A Human Rights Perspective on Solutions to the Opioid Crisis in America

My most recent article described an overview of the opioid addiction crisis from a human rights perspective. You can view it here. In this article, I attempt to explain the different solutions from medical professionals regarding opioid addiction and the racial and economic disparities that have arisen amongst the most successful solution.

There are two forms of treatment that most clinics can decide between: traditional counseling therapy with a focus on mental strength or using medication, such as buprenorphine and methadone, to combat addiction. Research has proven that without medication, people are twice as likely to die from an overdose. However, the traditional counseling methods have persisted across treatment centers. The Journal of Substance Abuse conducted a study that showed that between 2003 and 2010, of 50,000 opioid addiction patients on Medicaid, patients who had received counseling therapies were six times more likely to relapse than those who received methadone as treatment and four times more likely than those who received buprenorphine. The risk of overdoses is increased during the period of detoxification utilized by abstinence based programs because of a lack of tolerance.

A counseling session
Counseling. Source: Alan Cleaver. Creative Commons.

Opioid substitution has proven to reduce mortality. To avoid a misuse of buprenorphine and methadone, the two medications are tightly controlled by doctors. Buprenorphine is a drug that reduces the craving for opioids and reduces the chances of a fatal overdose overall. Suboxone, a compound of buprenorphine, is engineered to reduce the possibility of an overdose. However, using medication as treatment for addiction has only truly been utilized at a small number of walk-in clinics and has not been fully incorporated into the nation-wide health care system. In 2015, in the United States, 8-10% of treatment programs offered buprenorphine and methadone as substitution therapy. Even in this small number of programs, the method was often unsuccessful as the medicine was offered for too short of a period to be effective. The treatment is only provided in very regulated clinics and prescribers are limited to a maximum of 275 patients.

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of doctor visits where the health professional prescribed buprenorphine greatly rose. Despite this, a research report found that of 13.4 million medical cases involving buprenorphine, there was no increase in prescriptions written for minority groups. Dr. Pooja Lagisetty, one of the authors of the study, reported that white populations are nearly 35 times more likely to have buprenorphine discussed in their visit than black populations. Accessibility and insurance ability are commonly cited as reasons why this disparity has occurred, especially as the majority of white patients paid for their treatment using cash or insurance whereas only 25% of visits were covered by Medicare or Medicaid. This is especially concerning when it is taken into consideration that the rise in the use of buprenorphine occurred at the same time that opioid overdose related deaths were rising significantly faster for black populations than for whites.

Representation of the cost of healthcare.
The cost of healthcare. Source: ImagesMoney. Creative Commons.

In many cities, opioid addiction treatment is segregated by income. Lower income patients find themselves needing to attend a clinic in order to receive treatment while more affluent patients are able to avoid the clinic and instead receive treatment from a doctor’s office where medicines can be prescribed. These clinic programs are federally funded and often covered by Medicaid. However, in order to receive treatment from the highly regulated clinics, patients must visit daily. Many patients commute for hours every day before waiting within the clinic to receive their life-saving medication. These patients, who are already part of a lower income bracket, are losing precious hours where they could be working or with their families. Work, childcare, families, and other related life events must revolve around the daily trip to the clinic. Some patients have described needing to turn down job offers. Because of this, methadone has earned the nickname, “liquid handcuffs.”

In order to prescribe buprenorphine, physicians are required to undergo a special form of training. Only 5% of physicians have participated in this training. The shortage of clinicians has resulted in the ability of physicians to demand cash payments in return for a prescription of buprenorphine. 40% of white patients paid cash while 35% relied on private insurance. Just 25% of these visits were covered and paid for by Medicaid and Medicare. These percentages highlight just how costly a lifesaving prescription can be for people of low income. Because of the racial disparities within the United States economy, the people who fall into this category tend to be of a minority group. Gentrification has also caused a problem within the clinic community as their buildings get bought out in favor of other businesses. In 2016 in New York City, 53% of participants in methadone programs were Latino and 23% were black, while 21% were white. Also, in 2016 more than 13,600 people in New York filled at least one prescription for Suboxone with nearly 80% of these 13,600 paid for the medication using private insurance.

2011 Protest against the War on Drugs
No More Drug War. Source: Neon Tommy. Creative Commons.

Buprenorphine was purposely introduced into a private market, intended only for those who could pay a high price. Therefore, the unequal distribution of the drug can be determined to be not accidental. Due to the government regulations surrounding the prescription of the drug and the training required for doctors, there are too few doctors actually allowed to prescribe the medication. Those who can often do not accept insurance for their services as demand is so high and they can make more of a profit. Insurance will pay for the actual drug, but patients must pay for the doctor out of pocket.

A permanent stigma surrounding methadone has developed, hailing from the War on Drugs days in the 1960s. Racially charged stereotypes regarding addiction have fueled this stigma which has in turn caused lawmakers to be reluctant in passing legislation that would make the drug more accessible to underprivileged populations. However, this would be the push the community desperately needs. Medicines like buprenorphine and methadone need to be significantly more accessible, both for patients and doctors alike. They need to be included in more clinics while therapy based solely on mental counseling should be phased out from the common addiction treatment centers. In order to close the racial and economic disparities within this crisis, it is important to first recognize them. Once that has been done, our communities need to take direct action that will result in a positive change.

A Human Rights Perspective on the Opioid Crisis in America

Pills
Pills. Source: Jamie. Creative Commons.

The opioid crisis in the United States is not something I often hear about in the news nowadays. Or maybe it is so often in the news that the title fades into the background amongst the news about politics. However, the opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States, and it has affected them for years. Human rights concerns connected to the epidemic have begun to grow in recent years as controversies regarding the United States health care system and law enforcement systems have come to light.

The crisis began with the expansion of opioids for medical purposes in the 1990s. The initial goal with opioids was to treat pain but the drugs soon became exploited by pharmaceutical companies eager to increase their profit revenue [1]. Before the addictive and harmful properties of opioids became known both to the public and to healthcare professionals, prescriptions for opioid medications increased rapidly across the country.

The introduction of extended-release oxycodone in 1996 along with claims by the manufacturers that it was less addictive and effective for up to 12 hours was a major catalyst for the epidemic. There are three described waves of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. The first wave began with an increase in the prescription of opioids, increasing since at least 1999. The second wave included overdose deaths involving heroin, the increase beginning in 2010. The third wave included an increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) in 2013.

Hospital
Hospital. Source: Marissa Anderson. Creative Commons.

The first reaction to the opioid crisis was to limit the number of prescriptions in the market. However, this drove many to use the less expensive and more accessible street heroin. Cheaper and stronger opioids kept reappearing on the market, leading to an accelerated rate of fatal overdoses. Most addictions start with diverted supplies instead of among doctors’ patients. This was the case with heroin, which causes 4% of those who were using prescription opioids to switch to heroin. While 4% seems like a small percentage, 4% of the large number of people taking opioid pills is actually very large and enough to exacerbate the crisis [2]. In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. Over 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses and 10.3 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2018. In 2017, more than 70,200 people died from drug overdoses. Of those 70,200, around 68% involved opioids.

White Americans make up roughly 80 percent of opioid overdose victims. The attention of the coverage of the opioid crisis has primarily centered on white Americans, pushing aside the attention on minorities affected by the crisis. Minorities made up 20 percent of opioid related deaths in July of 2019, but that number is growing. The crisis has highlighted the racial disparities in the US healthcare system as many experts believe that the number of opioid related deaths in minority populations would be greater if minorities had access to the same level of health care as white Americans. It is known that people of color have had a significant lack of access to the American healthcare system throughout history and throughout the recent years. This disparity lowers the probability that non-whites in American would be prescribed opioids and thus lowers the chance that the population would suffer fatal overdoses. Despite the low death rates due to the exclusions within the health care system, the abuse of opioids is still abundant in communities of color. Scientists have witnessed a doubling of overdose death rates among African Americans, a factor that is being overshadowed by the media and societal focus on the death rates of whites.

Police
Police Officer. Source: G20 Voice. Creative Commons.

The law enforcement system has failed minorities in the opioid crisis as well. The War on Drugs, an attempt at cracking down on the opioid epidemic, has disproportionately affected African American communities across the United States. Studies have shown that law enforcement officials target black communities for drug violations significantly more than they target white communities. While drug use is similar between white communities and black communities, members of the black community are 13 times more likely to be arrested for buying and using drugs. In 2013, black and Hispanic populations represented 29 percent of the entire United States population. Despite this, the number of black and Hispanic prisoners arrested for drug related charges dominated that of whites. Not only is this true, but the United States Sentencing Commission also released a report stating that black prisoners receive longer sentences than white prisoners, despite both groups being convicted of similar weighted crimes.

The opioid crisis has hurt millions of people and families across the United States, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Despite this, the national attention has primarily focused on how the crisis has affected the white population. It is important to focus not only on how the opioid crisis has affected minorities, but also how the health care and law enforcement systems have responded to the opioid crisis in minority groups. The disparities within these systems must be fixed in order to provide an equal treatment of all groups.

[1] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

[2] The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.

Nathaniel Woods and Alabama’s Broken Justice System

As the world is reeling from the coronavirus outbreak and the constant inundation of new cases and increasing death rates, I wanted to call your attention to an important event that has largely been overlooked in the midst of the chaos. On March 5th, 2020, a man by the name of Nathaniel Woods was executed by the state of Alabama via lethal injection at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. The 43 year old Woods was convicted because of his role in the fatal deaths of three Birmingham, Alabama police officers in 2004. Two entities could have stepped in to stop the execution: The Supreme Court and the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey. The Supreme Court did delay the execution for three hours, but Kay Ivey refused to step in stating that she believed justice must be served in the name of the law. The execution of Nathaniel Woods was unjust and unfair in many ways and highlights the severe problems within the Alabama Justice system.

In the case of Nathaniel Woods, it is important to note that he was convicted of being an accomplice to the deaths of the three police officers. The man who confessed to the actual act of shooting and killing the police officers is Kerry Spencer. In fact, Spencer confessed to acting alone in the crime that landed both him and Woods on the Alabama death row. He testified this in his own trial and claimed to be acting in self-defense, highlighting that the shooting was not planned. During his confession, Spencer very clearly stated that Woods ran away from the scene and could not be considered an accomplice to the act. According to his former appellate attorney, Spencer may never be executed as Woods was. When Spencer was convicted in 2005, the jury that found him guilty recommended that he receive life in prison without parole, instead of the death penalty. A 2017 Alabama law that removed the power of the judge to override non-unanimous jury verdicts in the cases of the death penalty effectively protects Spencer. So why, when Spencer confessed to the deaths of the police officers, is Woods dead? A primary factor is that Wood’s jury never heard Spencer’s claim of self-defense. An even larger factor is that the Alabama death penalty laws are inherently flawed and unjust.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. Source: 187th Fighter Wing. Creative Commons.

The jury that convicted Woods reached a non-unanimous verdict of 10-2 recommending the death penalty. Alabama is one of two states in the United States that allows a non-unanimous verdict to result in the execution of a defendant. The death penalty laws within Alabama have been seriously criticized by civil right leaders and have been called unjust under the accusation that the criminal courts are unfairly biased against minorities. Despite Woods’ family and a few high profile figures including Martin Luther King III, the son of the late Martin Luther King Jr., and Kim Kardashian West contending that much of the evidence supported Woods’ innocence, neither Governor Kay Ivey nor the Supreme Court intervened on Woods’ behalf.

Woods’ case is unfortunately one in a long line of executions that highlights the many problems with the Alabama justice system. Before its abolishment in 2017, Alabama allowed judges to over-ride a unanimous jury in order to impose death sentences. While this is a step in the right direction, Alabama was the last state in the United States to make this change. Alabama has had 67 executions and 9 exonerations since 1976. This means that for every seven people executed, one has been exonerated. As of today, at least 107 of the death sentences in Alabama have been reversed and resulted in a reduced sentence or an exoneration. These statistics leave Alabama with a very high error rate. After 2010, Alabama has executed a series of defendants with questionable convictions: two defendants suffering from mental illness and three defendants whose judges over-rode the jury’s decision for life imprisonment in favor of the death penalty. Alabama also has no statewide public defender system and does not pay appointed attorneys enough, resulting in a lacking quality of counsel. Until 1999, capital trial attorneys were paid $40 per hour for work in-court and $20 an hour for work out-court. The out-court work compensation could only reach $1000. During this time, almost half of the current death row convictions occurred. Now, capital trial attorneys are paid $70 per hour with a cap of $2500, a rate that is noticeably below market rates. The lack of funding has resulted in a reduced quality of work and inadequate representation for defendants who are fighting for their lives.

Alabama state sign
Alabama state sign. Source: Shannon McGee, Creative Commons.

In January of 2020, the governor of Alabama appointed a panel to issue recommendations to address the problems of the Alabama prison system reported in a 2019 report released by the Justice Department. The report identifies the major problems with Alabama’s prison system. These problems included prisoners being assaulted and tortured on a routine basis with the knowledge and participation of the prison guards. Such abuse clearly violates the Eighth Amendment that protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It also included problems within prisons such as overcrowding, understaffing, a large presence of weapons and drugs, corruption, and raw sewage. Many corrections officers have been arrested and charged with crimes such as bribery and drug trafficking. In February of 2019 a judge found that the conditions for mentally ill patients within the prison system were unconstitutional. Since the beginning of 2019, at least 29 of 28,000 people died of preventable deaths in the Alabama prison system, a big contrast to the national average of prison homicides of seven per 100,000 prisoners. The recommendations provided by the state appointed panel have been called “common-sense” and do not address the more serious problems. If these problems are not fixed, the prison system will be operated by an outside party.

Prison
Bordeaux Prison. Source: photographymontreal, Creative Commons.

There are a significant number of problems within Alabama’s death penalty policy and within the Alabama prison system in general. There is no need to prove that a defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime within the state. There is insufficient protection for mentally ill defendants. And the Supreme Court is the only thing within Alabama that is preventing the executions of defendants with an IQ of below 70. Changing and reforming the broken Alabama death penalty system will be a long process, during which there is a possibility for many more innocent people to die. The decision to end the judicial override system in 2017 was a step in the right direction but not nearly far enough. Since then, more changes have been made to protect the already broken system, such as the 2018 decision to use nitrogen hypoxia, a method of suffocation, as a backup execution method. There is hope that the execution of Nathaniel Woods would push Alabama to make serious changes. However, this hope has not yet come to fruition. Some changes that would reform the system instead of protecting it would include: requiring a unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death, requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant was at least 18 years of age at the time of the crime, and acknowledge and end the racial bias that contributes to the death penalty practices. Ultimately, even after these changes are made, the most positive change to the Alabama death penalty system is to eradicate it once and for all.

How Covid-19 Exposes the American Healthcare System

When I studied abroad in Spain, I had many discussions with my host family comparing the United States and Spain. These conversation topics ranged from politics, social expectations, and the weather. One topic that my host mother was especially interested in is the American health care system in comparison to the Spanish health care system. Spain has a universal health care system while still allowing private insurance whereas the United States has purely private insurance. Neither system is perfect. However, as the Covid-19 crisis continues to progress it is important to understand how the crisis brings to light the many issues with the American health care system.

A woman in a mask.
Woman in Mask. Source: Patrice CALATAYU. Creative Commons.

It is a well-accepted fact that the United States was significantly less prepared for the impact of Covid-19 than most other developed countries. By any metric of pandemic preparedness, America is significantly behind the rest of the developed world in regard to medical supplies. The country has a severe lack of health care infrastructure within the system; even before the international pandemic, the United States had fewer doctors and hospital beds than the majority of other developed countries. The United States lacks in the number of doctors per capita with 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people. The comparable country average is 3.5 per 1,000 people, which shows just how behind America is. The United States also has fewer hospital beds per capita than the majority of other developed countries. To make matters worse, America has some of the highest rates of unnecessary hospitalizations. These are hospitalizations of patients with chronic conditions that have preventable treatment, making it unnecessary for the patient to be hospitalized. With a pandemic such as Covid-19, these unnecessary hospitalizations are diminishing. However, in the beginning of the crisis within the United States, unnecessary hospitalization significantly slowed down the efficiency of the health care system in caring for Covid-19 patients.

An important trend in the preparedness of the United States for Covid-19 is that the United States, with a private health care system, was noticeably less prepared than countries with universal health care systems. It is true that universal health care is not the perfect response to pandemic emergencies like Covid-19. This is shown by Italy, a country who has a federalized national health insurance program. Italy still needed to lock down and for a while had the highest case and death rate than any other country. However, countries like Italy with universal health care were able to begin recovery and slow the spread of the virus much quicker than those without.

a hospital
Hospital Beds. Source: Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana. Creative Commons.

As health providers have been working tirelessly to make the necessary changes to care for Covid-19 patients, private health insurance companies have been making very few changes to their processes. One system health care providers have been implementing is telemedicine, a program that allows patients to securely consult with their health care providers virtually therefore easing the burden on the infrastructure of the hospitals. Despite President Trump expanding provisions on telemedicine, private health companies are not required to pay health systems for telemedicine. At the same time, while some insurance companies have waived some Covid-19 related costs, out-of-pocket expenses are not waived resulting in patients needing to pay thousands of dollars. To put these costs in perspective, in 2018 the average amount for a patient covered by private insurance admitted to the hospital for a respiratory condition similar to coronavirus was $20,000. Additionally, as hospitals across the country prepared for an influx of Covid-19 patients, stable patients without the virus were forced to stay in the hospital beds. These patients, who should have been moved to a rehab facility or released, were taking up unnecessary space due to private insurance companies taking multiple days to authorize the next steps for each patient. This has been a known delay in hospitals before the pandemic but now it is a delay that has dire consequences.

Quite possibly the biggest problem in the American health care system is cost. This problem is unique to the United States. Citizens are required to pay higher out-of-pocket costs than those in most other countries, leading Americans to forgo their health care in order to save money. Reports have shown that 33 percent of Americans reported a cost-related barrier to receiving care. This is in comparison to the 7 percent who reported the same in Germany. In 2019, a study showed that 33 percent of Americans also reported postponing medical care due to the cost of that care. It is only in the United States that citizens are risking thousands of dollars in order to seek help in a medical crisis like the one posed by Covid-19. A major concern across the world is that Americans will not seek care for corona symptoms due to the high costs of healthcare in the United States and the high amount of people without insurance in the country. This will spread the disease significantly faster than officials within the country would like to believe.

man with supplies
Medical Supplies. Source: Navy Medicine. Creative Commons.

As the Covid-19 cases rise in number across the country, an unusually high number of African Americans in the United States have been infected with Covid-19. This news, while terrible, is unfortunately not shocking and highlights the many racial inequalities in the health care systems. Coronavirus does not have a racial factor but the structural racism within the American health care system is evident. African Americans are over-represented in many essential workplaces making the population more at-risk than other populations. At the same time, African American populations are less likely to have health insurance coverage leading to a disproportionate number to not receive the necessary help from the health care system. There also exists a racial empathy gap that disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanics within the United States. A racial empathy gap is when medical professionals show less empathy and sympathy to African American patients who are experiencing pain. Human rights workers have been working on mandatory reviews to ensure that health workers are providing an equitable form of treatment for minority patients. However, due to a bias developed and enforced by societal constructs of different races, there exists a higher risk for minority populations within the American health care system.

A few examples of problems within the American health care system that have been exacerbated by Covid-19 are highlighted above. While officials within this system and within the government must work to make necessary changes, it is also important to recognize the lifesaving and tireless health care workers who work within the imperfect system. Covid-19 has shown the country how necessary health care workers are. Nurses, doctors, surgeons, and so many other health care providers have dedicated an immense number of hours to fighting Covid-19. These individuals who are working to save lives within the corrupt health care system are extremely important and we must recognize their hard work while we work to make the system fairer and more equitable.

 

Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

Under the Surface: Navigating Through the Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié

On February 4th, 2020, the Institute for Human Rights, alongside the African American Studies Program, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the Department of History hosted a discussion with artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The event was moderated by Dr. Charly Verstraet of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UAB. Duval-Carrié and Dr. Verstraet discussed Duval-Carrié’s different works, a large overview of his work, as well as the width of the scope and the diversity of his works. Dr. Verstraet and Duval-Carrié specifically discussed Duval-Carrié’s Indigo Room and his collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes before addressing questions from the audience.

The theme of the night was “Under the Surface,” which was described to have two meanings. The first is to delve into what is hidden and unseen in the world and the second is a representation of silence. These meanings carry over into Duval-Carrié’s work and in his life. Duval-Carrié is based in Miami but was born and raised in Haiti. Much of his work represents his Haitian culture and the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.

Duval-Carrié speaking about his project.
Duval-Carrié speaking about his project. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

The first piece of art presented was Indigo Room. This art installation is a room of blocks, created by local high school students, with a large feminine figure on the ceiling. Duval-Carrié described the piece to be a celebration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as well as to signify the movement of Haitians from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, New York. He worked directly with high school students and asked each one to create a “memory window,” about Haiti. These “memory windows” were encased in resin and placed in the museum alcove. The installation is blue, to represent being underwater. Duval-Carrié stated that he wanted to make sure that as Haitian people arrive to different cities in the United States, the Haitian culture arrives with them as well The figure on the ceiling is the ultimate mother in Haitian culture, representing both the cosmos and water. He described the installation as a mix of the past, religion, and politics. Duval-Carrié also said that in 2014, he and the students who he worked with to create the installation reunited. He described being so impressed at how many of them continued with the arts into their adult lives.

The second discussion point was the collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes. These pieces are re-imagined from the artworks of the Hudson River School, depicting an idealized Caribbean. Duval-Carrié described the Hudson River School paintings as alluring and romantic. While the paintings were beautiful, they forgot to incorporate the humans living on the islands and the suffering they endured. Duval-Carrié’s re-imagining took select Hudson River School paintings and upended them, making the scenery large and mysterious. Most importantly, he adds the culture of the Caribbean and the heartbreak of United States imperialism back into the landscapes.

Duval-Carrié has taken his talent and passion for art to inspire important conversations around the world. He encourages Haitians to be proud of their heritage and their country. He encourages Americans to recognize the way imperialism reshaped entire countries and how those countries are still reeling from its effects. It is important to acknowledge the powerful effects of art in reclaiming culture and sparking conversations and it is vital that we keep those conversations flowing.

Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience.
Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Edouard Duval-Carrié, you can look at his  webpage where a listing of his current exhibitions can also be found.

 

Diamonds: A Symbol of Love and Conflict

Two young diamond miners.
Blood Diamonds. Source: Brian Harrington Spier, Creative Commons.

While I do not soon foresee a diamond in my future, I have been able to witness the happiness a diamond ring brings to the lives of other people. A diamond ring represents love and commitment, and nothing can be purer than that. Imagine my surprise when I learned in my economics class that a significant number of diamonds, called blood or conflict diamonds, can be linked to horrific suffering and bloodshed. A good number of these conflict diamonds can be traced back to one company: De Beers.

De Beers diamond company was founded in the 1800s by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. Before 2000, the goal of De Beers was to effectively and efficiently buy as much of the world’s supply of diamonds as possible so as to be able to determine the price and guarantee price stability. This tactic earned the company the nickname “the custodian” of the diamond industry. In 2000, De Beers controlled around 65 percent of all diamond production, while in 2001 De Beers marketed two-thirds of all the rough diamonds in the world and produced nearly half of the world’s supply of diamonds from their mine. The company employed strategic marketing tactics to maintain their power and growth worldwide, effectively influencing the perception of diamonds to what it is today. For example, the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever,” was coined in a De Beers ad campaign. De Beers influenced the choice of a diamond as the centerpiece for an engagement ring and even the price of the ring to be two months’ salary. The Washington Post described De Beers as “a global cartel controlling mining, distribution, and pricing.”

For a company that produces a product to signify love, such as an engagement ring, De Beers has left a significant amount of bloodshed and controversy in its wake. The company has been banned from operating or selling inside the United States borders since 1996 over a price-fixing case. In the 1990s, De Beers bought billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds from conflict ridden areas in Africa, which in turn provided the means for rebel groups to obtain weapons and supplies on the black market. In the mid to late 1900s, De Beers benefited from the South African apartheid because the system of black repression ensured cheap labor for the mines, protecting the company from being hurt by the diamond boycotts sweeping the world at that time. The company became scorned as more and more information regarding conflict diamonds and De Beers’ blatant disregard for the harm conflict diamonds can cause became public.

Two diamond rings
Rings. Source: ilovebutter, Creative Commons.

The definition of conflict diamonds, as written by the United Nations, is as follows: “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” Armed groups use the revenue from exploiting diamond mines and diamond workers to fund their personal agendas. Despite the diamond business being an $81.4 billion a year industry, the towns that house the diamond mines do not reflect the wealth that lies below. Many parents choose to send their children to work in the diamond mines in order to earn a meager salary, determined on a diamond-by-diamond basis, instead of sending the children to school. The difficulty that evolves from attempting to eliminate conflict diamonds is that the diamonds traded by rebel groups are physically indistinguishable from the diamonds traded by legitimate groups. Because of the long process a diamond goes through before it reaches the jeweler, it is very difficult to determine the original source of the diamond.

In 2000, De Beers put out a statement guaranteeing that their diamonds did not originate from conflict zones in Africa and promised that their purchasing of diamonds did not fuel any conflicts in Angola and Congo. The statement was met with mixed reviews, some welcoming the initiative the company was taking, and some believing that De Beers would be unable to control the smuggling system that crisscrosses across the continent of Africa. Since the initial statement in 2000, De Beers’ statements have been very contradictory, stating at one point that it would be easy to find the origin of the diamonds and yet continually releasing statements saying that it is impossible to distinguish the origin of the diamonds that they buy. Since 2000, some independent diamond dealers have not only claimed to sell diamond bunches that they bought from rebel groups to De Beers, but also that De Beers was aware of the origin of the diamonds. Currently on their website, De Beers boasts that 100% of their diamonds are conflict free. However, the company only cites the Kimberley Process, a process they helped to create, in regards to this certification.

De Beers’ promises have rested on determining the origin of the diamonds. It has already been stated but is worth reiterating that determining the origin of diamonds has been much disputed as diamonds are handled in groups, making the process of discovering the origin of a diamond very difficult. In 2003, a process named the Kimberley Process was established by the main actors in the diamond industry, including De Beers. The Kimberley Process is so named for the town where De Beers diamond company was founded, highlighting the influence the company had in the establishment of the process. It is an international certification process with the goal of distinguishing conflict-free diamonds from those diamonds associated with a conflict. The Process was created from a meeting in 2000 in Kimberley, South Africa, where the biggest diamond producers and buyers in the world met to address the growing threat of a consumer boycott. Consumers were becoming more aware of the influence the sale of diamonds had in funding to civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone and were threatening to forgo buying diamonds all together. In 2003, 52 governments and international advocacy groups ratified the Process, creating a system of certifications issued by the country of origin that must accompany any shipment of diamonds. If a country was unable to prove that their diamonds were separate from any conflict, said country could be cast out of the international diamond trade. The Process did marginally reduce the number of conflict diamonds in the market, but the process is ridden with loopholes. It is unable to stop the international sale of the majority of diamonds mined in conflict ridden zones and diamond mining even outside of a conflict zone is terrible work with many of the miners being school-aged minors.

Diamond mine in Australia
World’s Largest Diamond Mine. Source: Soundog, Creative Commons.

Many argue that the Kimberley Process is not only laced with loopholes, but it also does not go far enough. For example, the Process does not disqualify diamonds mined in an area with human rights abuses. Also, the definition of conflict used in the creation of the Process is so narrow that it excludes many situations that would generally be considered a conflict. The definition used is, “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” An instance where the definition stated in the Kimberley Process failed occurred in 2008. The army of the government of Zimbabwe seized a diamond mine within Zimbabwe’s borders and proceeded to kill and rape hundreds of miners. Because the army represented a legitimate government, this instance is not considered to be against the Kimberley Process. The Kimberley Process did implement a ban on the Central African Republic when it was discovered that the mining of diamonds helped to fund a genocide of thousands since 2013. However, the UN estimates that $24 million worth of diamonds have been smuggled out of the country since the ban.

While a true fair-trade system would ban diamonds mined in a conflict ridden area and allow consumers to purchase diamonds that could improve the life of artisan workers, ultimately there is no way of truly knowing whether the diamond you buy is in somehow linked to a conflict. The Human Rights Watch has come up with a list of strategies that may help diamond companies fulfill their obligation of “identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for their own impact on human rights throughout their supply chain.” Such strategies include: 1. Establishing a policy regarding the supply chain that is included in the contracts with suppliers 2. Creating a ‘chain of custody’ by requiring documentation for each step along the supply chain 3. Assessing thoroughly and respond promptly to human rights risks at all stages of the supply chain 4. Employing independent, third-party examiners 5. Becoming public with the names of suppliers 6. Sourcing responsibly and being wary of large-scale mining operations. The diamond industry has a long way to go but with established organizations calling out companies like De Beers, loopholes in certification processes can be closed and ultimately conflict diamonds may be eliminated.

The Movement Fighting Against Street Harassment Around the World

Source: @catcallsofnyc

I cannot pinpoint the exact time that I found out about @catcallsofnyc. Maybe their posts were recommended to me by an Instagram algorithm, maybe one of my friends liked their page, maybe a page I follow reposted one of their pictures.  I do remember my reaction to the content on @catcallsofnyc. The words written in bright, happy chalked colors contrasted with the vulgarity of the message. The Instagram account caught attention with their hashtag: #stopstreetharassment. For those who are unfamiliar, @catcallsofnyc is an Instagram page, now with over 174,000 followers. The activists behind the page receive direct messages from women who have experienced cat calling, a form of street harassment, and they document their stories on the streets of New York in chalk. Whether it be from New York’s seasonal drizzle or street cleaning, eventually the quotes are washed away but the impact the words leave on passerby is irrefutable. The movement has grown around the world and there are now @catcalls Instagram accounts around the world, from @catcallsofperu and @catcallsofparis to even a @catcallsofbhm. The entire movement stemmed from one woman: Sophie Sandberg of New York City.

In conversation with Sophie Sandberg, I got a first-hand account of what it is like to start and continue this movement. Sandberg, a New York native who graduated from NYU in May, describes her inspiration for the movement stemming from her own experiences with street harassment when she was 15 and manifesting from an assigned class project into what it is now. The class project, assigned to her during her freshman year at NYU, asked her to immerse herself in something and to document her experience on social media. From there, @catcallsofnyc was born. Sandberg took the opportunity to discuss the issues presented by catcalling and street harassment. She describes her personal experience with catcalling and street harassment when she was in high school as well as the response from adults in her life as her initial inspiration for the class project. “I was so confused because I didn’t think of my own body in that way, I guess in a sexual way, so it was super weird to start getting sexualized,” Sandberg says, “…I never felt like there was a good way to respond when I was harassed. I felt like the adults in my life didn’t think it was a big deal, you know, they told me to keep walking. My dad told me to dress differently at first, so I felt like there was no support that I was getting for this issue. And then it was continuing. I was getting older and it wasn’t going away. So, I decided to use this class project as an opportunity to address it in a creative way.”

Over the years, Sandberg’s @catcallsofnyc grew from a single Instagram account of maybe a hundred to multiple accounts representing different cities around the world, each with thousands of their own followers. In response to the spread of the movement, Sandberg reports, “In some senses, it grew really quickly. I was doing it for a few years before it spread at all. It got a lot of attention, it got picked up by the press, and that is how it spread around the world.” She attributes a big part of the spread of @catcallsof to how easy it is to act within her movement. “It is pretty easy to get chalk and to go write words, in some senses. You don’t need to be artistic necessarily and you don’t need a college degree… You need to be brave and you need to have the guts to do it, but I think a lot of people saw that it was something they were capable of.” She also attributes her movement’s success to young people and their enthusiasm for activism. “A lot of people who start [Instagram] accounts are really young. I think the fact that they can do this, run the Instagram account and write on the streets, is really empowering because maybe they feel like they don’t know how to join an organization, or they are not old enough. I think that the hands on, grassroots activism parts of it really appeals to a lot of people. They feel like they are able to do this.”

 

Source: @catcallsofnyc

In Sandberg’s words, the goal of the accounts and therefore the movement is to create a cultural change where anyone and everyone can walk down the street safely and comfortably, without worrying about being sexualized or objectified. The movement is condemning such behavior.  @catcallsofnyc is also a place where people can feel empowered simply by telling their stories and being validated. In Sandberg’s opinion, it is a human right to walk down the street safely. “Something like street harassment gets in the way of people having access to public space, going to work, and doing the most basic things to live a fulfilled life. Street harassment gets in the way of that. By fighting back and sharing our stories, we are fighting against that injustice.”

In addition to the Instagram accounts, Sandberg and her team have created Chalk Back events where they invite their followers in a city to come together and record many stories in one area. Sandberg wants to turn what is happening on Instagram into a real life experience, with people sharing their stories and supporting each other through interactions not contained to Instagram. There have been 3 chalk back events in New York, 2 in Ottawa, 2 in London, and 1 in Brighton. Sandberg has also expressed her involvement in 16 Days of Activism where she and her team with work with an organization to plan events in Cairo, Nairobi, and Kampala.

As the movement has grown across the world and gained momentum, Sandberg and her team have received considerable backlash, especially regarding the public nature of chalking on city streets. Sandberg herself is trying to be more public with her identity. She says that she initially wanted to remain anonymous. With time, as she has begun speaking at conferences and events, she has allowed her identity to become more public. Because of her increasing publicity, she has had to face personal harassment online and in person. One particular situation included a man cyberstalking her. The man created fake @catcallsof accounts, @catcallsofchicago and @catcallsofnottingham, while harassing Sandberg from his personal account. Soon, he began to harass her from the @catcallsofchicago account. Sandberg describes that, “It was difficult because he basically infiltrated the movement. I immediately trusted that anyone who wanted to create an account would be well intentioned.” As this situation was dealt with, Sandberg prefers to look at it as a learning experience. “It has been really hard to deal with,” she says, “but it has also made me set new boundaries. Now I ask anyone starting a new account to send in a quick video explaining why they want to start it. In general, it is a good thing for making the movement stronger.”

Writing the street harassment comments on the streets of New York is a very public action that yields both positive interactions and negative consequences. “I always tell people that I have been hit on while chalking,” Sandberg says, “I remember early on when I was chalking, I was writing out the comment, ‘hey beautiful,’ and then something else. A guy walks past me and is like, ‘oh yeah, damn beautiful.’ Yeah, so that was creepy. Some guy asked me for my number, another guy asked me out on a date. They see me doing this in a public space and they think of it as an opportunity to hit on me. It is telling about gender in public space.” As for more positive reactions, Sandberg says that she really appreciates the amount of support people have shown, especially in New York. The act of chalking on the street creates a space for productive conversations between Sandberg and passerby. Sometimes people stop to give her a hug or to give her a simple “thank you” for what she is doing.

 

Source: @catcallsofnyc

Sandberg is no longer the sole chalker for @catcallsofnyc. She has a team of twelve people backing her in New York and countless others around the world working for the myriad of other @catcallsof accounts. One of her team members was arrested outside of a New York City school because she was writing a comment that the school’s principal said to a student: “The bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe.” The school’s safety officers called the police. The principal who said the comment has since left the school. Sandberg attributes the source of much of the outcry surrounding her movement to be that it would be possible for children to read the often crude and offensive words that are written. In response, Sandberg replies, “They are not thinking about all of the things children must overhear on the street. I think that people get really upset that we are actually writing these things without thinking about the background or the mission.”

In regard to the future, Sandberg views the movement as changing over time while staying true to the basic idea of letting people share their stories and then giving those stories power by putting them on the street.  She says, “In the long term, I hope that we get less submissions, because we get so many submissions right now. I could see changing it to fit what people need in the moment. To be honest, it sounds pessimistic, but I don’t see street harassment ending in the near future. I just see, hopefully, the way people react to it changing.”

For those interested in learning more about Sophie Sandberg’s fight against street harassment please visit the Chalk Back and Catcalls of New York websites. You can also find the original Instagram page @catcallsofnyc

Girls Too: The Me Too Movement for Youth

Two girls staring.
Women’s March 2019. Source: Roedar, Phil. Creative Commons.

The Me Too movement has given power back to hundreds, if not millions, of women and yet girls are being left out of the conversation. A rising movement entitled, “Girls Too,” created under the organization Girls Inc., aims to change that narrative. The Girls Too movement was created after the Me Too movement’s popularization, and it is important to recognize the impact of the Me Too movement when discussing the Girls Too movement. The Me Too movement was started by Tarana Burke and popularized by actress Alyssa Milano’s reaction to the Harvey Weinstein case. Burke cites a conversation she had with a 13 year old girl in 1997 regarding the girl’s experience with sexual harassment as the beginning of the movement. Ten years later, in 2006, Tarana Burke founded the nonprofit organization entitled, “Just Be Inc.,” as well as a movement named “Me Too.” The goal of the Just Be Inc. and Me Too is to help survivors of sexual violence find pathways to healing.

On October 15th, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano published this tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The response was overwhelming. Famous celebrities and household names retweeted and replied as well as thousands of everyday citizens. Milano’s goal was to create a space for candid conversations and representation after the Harvey Weinstein case. She more than achieved that. However, the thousands of responses in under 24 hours to Milano’s tweet overshadowed Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement that had been a decade in the making. In that decade, Burke did not receive the same resounding support from the white community as Milano did in under 24 hours. This instance is an example of a lack of intersectionality within social movements and a struggle that people of color have faced for years. Burke described her reaction to seeing Milano’s tweet as “panicked,” as she felt that her hard work would be erased. However, Milano claimed that she was unaware of Burke’s campaign and very quickly reached out to Burke after the #metoo tweet in hopes of a collaboration. She also publicly credited the Me Too movement to Tarana Burke on live TV. In 2017, Tarana Burke stated that she wanted the Me Too movement to focus on survivors, not on who owns the movement, and is continuing her work to help survivors of sexual violence.

The president and CEO of Girls Inc. is Judy Vredenburgh. The organization was created to provide a safe space for girls to be able to speak out. The organization also has a teaching program dedicated to education in communication, consent, and healthy relationships, to name a few topics. This education is vital as the American school system has a notoriously lacking sex education program, nationwide. Girls Inc. aims to help our society understand that for every woman who has experienced sexual violence, so has a young girl. Therefore, the perspectives of girls must be recognized and represented in the movement against sexual harassment. It is too often that the youth in our community are left out of conversations of importance. Vredenburgh reiterates the importance of youth in movements, citing the Parkland students who spoke out after the Parkland school shooting. However, Girls Inc. understands that in order to prove successful, a movement of young girls needs adult support to utilize the political power and community influence that is not accessible to those under the age of 18. The ultimate goal of the Girls Too organization and movement has been to provide a space for girls that they were unable to find within the Me Too movement.

Women’s March 2018. Source: Roedar, Phil. Creative Commons.

Girls Too was created after an overwhelming number of teenage girls reported feeling as if their place within the discussion of Me Too would be difficult to distinguish. The high-profile and viral cases that popularized the Me Too movement, such as the Harvey Weinstein case, involved predominantly career-age women. Therefore, the conversations that have arisen from such cases, while including very important dialogue, have been dominated by a particular age category of women. The discussions have not been focused on the youth and the damages young children can incur when they are assaulted. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has reported that 1 in 4 girls are sexually assaulted by the age of 18 and 2 out of every 3 girls are harassed. Girls who have experienced sexual harassment before the age of 18 are considerably more likely to experience a variety of problems immediately after the event as well as into the future, including but not limited to depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, school absenteeism, and PTSD. Girls Inc and Girls Too aims to change the conversation and focus the discussion on helping girls who have experienced sexual harassment and the subsequent effects that may occur. The organization also aims to change the societal norm that allows girls to be viewed in a hyper-sexualized manner.

Despite the successes of these movements in giving women and girls platforms to have their voices heard, Burke also details the increasing, monumental backlash the movements have received as the years progress. She states that Me Too, and Girls Too as a consequence of Me Too, is becoming considered as a plot against men, a witch hunt of sorts. Burke sites Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings as an example of the new view of Me Too. High profile people have embraced and encouraged the negative perceptions. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, said that the Me Too movement represents, in the context of the Kavanaugh hearings, “a very scary time for young men in America.”

For young girls, it has been difficult to find their place in a movement that has been dominated by middle aged women. They have similar experiences with sexual harassment as the women who have been vocal with the Me Too movement, but do not have the political power or societal prestige that comes with being an adult. Girls in middle schools and high schools create lists among their friends of boys who have become notorious for treating women badly, just so they and their friends can avoid them. Word spreads among girls in colleges and universities about which fraternity parties should be avoided, which fraternities can be labeled as the “date rape frats,” because the use of date rape drugs become so prominent at those parties. Girls are given pepper spray, whistles, and alarms as graduation gifts to provide a semblance of security against the inevitable moment of fear that can occur when walking alone. It is important to remember the goals of the Me Too movement and the Girls Too movement as being safe spaces for women and girls to share their stories. The movements are also movements of empowerment, giving power back to women and girls who have had it stolen from them. We must continue to support Me Too and Girls Too by acknowledging and understanding their work and importance in order to further the progress the movements have initiated.

The Return of Alt-Right Conservatism in Spain

A woman waves a Spanish flag and a Vox party flag at a rally.
A woman waves a Spanish flag and a Vox party flag at a rally. Source: Vox España, Creative Commons.

I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain during the spring semester of 2019. I loved my experience, especially the experience I recieved by choosing to live with a host family. I was able to really immerse myself in Spanish culture through my host family and in turn they eagerly showed me their city and their traditions. One of the things my host mother said when she was walking me around Alicante for the first time has stuck with me, even since I left Spain. She pointed out the many Spanish flags that were hanging on the balconies and outside of the windows of the myriad apartment buildings around the city. Unless there is a soccer game, she said, Spaniards hang the Spanish flag outside to show their solidarity with the rising nationalistic ideals in Spanish politics. I looked around that day and was surprised at the number of flags that I saw.

Nationalism was the primary basis of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that lasted from 1939 until his death in 1975. Franco’s ideologies have been compared to Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. He led a civil war that lasted three years, dramatically reduced the rights of women to almost nothing, and is considered responsible for killing close to 150,000 people. When Franco died, many Spaniards hoped that extreme Spanish nationalism died with him. Spain has been one of the few countries that has not seen a conservative resurgence until very recently. The rise of the political party Vox has led to a return in ultra-right, conservative, nationalism.

Vox is a far-right nationalist party in Spain that was founded in 2013 by politicians who did not believe that the right wing People’s Party was conservative enough. Vox is considered socially conservative as it works to restrict abortion and economically liberal as it champions policies that reduce taxes. The party’s chief goals include removing the current system of regional powers in favor of one government and one parliament, eliminating the Constitutional Court and the Senate, and introducing Spanish language examinations at the end of each school cycle. At the forefront of Vox’s goals are the needs of Spaniards as party supporters chant the phrase “Spain first.”  The party and its leader Santiago Abascal have been compared to the United States President, Donald Trump, and his administration. Ultimately, Vox has gained power by taking a stoic stance against the Catalan separation movement, a movement where the wealthy region of Catalonia attempts to secede from the country of Spain, solidifying the party’s nationalistic views.

 

Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally.
Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally.
Source: Vox España, Creative Commons.

A large concern about the rise of Vox surrounds the controversial policies that they support. One of the ways that Spaniards have compared Vox and Franco is with their treatment of women and their stance on women rights. Spain recently passed a gender violence law in hopes of reducing the number of women killed or harmed by domestic abuse within the country. The first Spanish political party to openly challenge the law, Vox advocates for repealing the gender violence law as they deem it discriminatory against men. Instead, the party is campaigning for replacing the gender violence law with a Family Violence law that will, as they say, protect all groups. At the same time, the leaders want to create a Family Ministry and use the law to protect the “natural family.” It is interesting because Vox routinely advocates for the family group as a whole, as shown by their support for longer maternity leave and their support for mothers, but when asked about their stance on the divorce or separation of a woman and a man, the party has always argued in favor of the man. Vox aims to eliminate what they consider to be radical feminist groups and prosecute any rape or sexual harassment claims that could be deemed phony. This is problematic because a political party that citizens trust publicly decreeing a claim to be phony without any evidence against the claim delegitimizes the woman making the claim as well as any claims made after. The delegitimization removes any power the woman may have as well as the power of any women who follow her. Vox claims that a “genocide” of men is taking place in the modern era and their policy choices have reflected their stance on women’s rights.

Immigration has been a touchy subject for many countries around the world in the past couple of years.  Vox has taken a very strict perspective on immigration which has gained the party a lot of supporters from the conservative right. However, these strict policy choices could have some serious ramifications on many people in the country should the policies be enacted. Vox advocates for immigration quotas for a majority of countries around the world, referencing back to their “Spain First” mentality. The nationalities that would be exempted from these quotas would be those that also speak Spanish and have good cultural ties to Spain. Vox is also in favor of deporting all undocumented immigrants, no matter their home country situations or the circumstances that caused them to move to Spain illegally. At the same time, Vox wants to prosecute non-profit groups that aid illegal immigrants with anything from providing legal representation to finding shelter for the immigrants. Finally, the party states that removing state aid for illegal immigrants would be a priority.

Vox has proven to be a party that wants Spain to return to an entirely Catholic country. They champion Catholic values and the Catholic church while threatening to remove the presence of other religions within the country. This is especially concerning for Muslim groups within Spain. Spain has a large percentage of people who identify as Muslim, especially in the south of Spain because of the close proximity to the north of the continent of Africa. Vox supports shutting down mosques throughout the country and arresting and deporting what the party leaders consider to be extremist imams. They are also advocating for government funded military missions against “Jihadist threats.” Finally, in a fashion comparable to that of President Trump, Vox lobbies for the Spanish government to enclose the two Spanish cities in Northern Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, in walls in order to prevent any immigrants entering Spain by way of the cities.

The concern following Vox stems from the connections people can draw between the party and the former dictator, Francisco Franco. Vox draws on a voter population that openly sympathizes with Franco. Their support is at 10% with the average voters being men between the ages of 35 and 44 despite the support for Vox within the youth population of Spain also growing. Comparisons are drawn between Vox and Franco’s doctrines of nationalism, policies of limiting women’s rights, and traditional catholic ideologies. The rise of the alt-right within Spain is important to watch as many people within and outside the country can and will be directly affected.