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Lower East Side Rezone Sparks Border War in Chinatown

What was meant to be a wonky town-hall meeting last week in the Lower East Side about zoning and building-height protection for just about everywhere in the area but Chinatown erupted into a screaming match between the community-board chair and at least 60 protesters holding signs declaring Mayor Mike Bloomberg a racist.

The ruckus at P.S.20 on Essex Street began when Wing Lam, director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, interrupted the introductions at the May 12 meeting to demand translation for the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in attendance. David McWater, chair of Community Board 3, refused, saying that there was no money to hire translators. After Lam whipped the crowd into an earsplitting frenzy, McWater’s face reddened with rage, and he called the cops to remove the rabble-rousers.

And that was only the first argument of the evening. Several more times, the proceedings were interrupted by screaming chants, unsuccessful attempts by the cops to quiet things down, and finally a mass walk-out by protesters. It was a loud and clear example of the growing and racially tinged tension over just what parts of the Lower East Side and East Village will be protected from aggressive developers.

The dispute has touched a nerve across the city. Joining the May 12 protest were members of the Sunset Park Alliance of Neighbors, a Brooklyn group that successfully pressured a developer to scale down a high-rise last year. Harlemites also showed up en masse. Many of them are members of Voices of the Everyday People, a group that has filed a lawsuit to stop the rezoning of 125th Street for fear that long-time black residents will be displaced.

Lam, along with the newly formed Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES, contended during the raucous meeting that the rezoning is part of Bloomberg’s city-wide plot to price out all people of color. McWater countered that residents’ concerns about gentrification are overblown and termed the protesters’ tactics “horseshit.”

The plan at the heart of the dispute would create building-height limits and affordable-housing incentives for developers within an 111-block area in the north part of Community District 3. What’s left out of the protection area is at issue. For three years, the community board and the Department of City Planning have been working on the plan to prevent more high-rises from sprouting up unchecked. But in the past two months, the plan’s boundaries have come under fire.

The area to be rezoned is bounded by East 13th Street to the north, Avenue D to the east, Grand and Delancey streets to the south, and Third Avenue and the Bowery to the west. But it leaves out a major part of District 3: Chinatown, the Bowery, and the far East Side.

Fears that the rezoning, by reining in developers in much of the Lower East Side, will push high-rises into Chinatown and drive up the rents there are ratcheting up the volume of protests.

“It’s really blatantly racist, the way they drew their boundaries,” said Josephine Lee, an organizer at the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the LES. “The rezoning plan is not so much to protect the East Village as it is to displace the communities of people of color within and around it.”

Along with the boundaries—which opponents obviously want expanded to include Chinatown—protesters took offense at the city’s description of “affordable housing.” The rezoning plan calls for “incentives” that would allow residential developers to build larger buildings if they make 20 percent of their units “affordable.” In the city’s parlance, some of the “affordable” units are targeted for a family of four with a maximum income of $55,000, but family incomes in much of Chinatown are below $30,000, which means that current residents of Chinatown still wouldn’t find such units affordable. “It is obviously not for us,” Lam said. The disparity prompted one person at the meeting to stand up and shout: “Why are we settling for incentives when we all know we need guarantees? And why are we settling for ‘affordable’ housing when we all know we need low-income housing?”

McWater dismisses the contention that the “affordable” units would be beyond the reach of most residents: “If I could raise a wand and make it so everybody gets an apartment for $500 a month regardless of their income, I would,” he tells the Voice. “What they’re demanding is impossible. They want the 111-block rezoning to stop and start over to include Chinatown.” The city, he said, has already spent millions of dollars on the current rezoning plan. He also dismisses the criticism of the current boundaries: “The impetus to include the area north of Houston was that it seemed to be under an imminent threat, and you can’t say that about Chinatown then or now.”

Because of the way Lam and McWater have squared off, there may be little hope for a compromise as the plan goes through several more months of review.

“Until this bastardization of the process by Wing Lam a couple months ago,” says McWater, “it was a beautiful process to watch. There are 165,000 people in Manhattan Community District 3. Getting 50 or 60 of them to scream and holler because you lied to them about stuff is not that impressive. They’re just embarrassing themselves.”

Lam’s take on McWater is more succinct: “The chair is a jerk.”

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A Picket Line With History

Under the bright lights and grand facade of Chinatown’s second-largest dim sum palace, Yan Ou is on a picket line with about 20 people, while inside tourists nosh on shrimp dumplings. She is one of a group of workers and supporters usually in front of the New Silver Palace Restaurant, a/k/a Dong Khanh on 50-52 Bowery, carrying on what has become a long-term battle with the restaurant’s management.

A week before this past Christmas, the dim sum cart server was fired and then arrested when she demanded reasons for her discharge. Although she was not expecting a holiday bonus from this restaurant’s managers, notorious for stealing servers’ tips, Ou was not entirely surprised by her arrest. According to Ou, restaurant managers called the cops and fabricated a criminal charge in order to get rid of one of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union’s most active members. Years of management labor abuse, indiscriminate discharges, and even a day in jail did not dissuade the Chinese woman in her mid forties from returning to the picket line in front of New Silver Palace two days after her arrest. The restaurant’s managers refused repeated Voice attempts to get comments.

Ou’s firing and arrest came at a time when New Silver Palace managers sent a wave of verbal and written threats to union members right after September 11. Although there has been an escalation in harassment since 9-11, the battle with this restaurant and its owners has been going on for 20 years. Union vice president Marie Koo says the aftermath of the disaster has simply created conditions ripe for employers to further exploit workers.

“Employers feel like this might be a good time to shit on people, to threaten workers with loss of jobs, because everyone is saying the economy is no good,” says Koo. “That is one of the things we are facing in this community, because the employers will use the high unemployment rate to justify this.”

This is the latest of several lawsuits filed by union members during their struggle. The long list of labor abuses includes: federal and state tip violations, minimum wage violations, breaches of union contract, and acts of racketeering. Court injunctions have ordered the restaurant to correct and compensate for these practices, but the restaurant has yet to comply with these orders. The protesters are now demanding that the courts take action after all these years of noncompliance and would like this management group to be punished.

“We’ve been picketing the restaurant for over four years, long before September 11. We’ve been picketing the restaurant for something we deserve. They still haven’t paid workers back,” says Ou.

Ou had worked for four years at New Silver Palace when in 1997 the restaurant attempted to avoid compensating workers more than a million dollars in back pay and appropriated tips by filing for bankruptcy. What was known as the Silver Palace became the New Silver Palace, and ownership nominally changed hands from CEO Richard Chan to Jonathan Chiu. Management refused to hire union workers back, forcing them to undergo a phony application process and then giving them an ultimatum—leave the union and pay management $5000, or forfeit the job. Silver Palace workers took to the streets and started picketing. When the bankruptcy case came up, the court saw through the name-change ruse and forced the restaurant to rehire them.

When Ou returned to her job, she realized conditions weren’t going to change. The harassment resumed, and so did the picket line. “I was working for three months, and I think that the management knew that I was part of the 318 union, so they fired me after three months. I knew that I had to fight for what I believed in and for what I deserved and that I had a right to be in the union. I knew I had to join the picket line in order to get my job back,” says Ou.

Ou and other workers went on the picket line during work breaks, along with other 318 members. After work, they were at the picket line, where they faced the threat of violence. The protesters now keep a video camera on hand after several picketers were beaten by managers.

Ou says the events leading up to her firing began in October 2001 when she was first confronted by a manager trying to instigate trouble for the union member. “She tried to pick a fight with me, and then said I tried to stab her,” says Ou. The police came and dismissed the incident, but returned two months later to arrest her on the October charge. On December 16, Ou was given a letter of discharge while eating lunch. Having received no explanation for her dismissal, Ou came back to work the next day.

Before noon she noticed two plainclothes police officers talking to the bosses. Without any explanation or evidence, they asked her to collect her things and go with them. Not knowing any English, Ou repeatedly pointed to the notice of court injunction, trying to make the police aware of her rights.

“The cops didn’t look at the notice and demanded that I leave. But before that when the cops were still at the restaurant, they were saying the manager accused me of trying to stab her with the scissors,” says Ou. “She [the manager] had gone down to the precinct with the scissors to show them that I tried to stab her, which was absurd, because she was the one that tried to harm me back in October.” Ou helplessly watched as one of the managers translated her defense. “The manager was saying that I was making a big fuss. But the translator was one of their people.” Ou found herself locked up at the Fifth Precinct.

“I was just thinking over and over, ‘I’m innocent, I did nothing wrong.’ ” says Ou. “The lawyer said the only thing to do now was to appeal it, but I was upset because I didn’t want to appeal something I didn’t even do.”

The government’s failure to enforce the court rulings has created the New Silver Palace picket line. In 1980 Silver Palace restaurant workers created the 318 union—so called to commemorate March 18 as the date they say a new labor movement was born, not only in Chinatown, but across the city, according to union adviser Wing Lam. In this city where most union workers are organized from the top down, 318 is organized from the bottom up, led by and consisting of the workers themselves.

Koo compares the restaurant industry in the city with the garment industry, in which approximately 90 percent of the shops are unionized by UNITE. Whereas base wages have decreased to even below minimum wage for garment workers in the past 20 years, the New Silver Palace campaign has fought to raise base wages for restaurant servers. In 1997 New Silver Palace workers and supporters went to Albany to force Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to raise base wages for servers from $2.90 to $3.30.

Lam declares that New Silver Palace picketers are turning the system around. “New Silver Palace is setting a precedent for workers and leading Chinatown to fight in a greater labor struggle.”

Despite the uphill battle workers must face in this city, which has put its labor struggle on the back burner for the war against terrorism, the 318 union and its supporters continue to escalate their fight and see to it that this city tackles these issues.

Koo says, “Silver Palace in this community represents the fighting spirit. When people first got fired, they were like, ‘Look, this is what happens to you [when you picket].’ But then they got their court injunction, and people went back to work. A lot of people in this community, when they see New Silver Palace, they see a fighting chance.” By the picket line outside the restaurant, workers light incense near a cardboard coffin that reads, “Bury Slave Labor.”

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Bad Counsel

After nearly eight months in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, two teenage brothers, Jiang Jian Wei and Jiang Jian Zhen, were reunited with their mother, Chen Mei Xiu, on September 28, when her plea for political asylum was granted by a New York immigration judge. The boys had been held at a juvenile facility in Miami; their mother endured the INS’s windowless Wackenhut detention center in Queens.

The decision came just in time, say immigrant advocates, attorneys, and leaders in the Chinese American community. Only a week before, a 44-count indictment had been served against immigration attorney Robert E. Porges and seven associates, charging them with helping smugglers bring Chinese immigrants illegally into the U.S.—and already, the activists say, asylum claims by undocumented Chinese are being met with increased scrutiny. The arrest has “definitely produced a chilling effect,” notes Wendy Tso, the attorney for Chen and her two boys. “Now there will be more cynicism about Chinese cases. That’s unfortunate. Many have been harmed, and that’s why they’re here.”

Indeed, the arrest of Porges, his wife, Sheery Lu Porges, and six employees of the Porges Law Firm has already reheated the immigration debate, which has lain dormant for much of the presidential campaign. A series of factors—the two leading candidates’ trying to woo Latino voters, demands from business for larger labor pools, the AFL-CIO’s support for amnesty for undocumented workers, and a growing admission among some members of Congress that the harsh and inflexible 1996 immigration laws went too far—has cooled the anti-immigrant fervor of the mid ’90s.

The Porges indictment, however, has given the fortress-minded Federation for American Immigration Reform a way to try to rekindle the hostility. Only days after federal agents seized more than 500 boxes of files from Porges’s office on lower Broadway, as well as some $600,000 in cash from his 17-room Connecticut home, and another $1.6 million from a safe-deposit box, FAIR blamed asylum policy for breeding the sort of fraud Porges and company are alleged to have committed. Specifically, FAIR points to a provision of the 1996 Immigration Act that recognizes opposition to China’s one-child-per-family policy as grounds for political asylum, and calls for its reversal.

But this provision of U.S. asylum policy is hardly the issue, say immigrant advocates, noting that the smugglers Chinese refer to as snakeheads carry immigrants into countries throughout the West, regardless of their asylum laws, and that the INS itself has long sought to narrow the application of the one-child claim. According to one attorney who recently quit his job as an INS asylum officer, the agency often argues in cases like Chen’s that evidence of forced sterilization should not support the applicant’s claim of asylum. Where’s the fear of persecution, the INS wants to know: The damage has already been done.

It’s attitudes like these, immigrant advocates argue, exacerbated by incompetence, lack of oversight, and the INS’s having to enforce rigid, self-contradictory laws devised by a grandstanding Congress, that make it easy for unscrupulous lawyers to take advantage of vulnerable people. At the same time, under the draconian 1996 laws, the number of detainees in INS custody has skyrocketed in the last five years, from 6700 immigrants on an average day to more than 20,000 now, overwhelming an already understaffed and inadequate system. The result, critics say, is an endless series of outrages.

David Beebe, the district director of the INS in Portland, Oregon, for example, abruptly announced his retirement last month, amid mounting criticism of his overly strict and often downright cruel application of the law, which gave the city the nickname Deportland. In the two most recent affronts under Beebe’s watch, which intensified calls for his removal, a woman married to a U.S. citizen, and nursing her 13-month-old daughter, was handcuffed, shackled, strip-searched, and jailed before being deported to her native Germany—without her baby—because her visa wasn’t in order. And a Chinese businesswoman who entered the country legally was strip-searched and jailed for two nights in August, after which she filed a $500,000 claim against the INS in federal court.

Meanwhile, the agency’s Krome detention center in Miami has been under investigation by the U.S. attorney general, the Office of the Inspector General, and the FBI since May, when female detainees began to come forward with allegations that guards were pressuring them to have sex, and a transsexual asylum seeker there charged an officer with rape. So while immigrant advocates can suggest many ways in which the INS might monitor suspicious attorneys and step in to prevent exploitation, they don’t expect much action soon from the beleaguered agency, which doesn’t seem to be able to control even its own employees.

One such advocate, Christina Kleiser, a supervising attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, offers regular know-your-rights assistance to detainees at the juvenile facility in Miami where the Jiang boys were held. The Chinese kids, she says, typically think they have a private attorney who will also handle court proceedings—and often it has been Porges. The immigrants frequently show up for their hearings only to find that their long-distance lawyer has not filed the required papers, she reports, and the detainee languishes through one continuance after another over some months, and finally gets deported. “It seems as if the judge ought to have a duty to make a phone call to the bar or somewhere if the lawyer isn’t even making a minimal effort,” she says. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review does have some guidelines for attorney conduct that immigration judges can enforce; Kleiser has never known it to happen.

According to a case manager at the 56-bed juvenile residence, at least three of the Chinese kids currently in custody there were on Porges’s client list when he was arrested on September 20. And though the U.S. attorney’s office, which issued the indictment, cannot disclose how many open cases the firm was handling at the time of the arrest, the indictment alleges that over the last seven years, Porges and his associates represented nearly 7000 Chinese asylum cases, so it’s a fair guess that at least hundreds of erstwhile clients are now left in the lurch. Whether the INS will give these clients extra time to secure new counsel remains to be seen—INS spokesperson Mark Thorn says that cases will be considered “on an individual basis.” It is difficult for any detainee to find representation, but whether these immigrants, stripped of the fees they already gave Porges, will have any money left to hire an attorney for their asylum cases, which can cost anywhere from $2000 to $7000, is also impossible to know.

But just as important a question is whether, even if they do get good, honest representation, they will get a fair hearing. “No doubt the arrest of Mr. Porges puts a cloud of suspicion over those who were his clients,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Immigration Project at UNITE, the garment union. “But the fact that they were so desperate to come here that they went with a snakehead does not tell us anything other than that they were indeed desperate. After all they’ve been through, their stories of persecution in many ways should be heard with extra care.”

The extent of the smuggling operations, too, suggests something about the failure of U.S. immigration policy. Even as the U.S. joins in an international effort to crack down on human trafficking, steps up interdictions at sea, and applies new racketeering laws to the likes of Porges, it cannot stanch the flow of some 1 million people who leave China each year, according to United Nations estimates.

“They catch one snakehead or one lawyer and another soon comes to take his place,” notes Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. “People will keep coming as long as the government doesn’t address the more basic issue: the sweatshop situation.” As long as there is demand for cheap, unskilled labor, people looking for a better life—whether in purely economic terms, or in terms U.S. law recognizes as deserving of political asylum—will provide a steady supply, Lam explains, and as long as labor laws are not enforced, making these jobs unacceptable to legal U.S. residents and citizens, the demand only increases.

Meanwhile, the factors that push Chinese away from their homeland are likely to be exacerbated by the recent approval of permanent normalized trade with China, Chishti and Lam agree. “Trade was the only leverage the U.S. had on human rights issues,” says Chishti. “Without that leverage, it’s likely that the abuses will only get worse.” Meanwhile, adds Lam, burgeoning development in Chinese cities will pull more laborers in from the rural areas, and as they flood the job markets there, the surplus workers, like those in Mexico, will look to New York, which has some of the lowest wages and most meager enforcement standards in the U.S.

In announcing the arrest of Porges, INS commissioner Doris Meissner noted that “Manhattan attorneys in three-piece suits do not typically come to mind when the public pictures the criminals who traffic in human cargo.” But for those with a deep economic analysis of the smuggling operations, three-piece suits have indeed been part of the picture, especially as worn by the bosses of garment shops and New York restaurants. As long as demand for cheap consumer goods and services, and thus for cheap labor, keeps on escalating in the boom economy, says Chishti, the best way to put an end to the trafficking in human cargo is to “liberalize immigration policy.”

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Stiffed!

What is it with Democrats and waiters? Less than 60 days after Hillary Clinton sparked tabloid headlines and tonight show guffaws by exiting an upstate diner without leaving a tip, the Democratic-led New York State assembly passed a bill cutting back a minimum-wage increase for tipped workers in restaurants and bars. The bill was quickly approved by the Republican-dominated State Senate and signed by Governor George Pataki on March 31, leaving labor activists steaming. “Talk about getting stiffed!” exclaimed professor Michael Wishnie of NYU Law School’s Immigrant Rights Clinic. “In this economy, this rollback is outrageous.”

The restaurant workers won the raise last December when the legislature prospectively upped the state minimum wage from $4.25—where it had been stuck for nine years and had fallen to 37th in the nation—to the federal rate of $5.15. The move was intended to address the plight of the state’s 45,000 migrant farmworkers, who, along with several hundred thousand other New Yorkers—mostly seasonal workers—are subject to state, not federal, minimums. But it turns out that the state rate group also includes tipped “hospitality industry” employees—some 111,000 waitresses, busboys, and bartenders whose minimum wage was pegged by state law at about two-thirds of the general minimum. Accordingly, the state minimum for waiters was set to jump from $2.90 to $3.50 on April 1.

Enter the state’s powerful $14.2 billion restaurant industry, which launched an intense lobbying campaign that culminated in the last-minute assembly bill. The legislation, shepherded through the assembly by speaker Sheldon Silver and labor committee chair Catherine Nolan, capped the tipped workers’ minimum at $3.30. Mario Cilento, a spokesperson for the state AFL-CIO, says, “It’s unfathomable that they would go to all this trouble to deny these low-wage earners 20 cents an hour.” Worse, adds the Immigrant Rights Clinic’s Chakshu Patel, the bill unhooked the tipped workers’ minimum from the general minimum, meaning, she says, that “if other workers get a raise in their minimum wage, restaurant workers won’t. Instead, they’ll have to fight a new and separate battle to increase their wages every time the general minimum is increased in the future.”

Restaurant owners applauded the legislation, arguing that it prevented an unnecessary windfall for waiters. “Most waiters and waitresses are making well over the minimum wage,” says Holly Cargill-Cramer of the New York State Restaurant Association. “In fact, given the economy, a good waiter or waitress is going to be able to name their price in New York. It may be different out in Plattsburgh or out in Oneonta.”

You don’t have to tell that to Tricia Trupo. She’s the waitress in Albion, New York (pop: 6000), who got nil from Hillary in February after serving the newly minted Senate candidate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, home fries, and rye toast. Actually, the circumstances of that meal are a bit more ambiguous than the tabs would have it: The owner of Albion’s Village House restaurant had put Clinton’s meal on the house—and HRC later sent Trupo a $100 savings bond in recompense. But the 31-year-old Trupo’s economic difficulties are pretty unambiguous. A single mom with an 11-year-old, Trupo still makes the minimum wage after 11 years as a waitress. Neither she nor her son has health insurance. Last week, she said she was exhausted after getting up at 5:15 a.m. to work an early shift, which she chose since “I don’t have to pay day care when my son’s in school. But I just have to do it. My son doesn’t go without anything. I make sure of that.”

A State Department of Labor survey conducted in 1997 found the average wage for waiters and waitresses was $6.34 an hour with tips, slightly more than $13,000 a year for a 40-hour work week. The migrant farmhands, whose grim working lives prompted a Daily News editorial crusade last year and an unusually active campaign by organized labor—which represents no farmworkers and a small fraction of waiters—made an average of $7.87 an hour last year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The farmworkers, of course, also endure squalid housing and, because of arcane labor law exemptions, are effectively denied the right to unionize.

Waiters in New York City averaged more than their upstate counterparts, $7.01 an hour, or about $14,500 per year, but especially in immigrant pockets of the city like Chinatown—whose restaurant industry is notorious for low wages and labor-law violations—many make considerably less. Indeed, in an effort to stave off the assembly’s scaling back of the minimum-wage raise, longtime Chinatown labor organizer Wing Lam of Chinese Staff and Workers Association led a small group of restaurant workers up to Albany two weeks ago. They hoped to make a case for abolishing the two-tieredminimum-wage system—as California did 25 years ago (there, waiters—and all others—earn a state minimum of $5.75 plus tips).

The workers returned embittered by what they say was a cold shoulder from speaker Silver, whose district includes Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Says Lam, “Silver rushed this bill through just a couple days before the increase was supposed to take effect. It’s ridiculous what he did. He wouldn’t meet with us directly. There should at least have been a hearing.” Silver did not return calls for comment. The assembly approved the bill by a vote of 119 to 21.

Queens assemblymember Nolan says she too was disappointed by the cutback, but defends it as “the best possible bill we could get. The Republicans control the senate—and they wanted to freeze the wage. There’s a Republican governor. You have all these restaurant owners, especially upstate, complaining that they can’t afford it, and it’s not like we have anybody comparable we can partner with.” (At least one upstate Republican assemblymember voted against the bill—because it gave workers too much.) And, says Nolan, had the assembly not acted, Pataki might have tried to administratively roll back the wage to $2.90, and “I just didn’t want to go there.”

But labor advocates say the assembly’s cutback was unnecessary. “If the assembly had just done nothing, the full increase would have taken effect on April 1,” says NYU’s Wishnie. “In this case, there was no need for a compromise with Republicans.” Lam claims that during his lobbying day, Republican legislators whispered to him that fighting the minimum increase was not high on their agenda. And last week, a spokesperson for the governor told the Times that predictions of an administrative rollback were “complete and total nonsense.” In any case, argues West Side assemblymember Scott Stringer, who voted against the bill, the assembly should have forced Pataki to play villain. “My rationale is, you put the heat on them to justify gypping some of the absolute lowest wage earners in the state. And besides, you don’t promise workers something—and then take their raise away.”

Meanwhile, Lam and other activists are vowing to put the heat on Silver. Last Tuesday, a group of about 20 waiters and their allies held an angry picket outside the speaker’s lower Broadway district office. Guo Chang Liang, a 56-year-old who said he had worked as a waiter in Chinatown for a dozen years, held up a sign reading “Sheldon Silver, Dog of the Year.” His complaints were echoed by Alex, a 33-year-old aspiring actor who works in a “small, hip” Lower East Side restaurant. “I like the fact that I don’t have to work five days a week. But waiting tables is really hard work, and I have trouble making a living, period. I feel like the restaurant industry is making a lot of money, and this is bullshit.” Lam vowed to hound Silver “until he’s gone. This guy sold out restaurant workers, working people. We’re in his district, and he sold us out.”