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Haitian couple alleges Virginia town targeted their food truck



A married couple who fled Haiti for Virginia achieved their American dream when they opened a variety market on the Eastern Shore, selling hard-to-find spices, sodas and rice to the region’s growing Haitian community.

When they added a Haitian food truck, people drove from an hour away for freshly cooked oxtail, fried plantains and marinated pork.

But Clemene Bastien and Theslet Benoir are now suing the town of Parksley, alleging that it forced their food truck to close. The couple also says a town councilman cut the mobile kitchen’s water line and screamed, “Go back to your own country!”


“When we first opened, there were a lot of people” ordering food, Bastien said, speaking through an interpreter. “And the day after, there were a lot of people. And then … they started harassing us.”


A federal lawsuit claims the town passed a food truck ban that targeted the couple, then threatened them with fines and imprisonment when they raised concerns. They’re being represented by the Institute for Justice, a law firm that described a “string of abuses” in the historic railroad town of about 800 people.

“If Theslet and Clemene were not of Haitian descent, Parksley’s town government would not have engaged in this abusive conduct,” the lawsuit states.

Theslet Benoir and Clemene Bastien stand inside their Eben-Ezer Haitian food truck in Parksley, Virginia, on Jan. 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ben Finley)

The town council is pushing back through a law firm it hired, Pender & Coward, which said its own investigation found many allegations “simply not true.”

The couple failed to apply for a conditional use permit and chose to sue instead, the law firm countered. It said the council member cut an illegal sewage pipe — not a water line — after the food truck dumped grease into Parksley’s sewage system, causing damage.


The councilman had authority to do so as a public works department representative, the law firm said.

“We expect to prevail once the evidence is presented,” attorneys Anne Lahren and Richard Matthews said.

Conflicts between local governments and food trucks have played out in the U.S. for decades, often pitting the aspirations of entrepreneurial immigrants against the concerns of local officials and restaurants. Tensions can spark debates about land use, food safety and food truck owners’ rights in underserved communities.

The Parksley dispute is unfolding on a narrow peninsula of farmland and coastline between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, where the population is majority white but growing increasingly diverse.

Black and Hispanic migrant workers from Florida, Haiti and Latin America began picking fruits and vegetables in the 1950s. Many people from Haiti and Latin America now work in the coops and slaughterhouses of the expanding poultry industry, which extends north into Maryland and Delaware.


Several community members said the lawsuit unfairly maligns a town that has integrated recent immigrants into its 0.625 square miles.

Parksley has two Caribbean markets, a Haitian church and a Latin American restaurant, all of which sit near the hardware store, flower shop and iconic five & dime.

Jeff Parks, who serves on the Accomack County Board of Supervisors, said the town “has welcomed any business which operates within the rules.”

Once a transportation hub for trains and trucks that hauled away grains and produce, Parksley has lost two grocery stores, a bank and a garment factory in recent decades. Some shops on the town square sit empty.

“It’s disheartening to see a town that is so open to everyone and welcoming new businesses into its storefronts to be mischaracterized,” Parks said. “We have multiple Haitian businesses, so it wouldn’t make sense that this one was being targeted.”


Bastien and Benoir said they were singled out.

“We did everything we’re supposed to do,” Bastien said.

The couple came to the U.S. in the 2000s and received asylum after fleeing this hemisphere’s poorest nation. Benoir is a U.S. citizen, while Bastien is a permanent resident.

They initially worked in a poultry processing plant. But in 2019, the couple opened the Eben-Ezer Variety Market in Parksley.

The food truck opened in June on the store’s property after the couple passed a state health inspection and obtained a $30 business license, their lawsuit stated. But Nicholson, the councilman, allegedly complained the food truck would hurt restaurants that buy equipment from his appliance store.


Nicholson cut the water line, causing $1,300 in spoiled food, the lawsuit said, and then tried to block a food shipment and screamed: “Go back to your own country!” when Bastien confronted him.

Nicholson declined to comment.

In October, Parksley’s council passed its ban on food trucks, except for special events. Mayor Frank Russell said it wouldn’t impact the food truck until its one-year business license expired.

But Parksley’s position changed after the Institute for Justice raised concerns, the lawsuit said. The town claimed food trucks were always illegal under zoning laws and threatened fines of $250 a day and 30 days in jail for each day the food truck remained open.

The couple quickly closed the town’s only permanent food truck, which now sits empty.


“We’re waiting to see what justice we’re going to get,” Bastien said. “And then we’ll see if we reopen.”

The couple’s lawsuit is seeking compensation for $1,300 in spoiled food, financial losses and attorneys’ fees. They also want $1 in nominal damages for violations of their constitutional rights.

Food truck disputes in America date back to the 1970s, said Ginette Wessel, an architecture professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Restaurants often accuse food truck vendors of playing by their own rules, while immigrants can face perceptions they’re doing something unsanitary or illegal.

Wessel said lawsuits often end in compromise: “The (food trucks) do get restrictions, but they don’t get elimination. Or the city backs down and says, ‘OK, we can negotiate.’”


Meanwhile, the region’s Haitian community keeps growing as more people work in the poultry industry, said Thurka Sangaramoorthy, an American University anthropology professor who studies the area’s immigrant populations.

U.S. Census numbers show that 600 people identify as Haitian in Accomack County, with several thousand more on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in lower Delaware. Sangaramoorthy said the region’s Haitian population likely numbers in the tens of thousands.

She said Parksley’s Haitian food truck provided something vital — familiar foods that remind people of their homeland — to people often working long hours.

“It’s a community that is triply marginalized for being foreign, Black and speaking Haitian Creole,” Sangaramoorthy said. “They feel like they need to keep to themselves, so it’s surprising that this couple was brave to even file a lawsuit.”


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Georgia proposal for parental oversight of library books advances, critics cry censorship



A proposal that would require school libraries to notify parents of every book their child checks out was advanced by Georgia senators Tuesday, while a proposal to subject school librarians to criminal charges for distributing material containing obscenity waits in the wings.

The measures are part of a broad and continuing push by Republicans in many states to root out what they see as inappropriate material from schools and libraries, saying books and electronic materials are corrupting children.

Opponents say it’s a campaign of censorship meant to block children’s freedom to learn, while scaring teachers and librarians into silence for fear of losing their jobs or worse.


Georgia senators are also considering bills to force all public and school libraries in the state to cut ties with the American Library Association and to restrict school libraries’ ability to hold or acquire any works that depict sexual intercourse or sexual arousal. Neither measure has advanced out of committee ahead of a deadline next week for bills to pass out of their originating chamber.


The state Senate Education and Youth Committee voted 5-4 Tuesday to advance Senate Bill 365 to the full Senate for more debate. The proposal would let parents choose to receive an email any time their child obtains library material.

Sen. Greg Dolezal, the Republican from Cumming sponsoring the bill, said the Forsyth County school district, which has seen years of public fighting over what books students should be able to access, is already sending the emails. Other supporters said it was important to make sure to guarantee the rights of parents to raise their children as they want.

Books are seen in an elementary school library in Atlanta on Aug. 18, 2023. A Georgia state Senate committee on Feb. 20, 2024, advanced a proposal to require school libraries to notify parents of every book a child checks out. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr., File)

“I can’t understand the resistance of allowing parents to know what their children are seeing, doing and participating in while they’re at school, especially in a public school system,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, a Dahlonega Republican.

Opponents said it’s important for students to be able to explore their interests and that the bill could violate students’ First Amendment rights.


“This is part of a larger national and Georgia trend to try to limit access,” said Nora Benavidez, a board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and lawyer for Free Press, a group that seeks to democratize the media. “The logical endpoint of where this bill, as well as others, are taking us is for children to have less exposure to ideas.”

The proposal to make school librarians subject to criminal penalties if they violate state obscenity laws, Senate Bill 154, is even more controversial. Current law exempts public librarians, as well as those who work for public schools, colleges and universities, from penalties for distributing material that meets Georgia’s legal definition of “harmful to minors.”

Dolezal argues that school librarians should be subject to such penalties, although he offered an amendment Tuesday that makes librarians subject to penalties only if they “knowingly” give out such material. He argues that Georgia shouldn’t have a double standard where teachers can be prosecuted for obscenity while librarians down the hall cannot. He said his real aim is to drive any such material out of school libraries.

“The goal of this bill is to go upstream of the procurement process and to ensure that we are not allowing things in our libraries that cause anyone to ever have to face any sort of criminal prosecution,” Dolezal said.

Supporters of the bill hope to use the threat of criminal penalties to drive most sexual content out of libraries, even though much sexual content doesn’t meet Georgia’s obscenity standard.


“If you are exploiting children, you should be held accountable,” said Rhonda Thomas, a conservative education activist who helped form a new group, Georgians for Responsible Libraries. “You’re going to find that our students are falling behind in reading, math, science, but they’re definitely going to know how to masturbate.”

Robert “Buddy” Costley, of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, said the bill won’t solve the content problems that activists are agitated about.

“My fear is is that if we tell parents that this is the solution — your media specialists, the people that have been working for 200 years in our country to loan books, they’re the problem — we will have people pressing charges on media specialists instead of dealing with the real problem,” Costley said.

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Charlotte police ID 8 arrested, released after African cultural event devolved into riot, tractor-trailer fire



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Police in Charlotte, North Carolina, have identified the eight people arrested and released after a 10-hour “protest and standoff” that stemmed from an Eritrean “cultural event.” 

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department on Tuesday released the names of those who were arrested Saturday when officers tried to disperse unlawful crowds of protesters who showed up to a private property and were spilling onto the street. Authorities said officers were attacked by people wielding sticks, rocks and other items, and crowds protesting the African nation of Eritrea’s government also set a tractor-trailer on fire in North Carolina’s largest city. Police said they seized two firearms over the course of several hours.


Mecklenburg County Jail online records show that the eight people arrested were released from custody anywhere within less than an hour to four hours maximum afterward. 

Nesa Tesfay, 31, was charged with disorderly conduct and failure to disperse in connection to Saturday’s standoff. She was previously arrested in May 2022 on charges of communicating threats and violating a protective order, but was released the next day, Mecklenburg County Jail records show. Tesfay was also arrested in November 2021 – and again released the next day – on charges of communicating threats and two counts of simple assault. The status of those cases was not immediately known, but jail records show Tesfay was arrested and released less than an hour later Saturday.  


From left, Nesa Tesfay, Haile Tsaeda, Gebrehiwot Adhanom and Luwam Tewelde are among the eight arrested in connection to a protest at an Eritrean cultural event in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Mecklenburg County Jail)

Haile Tsaeda, 39, was charged with assault on a government employee and injury to personal property in connection to Saturday’s protest. Efrem Michael, 52, was charged with disorderly conduct and failure to disperse. 

4 of the 8 arrested in Eritrea protest in North Carolina

From left to right, Weldegiorgis Petros, Semer Keflay, Girmay Dawit and Efrem Michael were among the eight arrested at a Charlotte protest on Saturday.   (Mecklenburg County Jail)

Gebrehiwot Adhanom, 59, was charged with assault on a government employee and resist/delay/obstruct, police said. 

Luwam Tewelde, 37, was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and failure to disperse. 


Police described how when bike unit officers attempted to move protesters out of the street, several protesters threw objects and pushed back against the officers, who then deployed pepper spray. While multiple protesters and officers were treated on scene for injuries related to the pepper spray, police said a female protester struck an officer, and a firearm was seized from her person. 

On Saturday, police said that female protester had been charged with inciting to riot, failure to disperse, injury to personal property and assault on a government official. 

Charlotte police respond to Eritrean riot

Charlotte police officers in riot gear responded to a protest at an Eritrean cultural event. (Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department)

Additionally, Weldegiorgis Petros, 29, was charged with failure to disperse; Semer Keflay, 30, was charged with failure to disperse and “going armed to the terror of the public,” and Girmay Dawit, 45, was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, police said on Tuesday. 

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Kentucky Republican says early childhood education is the answer to workforce, childcare crises



A Republican lawmaker on Tuesday promoted his ambitious plan to bolster early childhood education as a way to head off a looming crisis once pandemic-era federal aid dries up for the childcare sector.

Kentucky state Sen. Danny Carroll pitched his legislation at a Senate committee meeting as lawmakers delved into an issue that he says carries short- and long-term implications. A lack of childcare keeps some parents from working, contributing to low workforce participation rates. Reinforcing early childhood education builds a strong foundation that contributes to student success later in life, Carroll said.

“We must take advantage of this crisis that we’re about to face and we must transform the way that we think about early childhood education and the meaning of this,” Carroll told the committee. “It’s not babysitting. It’s not childcare. It’s not daycare. It’s education.”


The Senate Families and Children Committee took no vote Tuesday on the sweeping measure — a week after Carroll unveiled the proposal. Carroll, who chairs the committee, said he hoped a committee vote could come next week. Much of the discussion, he said, revolves around the bill’s price tag — currently pegged at $300 million over the next two fiscal years.


“You look at the totality of this issue, it’s worth the investment,” Carroll told reporters after the meeting.

Senators are currently reviewing the two-year state spending plan approved by the House and will eventually present their own version. The final budget details will be hashed out in a conference committee of House and Senate leaders. The GOP has supermajorities in both chambers.

Kentucky state Sen. Danny Carroll speaks with reporters about his early childhood education bill on Feb. 20, 2024, in Frankfort, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

Republican state Sen. Julie Raque Adams said she was impressed by the bill’s comprehensive approach, pointing to its potential impact on getting more Kentuckians into the workforce.

“You hear from every sector of society that they have workforce challenges,” she said. “And we’re never going to fix those workforce challenges until we solve this critical piece of childcare.”


The bill comes amid uncertain times nationwide for childcare providers and parents. The $24 billion of pandemic aid that Congress passed in 2021 for childcare businesses is drying up. Republican state lawmakers across the country have responded by embracing plans to support child care.

Still, the largest investments in child care have come from Democratic lawmakers. In New Mexico, the state is covering childcare for most children under 5 using a trust funded by oil and natural gas production. In Vermont, Democratic lawmakers overrode the GOP governor’s veto to pass a payroll tax hike to fund child care subsidies.

Kentucky has lost about half of its childcare providers in the past decade and risks losing more once the federal aid evaporates, necessitating the need for the state to step in with help, Carroll said.

“For once, I want Kentucky to be the one that gets out in front and sets the example for this entire nation,” he told the committee. “And we have an opportunity to do that.”

Carroll’s bill has drawn praise from advocates for business and children.


His measure, dubbed the Horizons Act, would include state support for childcare centers and families struggling to afford childcare. It would create funds meant to help increase the availability of early childhood education services and to foster innovations in early childhood education.

As part of the initiative, the state community and technical college system would offer an associate degree in early childhood education entrepreneurship, to prepare more people to operate childcare centers.

Carroll’s early childhood proposal stands in contrast to one championed by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The governor has proposed providing preschool for every 4-year-old in Kentucky. His budget plan included $172 million each year of the two-year budget to accomplish that. The program would extend preschool education to an estimated 34,000 additional 4-year-olds, freeing up space for more younger children in childcare centers, he said. His proposals have made no headway in the GOP-dominated legislature.

On Tuesday, state Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander, a key member of Beshear’s administration, touted the governor’s universal pre-K plan at the committee hearing while also praising lawmakers for focusing on the issue of early childhood education.


“Investing in these kids is exactly what we should be doing as a commonwealth,” he said.

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