“Pursuing Justice with Love and Power”: A Conversation with Brittany Packett Cunningham

a piece of street art from a George Floyd protest
Justice and Love. Source: Renoir Gaither. Creative Commons.

On Tuesday April 6th, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed acclaimed author and activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham to speak. Brittany facilitated a conversation entitled “Pursuing Justice with Love and Power.”  The discussion was moderated by IHR graduate assistant Jaylah Cosby and IHR intern Faiza Mawani.

Brittany began with discussing her inspiration for the phrase “love and power.” The phrase was actually borrowed from a lesser known piece of writing by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It can be utilized in word format or in a series of emojis: the heart emoji to represent love and the fist emoji to represent power. Love and power are conceived as two opposites. For example, love is perceived as soft whereas power is perceived as intense. However, Brittany emphasizes the importance of the two together. Our power can be informed with our love. This can be seen in a political landscape with loving policies that empower people where they are.

Brittany then pivots the conversation to discuss love and power in the context of community building. Community building begins first by being in and participating in the community. She describes 2014 as a pivotal turning point in American history and in her personal history. With 2014 came the protests in Ferguson where young people protected the American people’s right to protest. Communities showed their love for themselves and for others by standing up to the injustices in local, national, and international communities. Love is the root of protests. Brittany states, “We don’t need to know the people who have died by police violence to love them.” To actualize what love looks like, it is required to be in community with people.

When asked about whether the term “community” can mean an integrated community or a homogenous community, Brittany confirmed that both are necessary in making sense of our racial identity in the world. Affinity spaces allow for safety and comfort in what we know and understand. Finding community in those affinity spaces often provides the opportunity to find community in multicultural spaces. While working towards that multicultural community can be difficult and uncomfortable, that safe space from the homogenous group is still there at the end of the day. In answering this question, Brittany emphasizes the need to push for integrated spaces while also understanding the simultaneous need for affinity spaces.

In the time of COVID-19, digitalization has become ever more present in all spaces an advocacy is no exception. Brittany acknowledges how digital spaces have somehow made it easier to work as an activist. She describes digitalization as another tool in the toolbox that works toward justice. It changes the way people can view work, life, and accessibility. However, the digitalization of life and work has also allowed misinformation to flourish. Brittany’s example of the dangers of misinformation is with voter suppression. The most effective form of voter suppression is to convince voters to stay home by encouraging them to believe that their vote doesn’t count. Similarly, Brittany warns against performative digital advocacy. If an Instagram post is being created with the sole purpose of gaining followers, this is an example of performative digital advocacy. Instead, advocacy posts should encourage action and therefore be productive. Most importantly, digital advocacy must amplify the folks most affected by the issue whenever possible.

A question from the audience inspired Brittany to discuss the intersection between religious faith and social justice. In response, Brittany stated, “I identify as political not in spite of my faith but because of it.” Brittany speaks from the perspective of a Christian and highlighted many of the issues modern Christianity has.

The conversation began to orient towards the Derek Chauvin case, which was ongoing at the time of the event, and policing in the United States. Brittany admitted to not watching the trial but looking at the coverage after the fact. Her primary reason for doing so is an understanding that nothing in the Derek Chauvin trial will bring back George Floyd. She highlights the important difference between justice and accountability in this section of the conversation. Justice would be an anonymous, alive, George Floyd sitting with his family and friends and living his life. That will never happen due to the actions of Derek Chauvin. However, Chauvin can be held accountable for his actions. When discussing the trial, Brittany states how she hopes that from the spectacle that is the trial, people are able to understand that police officers should never be expected or allowed to be the judge, jury, and executioner.

Brittany’s perspective on policing in the United States is that it needs to cease to exist how it is. She cites the “abolitionist tradition” of the United States. The people who fought against the abolition of slavery often argued the economics of slavery and the reliance the United States had on it, a similar argument we see occurring now when discussing police systems. Brittany asks the audience that if reimagining what public safety looks life scares you, to ask yourself where you would have stood on the abolition of slavery. “The safest communities,” Brittany states, “are not those with the most cops, both those with the most resources. Period.”

Brittany ended the conversation with advice on how to “get on the train” of activism. She says that the most important things to do are to listen, learn, and act but acknowledges that the temptation in activism is to default to whichever of those three is your are comfortable with, which is often “learn.” Brittany explains that it is easy to fall into the trap of sitting in the corner of your house, reading the literature and listening the people but never exiting to help build the communities and act. Learning is only half of the work. With such a digitalized world, there is an opportunity to learn and listen from the people we are the least like. Brittany advises to write down what gives you a privilege and an advantage in the world and follow the people who do not have your privileges. She also advises to act locally, highlighting the fact that you do not have to travel to another place to be an activist. “Link up with the organizations in your community,” Brittany advises, “and that is how we get to work.”

The Suez Canal, Global Trade, and the Plight of Seafarers

Every significant economic market in the world has a large reliance on the global supply chain, or globalization. These supply chains rely on canals to connect one side of the world to the other, including the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. On Tuesday March 22nd, one ship single handedly disrupted the entire global supply chain. The Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, ran aground in the middle of the Suez Canal. This event blocked any other container ships from crossing the Suez Canal in either direction, effectively cutting off a major link between Asian markets and European markets.

evergiven blockage in the suez canal
The blockage created by the Ever Given as of March 21, 2021. Source: European Space Agency. Creative Commons.

According to an analysis by Bloomberg, the Suez Canal blockage created by the Ever Given is holding up $9.6 billion of goods. Some blocked ships are carrying oil, others are carrying items from electronics to clothes. Should the blockade in the Canal last for two weeks, nearly one-fourth of the container ships that would normally be in European ports will be blocked. Normally, approximately 12% of global trade passes through the Suez Canal. Every day, the canal is able to move about 106 large shipping containers between Asia and Europe. To put this in perspective, before it was released, it is estimated that the Ever Given was holding up about $400 million an hour.

The world has recently been relying on markets that reduce the need for stockpiling items and instead provide products “just in time.” The internet and the current system of global shipping allow companies and consumers to buy and receive products right when they need them, instead of stockpiling. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a fantastic example of how “just in time” manufacturing has major flaws. From toilet paper to essential medical protective gear, certain products were in very high demand around the world. There was the assumption that these products could be delivered quickly and dependently to those who needed them at the start of the pandemic. However, this calculation was severely flawed and the high demand from all corners of the world for the same products caused months of delays in manufacturing leading to deadly consequences.

 

The suez canal aerial view
The Suez Canal. Source: David Reid, Creative Commons.

The Suez Canal runs through Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. The canal was initially owned by French investors when it was conceived in the mid-1800s. The construction of the canal began in 1859 and took 10 years and 1.5 million workers. These workers were drafted from Egyptian peasants, approximately 20,000 peasants every 10 months, for extremely difficult work that was very poorly compensated. Many of these workers died of various diseases, including cholera, during their time working on the canal. Throughout the World Wars, Britain controlled the canal. However in 1956, British powers withdrew after many years of negotiating with Egypt. At that point, the Egyptian government led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser had control of the canal. The Suez Crisis began in 1956. Nasser had decided to nationalize the canal once the British forces departed. Israeli, British, and French forces decided to stage a military intervention after deciding the Egyptian response to the canal could be seen as a security threat. The crisis ended in 1957 due to the first-ever United Nations’ peacekeeping force.

The Suez Canal blockage created by the Ever Given has brought to light how much the world relies on cargo ships. 90% of the global trade is carried out within maritime supply chains. As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, thousands of workers on ships have been stranded due to COVID-19 restrictions, unable to return to home countries and unable to be relieved. This has become a humanitarian crisis. Seafarers are the ones providing the world with food, essential supplies, and any other items purchased by consumers. However, they have been unable to leave their ships and go home to their families.

cargo ship
Cargo Ship. Source: Pedro Szekely, Creative Commons.

Crews on the ships are supposed to rotate on and off the vessels every 11 months. However due to the pandemic, many seafarers have long surpassed this 11 month marker and still have no notice as to when they can return home. Even before the pandemic, seafaring is a difficult job. The shifts are long, sleeping quarters are tight, and there is very little contact with those off of the ship. At the beginning of the pandemic, the situation was even described as bordering on forced labor. A major problem is the growing levels of fatigue experienced by the crew on ships. The number of reported suicides within this population has doubled, with this statistic not including the cases that were deemed accidents or missing at sea.

While the blockage of the Suez Canal by the massive ship, the Ever Given, has prompted memes and jokes around the world, it has brought more attention to the world’s reliance on shipping industries and to the lack of welfare experienced by seafarers. The Ever Given rendered the Suez Canal virtually useless for many days and the ramifications of this will fall primarily on the backs of shipping industry workers. It is important to recognize how COVID-19 has impacted the global economy as well as seafarers and to work towards achieving fair rights for these workers.

 

Uncovering Hate: Revealing Not-So-Secret Hate Symbols

swastika flag
Swastika flag at a neo-Nazi rally in Massachusetts, USA. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.

Hate symbols are hiding in plain sight. They are used to send messages, intimidate, and represent alt-right, white supremacist groups. Pretty much everyone around the world is able to recognize the swastika as a symbol of oppression and hate. However, hate groups have recognized how the swastika withdraws an immediate response of disgust and criticism from society. Therefore, hate groups have evolved to utilize symbols that perpetuate a very similar type of racism and hate as the swastika but are subtler and not as recognizable. Because of this, hate groups have been able to mobilize, protest, and distinguish their members from others without fear of retribution aimed at their symbols. This article serves as a baseline explanation of popular hate symbols within hate groups with the goal to make these symbols more recognizable and therefore less powerful.

People who utilize hate symbols in modern times work to ensure their ideologies are recognizable to likeminded people but not recognizable to the point that they might be criticized. Most of the time, neo-Nazis have three reasons to use a hate symbol: 1. They want to openly announce their support of the group/ideology 2. They want to intimidate or 3. They intend the symbols to be messages to other neo-Nazis. An example of secret messages would be the use of the number “1488.” 14 refers to the 14 words of a slogan utilized by white supremacists and 88 refers to “Heil Hitler” with H being the 8th letter in the alphabet. A popular way of hiding this message in social media posts, pieces of clothing, or on posters is to represent it on a pair of dice.

sonnenrad pendant
The Sonnenrad. Source: ADL, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/sonnenrad

The sonnenrad, or black sun, has long been a symbol of the neo-Nazi movement. While the symbol originates from an ancient Norse representation of the sun, more modern context shows us how the sonnenrad was a symbol of Hitler’s SS and after the fall of the Nazis in Germany, a symbol of the remaining Nazi supporters. Many hate symbols, including the swastika, have been appropriated from ancient cultural symbols in order to encourage dangerous racist narratives. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, had a sonnenrad mosaic installed in the floor of the SS headquarters and included the SS’s insignia within the sonnenrad to represent the “Aryan race” the Nazis were intent on creating. Contemporary neo-Nazis have revived the symbol. While the swastika is known around the world as a hate symbol and is illegal in certain countries, the sonnenrad is not so well known despite the similar hateful connotations it represents. A manifesto created by Brenton Tarrant displayed the sonnenrad prominently on the cover. In March of 2019, Tarrant massacred 51 members of two Christchurch mosques. The sonnenrad has become alarmingly disseminated, with the symbol being used in memes and social media posts in support of alt-right leaders around the world.

The combination of the colors red, white, and black is another example of a neo-Nazi symbol. These colors were originally the colors of the German Empire that fell after World War I. Hitler deliberately used these colors when creating the Nazi flag, using propaganda and the colors to try and draw Germans into the Nazi agenda by connecting the imperialism of the German Empire and the Nazi regime. Hitler himself stated that the red represents the “social idea of the movement,” the white represents the movement’s roots in nationalism, and the black is for the swastika, or “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.” Since Hitler, neo-Nazi groups have revived the hateful symbolic meaning of the colors, strategically placing them to show allegiance to white nationalist ideologies.

Here is a short list of other common hate symbols:

  • A white nationalist group named the Detroit Right Wings claimed and altered the logo of the Detroit Red Wings. The altered logo contains a Nazi SS symbol, the sonnenrad, and prints it on shields and t-shirts.
three triangles intertwined to form the valknot
The Valknot. Source: ADL https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/valknot
  • The valknot, or “knot of slain,” is an ancient Norse symbol used to represent the underworld. This symbol has also been appropriated by white supremacists. These groups use the valknot to demonstrate a connection to ancient Nordic culture and in some cases to represent their willingness to die in battle for Odin, a Norse god.
  • The kekistan is an almost exact replica of the Nazi war flag, with the Kekistan logo replacing the Nazi swastika and the color green replacing the large swath of red originally found on the flag. It is the national flag of a fictional place, used to show allegiance to the alt-right and many of Hitler’s ideologies.
The "ok" hand symbol with the three left fingers representing white and the index and thumb representing power.
White Power hand gesture. Source: ADL, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/okay-hand-gesture
  • The “OK” hand gesture was once an innocent gesture used in general society as a gesture to mean “okay,” incorporated in American Sign Language, and utilized in Hindu and Buddhism as a symbol of “inner perfection.” However, starting in 2017, the symbol started being used to represent white power. It is flashed in social media posts and videos, most infamously used by Brenton Tarrant. Tarrant flashed the symbol in a courtroom in 2019 after being arrested for murdering 50 people at mosques in New Zealand.
  • Vanguard America, a prominent white nationalist group, uses the phrase “blood and soil” as an alt-right nationalistic slogan. In this context the definition is not far removed from the Nazi definition, just more directed towards the United States instead of Germany. The soil refers to “american soil” with blood referring to “white blood.” The phrase attempts to draw hereditary connections between the land of the United States and white people, completing negating the fact that many indigenous peoples lived and survived on the land of the United States for centuries before white people dared to grace the land with their presence.
An iron cross with a swastika in the middle
The Nazi Iron Cross. Source: ADL https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/iron-cross
  • The Iron Cross was a German military medal that has centuries of history. However, the Nazi regime claimed the medal and utilized it, placing a swastika within the metal of the cross, thereby making it a Nazi symbol. After World War II, the Iron Cross was primarily discontinued, however white supremacists, alt-right groups, and neo-Nazis have continued to use the Iron Cross as a symbol for their racist beliefs.

The Nationalist Socialist Movement (NSM) is one of the largest neo-Nazi organizations in the United States. The group is not shy about their respect and support for Adolf Hitler and will go so far as to wear Nazi uniforms with swastika armbands to protests. This group has roots in the American Nazi Party, founded in 1959. The NSM chose the Othala Rune as the new sign of alt-right white supremacy. The Othala Rune was originally an ancient symbol rooted in ancient Germanic cultures. It was appropriated by the Nazi movement in Germany to represent the “pure Aryan race.” It was chosen by the NSM after they felt the swastika was too recognizable and wanted something “more mainstream” to take on a very similar meaning as the swastika.

On January 6th 2021, the United States saw an attempted coup occur as supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed and raided the Capitol Building. Many of the symbols discussed above were prevalent on t-shirts, hats, and even skin. The QAnon supporter Jake Angeli, whose picture has been widely circulated since the event, had a variety of alt-right hate tattoos, including the Valknot. The neo-Nazi symbols themselves were enough to stem the rumors that anti-facist groups like ANTIFA were responsible for the attempted coup. However, outside of scholarly news articles, there was not much discussion about the symbols seen on flags, clothes, and skin on January 6th. In the case of modern hate symbols, their relative secretiveness gives them power. It is important to be able to recognize these symbols to keep marginalized groups safe and to hold people accountable who may support the meanings behind these symbols. For more information on the symbols outlined above and others, visit the ADL Hate Symbols Database. 

Justice for ISIS Child Suspects

What is happening in Iraq
An infographic displays the treatment of children by the authorities. Source: Yahoo Images.

The Human Rights Watch collected evidence in between January and June 2020 that closely reviewed the trial cases of 75 alleged child offenders who were recruited by the Islamic State (ISIS). The cases had led to the misconstrued holding of the children, but upon review, the Human Rights Watch ordered the release of the children, using reasons like a lack of evidence and preventing double jeopardy, as well as provisions of Iraq’s amnesty law. The 2016 Iraq Amnesty Law offers amnesty to persons who can show that they joined ISIS or another terrorist group against their will and did not commit a serious offense prior to joining the group.For years, Iraqi and Kurdistan judicial authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged ISIS affiliation. Several of the charges have been based on the dubious accusations and forced confessions of these children, regardless of the extent of their involvement with ISIS, if any. Such behavior from authorities has led to an international norm that children recruited by armed groups should be treated as victims, first and foremost, not as criminals.

In January 2020, a committee formed under the Nineveh Federal Court of Appeal and Bar Association, consisting of a judge, a general prosecutor, and a social worker. This committee adjudicated the cases of suspects who were children at the time of their alleged alliance with ISIS. The approach taken by this committee was one of compassion and complied very well with acknowledging the human rights of these child suspects. In June 2020, Iraqi judicial authorities dissolved the committee, saying it had reviewed all the pending cases, but another committee in Nineveh, Iraq, continued adjudicating such cases. In August 2020, an anonymous source close to the Nineveh Bar Association told the Human Rights Watch that the committee had reviewed 300 case files before being disbanded in June. They convicted 202 people, dropped charges against and released 31, and pardoned and released 44 under Iraq’s 2016 Amnesty Law. Three cases were dropped because the defendant had already served a sentence for the same crime, so to not invoke double jeopardy, the committee permanently ceased proceedings against the three people.

Arrested child suspects line a corridor, awaiting response from the police
Arrested child suspects line a corridor, awaiting response from the police. Source: Yahoo Images.

The committee, unlike other Iraqi courts, attempted to review individual cases more fairly and better apply international standards. By doing so, it was able to convict the guilty and release the innocent, which Iraqi courts do not have the best record for. In the Iraqi-Kurdistan regions, children have been tried in Kurdistan and re-tried for the same crime in Baghdad-controlled territory, with courts ignoring whether or not the child had been acquitted or convicted and already served a sentence in Kurdistan.

This has been the case since the advent of ISIS in Iraq: hundreds of children have been charged with crimes of terror, and such convictions have been justified under Iraq’s 1983 Juvenile Welfare Act. The Act states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 9 in Iraq and 11 in the Kurdistan region. Children that are under 18 at the time of the alleged crime are sent to a “youth rehabilitation school” which is designed to provide social rehabilitation and reintegration via educational or vocational training. However, a source within the Tal Kayf prison said that “the cells are identical to those for adult detainees, with no access to any reading or studying materials besides the Quran.”

What needs to be done?

The Nineveh committee is the first step towards attaining a more efficient and fair judicial system in Iraq where ISIS affiliation does not automatically translate to imprisonment. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, in compliance with international law. Countries should provide proper assistance for children illegally recruited by armed groups and/or forces, including assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. The Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional government should amend their counterterrorism laws to end the detention and prosecution of children solely for participating in ISIS training or membership with recognition of international law that prohibits recruiting children into armed groups. And the High Judicial Council should permit committees to delve into more counterterrorism cases to avoid the trend of double jeopardy, while instructing judges across Iraq to release all children who have not committed crimes and ensure their proper rehabilitation and reintegration.

In the first half of 2020, Iraq has taken an essential step towards protecting the rights of children rather than trampling them. But this progress is at risk of Iraqi officials do not implement such steps elsewhere.

The Death Penalty is Inhumane

One of the best things that my 12th grade high school teacher encouraged me to do was to read and watch Just Mercy, a book written by Bryan Stevenson and a film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Both the film and book allowed me to greater understand the importance of confronting injustice, while also standing up for those wrongly convicted.

An image with the words "Just Mercy" and "Bryan Stevenson"

In the United States, about 43% of all executions have involved people of color, 55% currently awaiting the death penalty, all while only accounting for 27% of the general population. When comparing defendants, one fact to note is that “as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.” According to the ACLU, “a system racial bias in the application of the death penalty exists at both the state and federal level.”

But what exactly is the death penalty? What are the different forms of capital punishment and arguments for and against them?

What exactly is capital punishment?

Britannica defines capital punishment as the “execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense,” meaning that this type of punishment would be reserved for the most dangerous of criminals.

The death penalty has been present in societies for hundreds of centuries, dating all the way back to before the establishment of Hammurabi’s Code in 18th century BC. Hammurabi’s Code laid the foundation of the death penalty for 25 different crimes; placing emphasis on theft between two groups of people. Hammurabi’s Code also established punishment as equal to the crime committed, as known from historical references as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” These types of punishments were often cruel and included crucifixion, burial alive, impalement, and others.

Notable forms of Capital Punishment throughout History and Today

The Guillotine

The Guillotine, one of the older methods of execution, was introduced in France in 1792. This device fixes the head between two logs with a heavily weighted knife suspended a couple of feet in the air. This method of execution was introduced to make the process of execution “by means of a machine,” making it “as painless as possible.”

Notable figures executed by means of the guillotine as King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette for crimes against the French people.An image of a guillotine, with the blade and a basket where the head is supposed to be kept.

Hanging

Carried out in countries in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, hanging is defined as suspending someone in the air as a form of execution. Death either occurs through decapitation or through strangulation, depending on the length of the rope compared to the weight of the prisoner.

Lethal Injection

Lethal Injection consists of an anesthetic alongside chemicals used to paralyze the prisoner and stop the heart. This form of punishment exists in China and Vietnam.

Surprisingly, the United States also uses the lethal injection, with the most recent execution taking place on September 24th, 2020. “Christopher Vialva was sentenced to death for the 1999 murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley.” Vialva’s execution was the 1,526th in the United States since 1976, 10th in the federal system, and the 1,346th person executed by means of lethal injection.

Although the injection is designed to kill ‘quickly’ and ‘smoothly,’ inexperience on the part of prison staff has flawed the execution process. One case in particular is that of Dennis McGuire. Reports show that after the injection was administered to Dennis McGuire, he gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes; much longer than the time that previous injections have taken to execute someone, before dying.

Electrocution

Execution by electrocution occurs when a prisoner is strapped to an electric char with a “metal skullcap-shaped electrode” attached to their scalp or forehead. Following these actions, the prisoner receives a jolt of electricity up to 2000 volts for up t o30 seconds, until the prisoner is dead.

Electrocution is a method of execution carried out in the United States, with the first electrocution taking place at Auburn Prison in New York against someone who was convicted of murdering “with an axe.”

Why the Continuation of the Death Penalty Creates a Gray Area

Today, “more than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment.” Countries today that still have the death penalty range from countries with large populations under authoritarian rule, with the United States being the outlier as the only democracy with it in place.

An image of the world map highlighting countries that have abolished and retained the death penalty as of 2006.
Death Penalty Laws Over The World 2006.

According to the Embassy of the United States of America, capital punishment still exists due to the inability of the federal government to dictate laws to the states. Although the United States has been one of the foremost leaders in reforming capital punishment, other countries have had an easier time in abolishing it by “national governments imposing top-down reform because they decided the death penalty was no longer necessary or legitimate.” And since the Constitution allocates criminal law to the states, only they can repeal their own capital punishment laws. The Supreme Court is the only national-level body capable of declaring capital punishment unconstitutional.

Around the world, many consider implementing the death penalty a violation of human rights, especially those that require states to recognize the right to life, as shown through Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Life is a Human Right.” Although intended to curb violent crimes and atrocities committed by criminals, the loss of life through the death penalty violates “the right of life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” which the death penalty unfortunately promotes.

Although many international organizations and countries have abolished the death penalty, like many countries of the Global North save the United States, a case can arise where the death penalty is justified, shown through Bangladesh’s approval of the death penalty for rape. With a viral video showing a group of men sexually assaulting a woman, Bangladesh’s cabinet quickly approved “to incorporate the death penalty for all of the four types of rape defined under Bangladeshi law.” Though detracting from the real problem, that rapists are normal people and not animals, the passage of the death penalty seems just, since there has been a violent outrage at the lack of enforcement on sexual violence in this part of the world.

Moral arguments for the death penalty put quite simply, is the concept of retribution, where the killing of one person justifies the death of the killer. However, opponents of this notion would counteract that point with the fact that issuing capital punishment detracts from the moral message it conveys, alongside the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane.

Despite these arguments, the inhumane action that is the death penalty cannot go unchecked. With the death of Dennis McGuire, for instance, these processes are not clean and fraught with mistakes leading to the disgusting and horrific death of inmates.

“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century” – António Guterres

Overall, the “death penalty is not a useful instrument for combating crime.” Abolishing the death penalty in the United States can allow other countries to ensure the right to life for all people, while also ensuring that the absolute worst of punishments cannot be enforced differently based on a person’s status, color, race, or underlying distinctions.

“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” – Amnesty International

Violent Persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras of Pakistan

Who are the Hazara Muslims?

The Hazara Muslims are a predominately Shi’a Muslim group that originate from Afghanistan. Hazaras are famous for their music, poetry, and proverbs from which their poetry stems, which have been passed down orally through generations. They speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi – Persian dialect) called Hazaragi.

The conflict of Sunni Muslims versus Shi’a Muslims derives from a varying interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the distinct lineage both sects choose to recognize. Consequently, extremist groups in Pakistan have resorted to violence carried out by Pakistani governmental organizations who have feared Shi’a Islam becoming a major sect since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

These targeted killings had continually existed, but they reached unprecedented levels in 2013 with approximately 700 Shi’a murdered, many of which were Hazaras in Baluchistan. Bombings in 2013 also claimed innumerous Hazara lives, and such violence eventually led to protests by the Hazaras, including refusing to bury the deceased bodies until the Pakistani government took some action.

hazaras
Women protest the loss of innocent lives of Hazara Muslims. Source: Yahoo Images

What has been happening with the Hazaras recently?

Believing in a different interpretation of Islam and allowing more freedom to their women are two red flags to extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). The IS massacred. eleven Shi’a Hazara coal miners in Machh, Baluchistan, on January 2, 2021. The families of the deceased refused to bury the bodies and demanded a visit from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with immediate action against the perpetrators who claimed responsibility for the killing. On January 6, 2021, the Baluchistan Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, visited a protest camp and urged them to let go of their demand. He tried to reassure the protestors that his government is doing all they can to eradicate terrorism, but with little success. Considering the mass murder that has been occurring since 2013, the Hazara people have no reason to believe the Chief Minister of their state.

overcome grief
A father overcome with grief as he is told about his son’s death. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

For starters, the Pakistani government can acknowledge the persecution that Shi’a Hazara Muslims have been encountering for generations, and find a way to actually eradicate such acts of terrorism that are being justified by extremist groups with the overarching term, jihad.

To ensure progress is being made, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and the leader of the prominent Afghan Hezb-e Wahdat-e-Islami political party, Karim Khalili, met in Islamabad on January 12, 2021. They exchanged views on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and progress in the Afghan peace process. The political figures also briefly recalled the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in November 2020 to Kabul to hold talks with Afghani President Ashraf Ghani. During those talks, Afghanistan promised Pakistan it would do “everything, whatever is possible” to aid the peace process. But Pakistani officials like Qureshi believe that there are “spoilers” within and outside of Afghanistan who do not wish to see the return of peace in Afghanistan and other affected regions.

It is time for the international system to fulfil its role in protecting the global population. Years and years of persecution of a people who have done nothing to deserve such brutality needs to come to an end.

The Increase of Hate Crimes in the United States

No hate sign at a rally
No to hate. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

It is undeniable that hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans have been increasing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. An organization created to respond to racism against Asians, Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, has received thousands of reports of hate crimes across the United States just throughout the duration of the pandemic in 2020. This is a very large increase from previous years. Racist rhetoric surrounding the pandemic including terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” is a significant reason why these forms of hate crimes are increasing at such a rate in the United States. Many of the attacks are targeting elderly Asian Americans. In San Francisco, an elderly Thai man was attacked and later died from the injuries he sustained. In New York, one man had his faced slashed with a box cutter, a woman was assaulted in the subway, and another woman also experienced assault on the subway. Hate crimes towards many groups have been increasing in the United States for the past few years, with COVID-19 and the Trump administration providing a lenient space for hate crimes and speech.

new york
New York during COVID-19. Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York. Creative Commons.

In 2020, the FBI released their annual hate crimes report for the previous year, 2019. This report showed that hate crimes rose by 3%, a number that may not seem that significant at first glance but breaks a record with the highest number of hate crimes in a year. Of the more than 7000 hate crimes reported, 51 were fatal, another record breaking number. 22 of the 51 killings motivated by hate towards another group came from a domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, a mass shooting in a local Walmart targeting shoppers of Mexican descent.

The FBI defines hate crimes as “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” It is important to realize that while the FBI’s report is key for understanding the hate dynamics in our country, it is ultimately an undercount. Many hate crimes go undocumented and even more are not categorized as hate crimes. Over 15,000 law enforcement agencies participate in reporting hate crimes. In 2019, over 86% of these agencies did not report any hate crime. The FBI report clearly shows that deadly hate crimes are increasing, however less and less agencies are reporting their data.

The categorization of hate crimes is also a major issue. For example, for the 2019 report the FBI recorded only one attack against those of Hispanic origin despite the El Paso, Texas shooting being largely recognized as an extremely deadly attack against El Paso’s Hispanic population. The deaths that resulted from the shooting were listed as “anti-other race/ethnicity/ancestry.”

El Paso Texas post card
Greetings from El Paso, Texas. Source: Boston Public Library. Creative Commons.

The breakdown for hate crimes in 2018 is as follows:

  • Anti-Black: 2,426
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity: 1,445
  • Anti-white: 1,038
  • Anti-Jewish: 920
  • Anti-Hispanic: 671
  • Anti-Muslim: 236
  • Anti-Indigenous Peoples: 209

According to the National Institute of Justice, 60% of most hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech. Therefore, speech intended to hurt, degrade, disrespect, and discriminate against a group of people can not be punished by law. However, the language used can be used in court as evidence of a hate crime.

The Department of Homeland Security revealed in their Homeland Threat Assessment that the growing upward trend of hate crimes represent a larger threat from extremist right wing groups. The DHS report also acknowledged that the largest domestic terror threat in the United States is the threat posed by white supremacist groups. The record-breaking white supremacist attacks in 2019 created the most deadly year of domestic terrorism since 1995. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh committed a bombing in Oklahoma City, a person and act that many white supremacist leaders look up to. Violent attacks like the one in Oklahoma City and the more recent one in El Paso work to encourage more violence, causing harm to specific groups and bringing more white attention to the cause.

Conspiracy theories are a large part of white supremacy. One conspiracy theory, “The Great Replacement” claims that white people are being replaced and erased from Western countries in a plot created by Jews. This conspiracy theory was alluded to by the El Paso shooter who described a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and by the person who attacked a synagogue in California in 2019, leaving one person dead and three others injured. The rise in hate crimes coupled with the growing presence of hate groups is not a coincidence. Between 2017 and 2019 white supremacist groups grew in numbers by 55%.

white supremacy flag
White supremacy. Source: Robert Thivierge. Creative Commons.

The recent increase in hate crimes also coincides with rhetoric perpetuated by former President Trump and his supporters. The words, opinions, and discriminatory speech used by the former president has been clearly identified as motivating many hate oriented attacks. An analysis of the FBI report shows that loaded remarks made by Trump are followed by increases in hate crimes and increases in hate speech on online platforms, especially directed towards Hispanic and Jewish peoples. The rhetoric used by former President Trump regarding groups of people and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lenient space that does not punish hate speech or hate crimes. Hate crimes have been increasing, showing how harmful stereotypes and racism can truly be. It is important to recognize how and why hate crimes have been increasing in order to better address them and keep communities safe.

The ‘Kisaan’ Protest: A Turning Point for India’s Democracy

Depiction of Kisaan
A kisaan in his khet, or field. Source: Yahoo Images.

You may have heard or seen news about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India right now. This protest was sparked by three bills that were adopted by the Indian government in September 2020. These three bills primarily place the livelihood of these farmers from the state of Punjab at the mercy of corporations. The privatization of the agricultural economy will surely benefit the Indian government, but the farmers will suffer greatly since corporations will purchase their crops at a much lower rate, leading to generational debt which has already led to farmer suicide in India. To prevent the exploitation of their livelihood, the kisaans (“farmers”) have set out on a protest, the highlight of which has been their march from Punjab to Delhi, India’s capital. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not reciprocated the farmers’ concerns with any form of sympathy. Rather, senior leaders of the Indian government have called the protestors “anti-nationalist” and “goons.” Such a reaction from the government is not unusual for the Sikh farmers who have been the target of persecution by the Indian government multiple times in the past.

Historical Context

In the 1970s and 1980s, Punjabi Sikhs held similar views in regards to the Indian government’s support for agriculture, an industry which has always been essential to the Indian economy and still is with 60% of the Indian population reliant upon farming for its sustenance. Unfortunately, the Indian government reacted the same way it is in 2021 – by labeling the protestors anti-nationalist. Additionally, the government launched a series of egregious human rights abuses consisting of attacks on the Punjabi population in the 1980s, attacking the Golden Temple of Amritsar in June of 1984, launching a state-sponsored pogrom in November of 1984, and extra-judicial killings in the following decade. What is worse is that the Indian government has never acknowledged nor apologized for these events, giving the people of Punjab a reason to have grievances towards the government.

But the state of Punjab is not the only population that has been the prey of India’s ongoing human rights abuses. The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India coincides with the ascension of Narendra Modi to the role of Prime Minister; Modi himself took part in genocidal violence in 2002 while presiding over Gujrat’s anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state. Though the current protests are pogroms, the Indian government has acted in an undemocratic manner with its press censorship, journalist detention , and violent crackdowns on the non-violent protestors.

Protest
Protestors took over the Indian capital of Delhi, demanding their rights. Source: Yahoo Images.

What do the farmers want?

Farmer unions and their representatives have asked that the three farm acts passed by Parliament be repealed; they will not settle for anything less. The government proposed an 18 month delay of the laws to give the farmers time to adjust, which was also rejected. Between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, eleven inconclusive rounds of talks have taken place between the government and union representatives. The farmers even suggested overthrowing the government on February 3, 2021 if the laws are not repealed.

The reasoning for the farmers’ escalating anger is two-fold: one, the human rights abuses the Indian government is inflicting on the non-violent protestors, including tear gas; and two, the failure of the Indian government and leaders to cooperate with the unions. To peacefully protest a set of acts is well within the rights of a people belonging to a democratic nation, but it is not the right of the government to respond to peace with violence and neglect the concerns being voiced by its people. That is not what a democracy is.

Coup d’état in Myanmar: a precarious situation for human rights

On the first of February, the military of Myanmar, also known as Burma, staged a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The armed forces had backed opposition candidates in the recent election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide. Since the coup, Suu Kyi has been arbitrarily detained, supposedly for possessing illegal walkie-talkies and violating a Natural Disaster law. Suu Kyi was previously detained for almost fifteen years between 1989 and 2010, although she continued to organize pro-democracy rallies while under house arrest. The military has stated that they are acting on the will of the people to form a “true and disciplined democracy” and that they will soon hold a “free and fair” election, after a one-year state of emergency.

The military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, is currently in control of the country. Hlaing has been an influential presence in Myanmar politics since before the country transitioned to democracy and has long garnered international criticism for his alleged role in military attacks on ethnic minorities. There is significant cause for concern that a government under Hlaing will impose repressive anti-democratic laws, and more Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist policies.

Min Aung Hlaing in military uniform
Min Aung Hlaing / Getty / Fair use.

Since the 1970s, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have suffered from large-scale and orchestrated persecution. Myanmar’s official position, including under the Suu Kyi administration, has been that Rohingyas are illegal immigrants and thus are denied citizenship. In 2016, the military, along with police in the Rakhine State in northwest Myanmar, violently cracked down on Rohingyas living in the region. For these actions, the Burmese military has been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide by United Nations agencies, the International Criminal Court, and others. The United Nations has presented evidence of major human rights violations and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions; mass rape; deportations; the burning of Rohingya villages, businesses, and schools; and infanticide. A study in 2018 estimated that between twenty-four and thirty-six thousand Rohingyas were killed, eighteen-thousand women and girls were sexually assaulted, and over one-hundred-sixteen thousand were injured (Habib, Jubb, Salahuddin,Rahman, & Pallard, 2018). The violence and deportations  caused an international refugee crisis which was the largest in Asia since the Vietnam War. The majority of refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia became the largest of its kind.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been immune to criticism for her inaction during the genocide, with many questioning her silence while the military carried out gruesome crimes. Suu Kyi also appeared before the International Criminal Court of Justice in 2019 to defend the Myanmar military against charges of genocide. Regardless, she is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who enjoys broad support from the people of Myanmar, and there seems to be very little legitimate justification for her removal from power. Protests in response to the coup have grown rapidly since early February, with the BBC calling them the largest in Myanmar since the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The United Nations Human Rights Council met in special session in mid-February to discuss the coup, recommending targeted sanctions against the leaders. Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif and Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews argued that action taken against the coup’s orchestrators would not hurt Myanmar’s already vulnerable population. They urged the United Nations to take action to replace Min Aung Hlaing and the rest of the military leadership in a broad restructuring that

Protestors in Yangon
Protestors in Yangon / Hkun Lat / Getty / Fair use.

would put the military under civilian control. There is an increasing sense of urgency from human rights bodies due to troubling information getting out of the country, despite repression of the media by the military junta. Reports have started to come to light of live ammunition and lethal force being used against protestors and several protestors have been killed.  In addition, over two-hundred government officials from Suu Kyi’s administration have been detained, with many being “disappeared” by plain-clothes police in the middle of the night. The UN has long been critical of the Myanmar military, with Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif recalling the Human Rights Council’s 2018 report which stated that the “[military] is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation.” The Burmese military has functioned for over twenty years with impunity, benefiting from virtually non-existent civilian oversight and disproportionate influence over the nation’s political and economic institutions.

On February 27, the military removed the nation’s UN Ambassador from his position.

Kyaw Moe Tun
Kyaw Moe Tun / Twitter.

Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had on the 26th denounced the coup as “not acceptable in this modern world” and asked for international intervention by “any means necessary” to end military control. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews called Moe Tun’s speech a “remarkable act of courage”. Ambassador Moe Tun’s unexpected speech reinvigorated the protestors on the ground, who have faced steadily more intense crackdowns from the government forces. “When we heard this, everyone was very happy, everyone saying that tonight we are going to sleep very happily and encouraged,” Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network said, “These are peaceful protesters, civilians. And they are standing up against a ruthless, brutal army. So you can see that without any international intervention or protection, this uprising is going to end very badly.”

International response to the coup has been varied. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it a “serious blow to democratic reforms”, while the United States and United Kingdom have sanctioned military officials. US Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement saying “the United States will continue to take firm action against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.” On the other hand, China blocked a UN Security Council memorandum criticizing the coup, and asked that the parties involved “resolve [their] differences”, while Myanmar’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have characterized the coup as an “internal matter”.

Additional References:

Habib, Mohshin; Jubb, Christine; Ahmad, Salahuddin; Rahman, Masudur; Pallard, Henri. 2018. Forced migration of Rohingya: the untold experience. Ontario International Development Agency, Canada. ISBN 9780986681516.

 

The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on Education

School sign reading "school closed, stay home, stay safe."
School closed, stay home. Source: Travis Wise. Creative Commons.

When the pandemic began in the United States almost a year ago, I was working two jobs. As COVID-19 spread swiftly and mercilessly through my community, I found myself unable to continue working at either of those positions. However, as the summer months progressed, a new job market presented itself to me: parents with kids who could not return to in person schooling. Since the school year started, I have worked as a nanny/teacher for a family with two children in elementary school and two parents who work full time. The first semester of school in a time of COVID has come and gone, revealing the many challenges alongside benefits of hybrid or online school. In the United States and in many countries across the world, children are guaranteed an education. How has this guarantee shifted when this education no longer includes in person teaching or the added benefits of childcare, school provided food, and educational resources?

With the onset of the pandemic in the United States in the middle of March 2020, schools have had to adapt their teaching and learning strategies as well as develop ways to provide access to services like hot food, laptops and other e-learning technology, and internet to students who might have relied on schools for those resources. These adjustments needed to happen in what felt like a split second. One minute we were preparing for spring break, the next we were preparing to teach and learn in completely new ways for what would end up being almost a year. Curriculums needed to be shifted and new materials created almost overnight. Many of these changes were placed on the shoulders of teachers, a group of workers who are arguably already underpaid for the work they do in non-COVID times. The sudden shift of teaching methods caused problems for teachers working tirelessly to ensure their students continue learning and engaging in virtual classroom activities. Some teachers reported that the main difficulties revolved around keeping students engaged while they are in their home environments and learning through Zoom, Google classroom, or some other similar program. They also reported the difficulties of ensuring students are reaching learning goals as teachers are unable to view the work as students are working on it.

 

A teacher in an empty classroom teaching online school
Teacher teaching online school. Source: Phil Roeder. Creative Commons.

Parents are also discovering problems with the abrupt change in schooling for their children. Some parents have reported noticing how hard it is for their kids to develop a relationship with their teachers, causing inattentiveness and problems with following instructions set by the teacher. The transition has been noticeably harder for parents of children with special needs or learning inhibitions. Without the resources that were provided by in-person schooling, it can be difficult for parents to help their students learn in a completely new environment. Students, especially in elementary school, have a hard time with the technology used for asynchronous learning, requiring parents and guardians to guide their students, sometimes every day. The pressure is added on parents who are now required to balance full- or part-time jobs with sometimes multiple children participating in online school. The students themselves have their own set of grievances with online and asynchronous learning. In the New York Times, students have reported a lack of excitement for school due to remote learning, wishing instead for one or two added days of in-person classes. Others have reported a drop in their grades where A students during in person classes find themselves C students with the online curriculum. The difficulty in distinguishing between homelife and school/work life causes problems with focusing, possibly contributing to these grade drops. However, many students report that Zoom and Google Classroom classes help them feel more productive and return a semblance of normalcy to the asynchronous style.

There is a general consensus that schools must reopen for in person classes, eventually. However, it is difficult to determine when that should be. Many parents and school system administrators have called for schools to reopen for at least part, if not all, of the spring 2021 semester. However, some teachers have protested vehemently against reopening in the past few weeks. Teachers unions have argued that at the very least schools need to prioritize vaccinating teachers and school staff, although this alone would not be enough to safely reopen schools in the unions’ eyes. The current COVID-19 vaccines being administered across the nation are helpful in keeping an individual from getting sick and dying, but it is still unknown as to whether they can prevent the individual from carrying the virus to those not vaccinated. Therefore, teachers could unknowingly carry COVID-19 pathogens home from school. Other precautions must be adopted. On Friday, February 12th, the CDC released an updated set of guidelines for returning kids to in person schooling. This guidance explicitly does not provide affirmation that schools should reopen, rather it reemphasizes the importance of measures like social distancing, masking, proper building ventilation, and contact tracing. The CDC also expresses how proper safety precautions can keep students and staff safe within schools, however they emphasize how dangerous a false sense of security could be in communities where COVID-19 transmission is relatively low.

Kids doing online school
Online School. Source: Mario A. P. Creative Commons.

A report found that with remote learning continuing into 2021, students will be seven months behind in several educational milestones. Within this report, BIPOC students will be even further behind and students from low income families will be behind by more than a year. The Brookings Institute report has called this phenomenon a “COVID slide,” where students in grades three through eight could be drastically behind on the progress they might have made in subjects like math or reading. 20 percent of students in the United States do not have access to the technology like laptops and reliable internet connection necessary for remote learning. A big push against remote learning is due to a concern regarding mental health problems for students. However, less of a focus is on how the pandemic might have exacerbated mental health problems that in-person schooling had been contributing to.

The added access parents have to their students’ education through remote and asynchronous learning has revealed problems within the educational system. Parents and students are learning that the system for education before the COVID-19 pandemic was not as beneficial as originally thought. Remote learning has exacerbated problems with in-person schooling. These problems include the reduced priorities of exercise, play, sleep, outdoor time, and even conversation between students. Many public schools have not evolved to reflect more modern research on education styles for years. The schedule, amount and types of homework, and learning skills prioritized (like memorization) have also not evolved.

Girl getting her temperature checked at school.
Temperature Check. Source: Dan Gaken. Creative Commons.

It is hard to determine the right course of action for many school systems. While the long and short term effects of the “COVID slide” should not be ignored, many students have really benefited from a non-traditional school setting and are making significant progress in achieving their learning goals. Some students are reporting feeling less stressed, less overwhelmed by assignments, and happier than they were during in-person schooling. More flexible schedules are allowing teenage students to prioritize sleep and many students have been able to escape bullying that had occurred in school. Other students are suffering mentally, physically, and academically from the changes in learning structures. It is clear that the American education system will need to evolve as the country recovers from the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought to light many problems with the current structure affecting parents, guardians, students, and teachers. It seems to have taken a drastic and unprecedented event like a worldwide pandemic to encourage change in the education sphere.