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This article was first published by InDepthNH on June 12, 2022.

When Andrea Osorio first sat down to draft a speech for Saturday’s rally against gun violence, there had already been 213 mass shootings in the United States this year.  When she revised it the first time, the total was up to 246.  “And this morning,” the Nashua High School North junior told several hundred people in Nashua’s Greeley Park, “when I checked to revise my speech, it was 254.”  That’s about 11 mass shootings a week, she calculated.

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Yesterday’s march and rally was led by local high school students and joined by Democratic politicians, including U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan, D-NH.  It was one of more than 300 demonstrations nationwide coordinated by March for Our Lives, a youth-led movement started by students from Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, following the 2018 killing of 17 people by a former student armed with a semiautomatic rifle.

Aarike Roy said she was in sixth grade when she went with her mom to a March for Our Lives P6110296

protest after Parkland.  She hoped nothing like the Parkland massacre would happen again.  After the recent killings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Roy decided that it was time for another march.  When she first asked some of her high school friends if they wanted to organize something, “They were like, no, I don’t have the time,” she told me.  So, deciding to do it by herself, if need be, she made up a flyer and posted it on social media.

Soon, other kids were signing up. “They were like, I want to get involved. Let me get involved, I need to help. And these were, honestly, some of these were people I never would have thought would have wanted to get involved, which I think just makes things so much better.”

Roy also reached out to students she knew through the Democratic Party, where she found more supporters and connections to local politicians.  After learning that the plaza by Nashua’s City Hall was already booked, she decided to hold the rally in Greeley Park, where a stage with an amphitheater-like grassy lawn makes a great site. 

The group assembled by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument north of downtown Nashua at 1 p.m. on Saturday.   After a brief speech by Hunter Porter, a Nashua High School North student holding a “Fuck the NRA” sign, a crowd of more than 250 people marched a mile up Concord Street to Greeley Park, chanting, “protect kids, not guns.”

Erin Collins and her son, Oscar, after the rally.

Roy served as emcee and was the first speaker.  For those who go through experiences like the Uvalde killings, Roy said, “so many people are left with their lives changed and an indescribable amount of trauma and images that no amount of therapy or mental health program can erase from their heads.”  Nevertheless, the turnout for Saturday’s rally gave her hope.  “When you speak loudly in such a big venue like this, and … you’re getting people to come and listen to what you have to say, I think it’s students who give us a lot of hope as well, because people value what we have to say.”

After her own speech, Roy introduced four other young women, all Nashua high school students, for their own impassioned speeches.  Then it was time for the politicians. Nashua Representative Laura Telerski said she was a substitute teacher who had just been through her first active shooter drill when she attended Nashua’s 2018 March for Our Lives rally.  It was then that she decided to run for State Representative.

In her first term, Telerski voted for four bills aimed at gun violence prevention, including one that would have banned most firearms on school property.  All were vetoed by Governor Chris Sununu.  This year, the legislature adopted two bills aimed at loosening gun restrictions, she said.  “HB 1178 is on its way to the governor right now, and if signed will prevent the state from enforcing any federal law or executive order regarding firearms.  And it would prevent our law enforcement from working with the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the ATF if we experienced a gun tragedy in our state.  Sununu may sign HB 1178 any day now,” she said.

P6110257Shoshanna Kelly, a Nashua alderwoman now running for Executive Council, said, “I simply cannot live in a country where your right to bear arms should end my right to hold my child in my arms.”

Hassan was the final speaker.  “Since Uvalde, we’ve had at least 20 mass shootings in this country. It is outrageous. It is heartbreaking. It is horrible.”

After Sandy Hook, she said, “I thought this is

P6110275unimaginable, this can never happen again, now things will change. And of course, it hasn’t. So, we no longer can call these events unimaginable in the United States of America. They are predictable in the United States of America. And that is the heartbreak and that is the horror of where we are right now.”

Hassan expressed hope for a new gun safety bill to gain bipartisan support in the Senate.  After the rally, she told me she has supported legislation to repeal provisions of the federal law which protects firearms manufacturers from liability lawsuits.  She said she is also a co-sponsor of a bill to restrict sale and possession of semiautomatic assault weapons.  

After the rally, I spoke to Warren Chen, a junior at Bishop Guertin junior, who connected gun culture with unlimited political spending enabled by the Citizens United court decision and the “antiquated” Second Amendment.  We also discussed the fact that almost all the speakers and organizers at today’s rally were women, while almost all those committing mass shootings are men.

Chen told me his little brother, a sixth grader, came to him after sledding one day and said, “I was scared the whole time. I was sweating. I was scared someone’s going to shoot because I’m Asian.”

“That says something about our news,” Chen continued.  “Because you’re hearing about incidents of hate crimes, right? You’re hearing about gun violence and guns, guns, right?”

There’s no March for Our Lives chapter in Nashua and no apparent infrastructure for ongoing organizing other than the Democratic Party at this point.  But Aarike Roy says, “We will not stop. We will be back here year after year. And we will continue to protest until we get what is deserved.”

By 2 p.m. on Sunday, the Gun Violence Archive was reporting that the number of mass killings this year had reached 260.

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The Nashua March for Our Lives organizers ot the end of the rally.

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This article was first published by InDepthNH on June 9, 2022.

Jen Bisson, a Sandown mother who founded the public education advocacy group Support Our Schools NH, handed Frank Edelblut a stack of letters calling for his resignation during the public comment period at Thursday’s monthly meeting of the NH Board of Education.

“I’m sorry Commissioner Edelblut, but you are not the person to lead the Department of Education,” she said before putting a pile of more than a thousand letters on the table where he was sitting in a conference room at Granite State College in Concord. “We cannot have a commissioner of education that seeks to dismantle public education from the inside out.”

P6090062In an email sent by an aide, Edelblut responded, “Our work at the New Hampshire Department of Education is ongoing and expansive, as we strive daily to support students, families, and educators with a wide range of needs. My goal remains the same, and I believe and hope that many individuals share in this priority – to craft bright futures for our next generation of Granite Staters.”

SOS has been collecting letters calling for Edelblut to step down since March 3.

“I never thought in a million years that I would attend a public meeting to demand a public employee’s resignation, but here I am,” said Bisson, who described herself as “a busy working mom with nine children.”

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“We cannot have a commissioner of education who uses his authority to create a climate of fear for our children’s future,” Bisson said. “We cannot have a commissioner of education who is so outside the mainstream that he refers to public schools as ‘government schools’ and one who takes any opportunity to criticize and demonize our public-school teachers and staff.”

P6090059Bisson also charged Edelblut with links to Jody and Ian Underwood, members of the Free State Movement who led efforts to slash school funding in Croydon.

Support Our Schools began soliciting calls for Edelblut’s resignation in March when the commissioner endorsed HB 1671, a bill which would have eliminated art, health, world languages, physical education, engineering, computer science, and digital literacy from the list of core subjects needed for an “adequate education” in the state’s public schools. “HB 1671 was literally written by Edelblut’s Department of Education,” the group said.

The version of HB 1671 ultimately approved by the House and Senate restored most of those subjects to core requirements and added financial literacy to the list. The bill, which is awaiting action from Governor Sununu, also added Holocaust and genocide education to social studies requirements.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALidia Yen, who came to New Hampshire as a refugee when she was 7 years old, told the board she benefited from financial literacy classes and was relieved when they were added to the core curriculum requirements. “Commissioner Edelblut has shown everyone that he does not support public education through his support of this bill as well as other attempts to change public education or privatize it,” Yen testified.

When she heard about HB 1671, “I actually cried,” the Pembroke resident said. “The Commissioner is supposed to represent the public interest, but that’s not what I’ve seen from the past couple years.”

Four other Edelblut critics also spoke during the comment period.

P6090096“You’re welcome to have your say,” board chairman Drew Cline said after the comment period, “but the commissioner does not answer to the board. We’re not his boss. We have no say whatsoever over the commissioner. And that’s just a fact. That’s the law.”

Richard Sala, who served as attorney for the Department of Education before being appointed to the board, defended the commissioner in a brief comment at the meeting’s close. Sala said Edelblut works hard, has lots of energy, and has lots of ideas on improving education. When they worked together, Sala said, “never once did we ever sit in a dark room and think about how to destroy public education, how to destroy democracy.”

“I wish people would come and bring policy differences here, tell us about the policy differences, without the personal attacks,” he added.

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Drew Cline, Chair of the NH Board of Education, greeted by members of NH Voices of Faith, the Kent Street Coalition, and other groups at the door to Granite State College.

“Red Raiders” Retained, but Offensive Indian Image Will Go Following Student Campaign

This article was first published by InDepthNH on June 8, 2022.

Denise and Paul Pouliot address Shaker School Board

Denise and Paul Pouliot of the of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People address the Shaker Regional School Board.

When Cate McDonald came home from Belmont High School with an award, she was proud but there was a problem.  Her plaque had the image of the school’s “Red Raider” mascot, a savage-looking profile of a Native American that Cate had come to find offensive.  So, the Canterbury resident covered the image with one of a badger and hung it on the wall.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMcDonald was one of the Belmont High School students who persuaded the Shaker Regional School District’s board that it’s time to ditch the Indian mascot.

After hearing from McDonald and Baidyn Lewis, another student leader, three local leaders in the Native American community, and several Belmont and Canterbury residents, the Shaker School Board voted four to two on June 7 that it’s time for a new school mascot.

Now, students will work with school administrators to design a new image to go with the old name.  Leading the popularity contest so far is a pirate theme.  But there’s also support for a badger.

Michael Tursi, Superintendent of the regional school district made up of Belmont and Canterbury, sent an email to community members on May 31 informing them that the school board had voted in May to retain the name “Red Raiders” but was willing to consider a new mascot.  “The Board will be voting on changing the mascot image, replacing the current Native American image with a raider related image,” he wrote, inviting anyone who was interested to attend the June 7 meeting.

At the meeting, held in the gym at Canterbury Elementary School, McDonald told the board the existing mascot no longer serves the school’s interest in unity and representation.   The process of coming up with a new logo began, she said, when the student council decided they could not use the current mascot to decorate items for a fundraiser.  “No matter your opinion on the current mascot, it’s really hard to have a unified school with the current mascot that we have because it’s so divisive,” she said.

A student-led effort to get rid of the mascot had failed in 2014.  But by 2022, the mood of the community has changed.

As McDonald explained, members of a student leadership group called BRASS (Belmont Representatives Advocating for Student Success) “talked to everyone,” circulated a survey, developed options for a new image, and held an all-school assembly before coming to the School Board with their proposal.

Baidyn Lewis, a BRASS member from Canterbury,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtold the board that 59.4% of students liked the idea of replacing the old mascot with a pirate, while 25.2% prefer a badger.  In case you’re puzzled, William Badger was a 19th century Belmont industrialist who became governor, the only governor (so far) from Belmont.  There are no badgers in New Hampshire, nor are they red, but they are raiders, the students told me after the meeting.

Lewis, however, favors the pirate theme.

The controversy over Indian mascots is not a new one.  Professional teams, colleges, and high schools throughout the country have been gradually doing away with them due to beliefs they are based on and promote negative stereotypes of the nation’s first residents.   The National Congress of American Indians, which calls itself the nation’s oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization, launched a campaign in 1968 to address stereotypes of Native people in popular culture, media, and sports.  Dartmouth College was one of the first institutions to respond by changing its team names from “Indians” to the “Big Green” the following year.  The 2020 decision of the Washington DC professional football team to abandon its racist team name followed a campaign backed by 30 national Native American organizations.

Denise and Paul Pouliot, the Head Female and Head Male Speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Abenaki People, attended the June 7 meeting and urged the board to listen to the students.   Other districts are still clinging to names like “Red Raiders” with an indigenous face, Paul Pouliot said.  “When you take the indigenous face out, when you take the word Indian out, you’re at liberty to make it a badger or something else,” he advised, adding there’s no reason for a logo to include violent symbols like swords, arrows, or AK-47s.  “Sports is aggressive enough,” he said.

Several Belmont and Canterbury residents, me among them, spoke briefly in favor of changing the mascot.  Taylor Becker, who led the failed student effort eight years ago, said, “As a student I was disappointed last time and hope that this time the students are treated with more respect.”

No one testified in favor of keeping the current mascot.

“The vote tonight is around whether to change theOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA image, not what the image should be,” Chair Michelle Lewis said when members of the public had spoken.  After a voice vote, which she declared was four to two, Lewis declared the motion had carried.

Sean Embree, the board’s former chairman and a longtime member, was in the minority.  The current image isn’t even getting used any more, he said, alluding to the big letter “B” that now appears on the school’s website in place of the Indian head.  “I want to be able to put it on the gymnasium floor, on the wall,” he said. “Red Raiders with a Native American image is racist,” he said after the vote.  “It just is.”  But he wasn’t ready yet to vote for a change.

After the vote, nearly the entire audience trooped

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAinto the school lobby while the board went on with its agenda.  Matthew Finch, the principal, clustered with students then took them into an office for a more private discussion.  After about 20 minutes they emerged with a plan to solicit ideas for a new image from the students.

“The student body majority wants to do pirates, but there was also another group that wants to do badgers,” said Cate McDonald, “so, we’ll keep options open. And hopefully we’ll get a really cool image.”

Kimberly McWhinney, VP of the junior class, is with McDonald in the badger camp.  “I just think that I have a lot of family that goes to the school,” she said. “My great grandparents have been in Belmont their entire lives. And so, I feel like my future generations, as in my kids, or my brothers, or my younger siblings, besides my brother, are coming up into the high school, and I’d like them to not have this mascot. I want them to be able to wear it for sports that they play, and I want them to be proud of it.”

“I’d like school spirit to be higher in the future,” she added.

Perhaps she’ll be the next governor from Belmont.

This story was first published on June 6, 2022 at InDepthNH.  For a free subscription to InDepthNH, just fill in the boxes when you visit www.InDepthNH.org.

Two-Thirds of Shareholders Back Resolution

With political officials seemingly unable or unwilling to do anything about mass shootings, leadership may be coming from an unexpected quarter: shareholders in corporations that manufacture firearms.

Rejecting the recommendation of the company’s board of directors, a majority of shareholders at Sturm Ruger’s June 1 Annual Meeting called on the company to produce a Human Rights Impact Assessment. The Connecticut-based company, which owns a manufacturing facility in Newport, New Hampshire, is the second biggest American producer of firearms, according to a recent report published by Visual Capitalist. Sturm Ruger, often just called Ruger, reported $728 million in net firearms sales in 2021, up nearly 29% from the previous year.

The resolution states, “Shareholders urge the Sturm Ruger board of directors to oversee a third party Human Right Impact Assessment (within a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost) which assesses and produces recommendations for improving the human rights impacts of its policies, practices and products, above and beyond legal and regulatory matters. Input from stakeholders, including human rights organizations, employees, and customers, should be considered in determining the specific matters to be assessed. A report on the assessment, prepared at reasonable cost and omitting confidential/proprietary information, should be published on the company’s website.”

The resolution drew support from holders of 7,840,251 shares, or about 68.5% of the vote, according to a form filed on Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Voice of Religious Investors

Adoption of the measure drew praise from groups representing religious investors, who were the primary backers of the resolution.

“Any industry that manufactures a product that ends more than 110 lives a day and is the leading cause of death among children and teens should be willing to take a hard look at its role in this public health epidemic,” said Lydia Kuykendal of Mercy Investment Services, an affiliate of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. “Today, shareholders at Sturm Ruger instructed the company they own to do just that. An independent and robust Human Rights Impact Assessment will help uncover risks to the business and to investors, which we hope leads to measurable steps to curb gun violence in this country. If, as they claim, Sturm Ruger is interested in being part of the solution, they should welcome this vote and immediately move to implement it.”

The June 1 annual meeting was held over the internet. Like most such events, its agenda included election of the board of directors, approval of an auditor, and an advisory vote on executive compensation consistent with the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. This year’s agenda also included the shareholder resolution on the human rights impact of the company’s core business.

Voting at stockholder meetings is based on a one share, one vote principle. Shareholders were able to vote on the resolution either with a mailed-in proxy or by showing up at the meeting. In Ruger’s case, the bulk of shares are controlled by huge institutional investors, such as BlackRock (15.9%), Vanguard (10.7%), and Renaissance Technologies (5.9%).

The religious investors backing the resolution were led by Common Spirit Health, a Catholic health care system operating in 21 states. In addition to Mercy Investment Services, Common Spirit’s allies included other Catholic orders, the Episcopal Church, and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). Their ownership share is “miniscule,” according to the company, but their status enables them to participate in the exercise of stockholder democracy.

The Episcopal Church, which owns 70 shares of Sturm Ruger, said it invested in the gunmaker in 2018 “as part of its broader participation in shareholder advocacy campaigns on issues ranging from human trafficking to climate change.”

The Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, commented, "This season of Pentecost is all about how God dissolves barriers of communication between people. I’m heartened by this shareholder news! To me, it is evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, bringing those of differing viewpoints to the same table for the common good."

Noting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which obligate businesses to consider human rights violations associated with their products or services, the shareholder resolution stated, “The inherent lethality of firearms exposes all gun makers to elevated human rights risks” and said, “the grave threat for product misuse and resulting harm to society is not accounted for in Ruger’s governance structures or in policies or practices that would mitigate this threat.”

Ruger Disagrees

The company’s board of directors disagreed.

In a response posted in the proxy statement for the annual meeting, the company said it “has led the industry on gun safety initiatives and has demonstrated a deep respect for human rights, which renders the proposal unnecessary.”

“While we assume responsibility for the Company’s direct actions, we lack the ability, resources, or authority to control the use of our products after they have left our control,” they added.

Moreover, performance of the required human rights investigation could actually “imperil the company,” they said. “It is very possible that implementation of the proposal to the extent sought by the proponents would result in new costs and liabilities that would overwhelm our revenues and threaten our very ability to continue operations.”

Sturm Ruger manufactures rifles, pistols, revolvers, and accessories at plants in New Hampshire, Arizona, North Carolina, and Missouri. According to its latest Form 10-K, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, “the Company produces one model of pistol, all of its revolvers and most of its rifles at the Newport, New Hampshire facility,” which at 350,000 square feet is the company’s largest factory.

From the company’s perspective, its production and sale of firearms is entirely lawful, and they should not be forced to “assume responsibility for criminal misuse of products it manufactures, regardless of how remote the misuse.”

Ruger Weapons and Firearms Violence

The government of Mexico has a different perspective. In a lawsuit filed August 4, 2021, at U.S. District Court in Boston, Mexico’s foreign ministry accused Sturm Ruger and five other U.S. gunmakers with “actively facilitating the unlawful trafficking of their guns to drug cartels and other criminals in Mexico.”

Last year, Mexico saw 33,308 killings. “Firearms are used in the majority of murders, and criminal groups can rely on a steady flow of high-powered weapons from the United States,” reported InsightCrime in its 2021 “Homicide Round-Up” for Latin America and the Caribbean.

"More than 3,373 Ruger firearms, including at least 869 assault rifles, have been recovered in Mexico since 2010, leaving a legacy of murder, forced disappearances, and people fleeing to seek safe asylum,” says John Lindsay-Poland, founder of the California-based Stop US Arms to Mexico project. “It is critical that Ruger shareholders understand the human rights impacts of the company’s weapons both inside the United States and beyond our country’s borders.” [Disclosure: the author is a member of the Advisory Committee of Stop US Arms to Mexico.]

The use of Ruger weapons by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians has also drawn attention from human rights groups and journalists. Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who worked for Al Jazeera, was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier firing a Ruger weapon on May 11, according to the Palestinian attorney general. Al Jazeera reports she was wearing a vest clearly marked “press” while covering an Israeli Defense Force raid on the Palestinian town of Jenin.

B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reported in May that Israeli troops had used Ruger weapons against demonstrators in Bil’in the previous month. “The shooting reflects Israel’s open-fire policy in the Occupied Territories of using live ammunition – including 0.22-inch bullets – not only as a last resort, and not only for lack of choice and when soldiers are in mortal danger. Instead, security forces shoot protesters even when they are not endangering anyone’s life.”

Defense for Children Palestine has documented several incidents in which Israeli soldiers fired Ruger weapons at Palestinian teenagers.

Sturm Ruger weapons have also been used in high-profile mass killings in the United States. “Your company’s own weapons of war have been repeatedly used to carry out horrific and deadly attacks,” charged U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), in a May 26 letter to Sturm Ruger’s president.

“The 2021 mass shooting inside a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, was carried out with a Ruger AR-556 pistol, a shortened version of an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. The gunman murdered ten people, including a local police officer. Similarly, a Ruger-made AR-15 style rifle was used to murder 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on November 15, 2017,” wrote Rep. Maloney, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the Episcopal Church, and Mercy Investment Services were also among the signers of an “Investor Statement on Gun Violence,” published in 2018. In the statement, religious investors called on firearms makers to stop the sale, production, design or conversion of military style semi‐automatic assault weapons and associated accessories and components, including high-capacity magazines, for use by civilians. The statement further urged the gunmakers to support a federal universal background check system for all gun and ammunition transactions and ensure compliance with background checks by all business clients, including gun dealers and gun show operators.

For Ruger, the connection of shareholders to a “gun control agenda” discredits their motives. “If they are successful here,” the board said of the shareholder resolution, “they will do nothing to limit the availability of firearms in the marketplace. In fact, they will simply be punishing the Company and its shareholders, while strengthening the Company’s competitors, particularly those that are privately held and therefore not subject to this kind of gun-control-focused shareholder activism.”

There may be some truth to that statement; Sturm Ruger is one of the few major gun makers whose stock is publicly traded, subjecting them to regulation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and rules allowing shareholder initiatives. But they aren’t totally alone. A related resolution will soon go before the stockholders of Smith and Wesson, another major firearms producer. The Episcopal Church, which owns 300 shares, is backing that one, too.

In a statement released by ICCR, Sr. Judy Byron of the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment said, “Shareholders know that these days are challenging for those involved in the firearms business. But these folks are also sons, daughters, parents, grandparents, and members of communities and places of worship who understand the importance of being able to feel safe in school, in church, in the supermarket. We will support and pray for them as they conduct this assessment and determine what changes to their business they will need to make in order to respect human rights, protect their stakeholders and make our society safer.”

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This story was first published by InDepthNH on June 4, 2022.  For a free subscription to InDepthNH, just fill in the boxes when you visit www.InDepthNH.org.

CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE—It’s been 3 weeks since the killing of 10 African American shoppers and workers in a Buffalo, New York grocery store. It’s been 10 days since the killing of 19 children and 2 teachers in a Uvalde, Texas elementary school. As in other states, people who are fed up with gun violence are taking to the streets of New Hampshire to demand change.

Call it an alternative replacement theory. If the politicians currently holding office won’t do anything about gun violence, voters should replace them with people who will. For the Democrats who rallied in Concord Saturday, that means throwing out Republicans like Governor Chris Sununu.

“The whole point of it is to be here to protest against gun violence and to protest for taking control in our country,” said Wendy Lapham of Concord, who leaned against the wall by Gibson’s Bookstore in downtown Concord with a sign reading “Kids cannot be replaced. Politicians can.” Lapham said she also came to hear Senator Tom Sherman, who wants to replace Sununu in the corner office.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALapham was one of about five dozen people who gathered outside Gibson’s, cheered for Democratic candidates, and marched with signs through downtown Concord. Many of them were wearing orange, the color designated by national gun violence prevention groups.

“We’re prisoners in our own society,” said Stephanie Payeur or Henniker, co-chair of the NH Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus and organizer of the rally. “You can’t go to the grocery store. You can’t go to the movies. You can’t go to a concert without the risk and the fear of being gunned down by an AR-15.”

When it was his turn at the microphone, Senator Sherman said, “This is about our families. This is about Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Aurora, Uvalde, Buffalo, most recently in Tulsa. And this is about politicians not standing up, not just for families, not just for children, but for law enforcement, who are outgunned when the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcriminals have these weapons.”

“Sununu vetoed four bills last biennium that were common sense gun safety measures, not taking away anybody’s gun,” he added.

Asked about the Uvalde killings at a press conference last Wednesday, Sununu said, “We’re not looking to make any changes” in the state’s gun laws.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASenator Becky Whitley pointed out that not only had Sununu vetoed measures aimed at reducing gun violence, but he also signed into law a “constitutional carry” bill in 2017, which enables anyone who is not prohibited from owning firearms to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe time for silence is over, said Melanie Levesque of Brookline, a former state senator who wants to return to the State House. “I thought the tipping point was when 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook. That was not the tipping point. But I feel a tipping point now,” she said. Get to know your elected officials and what they stand for, Levesque urged, then talk to your friends and neighbors.

Representative Debra Altschiller of Stratham, who

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAis running for Sherman’s Senate seat, passed out pre-printed postcards to Sununu calling on the governor to veto HB 1178, a bill aiming to block state and local cooperation with enforcement of federal gun laws.

Speakers had loads of statistics. Twelve children a day die from gun violence, which is now the leading cause of death among children and teens. There were 233 mass shootings in the first 5 months of 2022, leaving 256 dead and 1010 injured. There have been 2,032 school shootings since 1970, 948 of them since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Speakers also had a list of names and ages of people who died in mass shootings this year. When the marchers reached the State House, volunteers read the names, concluding with the 10 people killed in Buffalo on May 14, 4 people killed in Stanwood, Michigan, on May 27, 4 people killed in Tulsa on May 27, and 21 killed in Uvalde on May 24.

With a far larger crowd downtown for the weekly farmers’ market, Liz McKinney used the opportunity to pass out postcards about HB 1178. About 80% of the people she spoke to were supportive, she said.

A similar rally took place Friday at City Hall Plaza in Manchester. Next Saturday, high school students will hold a “March for Our Lives” in Nashua.

Wendy Lapham hopes things are different than they were after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Parkland, after all the other mass shootings. “People have absolutely had enough, and things will be different this time,” she said.

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Bim Rai waters his garden.

“It took a village to raise the water”

This article was first published by InDepthNH on May 27, 2022.  For a free subscription to InDepthNH, just fill in the boxes when you click on the site.

CONCORD—Eleven years ago, Godance OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANdabumvirubusa had to wade through mud and poison ivy to fetch water from a nearby pond and haul it nearly 100 yards to her new plot at the Sycamore Community Garden in Concord.  Now, thanks to a new solar powered pumping system, she draws water from a tank just a few yards away.  “I’m happy for the water,” she said, while hoeing her plot and planting corn.

Gardeners and project volunteers joined together on Thursday afternoon to officially inaugurate the water system.  Ruth Heath of Canterbury said the new system will make water more accessible for gardeners, most of whom came to Concord as refugees from Bhutan and several African and Middle Eastern countries.   With eight tanks spread across the 2-acre field, it will be “so much easier for them to grow organic vegetables for their families,” Heath said.

Ruth Heath

The garden, which sits on property owned by NH Technical Institute (NHTI) between I-293 and a wide bend of the Merrimack River, was initiated in 2009.  Ralph Jimenez recalls being asked by local church leaders to start a garden for refugee families, many of whom had been farmers in the countries from which they had to flee.  After Doug Woodward, Concord’s City Planner, suggested the

Sycamore Community Garden site on the Merrimack floodplain, Jimenez approached community college officials with the idea.

It took only a week to set up a meeting with NHTI President Lynn Kilchenstein, Jimenez said.  “I got halfway through my sales pitch. And I was sitting next to Kilchenstein.  And she just said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”

The garden began soon after with 54 plots and a team of volunteers, including Jimenez and Heath.

Thirteen years on, the community garden has grown to 168 13’ x 26’ plots, many with fencing and structures to provide shade.  Gardeners are raising mustard, peppers, tomatoes, corn, eggplants, okra, beans, pumpkins, cucumbers, and more.  Having accessible water near his garden is “a huge change,” says Ruben Das, of Concord, who has gardened at Sycamore since 2014.

Heath, who serves as president of the garden’s board and was the chief water project organizer, made the complex improvement sound easy.   As she ticked off the names of engineers, a well company, an electrician, college officials, contractors, and others who gave time, donations, and material support, Heath said, “Every time I asked somebody, they did it.”

Ruben Das picks up some seedlings.

“It took a village to raise the water,” she said, prior to cutting a symbolic ribbon with volunteer Jon Hall. 

“We did not want a fossil fuel powered pump,” Heath said.  Instead, the system is powered by a solar array which sends water through 800 feet of 1 inch pipe to the eight plastic tanks spread across the field.  

Throughout the late afternoon, gardeners lined up with trays to collect donated seedlings for tomatoes, peppers, onions, eggplants, okra, and more.  Many of them were busy drawing water from the new tanks and taking it to their nearby plots.

There were plenty of smiles all around.

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Activists Have Day in Court

This article was first published by InDepthNH on May 16, 2022.  For a free subscription to InDepthNH, just fill in the boxes when you visit the site.

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Logan Perkins huddles with coal train blockaders outside Superior Court.

CONCORD—Two groups of activists arrested in civil disobedience actions were sentenced in separate Concord courtrooms Friday, May 13. In each courtroom, four defendants spoke about their motivation for engaging in protests that led to their arrests, but there the similarity mostly ended.

At Concord District Court, Asma Elhuni, Dana Hackett, Ali Brokenshire, and Joy D. M. Robertson agreed to a finding of guilty and received light sentences stemming from a June 24, 2021, State House demonstration against education and abortion restrictions incorporated into the state budget.

Across town, Dana Dwinell-Yardley, Daniel Flynn, Johnny Sanchez, and Jay O’Hara, who had been found guilty on two counts of criminal trespass stemming from a 2019 attempt to interfere with shipment of coal to Merrimack Station in Bow, faced their own sentencing hearing. At the close of a 2-hour hearing, they were fined, ordered to pay restitution to Pan Am Railway, barred from getting near the power plant or entering railroad property, and forbidden to engage in planning of illegal activity for a number of years. They also received jail sentences of four to six months, suspended as long as they remain on “good behavior,” which in this case means refraining from further acts to plan or engage in civil disobedience.

At times the scene in Courtroom 3 at Merrimack Superior Court resembled a college seminar on civil disobedience, with Judge Andrew Schulman in the role of professor and the defendants, their attorney, and the prosecutors in the roles of students.

The facts of the case were not at issue. Dana

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Dwinell-Yardley, Daniel Flynn, Johnny Sanchez, and Jay O’Hara had been on Robie’s Bridge, a railroad trestle over the Merrimack River in Hooksett, on December 8, 2019, when a train carrying coal to New England’s last operating coal-fired power plant was scheduled to pass. The train had already gotten past groups of peaceful protesters in two Massachusetts towns when it reached Hooksett. As O’Hara testified at trial on March 23, the purpose of the action was to stop the train and “keep the coal from being burned.” Though the train carrying 80 carloads of coal eventually made it to the power plant upriver in Bow, the demonstrators delayed its arrival by four and a half hours.

The demonstration was organized by No Coal No Gas, a three-year-old campaign backed by 350NH Action and the Climate Disobedience Center, known for nonviolent demonstrations aimed at shutting down the Bow power plant. In addition to a series of demonstrations at the plant, which sits on the banks of the Merrimack a few miles north of Robie’s Bridge, the campaign is also working to end the “forward capacity” subsidies paid to the plant’s owner, Granite Shore Power, that keep Merrimack Station open.

robie's bridge blockade photo by Ceilidh Peden-Spear

Robie’s Bridge, December 8, 2019.  Photo by Ceilidh Peden-Spear.

Twelve members of the No Coal No Gas campaign were arrested on the bridge on a frigid December day by State Police, Hooksett Police, and railway police, with assistance from the Manchester Fire Department. Seven of them accepted a plea-bargained sentence at District Court, while Dwinell-Yardley, Flynn, Sanchez, O’Hara, and Emma Schoenberg opted to appeal for a Superior Court trial. There, they hoped to convince a jury their actions were justified by the unfolding climate catastrophe brought on by burning fossil fuels. A 3-day trial before Judge Schulman ended March 24 with all but Schoenberg found guilty of criminal trespass and the separate charge of criminal trespass on railroad property, both misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2000 fine.

Schoenberg, who had been acting as the “police liaison” for the protest group and was arrested while trying to engage in dialogue with a state police officer, was found not guilty. Sanchez, who had climbed up the trestle to hang a banner and refused initial police orders to come down, was found not guilty of resisting arrest.

By the time the jury returned its verdicts on March 24, there was no time left for sentencing; Judge Schulman ordered the parties to return at 2 p.m. on May 13.

“General deterrence really is the meat of the argument”

As the prosecution pointed out in court and in a sentencing memo submitted to the court before Friday’s hearing, sentences in criminal cases are considered to have three purposes: punishment, rehabilitation, and deterrence, the latter including both “specific deterrence,” or dissuading a person from re-offending, and “general deterrence,” which means sending a message to others not to follow a bad example. According to the prosecutors, none of the defendants needed rehabilitation; they just need to “to decide to stop breaking the law.” In other words, they needed “specific deterrence,” for which they should be sent to jail for a week as well as being forced to pay restitution to the Pan Am Railway, reimburse state and local agencies for their expenses, and stay away from railway property unless they were paying customers. Prosecutors also recommended a $2000 fine and 6-month jail sentence, both of which (with the exception of the 7 days in jail) would be suspended provided the defendants remained on “good behavior” for 3 years. If the sentence seemed a bit harsh for the crime of standing on a railroad bridge without permission, prosecutors argued it was justifiable following a precedent established in the case of a No Nukes protest at Seabrook 45 years ago.

What seemed to particularly incense Assistant County Attorney Steven Endres, who led the prosecution, was that the civil disobedience action had generated “free publicity” for the movement to end the use of fossil fuels. “It is clear that the ‘no coal, no gas’ campaign is an ongoing movement which is willing to employ, and seems to encourage, unlawful actions in order to generate publicity for their cause,” he wrote in the sentencing memo. As recently as late April, he said, members of the group had displayed banners on a railroad trestle in Worcester.

“General deterrence really is the meat of the argument,” he told Judge Schulman, “This is a case of people who are saying we did this, we’re proud we did it, we’ll continue doing it, and we hope that you join us.”

“What happens here in this courtroom today is going to make news,” Endres added.

After being chided by the judge for seeking to pin responsibility on the defendants for actions, some lawful, carried out by other members of No Coal No Gas, Endres went on to explain why the defendants should compensate the railroad company and public agencies.

Is “The System” working?

Speaking for the defendants, attorney Logan Perkins agreed in part with Endres, saying “these defendants see themselves as part of a movement.” What she objected to was the state seeking to punish her clients for being part of an organized campaign, a fact which they had been barred from delving into at trial. Had they been able to base their defense on the “competing harms” principle, she said, they would have been able to argue before a jury that their actions had been justified by the dangers caused by burning coal. But Judge Schulman would not allow it, leaving the defense unable to present what Perkins described as the “science of social change,” which she said, “has clearly identified the power of nonviolent social movements to effect social change when all other approaches failed.”

“Now the state wishes to criminalize our clients’ involvement in that very movement, which from our perspective would have formed a foundation of an element of the competing harms defense,” Perkins said.

As Perkins began to describe evidence of the unfolding climate disaster, Judge Schulman was quick to jump in. “You say there’s a social movement and civil disobedience is necessary to stop this threat. Aren’t you really saying your clients have the right to be the legislature, and the governor, and the Public Utilities Commission and the federal regulatory commission, because this is the policy that they choose, and they won’t accept what has been done through the democratic process?”

When Perkins tried to compare the Robie’s Bridge civil disobedience to actions taken by civil rights activists a few generations back, the judge interrupted again, suggesting that the conditions now in New England cannot be compared to those of the Jim Crow south. “There wasn’t a democratic process when a large chunk of the country couldn’t vote,” he said.

“Is Vermont under the boot of ‘Big Coal?” he asked.

Perkins resumed, “This is a crisis right now and that government is not responding and the reasons that government is not responding are because they are captured by the coal industry, by the fossil fuel extraction industry, and by the business-as-usual mentality that has made it politically unviable and unpopular to take necessary, urgent actions to assure a livable planet for the rest of us, just like those who held political power in the Jim Crow south.”

It was a social movement that forced change at that time, the Perkins said. At this time, she went on, there’s a “global scientific consensus that if we don’t act now, in fact if we didn’t act ten years ago, we are going to set ourselves up for irreversible, catastrophic climate change which will make human existence on this planet, never mind the rest of the biosphere, untenable.”

Judge Schulman wasn’t buying the argument, equating it to a notion that “everybody can be a government unto themselves” if they feel strongly about an issue and therefore have the right “to do whatever they want,” like anti-abortion activists who shoot doctors.

Perkins took umbrage at that comparison with her clients. No Coal No Gas bases its actions on a commitment to nonviolence, “which is not just moral but is an effective imperative.”

“Some might argue that the distinction between violence and nonviolence gets fuzzy at times,” the judge responded.

Perkins returned to why it would have been better to have this philosophical discussion in the context of a competing harms defense rather than a sentencing hearing, and returned to describing her clients commitment to nonviolent action against climate disruption. “It is those people who write letters from Birmingham jail,” she said.

“One question,” the judge said. “The letter was at the end of the day written from the Birmingham jail. The concept of civil disobedience is you break the law and then you answer according to the law.”

“And you get to decide whether you want to be that judge or whether you want to be a different judge,” Perkins replied. “That’s what we’re asking you to do today, is to place yourself in those shoes and in this moment, in this historical context and assess that whether what these people did, their motivations for doing it, their way of doing it and the consequences of them doing it, comes down on the right side of history or on the side of history which will get drowned in rising seas a hundred years from now.”

Arguing against the state’s complaint that the No Coal No Gas campaign was just about getting “free publicity,” Perkins suggested the prosecution was dangerously close to infringement on the right to free speech and due process of law. At that, she turned the hearing over to her four clients to present their “allocutions,” or addresses to the court, which they delivered mostly without interruption from the judge.

Defendants state their case

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Johnny Sanchez, who now lives in Maine, called attention to the raging wildfires near where he grew up on the Ohkay Owingeh Reservation in New Mexico. “Coal is responsible for roughly 30 percent of CO2 emissions,” he said, and Merrimack Station is “the last major coal fired power plant in New England.”

“Today I’d like us all to think about what exactly justice means in the face of an undeniable climate catastrophe. Does justice look like allowing coal to still be burned in New England when we know the consequences?” he asked.

Daniel Flynn, of Portland, Maine, responded to the OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAprosecution’s claim that the defendants deserved punishment for lacking remorse about their actions. It is human activity which is disrupting the climate, he said, and those with “actual regulatory and legislative authority have done relatively little of meaningful consequence to mitigate the damaging nature of these activities.”

“I read just the other week that this past month of April, the average high temperatures in parts of India and Pakistan were 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the entire month, with some areas reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit as a high. And this is an area where one billion people live, an eighth of the population of this planet, whose lives and health are being threatened by the situation that we’re facing,” he told the judge. “And that’s where my remorse lies today, with those people.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADana Dwinell-Yardley delivered the most poetic allocution, emphasizing her deep connection to the earth and New England’s natural environment. Putting responsibility for climate change on human behavior “is technically true,” she said, “but blaming ‘humankind’ in a broad swath for the damages caused by climate change puts responsibility everywhere and nowhere.”

“Humankind at large is not the problem,” she continued. “Very specific humans making very specific decisions are the problem. Our communities — especially low-income communities, people of color, and indigenous people — are suffering right now, not because of people like me and my codefendants, but because of lawmakers, governments, and corporate leaders. These select few people in power are choosing over and over to prioritize profits and personal gain instead of taking the drastic, rapid action needed to halt the climate catastrophe. Our communities, all of us, our futures, are thrown under the bus, or perhaps under the coal train, along with our beloved and familiar ecosystems that we call home.”

Jay O’Hara, who lives in Portland, Maine, took objection to the claim that Pan Am Railways was not “a neutral carrier,” as the prosecution had said during trial. Pan Am, which operated the train and owned the tracks, is worth $700 million, and makes money transporting coal. And CSX, the Florida-based corporation which owned the coal cars and has recently purchased Pan Am, took in $2.1 billion in coal-related revenue in 2019.

Moreover, O’Hara said, CSX was part of an industry lobbying effort which fought climate-related legislation in Congress. “CSX and these other railroads spent tens of millions of dollars on this effort, to ensure that they can continue to make billions of dollars shipping coal in the future, while the rest of us suffer,” he said.

O’Hara also displayed a chart to show how rapidly

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the climate is warming. He told the judge, “If you look at this reality and find that the situation of injustice is unprecedented climate catastrophe unfolding, and the corporations who have prevented meaningful action, and that ‘no proper purpose would be served by imposing any condition,’ then you should find that my conviction is sufficient and hand down an unconditional discharge. If, however, you find that the injustice here is that Pan Am railways, a company worth 700 million dollars, was inconvenienced for several hours in December 2019 by well-meaning citizens attempting to right the wrongs of decades of delay and denial, that that railroad industry paid for, then in these times you should uphold those decades of precedent of climate inaction and sentence me to whatever extent the law allows. I am prepared to bear whatever sentence you impose. And now you face the choice we all face: what is appropriate action by reasonable people at this moment in history? The choice is yours.”

“These guys were really trying to stop the delivery of the coal train”

Judge Schulman’s choice was to hand down stiff sentences.

The defendants appear to be nice people, he said, but told them, “I disagree with you.”

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Had they been merely trying to get their voices heard by holding a demonstration in a visible place such as the Mall of New Hampshire, he said, he might have been sympathetic. But as the trial went on, he said he finally realized, “these guys were really trying to stop the delivery of the coal train.” And that was not acceptable.

Neither is it okay to compare the use of coal to the practices of “the apartheid south,” he said. There, the “process didn’t work and couldn’t work.”

“Robie’s Bridge wasn’t the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma,” he added, noting the climate activists were “not greeted by the same type of police officers who greeted John Lewis,” who was nearly killed by Alabama police in 1965 while marching for voting rights.

Judge says the system is working

Judge Schulman also took sides with the continued operation of Merrimack Station, which has been allowed by what he considers a functioning democratic system. “Only a fool would say that Vermont, one of the six states in the New England power grid, is in the grasp of big coal,” he lectured. And New Hampshire has a large legislature which is close to the people and open to hearing diverse views. As much of a threat as global warming is, he said, lawmakers and regulators have “somewhere along the line” decided that it’s okay to have a coal-fired power plant “as backup for the worst few days of the summer.”

Since the system is not broken, he said, “This is not where civil disobedience is needed.”

Calling the Robie’s Bridge action “a deliberate attempt not to be heard, but to directly interfere with the delivery of the train,” the nonviolent blockade was “a form of economic sabotage” and one being used by sponsoring organizations to raise funds. “I don’t think that’s appropriate,” he said.

“I don’t think there’s a reason anybody should go to jail today,” Judge Schulman announced, but he said he would hand down sentences to discourage further illegal acts. He identified Jay O’Hara, a founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, as the “mover and shaker” and therefore deserving of the stiffest sentence. Johnny Sanchez, who was removed by police from a girder over the railroad bridge, was also deemed a more serious offender than Dwinell-Yardley or Flynn.

The judge sentenced O’Hara and Sanchez to six months in jail, suspended unless they violate “good behavior” restrictions in the next five years. Dwinell-Yardley and Flynn received 4-month sentences, suspended for three years.

In addition, O’Hara was fined $2000 and assessed $480 in penalties with $500 of the fine and $120 of the penalty suspended based on “good behavior.” The others were fined $1500 and a $360 penalty with $500 of the fine and $120 of the penalty suspended.

Telling the defendants, “you should be out of the breaking the law business,” Judge Schulman also ordered them to refrain for the period of their sentences from colluding with others, conspiring to commit, or soliciting others to engage in any further illegal activity, even in other states. Nor are they allowed within 100 feet of the Bow power plant or on railroad property without authorization.

While he ignored the state’s suggestion that the defendants pay a “public agency fee,” he did decide the railroad company should be compensated for the 4 ½ hours in which the train was delayed. To that end, O’Hara was assessed $2486 and the others $1243, to be paid to Pan Am Railways.

“Our legal system doesn’t seem to be able to respond to current circumstances. The urgency of climate collapse is terrifying, and yet the court’s decisions today is focused on protecting profits for companies in the fossil fuel industry,” commented the Rev. Kendra Ford of Portsmouth in a No Coal No Gas news release. “The judge seemed more concerned that these non-violent activists disrupted profits than the fact that the continued use of coal is causing irreparable harm to the planet.”

Meeting afterward with supporters under a big tree on the lawn outside the courthouse, defendants and their lawyer expressed frustration that the judge had not identified with their cause and the sincere beliefs which motivated them. They appeared willing to pay their fines, but whether they will be deterred from further acts of civil disobedience remains to be seen.

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Logan Perkins with Rev. Kendra Ford

“It is our duty to stand up”

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The scene at Concord District Court that morning was less contentious. Elhuni, Hackett, Robertson, Brokenshire, and James Graham had occupied the Executive Council chambers at the State House on June 24, 2021, the day House and Senate members were casting their final votes on the biennial budget. The group took particular exception to a provision which had been slipped into the budget aiming to bar teachers from addressing systemic racism and patriarchy. That measure plus a ban on late-term abortions and a requirement that those seeking abortions submit to an invasive ultrasound procedure prompted the group to call on Governor Chris Sununu to use his veto power.

“I will stay here until the Governor either confirms he will veto this budget, or I will get arrested. That’s how strongly I feel,” Hackett said at the time.

Hackett and the others were arrested by state police and charged with criminal trespass. Graham’s paperwork apparently disappeared; he was dropped from the case but showed up in court Friday to support his friends.

Following negotiations between their attorney, former Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, and State Police prosecutor Charles O’Leary, the four activists agreed to be found guilty without trial and be sentenced to a $100 fine, which would be suspended if they managed to spend the next 24 hours on “good behavior.” In 18 months, they can apply to have the crime reclassified from a misdemeanor to a violation.

The budget with the controversial positions was, in fact, signed into law by Governor Sununu and has continued to draw attention. As Hackett and Elhuni pointed out in statements delivered in court, the “divisive concepts” provision is being challenged by two lawsuits.

“All the legal stuff aside, the divisive concepts ban is an immoral attempt to further whitewash our history,” Hackett said on Friday. “For example, the ‘bounty’ system created by the Department of Education that encourages neighbors to turn on neighbors. If we don’t get our act together, New Hampshire will suffer and our children will suffer,” added the Laconia resident.

Efforts to repeal the provision were defeated in the House and Senate this year. The policy “has had a chilling effect across our state on teachers’ ability to teach an honest and accurate history without living in fear of losing their teaching license,” said Elhuni, a Concord resident who at the time of the demonstration was serving as Movement Politics Director for Rights and Democracy.

The abortion restrictions have already been partially overturned by the legislature. But with Roe v. Wade about to be overturned, the issue continues to draw intense attention.

“Now we see the right to an abortion under attack, it is our duty to also stand up. The same people who are attacking public education are the same people attacking abortion rights as well. So we will resist all forms of oppression, Elhuni said.

She spoke at an abortion rights rally later that day by the State House steps.

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Focus on Commissioner Frank Edelblut

This article was first published at InDepthNH on May 12, 2022.  For a free subscription to InDepthNH, fill in the boxes when you visit the site.

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DURHAM—When Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Education, published an opinion column on “Education’s Sacred Trust” last month, his words captured the attention of clergy and religious groups whose ideas on what is sacred appear to differ from those of the commissioner.

That’s one reason why dozens of sign-carrying citizens walked from a Durham church to a “visibility action” outside the middle school where Commissioner Edelblut and the State Board of Education met on Thursday, May 12.

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“Recent revelations from educators around the country, mostly on social media platforms like TikTok, reveal a number of educators who believe that it is their responsibility to weigh in on and influence the value systems of the children toward a particular goal,” Commissioner Edelblut said in his op-ed.  While most teachers avoid imposing their own suspect values on children, Edelblut went on, flawed practices “are beginning to seep into our own institutions.”

Based on a 68-page packet he posted online, most of the instructional materials he finds problematic deal with race and gender.

For the Rev. Heidi Heath, who heads the NH Council of Churches and led the protest, it’s Edelblut’s social conservative views that are problematic.  “Commissioner Edelblut has really taken a hard hit at our public education system and has made really clear that he does not stand in support — despite his role here in the state — of our teachers and our students and our staff.”

“Our scriptures tell us that it is our responsibility to care for the vulnerable, to love our neighbor and that a priority for Jesus and his ministry was our children,” she added.  “We believe there is no such thing as ‘other people’s children.’ It is part of our theology to care for and lift up the structures and the things in our society that care for children, and for us the backbone of that work is public education.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Kids should have a chance to learn about their country, and about its difficult things, and its hard things and its possibilities, and we support our teachers in this way,” said the Rev. Dave Grishaw-Jones of the Community Church of Durham, where the group assembled Thursday morning. 

“This church has always cared about education as the vehicle, or the place, where our young people get educated in the ways of citizenship.  It’s where our kids learn how to care about the world that they live in and to take care of the communities that they OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlive in. Without them, we lose that critical piece of democracy and citizenship. We want to support public education for all kinds of reasons, but that’s at the center of it.”

The Rt. Rev. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of the Episcopal Church of New Hampshire, weighed in, as well.  “Commissioner Edelblut seeks to eradicate from schools entirely topics that he doesn’t deem appropriate,” he wrote in his own op-ed.

“If the purpose of education is to prepare our New Hampshire schoolchildren for the world,” Bishop Hirschfeld said, “we need to be teaching them to have the capacity for civil discourse, rather than teaching them to avoid topics — or people — that they find difficult, controversial, or ‘other.’”

Proclaiming that “our children’s’ rights to safe, adequate and equitable education is a theological issue,” Rev. Heath led about 35 people on a half-mile walk from the Community Church to Oyster River Middle School, where they joined another 15 activists assembled by the doorway where Board of Education members would be entering.  

Bill Hatcher of Dover was one of them.  “I think public education is the foundation of democracy and I think Commissioner Edelblut is trying to take apart public education methodically. That’s bad for our democracy as well as bad for students,” he said.  As for why so many people turned out today, Hatcher said, “It’s a culmination of a lot of bad legislation that was being proposed, the voucher program taking root, and people are just tired of it.”

About half of the protest group followed board members into the school and up the stairs to a capacious auditorium.  As they entered and signed in, copies of the meeting’s printed agenda were available.  Under Item III, “Public Comment,” the agenda said, “The State Board of Education welcomes public commentary.  There will be NO in person commentary at this month’s meeting as it is being hosted by a school during school hours.”

According to the NH Department of Education, “It

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Drew Cline and Frank Edelblut

has been the longstanding practice of the State Board of Education to not receive in-person, public comments during meetings that are hosted by a public school during school hours. The off-site meetings remain open to the public, and the board welcomes public comment to be submitted in writing.”

That did not appear to discourage Janet Ward of Contoocook.  She shares the concern of those who believe policies espoused by Commissioner Edelblut threaten democracy.  She’s been to board meetings before, she said, and she’ll be at board meetings in the future.  Yes, Ward said, she has sent in comments by email and hopes the commissioner and board members read them. 

Drew Cline, who chairs the board of education, said in-person public comments will be back on the agenda for the board’s next meeting, June 9.   He’ll probably see Rev. Heath there.  “I think we made an impact on the State Board of Education and this is the first of many,” she said. “We will absolutely do this again.”

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Ian Scott from the Dartmouth Student Worker Collective with Heather Stockwell of Rights and Democracy at Monday’s May Day event in Manchester.

This article was first published at InDepthNH on May 3, 2022.  For a free subscription, just fill in the boxes when you go to www.indepthnh.org.

MANCHESTER—Raising wages for Manchester city employees and standing up for immigrants topped the agenda at Monday’s May Day rally at Manchester City Hall Plaza.  Despite intermittent rain and a blustery late day wind, upwards of 50 people sang, chanted, and listened to speakers including local elected officials and members of several activist groups.

“Right here in the city, Manchester school paraprofessionals get less than $15 an hour to start,” protested Bobby Jones of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents municipal and county workers in several New Hampshire communities.  Housekeepers, laundry and food service workers, nursing assistants, cafeteria workers, and custodians are among the professions where wages are too low, he charged.

“Now more than ever it’s time to guarantee public sector workers, the backbone of New Hampshire, the backbone of our communities, be able to earn a living wage.  A living wage,” he emphasized.  “When costs are rising, these people are struggling.  We need to have their backs because they have our backs. “  

Sudi Lett, the Granite State Organizing Project’s youth organizer, agreed, stating that support for paraprofessionals in schools is essential for children to get a decent education.  “It’s not a job that brings joy when Friday comes and it’s time to pick up your check,” he said.

Linds Jakows of Granite State Interfaith Action urged participants to text messages supporting municipal workers to members of the Board of Alderman. 

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Linds Jakows of Granite State Interfaith Action

Alderman Pat Long, who was one of the speakers, and Alderwoman June Trisciani, who was in the crowd, didn’t need the text messages to show up on the side of city workers.  Nor did school board members Jim O’Connell, Jason Bonilla, and Chris Potter need any additional encouragement.    

Outrage at the actions of Senator Maggie Hassan and Representative Chris Pappas, who have endorsed legislation restricting entry of asylum seekers, was evident.  Maria Perez, a State Representative from Milford who two weeks ago led the departure of the Latino Caucus from the Democratic Party, said Hassan and Pappas have ignored repeated requests for meetings with immigrant community members.  Once they saw Senator Hassan for five minutes, Perez said, but then the senator was rushed away by staff.  Rep. Perez said that Rep. Pappas hasn’t even responded by email.

Eric Morgan from Concord with his son, Monty.

At issue is Title 42, a Trump administration policy which under the guise of public health protection has barred entry of asylum seekers at the southern border.   While the Biden administration has vowed to end Title 42, Hassan and Pappas are backing legislation to keep it in place.  Hassan even travelled to the border and called for additional funds for enforcement measures.  Exceptions are now being made for Ukrainians, but not for darker-skinned migrants from violence-stricken countries such as Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.  

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Rep. Maria Perez with Rev. Gail Kinney looking on.

“What’s wrong with both of you?” Rep. Perez asked the absent officials.   After noting “the other side is worse,” she urged people to think carefully before they cast their ballots, but seemed to keep the door open with Hassan and Pappas if they would agree to hold town hall meetings.  “Come out and meet with the community,” she said.

Enrique Mesa, a local immigration lawyer, explained that families trying to immigrate are in many cases fleeing persecution.  What they want, he said, is a chance to tell their story and see if they qualify for asylum.

“What really hurts the most,” he said, is that “after four years of the Trump Administration doing horrible things against immigrants, now this administration that we had so much hope [for], that was going to stop a lot of the tactics like Title 42, unfortunately they’re just continuing.”

Noting that his own family’s immigration from Cuba would have been prevented by Title 42 had it been in place, Mesa said, “What we need is for this administration to give immigrants a chance.  Let these immigrants be heard.”

If anyone from the offices of the state’s Congressional delegation were there, they kept a low profile.  But to make sure they would get the message, Linds Jakows was there with a placard urging people to send text messages to Hassan and Pappas.

“Remember who is for workers and immigrants when you cast your vote,” urged Eva Castillo, who served as emcee.  It was a familiar role for the Manchester activist, who heads the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.  Castillo has been leading May Day rallies since 2006, when immigrant activists throughout the country led the revival of pro-worker rallies on the first of May.

Eva Castillo of NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.

In between introducing speakers, Castillo commented on issues facing workers and immigrants and led a series of chants.  “They say, ‘Go ‘way.’ We say, ‘No Way.”   “They say ‘Shut up.’  We say, ‘Rise up.’”   The crowd, many sporting yellow bandanas that said “Immigrant Justice Now” and “Dignity Not Detention,” chanted along.

One place where immigrants and workers come together is in food services at Dartmouth College, where student workers have recently formed a union and are ready to bargain their first contract.  Ian Scott, a member of the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, said many of the students who have to work to keep their financial aid packages are either international students or undocumented immigrants.  Likewise, full-time Dartmouth workers include immigrants from West Africa.  “Dartmouth feels that they can really marginalize and invisiblize the full-time staff they have at the school, too,” he charged.

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The May Day program began with a welcome from Paul and Denise Pouliot of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People.

In addition to the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, other rally sponsors were Raise Up NH, AFSC, the Economic Justice Mission Group of the NH Conference United Church of Christ, Rights and Democracy, the Granite State Organizing Project, NH Council of Churches, Granite State Interfaith Action Fund, the Immigrant Solidarity Network, NH Voices of Faith and the NH Faith & Labor Coalition. 

Standing up for workers and immigrants is a moral issue for the Rev. Dr. Gail Kinney, who led off the rally with a fiery sermonette.   She closed off the rally, too, leading the crowd in singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a union standard. 

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Brecken Harrigan and Kai Parlett of SVAC speak with Dean Mike Blackman after Denim Day rally.

This article first appeared in InDepthNH on April 28, 2022.  For a free subscription to InDepthNH, just fill in the boxes when you go to InDepthNH.org.

DURHAM—Speaking to a several dozen studentsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA clustered on the Great Lawn at UNH in Durham, Kai Parlett asked her audience to consider New Hampshire kids dreaming about going to college to get an education and make friends. “Imagine if college was about learning nuanced math, or how to write, or some crazy awesome science,” Parlett suggested. Instead, students at campuses like UNH have to learn “which path is best lit at night, which frat houses you shouldn’t go to and what faculty members are safe people and who’s going to tell you it’s your fault.”

For Parlett, the lesson came fast. Two weeks into her first year at UNH, she was drugged and raped at a campus party, and that wasn’t even the worst of her experience, she said. “Instead of supporting me,” the Women’s and Gender Studies major explained, “this university made me feel like I was the one who was at fault.” After protests last fall charging the UNH administration with doing too little to establish a climate of safety on campus, Parlett joined with other students to form the Sexual Violence Action Committee (SVAC), which hosted the UNH rally on April 27.

The focus of campus programs, she said, is “too often on the choices made by people who are assaulted rather than the choices made by the assaulters.”

“I do not feel safe here, and I do not feel supported here,” Parlett stated, adding, “I’m not sure the administration sees that as a problem.”

The problem of sexual violence on campus is not insignificant. According to a report prepared for the university by the Sexual Harassment and Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP), “In a single year at the University of New Hampshire, 17% of the student body (approximately 2,500 students) experiences at least one incident of interpersonal violence (IPV), ranging from sexual assault and harassment to stalking and relationship abuse.” SHARPP’s report, a draft sexual violence “prevention plan” released last November, says the UNH experience is consistent with what is reported around the country, which “sheds light on why researchers and practitioners in higher education refer to sexual violence on campus as an ‘epidemic.’”

Neither is the problem new; SHARPP itself grew out of grassroots student activism in the late 1970s. The agency now provides education, training, and support for the campus community. But the problem hasn’t gone away.

Another speaker who volunteers with both SVAC and SHARPP described herself as “a human whose autonomy and choice was taken away not one night but again and again through months of dealing with the Title IX [a nondiscrimination law which applies to most institutions of higher learning] and legal processes just to be told that the case could not be charged due to insufficient evidence, even though I had written proof from my attacker of his actions.”

“I turned to the justice system for support out of fear that he would hurt others. I didn’t want revenge,” she told the crowd. But instead of justice, she just got more trauma from the system.

Changing the system was the objective of the UNH rally, which was initiated by SVAC and co-sponsored by nine other organizations, including SHARPP. It was held on “Denim Day,” an internationally observed event which marks an i

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAincident 30 years ago when an Italian judge threw out charges against a rapist on the grounds that his victim was wearing tight jeans. Many of the rally attenders wore denim, which Brecken Harrigan of SVAC said, signifies “that we will not tolerate victim blaming or sexual violence and to show our support for survivors”

If there was one consistent message from all the speakers, it was “Get involved.” To that end, co-sponsoring groups set up tables on the lawn where volunteers were available to talk about their group’s particular role. UNH Wildcats in Action is a

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArelatively new advocacy group calling for mandatory classes dealing with sexual violence prevention and related topics. The UNH branch of the NH Youth Movement supports activism at the State House, including on topics such as reproductive choice. The Reproductive Freedom Fund had a table, as did the Women and Gender Studies Program and campus agencies which provide counseling services.

Within the amalgam of different groups and voices, the Sexual Violence Action Committee sees its role as stirring things up. Unlike the programs that are inside the system, SVAC exists to put pressure on the system to change. “We’re here, we’re loud, we’re paying to be here,” Parlett told me. SVAC’s message to the university is, “We’re going to keep standing up until you stop ignoring us. We’re hoping to keep standing up until you stop saying this is okay because it’s not, we know it’s not.”

For Hailey Kaliscik, who was staffing the SVAC table, the aim of the group is to be proactive, to “notice what is going on on campus and be willing to speak up.”

“We can cause a little bit of good chaos,” Parlett said with a smile. “I think that’s needed.”

It may be working. Among the speakers at a rally billed as a “walkout of classes” was Mike Blackman, the Dean of Students, who looked thoroughly comfortable taking the mic at a protest

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArally. Expressing his gratitude to the student activists who have pushed the administration to act more forcefully, Blackman said he’s found it “amazing that we could come together as a community and really advocate for change together.”

The university has a plan, released last December, with 22 “concrete commitments” grouped into the categories of prevention, reporting, training, and specific student safety concerns. For Blackman, who has been Dean of Students for only about a year, the plan marks a beginning. “I don’t think any of us can sit back and say the work is now done,” he said.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I asked the dean whether the sexual violence problem has gotten worse, he said UNH is “no different” from other campuses. “I wouldn’t say for sure if the situation is getting better or worse, but I think we are seeing cultural change and more attention.”

Erica Vazza, SHARPP’s Interim Director, agreed. “Student activism is being resurrected,” she told me.

Kai Parlett says SVAC is thinking of making Denim Day an annual event on the UNH campus. Next April 27, it will be interesting to look back and see whether renewed activism and institutional focus has made a difference.