Check out Erin Schneider featured on The Empire Report


Ex-con Fighting Drug Prohibition One Blog at a Time

Malakkar Vohryzek was the only federally-convicted felon attending Gov. David Paterson’s reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. He joined around a hundred elected officials and advocates for the occasion atop the roof of the Elmcor Youth and Activities Center on April 24, 2009. Just 13 months out of federal custody, Vohryzek “crashed the party” in a T-shirt and shorts; his shaggy, shoulder-length hair and silver hoop earring also may have contributed.

But, to Vohryzek, the historic occasion just wasn’t worthy of a suit. From the vantage point that came along with a ten-year federal prison sentence, the “amusing” and “rhetoric-filled” morning only ceremonially ended 36 years of severe and costly drug laws in New York. Certainly a necessary first step, according to Vohryzek, but the governor’s event was futile in the scheme of changing the deeply seeded flaws he sees in America’s prison system.

Photo coutesy of Malakkar Vohryzek
Photo coutesy of Malakkar Vohryzek

Vohryzek happens to owe his life to that very system and he has no problems admitting it; better to lose your twenties and to have purpose than wake up at 55 and realize you’ve been imprisoned your whole life, said Vohryzek. After experiencing and witnessing the minutiae of federal prison, Vohryzek, 33, has dedicated himself to fighting for an overhaul of drug policy in America. The eccentric, self-described “computer-geek” and uncommitted atheist/ agnostic is using his insight, edginess and audacity to irritate the wound surrounding American drug policy. Working as an office administrator and blogging for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Vohryzek uses whatever opportunities he can to further the public’s discussion and action towards systemic reform.

“The more language you put out there, the better because generating debate is of tremendous value to society,” said Vohryzek. “My personal belief is that the war on drugs is a continuation of reasoning that started with slavery, was adapted to Jim Crow, Continue reading

Job Shadow: ProPublica

Image courtesty of
Image courtesty of

The reporter I had the opportunity to follow was Sharona Coutts, investigative reporter for the nonprofit site A recent Columbia Journalism School graduate and law school grad from Australia, she formerly worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and has been featured by the BBC and the New York Times. Sharona’s experiences in journalism, skill and dedication to the mission impressed me greatly and my first experience with investigative journalism didn’t disappoint.

The day’s first meeting was between Sharona and her senior editor. Rather than the emblematic superior v. subordinate relations, here were two people combining knowledge, encouraging deeper thought and probing each other on the as-yet unknown outcome of the afternoon’s interview. The morning also included Continue reading

Nonprofit Journalism on the Rise

Arianna Huffington recently announced her plan to help save “serious investigative journalism” with a nonprofit addition to her successful news blog. As newspapers around the country cut their investigative teams, if not their entire staffs, the Huffington Post is now accepting job applications for the nonprofit Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

Huffington joins journalists around the country who are using the nonprofit business model to rescue an important casualty of the economic crisis: investigative journalism. Community specific and other in-depth investigations can no longer be afforded by diminished newspaper budgets. As a result, local and national reporters are leaning on the non-profit model to fund this type of journalism which most of them see as indispensable to democracy.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

“People are recognizing the decline in investigative reporting and the dramatic drop in reporters covering Washington and local governments,” said Zachary M. Seward, assistant editor of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. “These things were never very profitable but people are recognizing that reporting on local town hall meetings is essential for the civic public good.”

Jacob Bayless, of Santa Rosa, CA, is using the digital news model to launch a nonprofit community news organization called The Empire Report. Bayless’s grassroots website joins the newly launched Jersey City Independent, Minnesota’s MinnPost and the Voice of San Diego in the recent rise of nonprofit, community-based journalism websites.

“The reality is that it is far more credible not to have to answer to the profiteers,” said Bayless, referring to the influence of corporate advertising on commercial journalism. “At the most gut level, we started the site because Continue reading

New York City Tenants Struggling to Save their Apartments

Photo by Erin Schneider
Photo by Erin Schneider

Barbara Ulery is being threatened with eviction yet again. The 65-year-old grandmother never thought helping her son’s family buy a home would give her new landlords reason to accuse her of fraud. Because her name is now on both her lease and the lease of his Queens apartment, her new landlords are taking her to court to get her out of the home she’s had for 45 years.

“They keep refusing my rent and then they say I didn’t pay,” Ulery said. “They accuse me of living in my son’s house but he has no room for me! Was it wrong to help my son? I don’t know is that illegal?”

Ulery’s confusion and desperation is palpable and she continually sees her elderly neighbors accused of the same. In an effort to save their homes, tenants of Lighthouse Apartments LLC have become active in the tenant-organizing group for west-siders called Housing Conservation Coordinators. This group, and others like it, is pressuring the newly elected Democratic Senate majority to turn back the clock on Republican real estate legislation. Current New York State law has allowed landlords to deregulate between 200,000 and 300,000 formerly rent-stabilized apartments since 1994. An additional 1.4 million stabilized apartments are facing deregulation.

The real estate legislation allows landlords to increase rent on stabilized apartments by 20 percent after a vacancy and by a percentage of any remodeling costs. If the law is repealed, landlords could no longer deregulate apartments once they reach the $2,000 monthly rent threshold. Tenant organizing groups say this threshold has been working as an incentive for landlords to evict residents. They blame the law and landlord greed for a noticeable increase of harassment, evictions and the community displacement in the last decade.

“Low-income working people and middle-class New Yorkers are facing skyrocketing rents, severe gentrification of neighborhoods, and the systematic erosion and loss of affordable housing,” said Michelle O’Brien, director of the community activist group Housing Here and Now.

O’Brien’s organization joins more than 90 community groups and Continue reading

The Truth about the Klan

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The Ku Klux Klan is back. Reignited and reinvigorated by the economy, gay marriage and Barack Obama, the Klan could strike at any minute and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Or so mainstream media would have you believe. True, at its peak in 1924, the KKK was a dangerous and villainizing organization with over 4 million members. But the 144 year old institution occupies a vastly different place in contemporary society that is largely unknown by the American public.

Newspapers and television news portray the KKK as America’s largest hate group– a violent and cohesive organization with functioning chapters across the country that could mobilize at any time. But according to Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch Project, mainstream news coverage of the KKK isn’t just less than mediocre, it is downright false. While the reliance on this old image of the Klan may be a quick shot in the arm for ratings, it only serves to deceive and misinform the American public.

As it turns out, the bulk of today’s KKK groups are elaborate and well-maintained scams. Potok says that a majority of contemporary Klan leaders are greedy individuals who feed off their members’ monthly dues. “This has been in testimony on the stand from countless Klansmen. It’s absolutely routine. Klan group after Klan group after Klan group.” This reality, however, is entirely absent from mainstream coverage on the KKK.

By keeping the façade of the Klan as a potentially dangerous and powerful group, mainstream news organs can publish more articles, sell more papers and generate much higher levels of public interest. Take, for instance, CNN’s fall newsmagazine “Election Center.” On the November 13, 2008 episode,  Continue reading

To Report, or Not To Report

In November of 2007, police in Acworth, Georgia arrested three boys for the kidnap and rape of an 11-year-old girl. One of the boys was 8 and the other two were 9. The media broke into a frenzy and the story was covered across the globe. Although their names were not publicly released, news outlets published details about their parents, their school and hometown, and even the time and place of their first hearing. Press coverage quickly faded but the boys were left with the legacy of being accused rapists and were never publicly exonerated for the crime.

The media’s coverage of rape is a quintessential example of the United States Judiciary System’s repeated failure to sanction essential protections of privacy. The media has triumphed in case after case filed by individuals against the publication of intensely personal information. In ruling in favor of the media, judges continually neglect their essential function of protecting the public.

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Image courtesy of

The Supreme Court uses the first amendment to explain the absence of privacy protection for American citizens. In the words of the first amendment, “congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But the founding fathers could never have dreamed of today’s expansive and far-reaching media. This reach alone denotes the enormous need to protect individual citizens from such a powerful force.

Every human being deserves the right to personal privacy for matters not directly relating to the wellbeing of the public. And court literature appears to uphold the idea that the media can only publish facts that are relevant and significant to society. But past court rulings have granted the media with the power to trump this criterion. Today’s media both establishes topics of legitimate public interest through reporting decisions and determines the amount of private or personal information to publish.

Furthermore, cases are not considered on an individual basis. For example, the Supreme Court allowed a rape victim’s name to be published by The Florida Star because violent crime is of “public significance.” There seems to be a major disconnect here. The higher courts are in place to protect the people, especially those who are victim of rape and other violent crimes. Rape can still be a significant topic in society without damaging individual lives through publicly brandishing their names.

In their defense, the Supreme Court maintains that Continue reading