On March 27, two days after hundreds of people convened at his Manhattan office to demand the repeal of the state’s controversial

Rockefeller drug laws

, New York Governor

David Paterson

announced plans to significantly reform the infamous legislation. Passed in 1973, the Rockefeller laws were the first to impose stringent mandatory jail sentences for drug crimes. They inspired a wave of similar laws across the country, which flooded the nation’s prisons with minor drug offenders. Nationwide, more than 70 percent of those now incarcerated for drug felonies are black or Latino. The proposed reforms would grant judges discretion to send many first- and second-time nonviolent offenders to substance-abuse treatment programs instead of jail and would expand the state’s drug treatment infrastructure.

According to

Caitlin Dunklee

, coordinator of

Drop the Rock

, an advocacy organization that supports total repeal, the changes are “a beginning and not an end.” The reforms leave in place some sentencing requirements that limit judicial discretion on more serious offenses, and Drop the Rock estimates that fewer than 1,500 of the nearly 12,000 people incarcerated under the laws will be eligible for resentencing. “I’m beginning to get some e-mails from families expecting their loved ones will be coming home to them,” Dunklee says, “and in most cases that’s not true.”

Still, the legislation reflects a growing consensus that drug abuse is a public health issue better served by increased treatment, not jail time. “New York State could go from having some of the worst drug laws,” says

Gabriel Sayegh

of the

Drug Policy Alliance

, to being a model for getting us “out of the war on drugs that we’ve been stuck in for thirty-five years.”SARAH ARNOLD


“We’re actually going to have some live stuff,” explained President

Barack Obama

, “instead of some virtual stuff.” With that plucky note, on March 26 Obama ended the first open, democratically operated 
virtual town hall in White House history.

If nothing else, the president’s virtual town hall was significant for its open structure. The six questioners were not chosen by the government. They were not vetted for their stories. They did not finagle tickets to a rare presidential visit in their town. Instead, they were chosen by the tens of thousands of people who voted in favor of their questions at



Several top questions, as it happens, pushed a bit past the typical DC agenda. 
A Californian named Richard pressed Obama on single-payer healthcare, a topic that reporters never raised in the presi-
dent’s first two press conferences. (That 
issue also topped

Ask The President

, at
communitycounts.com/obama, a similar citizen-question portal backed by a media coalition including The Nation.) Other popular questions assailed the “war on drugs,” advocating the legalization of marijuana and asking whether such reforms might even stimulate the economy. Obama tried to laugh off the issue, but reporters followed up with press secretary

Robert Gibbs

that afternoon, quoting and sharpening citizen queries to probe the administration’s recent talks with Mexico and its plans to try to reduce the domestic demand for narcotics.



The arc of race that defined the life of

Dr. John Hope Franklin

(1915-2009) spanned from the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot to chairing

Bill Clinton

‘s Race Initiative of 1997-98. In between, Franklin mostly lived the life of a scholar, writing and researching historical texts and training several generations of doctoral students. He was pivotal in shaping discussions within higher education about the larger meanings of diversity and excellence.

Franklin was best known for his seminal work, From Slavery to Freedom, published 
in 1947. It was the first and to date the most influential single-volume treatment of the African-American experience in the English language. Because of its liberal treatment of African-Americans, From Slavery to Freedom was initially not well received by white reviewers. A number of publications, including

The New York Review of Books

, refused to review anything written by Franklin for decades. But Franklin 
was too great a scholar to allow these 
petty insults to bother him.

For my generation of young African-American intellectuals produced by the radicalism of black power, Franklin was the scholar we all hoped to become. It was not just the grace of his narrative style or the power of his ideas; it was also his gentleness and the caring and humanity that he displayed in his relationships with junior colleagues. He was generous with his time and very thoughtful in his evaluations of others’ work. Franklin believed that racial equality was possible, in part, if America learned the bitter lessons from its past. 
He saw history as a tool for transforming America’s conscience. He viewed himself as 
a historian who was also an activist in the struggle for racial justice. MANNING MARABLE


When Pennsylvania Republican Senator

Arlen Specter

has been on the ropes, he has counted on unions to rescue him. Faced with a brutal 2004 primary challenge from the right, Specter relied on financial and volunteer support from the


and two dozen of its affiliates. Some unions even encouraged members to register as Republicans, vote for Specter and then “switch right back after the primary.” Specter survived by a 51-49 margin and then, with strong union backing, prevailed over a credible Democrat.

But when working families needed his support for the

Employee Free Choice Act

, Specter bent to pressure from antiunion forces and announced that he would help block a vote on the bill. The senator’s move, intended to strengthen his hand in a 2010 primary where he faces a fight with the right, serves as a wake-up call not just for labor but for all progressive groups. Specter had other options. Democrats said he’d be welcomed if he switched parties, and labor let him know that if he backed the right to organize, unions would have his back in a GOP primary. But the senator betrayed his allies.

Specter says he wants to stay in the GOP to keep alive a moderate tradition that has historically been friendlier to labor. But Specter’s EFCA move poses a question: 
what is the point of defending GOP moderates on election day if they bow to right-wing bullies when crunchtime comes on essential issues?