Some of the hostages were forced up against the windows.

"The gunman seems to be sort of rotating these people through these positions on the windows with their hands and faces up against the glass," Reason said in a report. "One woman we've counted was there for at least two hours - an extraordinary, agonizing time for her, surely, having to stand on her feet for that long."
"When we saw that rush of escapees, we could see from up here in this vantage point the gunman got extremely agitated as he realized those five had got out. He started screaming orders at the people, the hostages who remain behind," he added.

As night set in, the lights inside the cafe were switched off. Armed police guarding the area outside fitted their helmets with green-glowing night goggles.

Lindt issued a statement saying it was "profoundly saddened and deeply affected about the death of innocent people."

"Our thoughts and feelings are with the victims and their families who have been through an incredible ordeal, and we want to pay tribute to their courage and bravery," said the statement from the Swiss company Lindt & Sprugli.

Australia's government raised the country's terror warning level in September in response to the domestic threat posed by supporters of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL. Counterterror law enforcement teams later conducted dozens of raids and made several arrests in Australia's three largest cities - Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. One man arrested during a series of raids in Sydney was charged with conspiring with an Islamic State leader in Syria to behead a random person in Sydney.

The Islamic State group, which holds a third of Syria and Iraq, has threatened Australia in the past. In September, its spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a message urging attacks abroad, specifically mentioning Australia.

One terrorism expert said the situation appeared to be that of a "lone wolf" making his own demands, rather than an attack orchestrated by a foreign jihadist group.

"There haven't been statements from overseas linking this to extremist groups outside the country - that is quite positive," said Charles Knight, lecturer in the Department of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism at Australia's Macquarie University.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

With crime coverage, paper `challenging community'

With crime coverage, paper `challenging community'

AP Photo
In this Nov. 20, 2014, photo, New Pittsburgh Courier editor and publisher Rod Doss, left, and assistant to to publisher Stephan Broadus, right, show copies of the paper with focus on black on black violent crime while in the newspaper conference room in Pittsburgh. The Courier, an historic black newspaper, began a campaign with coverage of each homicide almost a decade ago because editors at the Courier simply felt black-on-black killings were not getting the attention they deserved.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- At the start of every month, the same image of a pistol points from the same place on the front page of the New Pittsburgh Courier, above the same caption: Under Attack By Us!

The only thing that changes is the number of the dead.

"75 of 91 homicides Black lives," read a recent headline in the renowned black newspaper's crusade against black-on-black violence. It was accompanied, as always, by a literal body count: The name, race and manner of death for every homicide in Pittsburgh in 2014 - with victims being overwhelmingly black, as the headline shows.

For years across the news media, stories have focused on cases like the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And for years, the Courier has kept asking: What about all these other black lives lost?

That gun on its front page might as well be a finger pointed at black America - from a mirror.

"We are challenging the community to own this problem," says Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the 107-year-old weekly newspaper, which sometimes does an in-depth story on a particular victim but unfailingly updates and reprints its list, including whether anyone has been arrested.

The campaign began almost a decade ago because editors at the Courier simply felt black-on-black killings were not getting the attention they deserved. At first, it met with strong resistance from the paper's readership - "almost like we were uncovering dirty laundry. Nobody wanted us to talk about it," Doss says. 

Slowly, though, that attitude started to change. The number of rallies and vigils increased. Mothers of the dead banded together to try to stop the tragedies. Police were pressured to solve more of the murders.

"People began to understand, we were doing it out of concern for black life," Doss says. "We tried to make the issue that every black life is important."

The Pittsburgh metro area, population 1.2 million, is vibrant after rebounding from the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and `80s. 

But poverty and violence still afflict black areas such as Wilkinsburg, Homewood, East Liberty and the fabled Hill District, where the playwright August Wilson was born, Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet, and baseball legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played.

The metro area's annual number of homicides has ranged from 71 to 120 between 2007 and 2013. In 2013, the homicide rate of 4.1 per 100,000 residents was 12th highest in the nation, according to FBI data, but well below that of the worst metro areas, Baltimore (10.0) and Detroit (9.6). 

In Pittsburgh and many other big cities, most of the homicides are black males killing each other. 

Rashad Byrdsong, a Pittsburgh native and leader of the Community Empowerment Association, has worked for decades to help stop the violence through myriad efforts, from hands-on street conflict resolution to hiring minority residents to work for his own construction company. 

He is the type of grassroots activist, common in cities across America, whose efforts are often overlooked when critics say that the black community only cares when a white person kills a black person.

A recent example of this criticism came when former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared on "Meet the Press" to comment on nationwide protests over a grand jury declining to indict the officer who killed Brown in Ferguson.

"What about the poor black child that was killed by another black child? Why aren't you protesting that?" Giuliani said.

"Why don't you cut (the homicide rate) down so that so many white police officers don't have to be in black areas?" Giuliani continued, speaking to a black panelist.
Byrdsong has been trying to do exactly that. He supports the Courier's focus on the killings, but argues there is a broader narrative that also must be addressed.

He calls it "social violence": few opportunities for early childhood development; over-prescription of drugs like Ritalin to black boys; high rates of school suspensions and expulsions; racial profiling; disproportionate unemployment and incarceration; and more. 

"When we talk about violence, the details in the newspaper are the finality that we're reading about. 

There are a lot of small violent episodes occurring in these young men's lives that led up to the article," Byrdsong says. "There are a lot of systemic and structural impediments that prevent the advancement of a certain group of people."

These structural barriers may help explain why few confront black-on-black killings as forcefully and repeatedly as the Courier does.

Many black advocates believe obstacles to black advancement are the root cause of such killings, and that eliminating them should get the bulk of attention. They say blaming the problems of poor black communities solely on the behavior of some residents comes uncomfortably close to the view of certain white critics (and some black ones) that poverty and a lack of opportunity had nothing to do with bad choices. 

On the other hand, some advocates downplay black misbehavior, suggesting that racial obstacles cannot be overcome through good choices.

Those who do mention black behavior can be castigated for "blaming the victim." Even President Barack Obama has been stung by black critics for sprinkling talk of "responsibility" into his rare racial speeches.

"Black people will get extremely fired up and fight for a Trayvon Martin (the black teen fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida) or any time a white person kills a black person, or police kill a black person. You got rallies and marches and protests, you get your national leaders involved," says Ulish Carter, the Courier's managing editor. "But all these situations with blacks killing blacks, you're just as dead."

Stephen Broadus, the Courier's assistant to the publisher, thinks the black community has become resigned to violence.

"Another black kid gone, no big deal. Another black kid in jail, no big deal," he says, summarizing that view.

"We've become numb," says Ashley Johnson, the Courier reporter who writes the Under Attack stories.

And what makes the Courier feel it can challenge its readers with coverage that is unsparing and painful to read? It's because of the paper's record of deep, longstanding support. Since its founding in 1907, perhaps no newspaper has done more to advocate for black people.

Anti-discrimination, political empowerment, health care and housing were just a few issues the paper championed in its early years. It fought for the desegregation of professional sports. 

Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith is credited with recommending Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, and Smith then chronicled Robinson breaking of baseball's color barrier, even rooming with him on trips to segregated areas.

During World War II, the Courier's "Double V" campaign published weekly stories advocating "for victory at home against prejudice and discrimination as well as victory abroad against the enemies of democracy," as one article stated.

W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston all had bylines in the Courier. 

At its height, the paper was distributed nationwide, and its local and national editions had a circulation reaching 350,000.

"By any fair-minded historical measure, the Pittsburgh Courier is one of the most important newspapers in American history," says David Shribman, executive editor of Pittsburgh's biggest paper, the Post-Gazette. 

"No serious student of race relations in the United States can ignore the vital role played by the Courier, which in its time may have been as important as Frederick Douglass' newspaper, The North Star."

The Under Attack By Us series is a continuation of this legacy. And it's making a difference, people say.

"Just by talking about these deaths, it's making people stand up," says Richard Garland, a community activist and University of Pittsburgh instructor who works directly with violence-prone youth. "What the Courier is doing is letting everyone know what the plight of African-Americans is."

Doss, the editor and publisher, says the role of the Courier has always been to take the lead on important black issues - popular or not.

"In many instances we've been in the vanguard of creating change, because we do challenge the community from within," Doss says. "That's where it begins." 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Police demonstrations inspire new protest songs

Police demonstrations inspire new protest songs 

AP Photo
FILE - In a Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014 file photo, Eilidh Branson, a student at Spelman College, sings along with a group of protestors at a rally and protest at the CNN Center, in Atlanta, the day after a grand jury's decision not to indict a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen. Protest songs are taking their place alongside the chants of “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” as demonstrators raise their voices to condemn the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police.
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) -- Stop. Hey, what's that sound? Protest songs are taking their place alongside chants of "I can't breathe" and "Hands up, don't shoot" as demonstrators raise their voices to condemn the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. There's something happening here.

The killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have inspired a musical outpouring perhaps unseen in the U.S. since Pete Seeger helped make "We Shall Overcome" a civil-rights standard in the 1960s. Older songs are being redeployed for a new generation. New compositions are being widely shared, including some from major-label artists. And holiday classics are being rewritten, such as a barbed spin on "White Christmas."

"Facts aren't fueling this fire. Feeling is what is fueling this fire, and until we express those feelings and those feelings are understood, we aren't going to get too far," said Daniel Watts, a Broadway performer who starred in a professionally choreographed Times Square flash mob in response to Eric Garner's death on Staten Island. He's also written two more spoken-word pieces about police brutality that others set to music.

One of the tunes gaining a following on the streets and social media was penned six weeks ago by Luke Nephew, a 32-year-old Bronx poet who also has composed event-specific cantos for protests at immigration detention centers, foreclosure auctions and other demonstration sites. It has four lines, starting with "I still hear my brother crying, `I can't breathe.' Now I'm in the struggle singing. I can't leave."

Hundreds of people sang those words last week as they blocked bridges and got arrested in New York on the night after a grand jury declined to indict the white officer who used a chokehold on Garner. That so many knew the hymn-like song, and the way it has caught on since then, might owe as much to savvy preparation as the power of the lyrics.

Nephew first introduced the song at an early November meeting of activists preparing for the grand jury's decision. The participants agreed to share it with their members so as many people as possible could join in when the time came. A recording was posted on YouTube and links made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter.

"We said, `Make sure you are taking this back to your organizations. Make sure you are learning this,'" recalled Jose Lopez, an organizer with the social service and advocacy group Make the Road New York.

Gospel singer and radio host Darlene McCoy, founder of a group called Mothers of Black Sons, heard the protesters in Manhattan singing as she watched the news at home in Atlanta. She was so taken with the images of people raising their voices in unison while being handcuffed that she replayed the broadcast to write down the words.

Unaware of its origins, McCoy immediately recorded herself singing Nephew's composition, posted the file on Instagram and challenged other singers to do the same. At least 45 people have done so, including Catrina Brooks, a former "The X-Factor" contestant from Michigan, whose rendition has been viewed nearly 750,000 times.

"The funny thing is, you have to do it in 15 seconds," McCoy said, referring to the site's maximum video length. "And that's a challenge for some artists."

Some protesters find fresh relevance in popular music of the past - Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" or Michael Jackson's "They Don't Really Care About Us."

Nephew is a bit baffled by how seldom contemporary music has been a part of American social movements in recent decades. He thinks it's partly because people are no longer accustomed to singing together in public, partly because younger Americans are turned off by traditional folk and gospel tunes that do not speak to their experiences.

"It's amazing how much of a vacuum there is," he said. "God bless Pete Seeger. But where is his children's generation?"

Questlove, drummer for the hip-hop band the Roots, urged fellow musicians via Instagram and Twitter last week "to be a voice of the times that we live in," noting that "protest songs don't have to be boring or non-danceable."

Several professionals have already released home-produced tribute songs to Brown and Garner, including Alicia Keys, Long Beach rapper Crooked I, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morelo and hip-hop producer J. Cole.

Amateurs have gotten into the act too. A group in St. Louis disrupted a symphony performance of Brahms' Requiem by singing a "Requiem for Mike Brown" and scattering confetti hearts from the balcony.

Other protests adopt a seasonal theme with "justice carols" that reimagine holiday classics - "All I Want for Christmas Is An Indictment" and "O Little Town of Ferguson."

But whether any of the songs come to crystallize recent events in the way Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" came to symbolize the Vietnam War era, well, it ain't exactly clear.

"It often takes time for ideas to percolate through and for people to step back and take a breath and write meaningful tunes," said Ian Peddie, an English professor at Georgia Gwinnett College who studies the intersection of popular music and human rights. "There has to be that period of incubation."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Alabama woman convicted in children sex abuse ring

Alabama woman convicted in children sex abuse ring 

AP Photo
Wendy Wood Holland, left, is lead out of the courtroom after she was found guilty on of sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture and child endangerment at Baldwin County Circuit Court, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2014, in Bay Minette, Ala. Holland was convicted on felony charges as member of a family sex ring that abused children for years. She was among 11 people arrested following the disappearance of her 19-year-old niece Brittney Wood in 2012.
BAY MINETTE, Ala. (AP) -- The conviction Wednesday of an Alabama woman accused of being part of an incestuous sex ring provided graphic evidence about horrendous child molestation, but it didn't answer a baffling question: What happened to a young victim who is missing and presumed dead?

Jurors took two hours to convict Wendy Wood Holland, 35, of sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture and child endangerment. She showed no emotion when the verdict was read. Prosecutors say Holland faces at least 20 years in prison and could get a life sentence.

Witnesses heard two days of testimony in her trial that didn't give any clues about the whereabouts of her 19-year-old niece Brittney Wood.

Wood was last seen with Holland's husband, Donnie, in 2012, and 11 people have since been arrested on sex-related charges. That includes Wendy Holland, on trial on charges of sexually abusing another underage relative.

Authorities said Wood could provide important evidence about sexual crimes by her adult relatives if only they could find her alive. But searches and two years of investigation have failed to turn up any sign of her. 

Police believe Wood is dead, possibly killed in the days before the case went public.

Following the disappearance, Holland was charged with sexual abuse, sodomy, sexual torture and child endangerment.

Donnie Holland was under investigation as the leader of the alleged sex ring at the time of Wood's disappearance, and he died days later of what authorities ruled was a self-inflicted gunshot.

Prosecutors told jurors during closing arguments that Wendy Holland, her late husband and others were monsters who subjected their own children and others to perversions that were almost too depraved to understand, with parents and in-laws using their own young relatives for sex.

Holland used sex toys and other forms of stimulation to groom the alleged victim for sex with adults at an age children typically are watching "Sesame Street" and learning to color, prosecution witnesses told the jury.

"You have heard testimony over the last two days that no one wants to believe," prosecutor Nicki Patterson said in closing arguments. "We want to give family the benefit of the doubt."

But defense attorney Mitzi Johnson-Theodoro argued that the alleged victim, two other relatives who pleaded guilty to sex charges and a jailhouse friend of Holland were lying when they portrayed her as a serial child abuser.

She said Holland would appeal the verdict.

"This is the beginning of a very long process. This is just the first step," she said.

Neighbors didn't see pornography or sex toys in Holland's home, and prosecutors have no physical evidence, Johnson-Theodoro told jurors. Holland is a loving person who took her own kids trick-or-treating and worked as a certified nursing assistant at a state nursing home for veterans, she said.

"They want you to believe that a woman who cared for the elderly abused children?" Johnson-Theodor said in closing arguments.

The trial, though, was all about Brittney Wood for Christin Huffman, a friend of the missing teen.

Testimony showed Wood was part of at least one family sexual encounter involving Holland, three other adults and two children, but the fact that no one has seen the teen since before the case broke in 2012 wasn't mentioned to jurors.

Seated in the court and wearing a T-shirt decorated with Wood's photo, Huffman dabbed at her eyes as attorneys laid out details of generations of incest allegations involving her friend's family.

"To me the whole thing is about her," Huffman, 21, said outside court. "There's no way anyone could look at it and say it's not."

Wood's older brother and an uncle have pleaded guilty and testified against Holland, and her mother faces sex charges.

Holland was the second person to stand trial in the case. Family friend Billy Brownlee was convicted in October.

Prosecutor Patterson said authorities believe Holland's conviction could prompt more.

"I hope this will clear a logjam," she said.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Statistics lacking in debate over police behavior

Statistics lacking in debate over police behavior 

AP Photo
FILE- In this July 23, 2014 file photo, mourners gather during a funeral service for Eric Garner at Bethel Baptist Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York. A grand jury ruled not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Garner. No firm statistics can say whether a spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.

Ferguson, Missouri. Cleveland, Ohio. Staten Island, New York. Eutawville, South Carolina.

In each place, individuals - all unarmed except for a child carrying a pellet gun - died at the hands of police officers. All of the dead were black. The officers involved, white.

To many Americans, it feels like a national tidal wave. And yet, no firm statistics can say whether this spate of officer-involved deaths is a growing trend or simply a series of coincidences generating a deafening buzz in news reports and social media.

"We have a huge scandal in that we don't have an accurate count of the number of people who die in police custody," says Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a leading scholar on policing and civil liberties. "That's outrageous."

There are some raw numbers, but they're of limited value.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, for instance, track justifiable police homicides - there were 1,688 between 2010 and 2013 - but the statistics rely on voluntary reporting by local law enforcement agencies and are incomplete. Circumstances of the deaths, and other information such as age and race, also aren't required.

The Wall Street Journal, detailing its own examination of officer-involved deaths at 105 of the nation's 110 largest police departments, reported last week that federal data failed to include or mislabeled hundreds of fatal police encounters.

Put simply: It's hard to know for certain what is happening on the ground.

"We want a comprehensive picture ... so people can be aware of what really goes on, and not the claptrap put out by people with agendas," says David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied use of deadly force and hopes to get funding for a pilot project that could provide better national statistics.

To those who have taken to the streets to protest in recent weeks, that lack of context is almost beside the point.

"These are communities that have been living for generations under the yoke of what has felt like an occupying force," says Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of UCLA's Center for Policing Equity. "And regardless of what any of the stats are ever going to say, if we don't address the reality of that experience, then we're shooting ourselves in the foot in our attempts to make good on our promise of democratic principles."

The high-profile cases have erupted one after the other.

On July 17, 43-year-old Eric Garner died after officers tried to arrest him on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes on a New York City street. Cellphone video captured the scene as one officer wrapped his arm around Garner's neck, and the black man repeatedly pleaded, "I can't breathe."

Tensions escalated on Aug. 9, when Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

On Nov. 22, a Cleveland officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice after responding to reports of an armed man at a city park. Rice had been holding a pellet gun.

Two days later, officials announced that a grand jury had declined to return an indictment in the Brown case. Fires from the resulting protests in Ferguson had barely stopped smoldering when word came there would be no charges against the officer in New York City. Again, angry protesters marched.

Then a grand jury in Orangeburg County, South Carolina, returned a murder indictment Wednesday against a former small-town police chief in the May 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black man.

Richard Combs, who was the sole officer for the town of Eutawville, had been charged with official misconduct for shooting Bernard Bailey, who had come to the town hall to argue about a ticket his daughter had received. Combs' attorney questioned prosecutor David Pascoe's motives in seeking the murder charge.

"He's trying to make it racial, because his timing is perfect," John O'Leary said. "He's got all the national issues going on, so they want to drag him (Combs) in and say, `Look what a great community we are here, because we're going to put a police officer who was doing his job in jail for 30 years.' That's wrong."

Walker, co-author of the book "The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America," says much of the anger out there comes from years of conflict between the black community and law enforcement.

"Within the African-American community, there has been an experience of disrespect, offensive language, mistreatment in terms of stops and so on," he says. "And there's a sense that the police are out to get them."

It's not just the killings that have minority communities "fed up," says Inimai Chettiar of the New York University law school's Brennan Center for Justice.

"African-American communities are tired of being over-policed, over-prosecuted, sent to prison, having men taken away from their communities, having families broken," says Chettiar, director of the center's Justice Program. "I think there's much more than just an instinctual sense that there is something amiss in these communities. I think people are tired of `tough on crime.'"

Whether such incidents are on the rise, says Walker, "we're certainly more aware. And, certainly, the digital revolution has had a huge impact."

Goff compares it to the ice bucket challenge phenomenon of this past summer - in which a series of viral videos raised millions of dollars for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"Once something is trending, so that it's in the American consciousness, people become aware of it," he says. 

"The reason we're hearing about this is because we're hearing about it. It has its own momentum."

Goff has begun work on creating a policing database, with funding from the Department of Justice, the National Science Foundation and private groups. He says it would include not just deaths but all police stops and uses of force.

"Is it getting better? Is it getting worse? What are the actual numbers?" asks Goff. "You know, when a plane crashes, it feels all of a sudden like it's not safe to fly. But if you look at the statistics, it's way safer to fly - and always has been - than to drive a car."

The Department of Justice is investigating possible federal civil rights violations in the Ferguson case and has opened an investigation into Garner's death in New York. On Thursday, the agency reached an agreement to reform the Cleveland Police Department after concluding that officers there use excessive and unnecessary force far too often - an investigation prompted in part by the deaths of the two black occupants of a car involved in a high-speed chase. In that case, 13 officers fired 137 shots at the unarmed suspects.

Chettiar is hopeful that recent events will create the "political and public will" to begin gathering and analyzing the facts.

"In addition to personal stories," she says, "statistics help people change their minds."

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bill Cosby resigns from Temple University board

Bill Cosby resigns from Temple University board 

AP Photo
In this May 12, 2011 file photo Comedian Bill Cosby attends Temple University's commencement ceremonies in Philadelphia. Temple University has announced that Cosby has resigned as a trustee amid more than a dozen sexual-assault allegations. The 77-year-old entertainer has been a highly visible cheerleader of his alma mater in Philadelphia and a board member since 1982.

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Bill Cosby stepped down as a trustee of his beloved Temple University following renewed accusations that he had drugged and sexually assaulted a string of women over many years.
The 77-year-old entertainer has been a high-profile booster for his alma mater in Philadelphia and a board member since 1982.

"I have always been proud of my association with Temple University. I have always wanted to do what would be in the best interests of the university and its students. As a result, I have tendered my resignation," Cosby said in a statement released by the university.

Board chairman Patrick O'Connor told The Associated Press that the comedian does not want to be a distraction.

"The Board of Trustees accepts Dr. Cosby's resignation ... and thanks him for his service," the university said in its release.

O'Connor had defended Cosby in a 2005 civil suit filed by a former Temple basketball employee who accused Cosby of drugging and molesting her at his suburban Philadelphia mansion a year earlier. Cosby, who said he gave the woman only Benadryl, later settled the lawsuit for undisclosed terms.

More than a dozen other women have come forward since the lawsuit was filed to make similar claims, including several who have gone public this month. Some said they passed out after taking a drink or pill from him, and woke up with their clothes askew, and, in some cases, in physical pain.

Cosby has strongly denied wrongdoing and has never been criminally charged. A suburban Philadelphia prosecutor declined to file charges in the 2005 case, and most of the other women came forward too late.

"He didn't comment on the allegations (Monday)," O'Connor said. "They were from (as long as) 50 years ago."

Cosby, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, has been one of Temple's most famous alumni and a frequent commencement speaker.

Several other colleges have also severed their ties with Cosby in recent weeks. The Berklee College of Music will no longer award a scholarship in Cosby's name, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst had him step down as honorary co-chairman of their $300 million fundraising campaign.

At Temple, an online petition urging the university to cut ties with Cosby had garnered more than 1,000 signatures by Monday afternoon.

The accusations, although unproven, "got to the point where the reputation of the institution started to get dragged down with (them)," said Raymond Smeriglio, president of the student body.

Cosby testified in the 2005 civil case that he gave the National Enquirer an exclusive interview about former Temple basketball employee Andrea Constand's lawsuit claims in exchange for the tabloid spiking a story about a second accuser, Beth Ferrier. "Did you ever think that if Beth Ferrier's story was printed in the National Enquirer, that that would make the public believe that maybe Andrea was also telling the truth?" Cosby was asked.

"Exactly," Cosby replied, according to court motions initially filed under seal and made available last week from archived federal court records.

Although willing to play the public face of Temple in advertisements, fundraising campaigns and commencement speeches, Cosby was a rare sight at board meetings.

A review of minutes to 138 board meetings held since 1982 suggests he attended just once - in December 2002, when he was on campus to film a Temple women's basketball commercial.

But his commencement speeches were wildly popular, and he gave a welcome lecture to freshmen classes called "Cosby 101."

Trustee Anthony McIntyre said the latest accusations - sparked by a comedian who called Cosby a rapist in a recent performance - presented a "no-win situation" for the Temple community.

"It's a tragedy for all," McIntyre said.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Body Found On Cobbs Creek Street

Body Found On Cobbs Creek Street

body found

Police Comb Water In Search Of Missing West Chester University Student

Police Comb Water In Search Of Missing West Chester University Student

(credit: Steve Patterson)

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — An FBI task force is now joining Philadelphia Police in the search for the West Chester student who went missing during a night out in Manayunk Thanksgiving Eve.

The Philadelphia Police Marine Unit slowly combed the water of the Manayunk Canal Sunday, looking for 21-year-old Shane Montgomery, who went to Kildaire’s Irish Pub on Wednesday night with a cousin and some friends, but never returned home.

Authorities said he was escorted out of the bar by a bouncer shortly before closing time after stumbling on a bar stool, and he hasn’t been seen since.

For full story go to:  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/

Black Friday weekend slows down as allure fades

Black Friday weekend slows down as allure fades 

AP Photo
FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2014 file photo, Target shoppers Kelly Foley, left, Debbie Winslow, center, and Ann Rich use a smartphone to look at a competitor's prices while shopping shortly after midnight on Black Friday, in South Portland, Maine. The Black Friday shopping weekend may be losing its mojo. A survey of shoppers released Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, by the National Retail Federation shows how early discounting, more online shopping and an improving economy have fewer people shopping on the weekend that kicks off the holiday shopping season.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Black Friday fatigue is setting in.

Early discounting, more online shopping and a mixed economy meant fewer people shopped over Thanksgiving weekend, the National Retail Federation said Sunday.

Overall, 133.7 million people shopped in stores and online over the four-day weekend, down 5.2 percent from last year, according to a survey of 4,631 people conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics for the trade group.

Total spending for the weekend is expected to fall 11 percent to $50.9 billion from an estimated $57.4 billion last year, the trade group estimated.

Part of the reason is that Target, J.C. Penney, Macy's, Wal-Mart and other major retailers pushed fat discounts as early as Halloween. Some opened stores even earlier on Thanksgiving. All that stole some thunder from Black Friday and the rest of the weekend.

Still, the preliminary data makes retailers worried that shoppers remain frugal despite improving employment and falling gas prices.

Matt Shay, the trade group's CEO, said he thinks people benefiting from the recovery may not feel the need to fight crowds to get the deepest discount on a TV or toaster. And those who feel like the recession never ended may not have the money and will stretch out what they spend through Christmas.

And shoppers are still feeling the effects of high food prices and stagnant wages.

"While they're more optimistic, they're very cautious," Shay said. "If the deals are not right for them, they're not going to spend."

Bottom line: Expect more deep discounts, all season long.

"Every day will be Black Friday. Every minute will be Cyber Monday," he said.

That could be what it takes to get shoppers to open their wallets for the holiday shopping season, which accounts for about 20 percent of annual retail sales.

Besides economic factors, people are becoming more discerning when they shop. Armed with smartphones 
and price-comparison apps, they know what's a good deal - and what's not.

Kimani Brown, 39, of New York City, was among the Black Friday defectors. After four years of braving the crowds, the sales failed to lure him out this year.

"I consider myself a smart shopper. And it's not as alluring as it used to be," Brown said. "It's a marketing tool, and I don't want to be pulled into it."

He also said the frenzy pushed him to overspend, and he paid the price in January on his credit card statement.

Instead, he said he will look online Monday, the online shopping day often called Cyber Monday.

Some who went shopping on Thanksgiving felt they were doing it against their will. Cathyliz Lopez of New York City said she felt forced to shop on the holiday.

"It's ruining the spirit of Thanksgiving," the 20-year-old said Thursday. "But I was checking all the ads, and the best deals were today."

The National Retail Federation is still predicting a 4.1 percent increase in sales for the season. That would be the highest increase since the 4.8 percent gain in 2011.

Some stores and malls had reason to be optimistic.

Dan Jasper, a spokesman at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, said customer counts are up 5 to 6 percent for the four-day weekend. One plus: Shoppers were buying more for themselves, a sign of optimism.

"They felt confident in the economy," he said.

CEOs at Target and Toys R Us said they saw shoppers not just focusing on the doorbuster deals but throwing extra items in their carts.

Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren told The Associated Press on Friday that he's hoping lower gas prices will help spending.

"There's reason to believe that confidence should continue to grow. That should be good for discretionary spending," he said.

Some of those discretionary dollars are migrating online.

Target said Thanksgiving saw a 40 percent surge in online sales and was its biggest online sales day ever. 

And Wal-Mart reported Thanksgiving was its second-highest online day ever, topped only by Cyber Monday last year.

From Nov. 1 through Friday, $22.7 billion has been spent online, a 15 percent increase from last year, according to research firm comScore. On Thanksgiving, online sales surged 32 percent, while Black Friday online sales jumped 26 percent.

In stores, shoppers spent $9.1 billion on Black Friday, according to research firm ShopperTrak, down 7 percent from last year. That was partly due to a 24 percent surge in Thanksgiving sales, to $3.2 billion.

ShopperTrak estimated that in-store sales for the two days combined slipped half a percent to $12.29 billion.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Philadelphia Front Page News Phila. Eagles Cheerleader Eagles Crush Dallas, 33-10, And Look Scary Doing It

Philadelphia Front Page News Phila. Eagles Cheerleader Eagles Crush Dallas, 33-10, And Look Scary Doing It

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Grand jury documents rife with inconsistencies

Grand jury documents rife with inconsistencies 

AP Photo
A protester is arrested outside of the St. Louis city hall Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, in St. Louis. Missouri's governor ordered hundreds more state militia into Ferguson on Tuesday, after a night of protests and rioting over a grand jury's decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a case that has inflamed racial tensions in the U.S.
FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) -- Some witnesses said Michael Brown had been shot in the back. Another said he was lying face-down when Officer Darren Wilson finished him off. Still others acknowledged changing their stories to fit published details about the autopsy, or admitted that they didn't see the shooting at all.

An Associated Press review of thousands of pages of grand jury documents reveals numerous examples of statements made during the shooting investigation that were inconsistent, fabricated or provably wrong. For one, the autopsies ultimately showed Brown wasn't struck by any bullets in his back.

Prosecutors exposed these inconsistencies before the jurors, which likely influenced their decision not to indict Wilson in Brown's death.

Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, said the grand jury had to weigh testimony that conflicted with physical evidence and conflicting statements by witnesses as it decided whether Wilson should face charges.

"Many witnesses to the shooting of Michael Brown made statements inconsistent with other statements they made and also conflicting with the physical evidence. Some were completely refuted by the physical evidence," McCulloch said.

The decision Monday not to charge Wilson with any crime set off more violent protests in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson and around the country, fueled by claims that the unarmed black 18-year-old was shot while peacefully surrendering to the white officer in the mostly African-American city.

What people thought were facts about the Aug. 9 shooting have become intertwined with what many see as abuses of power and racial inequality in America.

And media coverage of this aftermath made it into the grand jury proceedings. Before some witnesses testified, prosecutors showed jurors clips of the same people making statements on TV.

Their inconsistencies began almost immediately after the shooting, from people in the neighborhood, the friend walking with Brown during the encounter and even one woman who authorities suggested probably wasn't even at the scene at the time.

Jurors also were presented with dueling versions from Wilson and Dorian Johnson, who was walking with Brown during the Aug. 9 confrontation. Johnson painted Wilson as provoking the violence, while Wilson said Brown was the aggressor.

But Johnson also declared on TV, in a clip played for the grand jury, that Wilson fired at least one shot at his friend while Brown was running away: "It struck my friend in the back."

Johnson held to a variation of this description in his grand jury testimony, saying the shot caused Brown's body to "do like a jerking movement, not to where it looked like he got hit in his back, but I knew, it maybe could have grazed him, but he definitely made a jerking movement."

Other eyewitness accounts also were clearly wrong.

One woman, who said she was smoking a cigarette with a friend nearby, claimed she saw a second police officer in the passenger seat of Wilson's vehicle. When quizzed by a prosecutor, she elaborated: The officer was white, "middle age or young" and in uniform. She said she was positive there was a second officer - even though there was not.

Another woman testified that she saw Brown leaning through the officer's window "from his navel up," with his hand moving up and down, as if he were punching the officer. But when the same witness returned to testify again on another day, she said she suffers from mental disorder, has racist views and that she has trouble distinguishing the truth from things she had read online. Prosecutors suggested the woman had fabricated the entire incident, and wasn't even at the scene the day of the shooting.

Another witness had told the FBI after the shooting that he saw Wilson shoot Brown in the back, and then stand over his prone body to finish him off. But in his grand jury testimony, this witness, acknowledged that he had not seen that part of the shooting, and that what he told the FBI was "based on me being where I'm from and that can be the only assumption that I have."

The witness, who lives in the predominantly black neighborhood where Brown was killed, also acknowledged that he changed his story to fit details of the autopsy that he had learned about on TV.

"So it was after you learned that the things you said you saw couldn't have happened that way, then you changed your story about what you seen?" a prosecutor asserted.

"Yeah, to coincide with what really happened," the witness replied.

Another man, describing himself as a friend of Brown's, told a federal investigator that he heard the first gunshot, looked out his window and saw an officer with a gun drawn and Brown "on his knees with his hands in the air." He added: "I seen him shoot him in the head."

But when later pressed by the investigator, the friend said he hadn't seen the actual shooting because he was walking down the stairs at the time, and instead had heard details from someone in the apartment complex.

"What you are saying you saw isn't forensically possible based on the evidence," the investigator told the friend.

Shortly after that, the friend asked if he could leave.

"I ain't feeling comfortable," he said.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Grand jury doesn't indict Ferguson cop in shooting

Grand jury doesn't indict Ferguson cop in shooting
AP Photo
St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announces the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year old, on Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo.

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) -- A grand jury declined Monday to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting by a white officer sparked weeks of sometimes-violent protests and exposed deep racial tension between many African-Americans and police.

Within minutes of the announcement by St. Louis County's top prosecutor, crowds began pouring into Ferguson streets to protest the decision. Some taunted police, shattered windows and vandalized cars. 

Several gunshots were also heard. Officers released smoke and pepper spray to disperse the gatherings.

Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch said the jury of nine whites and three blacks met on 25 separate days and heard more than 70 hours of testimony from about 60 witnesses, including three medical examiners and other experts on blood, toxicology and firearms.

He stressed that jurors were "the only people who heard every witness ... and every piece of evidence." He said many witnesses presented conflicting statements that were inconsistent with the physical evidence.

"These grand jurors poured their hearts and soul into this process," he said.

As McCulloch was reading his statement, Michael Brown's mother, Lesley McSpadden, was sitting atop a vehicle listening to a broadcast of the announcement. When she heard the decision, she burst into tears and began screaming before being whisked away by supporters.

The crowd with her erupted in anger, converging on the barricade where police in riot gear were standing. They pushed down the barricade and began pelting police with objects, including a bullhorn. Officers stood their ground.

At least nine votes would have been required to indict Wilson. The grand jury met in secret, a standard practice for such proceedings.

Speaking for nearly 45 minutes, a defensive McCulloch repeatedly cited what he said were inconsistencies and erroneous accounts from witnesses. When asked by a reporter whether any of the accounts amount to perjury, he said, "I think they truly believe that's what they saw, but they didn't."

The prosecutor also was critical of the media, saying "the most significant challenge" for his office was a "24-hour news cycle and an insatiable appetite for something - for anything - to talk about."

Brown's family released a statement saying they were "profoundly disappointed" in the decision but asked that the public "channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen."

President Barack Obama appealed for calm and understanding, pleading with both residents and police to show restraint.

"We are a nation built on the rule of law, so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make," Obama said. He said it was understandable that some Americans would be "deeply disappointed - even angered," but echoed Brown's parents in calling for any protests to be peaceful.

The Justice Department is conducting a separate investigation into possible civil rights violations that could result in federal charges. The department also has launched a broad probe into the Ferguson Police Department, looking for patterns of discrimination.

The Aug. 9 shooting inflamed tensions in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb that is patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police force. As Brown's body lay for hours in the center of a residential street, an angry crowd of onlookers gathered. Rioting and looting occurred the following night, and police responded with armored vehicles and tear gas.

Protests continued for weeks - often peacefully, but sometimes turning violent, with demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and police firing smoke canisters, tear gas and rubber bullets. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to briefly summon the National Guard.

Outside the Ferguson Police Department on Monday night, St. Louis County police used a bullhorn to order a crowd to disperse, saying it had become an unlawful assembly. Protesters defied the orders and some chanted "murderer." Minutes later, four gunshots were heard down the street.

Hours before the decision was made public, Nixon urged people to remain peaceful as he appeared at a news conference with the state's public safety director and the leaders of St. Louis city and county.

"Our shared hope and expectation is that regardless of the decision, people on all sides show tolerance, mutual respect and restraint," Nixon said.

Some black leaders and Brown's parents questioned McCulloch's ability to be impartial. The prosecutor's father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin all worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and his father was killed while responding to a call involving a black suspect in 1964. McCulloch was 12 at the time, and the killing became a hallmark of his initial campaign for elected prosecutor.

Nixon declined to seek the removal of McCulloch in the Brown case, but he also called for McCulloch to 
vigorously prosecute Wilson, who had been on the Ferguson force for less than three years. Prior to that job, Wilson was an officer for nearly two years in Jennings, another St. Louis suburb.

McCulloch, a Democrat, has been in office since 1991 and was re-elected to another term earlier this month.
Among the cases that McCulloch's opponents cited as examples of pro-police bias was the 2000 shooting death of two men in a fast-food parking lot by two undercover drug officers in the town of Berkeley, which like Ferguson is a predominantly black suburb in what locals call North County.

A federal investigation determined that Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley were unarmed and that their car had not moved forward when the officers fired 21 shots. But that inquiry also determined that the shootings were justified since the officers feared for their lives.

McCulloch opted to not prosecute the two officers and characterized the victims as "bums" who "spread destruction in the community" by selling drugs.


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