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Let us now praise famous women and men

In the best tradition of Jack Newfield, an honor roll for Rhode Islanders who are doing the right thing, even as we pause to remember the greediest among us

Image created by Annajane Yolken

A data map of drug cases in Providence during the last six months.

Graphic created by Annajane Yolken

Pie chart graph of types of drug cases in Providence during the last six months.

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By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/30/20
ConvergenceRI honors the tradition begun by crusading journalist Jack Newfield in creating an honor roll for those Rhode Islanders who are doing the right thing – while not forgetting about the need to remember the greediest among us.
How much money is the R.I. General Assembly willing to commit toward sustainable funding for Health Equity Zones in Rhode Island? If the health care delivery system in Rhode Island collapses, how can it be rebuilt with a renewed investment in the public health infrastructure provided by community health centers, neighborhood health stations, and health equity zones? How will the data from the RI Life Index be coordinated with data from the new R.I. Health IT Strategic Roadmap and Implementation Plan? What will happen if Gov. Raimondo is not appointed to a position in the incoming Biden administration? Given the affordable housing crisis and the prospects for an avalanche of evictions, how can plans be moving ahead for a $300 million luxury apartment building on the former I-195 land? If the health care delivery system is overwhelmed by a crush of new COVID cases, will the Governor persist in her efforts to keep in-person classes at public schools happening?
One of Rhode Island’s best photographers, Mike Cohea, has turned his iconic images into calendars and jigsaw puzzles, just in time for the holiday season.. Cohea has just released nine new custom 500-piece jigsaw puzzles available from his online shop, coheavisuals.com.
The spectacular images portrayed in the 18-inch by 24-inch puzzles include many of his best images of Providence, as well as a beautiful nighttime scene of the Milky Way over a barn in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
During a time when we are guaranteed to be spending much more time indoors, Cohea’s puzzles promise to be a safe, rewarding pastime. There is no guarantee, however, that pets, particularly cats, my find the lure of the puzzles too great not to become an active participant in, ah, sorting the pieces.

PROVIDENCE – There are many traditions that belong to the holiday season, focused mainly on food, family gatherings, football, travel, and shopping – the perfect formula for a Hallmark movie where romantic love always seems to triumph. In our world riven apart by the pandemic, most of these traditions have become risky behaviors, likely to have folks end up in a hospital ICU room and not at the altar.

One holiday tradition that has fallen by the wayside is a journalistic one, created by muckraking columnist Jack Newfield at The Village Voice, “Remember the Greediest,” a not-so-subtle dig at the seasonal column published by The New York Times, “Remember the Neediest.”

Newfield was known for fearlessly naming names in shaming lists, such as “the worst landlords” and “the worst judges” in New York City, for which there was always a robust competition “in a city dominated by celebrity and scandal and moguls squandering vast fortunes on self-promotion,” as Tom Robbins wrote about Newfield’s work in a 2009 column in The Voice. [Remind you of anyone in 2020?]

In 1976, for Thanksgiving, Newfield also created an “Honor Roll” list, because there was a bigger reward to be found in hailing those who do right. In 2020, ConvergenceRI has decided to resurrect that tradition here in Rhode Island, to celebrate those who are doing the right thing by calling out both the wrongs and the wrongdoers, something truly to be thankful for as we enter this new age of pandemics.

Let us now praise famous women and men
The Providence Journal was recently named “newspaper of the year,” yet it is hard to imagine the debt-financed, private equity-controlled news enterprise ever putting a “Remember the Greediest” list on its front pages, in the best Jack Newfield tradition. [My best guess is that few young journalists working today in Rhode Island even know who Jack Newfield was.]

On the eve of Thanksgiving this year, there was a remarkable piece of data that was published not in any newspaper or on any online news site in Rhode Island, but on Twitter. Annajane Yolken, as part of her ongoing research at Project Weber RENEW, created a data map detailing police cases involving drugs during the last six months. It provided, in the visual way that only data map can, the stark realities in the way that poverty, racism and structural violence have informed how law enforcement is practiced in our Creative Capital.

“I mapped out all the recent Providence police cases for drug possession and distribution from the past six months. Notably there is not one case from the East Side of Providence,” Yolken tweeted.

[When community activist Gloria Johnson pointed out that one of the cases appeared to be in the Hope neighborhood and that was part of the East Side, Yolken did not take umbrage; instead, she thanked Johnson for her correction. The map description should now read that there were “few” drug cases from the East Side.]

I had responded to Yolken, asking: “What’s your conclusion?” The journalist in me sought to have Yolken be more explicit about what she was saying, rather than have myself and others draw the inference about what her data map had revealed.

Yolken responded: “Others have said it better than me, but clearly drug enforcement in PVD is focused on communities of color and less rich areas in our city [and it’s not because there aren’t drugs on the East Side]. This isn’t surprising given the racism of the war on drugs but here it is.”

To which Angela Ankoma, the new vice president of racial equity investments at the Rhode Island Foundation, responded with a GIF, “Boom! She said it!”

Another participant in the Twitter conversation asked Yolken if she could identify the exact kinds of drugs involved. Yolken responded by publishing a pie-chart graphic showing the breakdown of the bases along broad indicators, saying that the data available had lacked granular specificity. [See second image.]

What the data pie chart showed was that approximately 16.1 percent of all cases involved one ounce or less of marijuana [emphasis added]. Let that sink in for a moment. One-sixth of all drug cases in the last six months handled by the Providence police involved one ounce or less of marijuana, and few if any of those cases were from the East Side of Providence. What’s your conclusion?

As the R.I. General Assembly makes plans to move forward to legalize recreational use of marijuana, driven by the need for more tax revenues, the reality is – whether you call it cannabis or weed, the structural racism in how the “war on drugs” is being prosecuted [or is that persecuted] will continue to drive the inequitable outcomes, regardless of the evidence and the law.

What are needed are wholesale changes in the way that law enforcement is practiced. The question is: Who will hold the police accountable for their actions?

Translating words into actions, policies to save lives
Yolken has also been one of the leaders in the effort to push the Raimondo administration to issue an emergency order to create a pilot program for safe injection sites in the state, as a way to save lives, as the projected number of deaths from ODs for 2020 promises to exceed 400, a 25 percent increase. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Is RI ready to talk turkey about safe injection sites?”]

In health care, at the virtual launch of the second annual RI Life Index held on Monday, Nov. 16, both Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, and Kim Keck, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, were forceful in talking about what their data survey found about racial inequities in Rhode Island. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “How Rhode Islanders see themselves, in a time of COVID.”]

• “We know that important, long-standing structural issues in our society, such as racism, racial inequities and poverty, end up having profound effects on health, both directly and through other mechanisms, such as limited access to healthy food, safe neighborhoods, and the quality and access to education that people want,” Jha said.

• “These inequities are impossible to ignore,” Keck said. “If there is anything we have learned in this crazy, tumultuous year, [it is] we must be accountable for turning the tide on system racism and inequity in our state and in our country. Poverty and racism have an enormous impact.”

Translated, we need to recognize that what the data tells us in health – and in law enforcement – shows us that they are all part of the same landscape. Annajane Yolken has begun to help us have that conversation visualizing that landscape.

Remembering the greediest
In honoring those in Rhode Island who are doing the right thing, such as Annajane Yolken, we should not forget to remember the greediest among us. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company advised Purdue Pharma, producer of the addictive painkiller OxyContin, to give drug distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose attributable to pills they sold, according to bankruptcy filing documents obtained and reviewed by The New York Times, in a story also reported by Axios.

[Editor’s Note: Until recently, Rhode Island’s first gentleman, Andy Moffitt, worked for McKinsey as director of industry learning. McKinsey was also recruited to work in 2020 on the Raimondo administration’s strategic plans to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, their fee paid for by a philanthropic source.]

McKinsey’s strategy on paying rebates for drug overdoses was included in 160 pages of documents released in federal bankruptcy court, according to story. In a 2017 presentation by McKinsey, the consulting firm projected how many customers of distributors, including CVS and Anthem, might overdose or develop a use disorder.

The firm projected that in 2019, some 2,484 CVS customers would either overdose or develop an opioid addiction, and that as part of the proposed strategy, Purdue would pay CVS a $36.8 million rebate that year.

Rebates and other strategies were McKinsey’s attempts to help Purdue find a way “to counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed” on OxyContin, the documents revealed, according to reporting by The New York Times and by Axios. [CVS and Anthem told The New York Times that they never received such rebates.]

Worse, in 2018, McKinsey began to worry about legal backlash from taking on Purdue as a client, and senior members of the firm asked whether the company should prepare for lawsuits by “eliminating all our documents and emails,” according to the reporting of Walt Bogdanish and Michael Forsythe at The New York Times. “It is not known whether consultants at the firm went on to destroy any records,” the story said.

Is your ZIP code more important than genetic code?
The data compiled and analyzed in the second annual RI Life Index illuminated the direct connection and correlation between safe, affordable housing and health outcomes. ZIP codes have become more important than genetic codes in determining health outcomes, according to Keck.

The question is: If health care is a human right, what about housing?

In an equally courageous move comparable to Yolken publishing the data map of drug cases in Providence in the last six months, the Childhood Lead Action Project, in collaboration with DARE, Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere [HOPE] and other tenants rights organizations, publicly named and shamed those landlords and their lawyers who were the most egregious in pursuing evictions of tenants who were unable to pay rent, from June 2020 to the present.

That effort was coordinated in part by Laura Brion, the executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, and her colleague, Devra Levy. [The link to the Facebook post can be found below.]

The Childhood Lead Action Project is a key statewide community group leading the effort to protect children from lead poisoning, a preventable, man-made affliction that can lead to a lifetime of chronic physical health, behavioral health and learning disabilities. The biggest source of lead is lead paint in buildings constructed before 1978 and poorly maintained by landlords.

The COVID pandemic has caused a sharp decrease in lead poisoning screenings in Rhode Island, putting children at risk. In a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, Brion had talked about the need to focus on housing as a human right: “We are still laser-focused on helping families to access safe, healthy housing,” Brion said. “We see housing as a human right – including the right for safe housing that doesn’t poison children or harm people.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Healthy, safe, affordable, and lead free.”]

During this time of the COVID pandemic, Brion continued, “We have shifted some of our tactics for how we get there. Right now, we have been putting a fair amount of work into helping with more general tenant organizing and education. One of our community organizers is spending a lot of time helping to organize a new group, called the Tenant Network of Rhode Island.”

The naming and shaming event, held last week, was a “virtual movement to bring awareness to evictions in Rhode Island,” explained DARE's Terri Wright, one of the organizers of the live Facebook event. “Housing is an essential item which warrants the same protections as wearing a mask.”

Wright warned about the avalanche of homelessness that will occur unless that there is an extension of the federal moratorium on evictions slated to end on Dec. 31, 2020, unless the Governor takes action by executive order. “Finding new housing in a pandemic is nearly impossible,” she said. “People who are evicted are [going to be] put on the streets. Shame on those landlords.”

When mass evictions begin again, Wright continued, “We may see one of the largest spikes in homelessness that Rhode Island has ever seen. Gov. Raimondo should stop being a coward [emphasis added] and use her executive power to protect renters from being evicted in the middle of winter and in a global pandemic.”

Calling out Gov. Raimondo to “stop being a coward,” just as her public relations machine shifts into overdrive in pushing for her to become a member of the incoming Biden administration, is certainly newsworthy. But, while Uprise RI covered the event in detail, The Providence Journal did not; apparently none of the local TV stations covered the event. [See link below to the Uprise RI coverage.]

However, the naming and shaming event apparently touched sensitive nerve endings in some quarters. Christopher Bilotti, president of the The Bilotti Group, Inc., a multi-family and retail property management and ownership company operating in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, presented a counter-argument in RINewsToday, in a story headlined with the rhetorical question: “Is there a homelessness crisis?”

[The Bilotti Group was named Number Two in the list of landlords that filed the most evictions during the pandemic, with 40, according to the research conducted by HOPE and the Tenant Network of Rhode Island, from public court records on evictions, covering evictions for non-payment of rent.]

“The ability to remove a tenant for non-payment is what affords landlords the ability to take a chance on tenants with questionable credit,” Bilotti wrote. “The eviction process generally allows a landlord to remove a tenant within two to three months.”

Further, Bilotti continued, “The total loss between lost income and legal costs is generally between $1,500 and $3,000, however, …an actual removal is rare. If evictions are not allowed, the losses could be insurmountable.” The question is: Losses to whom?

Julian Rodriguez-Drix, in response to a tweet that proclaimed, “Housing is the cure,” wrote about what he believed was needed to stop the spread of COVID:

• Eviction and foreclosure moratorium throughout the pandemic

• Rent and mortgage debt forgiveness

• Widely available isolation and housing options in hotels, dorms and vacant homes

• Build more affordable housing, remove barriers to access housing.

As the COVID-19 virus continues to rage across Rhode Island, the naming and shaming of landlords can be seen as an attempt to persuade the R.I. General Assembly and Gov. Gina Raimondo to take action to protect renters and to extend the eviction moratorium, as a way to prevent a surge in homelessness.

Laura Brion, Devra Levy, and Terri Wright have taken action to make the urgency of that conversation visible, to do the right thing, in the best tradition of Jack Newfield.

Testing, testing, testing
On Monday, Nov. 30, Rhode Island will enter a two-week pause in an attempt to slow the rapidly spreading coronavirus pandemic, in an effort to prevent the state’s health care delivery system from being flooded by the crush of new patients, even as new field hospitals prepare to receive patients stricken with COVID-19.

In turn, there has been a dramatic change in testing policy by the state, creating numerous sites to encourage testing for the virus, even in asymptomatic cases, with a renewed focus on communities hardest hit, such as Central Falls and parts of Providence.

The question is: What took so long for the state to mobilize around ramping up testing? Why did it take until November and the start of a two-week pause instead of August, when the Governor and her team were pushing to reopen in-person attendance at schools?

As part of this new testing effort, the state is deploying the next generation of the Abbott rapid test devices, called Binax Now.

However, reports from a number of physicians to ConvergenceRI – one coming early on Thanksgiving morning – bemoan the fact that the Binax Now devices produce test results that are widely inaccurate and may be providing a false sense of security to those receiving negative results from the test.

As a result, many people taking the Binax Now tests – including residents in predominantly brown and black communities – may be receiving false negatives.

The distribution of testing supplies has been taken over by the National Guard, and the bureaucracy is intense, according to another physician.  Further, the testing is being performed at many sites in Rhode Island by Alert Ambulance, a for-profit firm headquartered in Fall River, Mass., with 12 satellite locations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and more than 375 employees, according to its website. How much is the contract for testing worth to Alert Ambulance?

[The Binax Now test is being deployed when travelers return to T.F. Green Airport.]

Waiting until the last week in November to ramp up testing for predominately black and brown communities in Rhode Island, and then providing them with the least accurate testing devices, means that the spread of the virus will only be perpetuated, according to a number of physicians.

At issue is the decision by Gov. Raimondo and her team to try to push keeping public schools open for in-person learning, putting teachers, students, staff, and families at greater risk for the spread of the virus. [Once again, the expert public relations machine deployed by Gov. Raimondo appears to working overtime this holiday weekend, with a major feature story in The Washington Post, entitled, “This state is shutting bars and gyms as the coronavirus surges – but not schools.” The article did note that neither Raimondo nor the state education commissioner send their children to public schools.]

The counterpoint was provided by Robert Walsh, Jr., executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island [NEARI], who cited the most recent data on the spread of the coronavirus in public schools in Rhode Island. Walsh wrote on Twitter on Sunday, Nov. 29: “Update: Since school started, RIDOH data show about 1,245 student cases from in-person learning versus 950 from virtual [learning], & under 60 cases from staff working virtually and over 685 cases [for staff] working in-person. Over 20% of this year’s total in person cases happened in the week ending 11/21.”

One other important footnote to any story on testing: the disparity in testing available for professional and collegiate athletes compared to testing of nurses on the front lines of health care, including nursing homes.

Registered nurses gathered Los Angeles to protest the fact that UCLA’s athletic department conducted 1,248 tests in a single week while health care workers at UCLA hospitals were denied testing, according to a story published by in The Seattle Times, “As thousands of athletes get coronavirus tests, nurses wonder: What about us?”

The story cited the fact that between Nov. 8 and Nov. 14, the NFL administered 43,148 tests to 7,856 players, coaches and employees. Emergency room nurse Jane Sandoval, a 58-year-old front-line worker who regularly treats patients either suspected or confirmed to have been infected by the coronavirus, said that in the last eight months, she has never been tested, according to the story.

Further, Sandoval said that her employer, California Pacific Medical Center, has refused to provide testing for its medical staff – even after possible exposure, according to the story.

The larger problem is with changing people’s behaviors, not just with the lack of testing infrastructure. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The prevention paradox plays out in Rhode Island.”]

In an appearance on Sunday, Nov. 29, on CNN, Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room doctor at Lifespan and a frequent guest on cable news networks these days, said in an interview: “Here in Rhode Island, we’re opening a field hospital. And, if you have hundreds of staff sick – if you don’t have nurses, doctors and respiratory techs – even a field hospital won’t save you. Our health care system is at the breaking point.”

A positive reframe
The work of Jennifer Hawkins as the director of ONE Neighborhood Builders also deserves special recognition for her efforts in shepherding a system of free community WiFi in the Olneyville neighborhoods her community development corporation serves. On Monday, Nov. 30, the new mesh WIFI is scheduled to go live, affording residents the opportunity to connect for free in order to participate in all the things necessary to stay protected – online telehealth, virtual learning, and online commerce.

She joins Annajane Yolken, Laura Brion, Devra Levy and Terri Wright in ConvergenceRI’s 2020 honor roll of community heroes who had the courage to speak up and take action, in the best tradition of Jack Newfield.

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