On September 15th, 2023, the Institute for Human Rights (IHR) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the Urdd, a Welsh youth organization, spent an afternoon together exploring human rights initiatives in Birmingham and the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the IHR, made opening remarks welcoming the Urdd delegation to UAB and facilitated introductions between the Urdd and members of the IHR team. Dr. Reuter then spoke on how the IHR is raising awareness of and advocating for human rights by making safe spaces to have open dialogues and hosting human rights advocacy conferences. Ms. Siân Lewis, Chief Executive of the Urdd, explained that the Urdd is the largest youth organization in the world and has been active for over 100 years. The Urdd’s primary objective is spreading a peace and goodwill message, with the focus this year being on anti-racism. The Urdd also aims to share the Welsh language and culture with others while learning about other languages and cultures around the world. The Urdd distinguishes itself in its anti-racism efforts through its “Galw Nhw Allan” (“Call Them Out”) motto, which encapsulates the Urdd’s desire to take substantive action against racism. In a video shown at the event, student leaders from the Urdd are shown describing the need to dismantle systemic racism through education to show the beauty and unity people’s differences bring to our communities.
Two members of IHR led the group in a privilege walk, an activity that involves asking participants to line up side-by-side with their eyes closed and take a step forward if they agree with certain statements, or take a step back if they agree with others. Examples of the statements read included “Take a step back if someone in your immediate family is addicted to alcohol or drugs,” “Take a step forward if you see people with your skin color in your local government,” and “Take a step back if you have ever had to skip a meal or multiple meals due to your financial situation.” At the end of the exercise, every person of color from the group was at the back of the room, and every non-person of color from the group was in the middle or front of the room. This exercise was done to highlight the various advantages and obstacles faced by people around the world and fostered a great discussion about diversity and inclusion amongst the IHR and the Urdd.
At the beginning of the meeting, members of the IHR handed out pieces of numbered paper to everyone in the meeting room. People with even numbers received a leaf to pin to their chest and people with odd numbers received a ribbon. After the privilege walk, everyone was asked to find a seat at tables decorated with pumpkins if they drew an odd number or tables decorated with scarecrows if they drew an even number. A short video on Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was shown where Ms. Elliott divided her class by eye color and favored blue-eyed children one day, and brown-eyed children the next, giving each favored group more praise and privileges over the other group. The class soon adopted hateful and derogatory views of the out-group, bullying members of the unfavored group which was distinguished by brown collars tied around their necks. To simulate this experiment, two members of the IHR went around telling people with leaves pinned to their chests to get second helpings of lunch and engaging members of that group in conversation. Contrastly, the two IHR members ignored people with ribbons pinned to their chests and neglected to mention that those with ribbons could go and get second helpings of the food being served. The experiment was revealed after lunch was finished, to the surprise of the room which had no idea the simulation was being carried out. A short discussion followed on how discrimination affects people in real life and the unique challenges faced by people daily due to discrimination.
A tour of the IHR office space followed lunch and the Urdd delegation kindly presented IHR with a flag of Wales, a Cardiff University dragon plush, and Cardiff University silk scarves. Thank you to the Urdd for the thoughtful gifts!
The final event of the day was a screening of Four Little Girls directed by Spike Lee and a Q&A session with Michele Forman, Director of the Media Studies Program at UAB, who helped with the production of Four Little Girls. The film follows the events of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, and includes interviews with the families of the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. In the Q&A session after the showing, Ms. Forman described how every aspect of the film needed to answer the question “How does it help us understand what happened to the girls that day?”. A particularly impactful statement from Ms. Forman when asked what the rationale for using post-mortem photographs of the four children killed in the bombing in the film was that the destruction and exploitation of the Black body are used too much in media, but it was needed in the film to show that we will not move on from this tragedy and will not forget “what racism comes to bear on the Black body.” Thank you to Michele Forman for facilitating an insightful discussion of the film and the Civil Rights Movement!
The IHR is grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with the Urdd and looks forward to future collaborations!
Watch the full Peace and Goodwill message video here.
A devasting, 6.8 on the Richter scale, earthquake hit the North African nation late Friday, killing at least 2,886 people and injuring 2,562. The earthquake struck the High Atlas Mountain range ripping through the small villages and the center of Marrakech. Rescue operations are still taking place, as there are many people crushed under the remains of Al Haouz, where the quake was most devastating. Every minute counts in the search for survivors, yet the Moroccan government is selective with which countries they accept. France was left out of Morocco’s decision to accept aid from the UK, Spain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. When the death toll continues to rise and the city turns to rubble, why is Morocco declining French assistance in disaster relief? Analyzing recent tensions between Morocco and France, it is apparent that the strained relationship between the two countries is the contributing factor to the refusal of aid during this dire time of need. Major humanitarian crises like this are supposed to be a chance to bridge the divide between nations, but they can also be an opportunity that is overlooked.
The controversy between Morocco and France has its roots in historical, political, and diplomatic factors. Originally, Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956, and then in 1956 the country gained its independence. Therefore, there is a significant Moroccan diaspora in France which is why the government pledged 5 million euros to help with aid. Additionally, four French residents died in the earthquake. However, one topic of contention between the two is the sovereign claim over the Western Sahara. Morocco recognizes the West Sahara as part of their country, but France refuses to acknowledge that. Back in 2021, France went on the offensive against migrants from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, threatening to cut off their visas unless they agreed to accept back migrants. The aforementioned nations took that as a sign of shame. These controversies, compounded with the government’s decision to reject French assistance, are indicative of the icy diplomatic relations between President Emmanuel Macron and King Mohammed VI. Despite the King being in France when the quake hit, no attempts were made to resolve the tension.
Morocco’s reluctance to accept aid is baffling global aid groups. Time is the most precious resource when it comes to disaster relief. By refusing the French, the Moroccan government is taking precious time away from the survivors of this devasting earthquake. Especially since France is known for being an expert in disaster relief, they have the resources to mobilize coordinated rescue operations on the ground. In the wake of this horrible humanitarian crisis, the focus should be on helping the suffering, not balancing adverse international relations. This decision made by the Moroccan government is actually hurting its people. That aid could be used to reach parts of the village that are not accessible due to the vast destruction. The increased delays have resulted in families digging themselves out of the debris. In addition, the government has been dubiously quiet about the severity of the crisis. Instead of making a broad appeal for help, Morocco is limiting foreign aid. For this to be the strongest earthquake to hit the country in over a century, the government is keen to downplay the seriousness of the situation and provide inadequate resources. Therefore, the catastrophe response promotes the notion that the administration is indifferent to the plight of the people in the impoverished mountain towns shaken by the quake, rather preferring wealthy metropolitan inhabitants and foreign tourists. With lives lost and homes destroyed, now is not the time for petty politics, but rather a chance to come together in a time of need.
Libya Flood Relief
The case of Libya’s flood is another case where relief efforts are hindered by political complications in North Africa. More than 5,300 people were killed and 10,000 are missing in Libya when a storm caused rivers and dams to breach. Storm Daniel wreaked havoc on Libya’s eastern port city of Derna, virtually flattening it. The Morocco quake and the Libya have resulted in 8,000 dead and significantly more injured or missing. Both devastated communities have waited for days for aid, frequently digging out and burying their dead with little to no help from their governments. Some of the delays can be attributed to damaged infrastructure; however, the main impediment, though, is politics. It seems that the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster qualifies as a moment for political differences to be put aside. The delays in receiving aid in Morocco and Libya, one nation perceived as the bedrock of stability in the region and the other torn apart by conflict and governed by rival governments, show how difficult it is to separate political concerns from humanitarian help. Despite the stark differences between the two, both are in the same predicament. Both governments need to accept responsibility and make a coordinated effort to provide aid to the citizens of their respective countries.
Poverty is a deeply rooted issue that affects countless individuals and communities around the world. In Kenya, it is no different. Despite its natural beauty and richness, Kenya faces significant challenges when it comes to poverty, particularly among vulnerable communities.
The high living standards brought by the new government of Kenya make the poverty issue more pressing. Everything is doubled. Tax is doubled, food is doubled, oil is doubled, women’s products price is now double the initial price.
One issue arising from poverty is limited access to basic necessities such as food, clean water, and health care. According to a United Nations Development Program report, approximately 36% of Kenyans live below the national poverty line. This means that millions of people struggle to afford even one meal a day, leading to malnutrition and adverse health conditions. Additionally, a lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities further intensifies the spread of diseases, resulting in a higher mortality rate.
Another consequence of poverty is the limited educational opportunities available to children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Before the current government, a normal student at the university level was paying approximately 38 thousand Kenyan Shilling per year. Today the student pays 122 thousand Kenyan Shillings per year. Many families cannot afford to send their children to school due to financial constraints, resulting in a significant number of young individuals being deprived of basic education. The lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty, as individuals without the necessary skills and knowledge struggle to find stable employment opportunities.
The impact of poverty is also evident in the housing conditions experienced by vulnerable communities in Kenya. Slums and informal settlements are common in urban areas, where individuals live in makeshift shelters with little to no access to basic amenities. Unsanitary living conditions in these areas increase health risks and disease vulnerability.
These challenges are not insurmountable, however. It’s important to note that while these issues persist, there are numerous organizations, both local and international working alongside the government of Kenya to tackle these issues and improve the overall well-being of the Kenyan people. Efforts such as community-based programs, microfinance initiatives, and educational campaigns have shown promising results in uplifting vulnerable communities and breaking the cycle of poverty.
To bring about lasting change, it is crucial for individuals, governments, and organizations to come together and address the root causes of poverty in Kenya. This includes investing in sustainable agriculture practices, promoting entrepreneurship and job creation, improving access to quality education, and providing support for health care and social welfare systems.
In conclusion, poverty remains a critical issue in Kenyan society, affecting vulnerable communities in various aspects of their lives. By understanding the impact of poverty and actively working towards its eradication, we can create a brighter future for all Kenyans.
I would like to start this piece off with a land acknowledgment, where I acknowledge the truth of who the lands of America truly belong to. The land in which I sit to write this article, as well as the ones occupied by those who reside in America once belonged to the many diverse communities that existed long before America got its name. Once prosperous, thriving lands belonging to these various indigenous communities, (to the Creeks and Choctaw, in my case), the lands of America were respected and honored by the relationship that these various tribal communities held sacred between themselves and their environment. It is in honor of their stewardship and resilience that I hope to shed light on some of the more gruesome, nefarious betrayals they have experienced at the hands of colonizers from the time their tribal ancestors witnessed the colonizers’ arrival to their lands in 1492.
Before the European colonizers arrived on this land, there existed a diverse group of tribal communities, over a thousand different ones just in the mainland we call America today. Now, these tribes have been reduced to no more than 574 federally recognized ones, with dwindling tribal membership numbers, a fact that can only be blamed on the federally sanctioned behaviors of the colonists. So much has been stolen from the diverse groups of indigenous people since the colonization of the North American lands first began. The original indigenous peoples had offered the newly-arriving colonists hospitality and taught them how to cultivate the lands of America and brave the New Frontiers. Yet, what they received in gratitude was bloodshed, tears, death, and betrayals. So many treaties and promises were broken. According to Howard Zinn, the famous author of the book, “A People’s History of the United States,” the various indigenous communities that existed in the Americas by the time the famous explorers landed in the Americas were anywhere between 25-75 million individuals. They had moved into these fertile lands 25,000 years ago, long before the explorers “founded” the Americas. For those interested in learning a truthful history of America, please check out his book. The book begins in 1492 and continues to examine historical events until contemporary times and phenomena such as the “War on Terrorism”.
There is so much information to be covered on this topic, and the more I researched, the more I found. I want to do this topic justice, and I cannot do so until the historical context has been put in place. Hence, this will be a two-part deep dive into the Native American lands, their cultural lifestyles, their relationship with the environment, and what this means for their existence in a capitalist, contemporary society. Part one will focus on the history of Native American lands, the process of treaties and loss, and the cruel, scheming ways of the federal government that attempted to indirectly, yet forcibly, steal lands away from Native Americans by targeting the youngest members of their tribes. Part two will focus on the Indian Child Welfare Act, the fight (and entities involved) in support and against it, how the environment plays a role, and the vast consequences of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter, both in terms of the welfare of these indigenous children, as well as the issue of tribal sovereignty. There is a lot to unpack here, so without further ado, let’s begin with a deeper understanding of the relationship that indigenous communities share with their lands.
It’s All About the Land; It Always Has Been
The European settlers had a problem with the Native Americans from the moment they landed in America. For one, they thought the indigenous way of life to be “savagery” and believed that the Native Americans needed to be “civilized”, something they believed only Europeans could teach them about. They found the gods and spirituality of the various indigenous cultures to be blasphemous and nonsensical, and many Europeans attempted to convert the Natives to Christianity, a more “proper” religious belief. Most of all, though, the Europeans and the indigenous communities had vastly different concepts of property and land ownership. To the settlers, who came from the feudal systems of Europe, land was a commodity, purchased and sold by individuals, and prosperity (and social status) was determined by who owned the most properties, and the most prosperous lands. They became lords and could employ the less fortunate to work under them, paying them a fraction of their profits, while keeping the rest for themselves. This was how things worked in Europe back home, and this is the system they brought with them when settling in the New World.
Native Americans, however, had a different lifestyle and concept of ownership. To them, the thought of owning a piece of land was bizarre, as they viewed the land to belong to the various energies and life forms that existed in the said land. The tribal lands of an indigenous community not only fed and nurtured the tribal members but also protected the tribe’s history and held the ancestral burials of their people. The indigenous communities had a spiritual and emotional connection with their tribal lands, one that cannot be sold to another, similar to how you cannot sell to someone else the relationship you hold with your family. Many (if not most), Native tribes even practiced animism, a belief system that accepts all living and non-living things (and natural phenomena) as being capable of having a life force (or soul). For Native Americans, land ownership was a foreign concept, and everyone that existed in their community held rights to the land their tribes lived on. In fact, when European settlers began purchasing lands from the Native Americans, the indigenous people believed they were only “leasing” the lands to the settlers, not giving up their rights to them. For the indigenous communities, the land was just as much a right of every human as sunlight, water, or air.
The Native Americans’ relationship with their lands was also threatening to the European lifestyle of land ownership and individualism. This struggle, between an individualistic view of community, versus the collective view of community, is, as they say, a “tale as old as time.” For Europeans, who believed individual merit and hard work to be the true characteristics of a successful individual, their success could only be displayed by the vastness of their empires, figuratively and physically. Hence, land ownership was a symbol of status and in a way, a testament of a person’s character. For Native Americans who focused on collective success rather than individually standing out, the strength of their tribe was a result of the part each individual tribal member played to ensure their success. This meant that everyone had a role, and if they played them right, everyone in the tribe benefited from the success. This was how tribes survived even as they warred against each other.
Treaties and Deals
Due to these differences between the indigenous communities and the European settlers, many struggles broke out between the two groups between 1492 and 1700. In an attempt to keep the peace between the settlers and the indigenous communities, the British Crown established the Proclamation of 1763, which awarded the colonists all the lands East of the Appalachian Mountains, and everything West was promised to the various different Native American populations that lived in those regions. This did not make the colonists happy, as they believed the King was preventing them from expanding their population, and it was one of the points they listed in the Declaration of Independence as a wrong that was done by the King. Many scholars claim that the Proclamation of 1793 led colonists to pursue a revolution against the crown. The diverse indigenous populations attempted to stay out of the Revolutionary War, as they believed it to be a family feud between the British King, and his colonial subjects. Yet, when they did take part in the War, their participation was diverse. Some joined the rebelling Americans, while others joined the forces of the monarchy. Still, others chose to remain neutral, not wanting to support either side of the struggle. Upon the loss of the Revolutionary War, as part of the treaty signed between Britain and the newly established United States, Britain had to give up all the lands they lay claim to in America, including many of the lands that were promised to the Native American tribes living West of the Appalachian Mountains. This happened without consent or discussion with the Native Americans who took residence in those parts. When the colonists came to take over much of the lands that were promised to the Native Americans through the Proclamation of 1763, they justified their brutality against the Native Americans by blaming them for supporting the British in the Revolutionary War, and when the Native Americans tried to fight back for their lands, the British were nowhere to be seen. This was yet another episode of betrayal experienced by the indigenous populations at the hands of the settlers and the British Crown. Yet, this was just the beginning; the atrocities and betrayals were far from over.
Following the Revolutionary War and the as a result of the resilience shown by the many indigenous communities protecting their lands, the United States decided to engage in creating treaties between the various indigenous tribes in an attempt to set boundaries to their lands, and “compensate” them for the lands taken from them. I have “compensate” in quotations because first of all, no amount of money or goods can compensate for lost lives, which is what many tribes experienced. Some tribes became extinct as a result. Second, these treaties were signed by members who did not have signatory authority to give permission to the lands on the side of many indigenous nations, and Congress seldom ratified the treaties that were signed on the part of the United States. This meant that this was more of a theatrical expression than anything else, and the United States continued to steal the lands of indigenous people. Thirdly, as discussed above, many indigenous people who did engage in treaty-making assumed they were simply “leasing” their lands to be used by the colonists, not selling their rights to it outright. So, there was miscommunication and misunderstandings as to what the treaties actually established. Finally, the United States Congress and Supreme Court established that the indigenous tribes were not capable of engaging in treaty-making, and as such, ended the whole process altogether in 1871, claiming that Congress had full control over “Native American Affairs.”
In an attempt to fasten the process of transferring lands from Native American tribes to the hands of the government, the United States passed the Dawes Act of 1887. Many of the treaties that were made between the US and the various nations included provisions in which tribes were expected to distribute their lands among their members so that lands were held by individuals rather than the tribal entities as a whole. For reasons explained earlier, the settlers were threatened by the communal lifestyles of the Native American tribes and believed that having individual members have rights over smaller portions of lands would make it easier for them to accept the European lifestyles and give up their “backward” ways. The Dawes Act forced these indigenous members to choose a parcel of land for themselves and their families (the size of the parcel of land was determined by the government), and any excess amount of land after this process would be sold to the government to be used by non-native residents and corporations alike. Millions of acres of land were stolen from various indigenous tribes as a result. This essentially acted as a way to separate the individual Native American member from their larger tribe and weaken their sense of community and tribal sovereignty as a whole.
Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States government has made about 374 treaties with various indigenous nations across the country. The United States has either violated or fully broken nearly all of these treaties they created as a promise of peacekeeping. Many of these treaties that the United States obtained in the first place were either coerced or done so by forcible means such as threatening starvation on the communities that refused to sign the treaties. Of the various treaties that were violated and broken, one that comes to mind clearly for anyone even slightly familiar with American History is the actions of then president Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although he negotiated treaties with various tribes in the Southeast in an attempt to get them to move West of the Mississippi River voluntarily, when he became president of the United States, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly removing almost 50,000 people from their homes. This forcible removal today would be recognized as a forceable deportation of a population, specifically as a crime against humanity. Under the United Nations Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this is one of the most heinous systematic crimes that has been committed throughout history. Jackson did this in an attempt to clear lands to cultivate cotton, which would lead to another atrocious event, the revamping of plantation slavery in the South.
History of the Forced Assimilation of Native American Children
Another tactic used by the government to acquire lands from the indigenous populations was through further treacherous means. Native American children were forcefully assimilated into American culture in an attempt to beat/torture their culture out of them. The existence of the Federal Indian Boarding School System was proof of this very thing. Recently, an internal investigation was conducted of the United States government’s treatment of Indigenous children following the incident in Canada, where they found over 215 unmarked graves at a school in 2021. This report, led by Deb Halland, the Secretary of Interior, highlighted many nefarious ways in which tribal lands were stolen from different indigenous nations and the atrocities that were forced upon the children from these nations.
To explore some of the details outlined in this report, (specifically from pages 20-40), the plans of forcible assimilation have been put in place since the days of George Washington. This plan to forcefully erase indigenous culture and assimilate the children into Western culture was seen as the “cheapest and safest way” to steal the tribal lands, ensure a less violent relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans, and transform the tribal economy so they would be prepared to live off of lesser and lesser parcels of land. They found a way to weaponize education in order to accomplish this task.
Elaborating on George Washington’s proposal, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, put forth a 2-step solution to acquire more lands for the colonists. First, he argued that Native Americans could be forcefully assimilated into European culture, where they could be discouraged to live out a nomadic lifestyle (which requires the use of vast areas of land) and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle similar to the colonists (which can be done with a few acres of land that are cultivated). Second, he proposed that the United States place indigenous populations in debt by encouraging their use of credits to purchase their goods. This, he presumed, would make them default on their debts, and when they were unable to pay back their loans, they would be forced to give up their lands as a result. This land acquired by the government would be sold to non-native settlers, and the profits from these land sales would be put back into the education programs for forceful assimilation of native children.
Sanctioned by the United States government, indigenous children were kidnapped from their homes, whether they wanted to go to boarding school or not (with or without parental permission), and placed in these schools that were located far away from their tribal lands. The plan was to erase the relationship these children had with their cultures, communities, and lands, and instead instill individualism in the children who they were attempting to assimilate in the hopes that they could break up the communal lands into individual parcels, making it easier to be ceased by the government and private entities alike. They called it the “Indian Problem”, which was the different lifestyle and relationship tribal members held with their land and their community. Thomas Jefferson’s two-part proposal was seen as a “key solution” to this “Indian problem.” If the Native American children were forced to become dependent on agricultural lifestyles, they assumed, they could be “civilized.” The government believed that if you separate the children from their families and their tribal connections at a very young age, what they were introduced to would be all they knew, and they would become strangers to the indigenous lifestyles. In turn, the government assumed, the children would not want to go back home and live on the reservations, but instead, would be much more likely to assimilate and live amongst the colonists.
As a result, indigenous families were broken apart, and indigenous children were placed with white families as part of the “outing system.” This meant that the children were forbidden to speak in their native languages and were required to speak English to communicate their needs. What’s worse, they were placed with children from other tribes, meaning that their common language of communication was English, and any children they would have would grow up learning English as their first language instead of the tribal languages of their ancestors.
To support the government in this endeavor, many churches were given legal power over reservations by the government. The military was called in to reinforce the orders of these religious institutions. Many times, the government paid these institutions if they operated a boarding school, paying them a sum for each child. The churches went along with it because they believed that the indigenous way of “paganism” kept them from becoming “civilized” and to fully do so, the indigenous children needed to accept Christianity. The government worked with churches from many denominations by funding them to build the Federal Indian Boarding School System.
Treatment of Indigenous children in these boarding school systems
The Federal Indian Boarding School System was problematic in so many ways. Not only did it forcefully assimilate indigenous children, but the system also took a militaristic approach to education, abusing and mistreating these children in the process. The living conditions at these Boarding schools were terrible. There was no access to basic health care needs, and diseases ran rampant across the schools. The children were malnourished, as they were provided with food and water of poor quality. There was an overcrowding issue, with many facilities forcing multiple children to share one bed as a result. There were not enough toilets to serve the number of children at each facility, and the toilets were not properly maintained.
The infrastructure in these facilities was so poor because they were not built specifically to house these children as facilities for education. Rather, these children were placed in abandoned government buildings or military forts to carry out their education. There was also the issue of child labor, where the children were expected to provide all the services required to run the facilities. This included looking after the livestock, chopping wood, making bricks, sewing garments to clothe the other children, working on the railway, cooking, and cleaning for the others in the facility, and so much more.
The children were expected to take care of themselves and the other children at the facilities. They were also tasked with work from various fields like carpentry, plumbing, blacksmithing, fertilizing, helping with the irrigation system, helping make furniture for use in the facilities (such as tables, chairs, and beds), and anything else that involved physical labor. These jobs the children were trained in would forever keep them at a lower socioeconomic level than their White counterparts. Here too they tried to instill the patriarchal norms of Western society, making sure to teach and employ young girls to work as assistants and cooks, while the young boys were expected to be farmers and industrial workers.
The Indigenous children were forcefully assimilated into American culture. They were told to stop practicing their faiths and were stopped from performing any spiritual and/or religious rituals. The children were expected to go by the English names they were given at the boarding school instead of their Native names given to them at birth. They were forced to cut their hair (which was sacred to many indigenous people as it represented their cultural identity), and were forbidden to wear their cultural clothes and instead were put in military garb.
Those who resisted the assimilation or tried to run away were caught and severely abused and punished. They were put in solitary, whipped, slapped, starved, and abused for fighting to retain their culture. Many of the older children at the facilities were forced to punish the younger children, further dividing the children, and destroying any opportunity the children may have had to band together to resist the assimilation forces. As a result of what the Federal Indian Boarding School System put these children through, there were over 50 marked and unmarked burial sites found. These burial sites had found over 500 indigenous children dead and counting, and these numbers are expected to rise to thousands more. Many indigenous children that survived these boarding schools are reported to have long-lasting impacts on their health and their lives. These children that grew up to be adults reported having higher risks for cancer, diabetes, and Tuberculosis. They experienced heightened mental health issues, and many remain in a lower socioeconomic class as a result.
Many believe this forcible assimilation program conducted by the federal government to be a cultural genocide, in which a state-sanctioned attempt at the erasure of an entire culture took place. The official definition of genocide as established by the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court reads as follows: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As per this definition, the acts carried out by the United States government against the children of various Native American tribes fulfill most, if not all these categories that define these acts to be considered genocidal. It is not a surprise that Native Americans have been killed by the federal government’s sanctions throughout history. There has been serious bodily harm and mental harm caused to members of these various indigenous groups throughout American history. The government deliberately placed young children in conditions of life that ensured their destruction as a member of the Native American tribe they each belonged to. The children within these facilities were not allowed to mingle with others from their own tribes, making it harder for them to retain and pass down their cultural identities, as well as procreate with members of their own tribe. Finally, they were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in these facilities and other non-native homes in an attempt to erase their cultural backgrounds. All these actions, as was discovered by the recent report we explored at length in this blog, were done so with the intent to destroy the rich cultures of the various Native American tribes. So, the forcible assimilation of Native American children can, without a doubt, be characterized as cultural genocide.
The main goal of this blog was to establish the historical context of what the various Native American tribes endured, as well as the intentions of the federal government in terms of their dealings with the different native nations present in America. Part two of this conversation will focus on a specific piece of legislation that has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the Indian Child Welfare Act. At face value, this legislation is simply an act that addresses the long, detailed history of Native American children and sets guidelines to ensure that proper regulations are put in place to prevent a repetition of history. Yet, it’s now been challenged, partly with the help of very shady moneyed interest, and its fate (and the overarching consequences as a result) were placed in the hands of the nine Supreme Court justices of the United States. We will explore more about this legislation and the case in the next blog.
March 21st marks World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD). On this day, events take place worldwide to raise awareness, promote inclusivity, encourage advocacy, and support people with Down syndrome. This day carries a lot of importance for individuals with Down syndrome as it creates a platform for their voice, which is often unheard of. This year’s WDSD focuses on campaigning for the right to legal capacity, with the slogan “With Us Not for Us.” Every year the United Nations holds a conference for WDSD, which will be hosted in New York this year. The goal for each meeting is to identify and speak on key issues that affect people with Down syndrome, call for action, and inclusive policymaking. Since 2011, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has designated this day to raise awareness about the struggles and successes of individuals with Down syndrome.
History of WDSD
At every WDSD conference, individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities, activists, and UN and government officials consider different ways to help the Down syndrome community. WDSD gives power and a voice to people with Down syndrome, enabling them to speak on the changes they want and providing guidance to how we collectively, as a global community, can help. Past themes of WDSD have supported inclusion, acceptance, and freedom for all individuals with disabilities. All too often, individuals with any form of disability are deemed unfit or incapable of being independent due to a lack of awareness and understanding, which is why this day is immensely important. Down Syndrome affects 3,000-5,000 newborns every year, which is caused when newborns have an extra copy of chromosome 21. Their struggles begin from the moment they are born. People with Down syndrome are not always accepted, particularly in societies that have strong stigmas against medical problems.
Every year, the WDSD conferences promote different aspects that individuals with Down Syndrome face, this year’s WDSD conference focused on the right to legal capacity and decision-making. People with Down syndrome are often not given the right to make their own life decisions. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) protects this right, but the sad reality is that it is often ignored. Legal capacity is critical for people with Down syndrome, as without it, they have no authority to make decisions on:
This is a prevalent issue. Rather than having protection from governments or their families, people with Down syndrome are often considered mentally incompetent and incapable of making their own decisions. Governments and judicial areas within countries are responsible for ensuring that people with Down syndrome have the right to legal capacity and the proper protection and support.
All over the world, people with Down Syndrome are treated unjustly. They are denied proper education, healthcare, and employment opportunities and are often ignored, unable to make decisions about their lives. These struggles are pervasive, affecting developing countries and modern, progressive westernized countries. In 2019, Bassel Dib, a man with Down syndrome, was dismissed from an internationally recognized gym chain, Golds Gym, in Amman, Jordan. He was kicked because the owner did not want someone with a visible disability to ruin the gym’s prestige. The owner is a well-known member of the Jordanian parliament who has been able to get away with discrimination on multiple occasions by leveraging his status and powerful connections within the Jordanian government. Common stigmas and stereotypes surrounding people with Down syndrome prevent them from accessing specific opportunities, places, and decision-making power.
Despite these injustices, there are many inspiring success stories of people with Down syndrome. For instance, Bassel has been able to go to college, compete in the Special Olympics on the Jordanian national team, and now aspires to become a bodybuilder. Sofia Jirau made history as Victoria’s Secret’s first model with Down syndrome. Chelsea Werner, a special Olympic gymnast that has now become a successful model, was a four-time U.S. national championship winner in gymnastics and has modeled on the cover of Vogue and New York Fashion Week. John Tucker, also a man with Down syndrome, starred in the Emmy-winning series “Born This Way.” This series features seven young people with Down syndrome and follows their lives as they look for employment and housing while overcoming societal obstacles. These are just a few success stories of people with Down syndrome. Numerous other achievements exist, from small unknown advancements to big, publicized ones. The important thing is that every single one of them has been able to break societal barriers and achieve their dreams.
What can you do
The most significant problem for people with Down syndrome is the lack of equal opportunities. We can work towards addressing this issue by educating ourselves, our peers, friends, and families. It is crucial to constantly be aware of issues preventing people with Down syndrome from accessing their full independence and power. Together, we can collectively create positive change and ensure that people with Down syndrome are given the same attention, opportunities, and power as everyone else.
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Naturally, many human rights violations and atrocities leave one wondering, “What can I do to ensure these violations do not happen again?” Unfortunately, however, many don’t know how to help to support human rights and a lot of information online is convoluted. This in turn causes charities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which seek to promote humanitarian efforts, to often get overshadowed by bad news.
In this blog, I will share notable charities and initiatives that one could support in an effort to make a difference in the world.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an organization that investigates and reports on human rights violations and atrocities throughout the world. The advocacy of Human Rights Watch, as said by them, is directed towards “governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices.”
Moreover, Human Rights Watch does not accept any sort of funding from the government or corporations, as they seek to remain unbiased and bipartisan. The organization is complied of over 400 lawyers and human rights experts, and they would be a great organization to help out with donations.
Human Rights Watch prides itself on its transparency in its affairs, and it was thus awarded the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency, an award given by an organization that “gathers, organizes, and distributes information about U.S nonprofits in an effort to advance transparency, enable users to make better decisions, and encourage charitable giving.”
Moreover, if that was not enough to show you the commitment of Human Rights Watch, allow us to make note that in 1997, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping create the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty — a piece of legislation that brought about newfound protection to citizens from bombs which previously “killed and maimed indiscriminately.”
Therefore, with all of the aforementioned facts in mind, donating to Human Rights Watch would be a sure way in bringing about change and ensuring that human rights violations get exposed, lessened, and stopped.
Amnesty International is one of the most influential and famous nongovernmental organizations in the world. Amnesty International, simply put, could be defined by its mission statement: “[we are] a global movement of more than 10 million people who take injustice personally. We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.” Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, is primarily funded by its supporters – not governments or political institutions.
Moreover, Amnesty International is both unbiased and bipartisan – they simply just seek to ensure all people enjoy human rights. Amnesty International functions by lobbying governments to ensure they keep their promises and passions for human rights; investigate and expose all violations that occur in the world, despite of where or what might have happened; and seek to educate and mobilize all people who wish to learn more about human rights.
Amnesty International was founded more than 50 years ago when the owner, Peter Benenson, saw two Portuguese students jailed for raising a toast to freedom in 1961. Since then, Amnesty International has been one of the most prominent and respected NGOs on the scene, and they have accomplished a lot.
In just 2022 alone, Amnesty International has helped free individuals who were imprisoned unjustly and ensured that human rights abusers got locked up. Moreover, Amnesty International was a driving force behind the decriminalization of Abortion in Colombia. Needless to say, Amnesty International’s impact, passion, and dedication to human rights is incredibly influential, and donating to their cause would definitely help bring about good changes.
Human Rights First
Human Rights First (HRF) was established in 1978, with the mission of “[ensuring] that the United States is a global leader on human rights.” Human Rights First is centered in the United States, but it conducts a multitude of work abroad to ensure that “human wrongs are righted.”
Human Rights First has been involved in a lot of international political affairs which sought to eradicate injustice and, as they put it, human wrongs. For instance, in 1988, Human Rights First initiated its Lawyer-to-Lawyer network, which was an initiative that helped ensure all lawyers that have been imprisoned unjustly internationally are released. As of now, the program has worked with over 8000 lawyers in over 130 countries.
In addition to helping create the International Criminal Court, Human Rights First also helped establish the Fair Labor Association in 1999. This Association brought together over 60 major companies, such as Nike and Adidas, to help set workplace standards for industries throughout the world. In doing so, Human Rights First helped ensure that those who work for major international companies are not going to face hardships or disparity in their workplace environment.
Human Rights First, in addition to all that has been mentioned, has been a major actor in the anti-torture movement. In 2009, Human Rights First stood beside President Obama when he signed the executive order banning all torture in the United States. Then, in 2015, Human Rights First sought to make Obama’s order even more powerful and impactful. After the release of the Torture Report, Human Rights First was able to gain public support and then work with Senators McCain and Feinstein to craft what they consider to be the “strongest anti-torture law in U.S. history.”
Needless to say, Human Rights First is an incredibly dedicated, driven, and successful organization, which has had years of successful changes in the world of human rights. You definitely would not go wrong by donating or supporting them.
In summary, human rights is a very complicated topic that is often convoluted and hard to understand through the media. Due to this, many do not always know what is the best way to donate and help out, despite wanting to. In this blog, I have listed multiple different organizations that have a proven history of success and change, and I thus hope to have made the process of getting involved in human rights easier.
If more people are involved in human rights, more change will happen, and more people internationally will have access to these same rights. It is my hope that, one day, human rights will be as accessible to everyone on this planet as oxygen is. This will only happen with support, and that is exactly what I hope to have urged you to do in this blog — support the NGOs which fight for human rights.
For years the United States (US) has been employing extraterritorial jurisdiction to impose oppressive sanctions on foreigners. Often, these sanctions violate due process rights because they are imposed without providing individuals with adequate notice, a fair hearing, or an opportunity to challenge the designation. The US has the authority to freeze assets, ban travel, and place other restrictions on financial transactions. This significantly impacts an individual’s human rights as the freedom to travel, freedom to work, and freedom to have privacy. Targeting individuals abroad for alleged activities that occurred outside of the US makes it evident that these restrictions are over-complying out of fear, a fear which is rooted in ethnophobia. Many Americans fear immigrants are taking their jobs, and sanctions like this only bolster this. Arbitrarily depriving someone of their property based on where they are from is an inherent violation of human rights. Unilateral coercive measures like the Global Magnitsky Act, Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Person List, and Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions have a disproportionately negative effect on international people.
Global Magnitsky Act
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act authorizes the president to block or revoke the visas of certain “foreign persons” (both individuals and entities) or to impose property sanctions on them. People can be sanctioned (a) if they are responsible for or acted as an agent for someone responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” or (b) if they are government officials or senior associates of government officials complicit in “acts of significant corruption.” It was enacted as a deterrent for foreign political corruption but instead was a catalyst for arbitrary detention and arrests without due process. There is a lack of transparency and little to no evidence provided to justify designating individuals under the Act. UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan concerned about human rights violations states, “This is a clear violation of due process rights, including the presumption of innocence and fair trial.” The Act allows the US government to impose sanctions on individuals accused of human rights violations and corruption but does not provide them with a fair opportunity to challenge these allegations. Though it serves the purpose of preventing acts of terrorism and maintaining foreign accountability, the language is not concise enough to prevent arbitrary detentions or sanctions.
Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Person List
The SDN list is updated regularly with the names of individuals, entities, and organizations deemed to be involved in a range of criminal activities such as terrorism, narcotics, or arms. Therefore, US nationals are prohibited from engaging in any form of transaction with SDNs. Based on similar provisions under the Patriot Act, the government can block all of an individual’s or entity’s assets in the US. Similar to Magnitsky, there are concerns over transparency and due process violations. There have been inconsistencies in the way that individuals and entities are designated on the list, including cases where some individuals or entities are designated while others engaged in similar activities are not. Since the process behind the designation is not made public, it begs the question what is the real intention behind this decision and are there any underlying motives? Also, the list is public which subjects the individuals on the list to political abuse by targeting people that are seen as political opponents or rivals, rather than based on evidence of wrongdoing. “This is a clear violation of due process rights, including the presumption of innocence and fair trial, “ The Special Rapporteur observed.
Office of Foreign Assets Control Sanctions
OFAC is an office of the U.S. Treasury that administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted individuals and entities from foreign countries. OFAC sanctions can have unintended consequences and harm innocent parties, such as businesses or individuals that have no connection to the sanctioned entities or countries. The exterritorial reach the US has over foreign businesses is overt and unnecessary. Similar to the other legislation, there is a significant gap in knowledge between the government and the individuals affected. They do not know what they have done that has caused them to be targeted. The affected parties have no way to challenge these accusations if they are not aware of what they have done wrong, thus hindering the due process. The UN expert mentioned how human rights are infringed upon when US trade sanctions against specific countries penalize foreign companies for doing business.
While these laws are in the interest of national security, we need to reevaluate if their ability to reach their intended goals or if have they just enforced discriminatory, biased legislation. There are concerns about their impact on innocent parties, lack of transparency and due process, extraterritorial reach, and potential for abuse. These are important factors to consider when evaluating the country’s presence in foreign entities. It is important to incorporate human rights protections in the sanctions the government passes because they affect international relations, global human rights, and the preservation of American ideals of democracy and equality.
This post is an update on the previous blog titled: The Natural-Humanitarian Disaster of the Turkey-Syria Earthquake. While this topic is no longer in our regular newsfeed, the consequences of disaster are very much ongoing. People n Turkey and Syria are still recovering from the devastating aftermath of the first earthquake that occurred on February 6th people and have yet to find a sense of calm. Trying to find a sense of normalcy, children have begun attending school, and parents have attempted to return to their usual lives. But there is still so much destruction, making it hard to do so. According to the latest records, the earthquakes have killed over 50,000 individuals and injured over 100,000. 214,000 homes have collapsed, leaving thousands in need of aid and shelter. There are still victims that have yet to be found or identified under the rubble of what was once their home. UNICEF has reported that earthquakes have impacted almost 5 million children. Even though the initial earthquakes have finished, the need for humanitarian assistance has worsened.
These earthquakes are incredibly destructive considering the conditions of the areas, mainly referring to Syria. Syria has already been going through one of the most significant humanitarian crises in the world. The earthquake has only worsened its conditions, and access to aid is even more limited. Access to aid has been a very important topic considering the governmental sanctions imposed by many of the big nations (USA, Europe, etc.), and part of the country is controlled by its own government. Other areas are under the control of NGOs. On February 12, Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN, stated: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.” Over 4.1 million individuals in Syria depend on aid and assistance from NGOs, primarily women and children. Getting aid to Syria has been and is more difficult than getting aid in Turkey. It is especially apparent when comparing the aid given to both countries on an international level because, on the one hand, Turkey receives both international aid and support from its government. Yet, on the other hand, Syria, which is not controlled by one body of government, can receive partial international aid.
Problems in Syria
On February 14th, eight days after the initial earthquakes, border crossing points were finally opened for UN aid to be delivered to Syria. By February 22nd, 282 aid trucks were sent by 6 UN agencies. On February 19, Medical Charity Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), was able to send 14 aid trucks to Syria in an effort to assist with the rescue operations. As essential as these efforts of sending aid and providing help have been, many problems remain, mainly the governmental sanctions and the closed borders surrounding the affected areas. In addition, Syria is still undergoing a Civil war, making it even more challenging to receive the help they need. Since the initial earthquake, it took days for aid and rescue crews to arrive, which has critically impacted injured civilians and individuals stuck under the rubble of buildings. The Syrian regime has bombed the affected areas of Syria (Northwest area) over 84 times. Such attacks have caused damage to the border crossings, so many NGOs have requested for more crossing points to be available, especially considering the scarcity of resources in Syria and the inability of UN aid to reach the areas affected.
Efforts to help:
As seen, there is a lot of sadness surrounding the earthquakes and their aftermath. Along with the destruction, there have also been many organizations, individuals, and countries who have come to help, providing a sense of hope and relief. A group of online internet activists has created a website called TakeShelter, which enables displaced individuals to connect with hosts worldwide. This initiative was created and developed just 48 hours after the earthquakes occurred. One of the founders, Avi Schiffmann, stated that this website has reverted “power back into the hands of those displaced by the earthquake, allowing them to find shelter.” This website was launched through an organization called InternetActivism. This has opened many doors for activism and providing humanitarian care for generations to come. With almost everything being online, this website has paved the way for providing humanitarian support through a digital platform and helped over 100 families to find shelter in the homes of others.
Moreover, many countries have taken a stronger initiative by investigating earthquake destruction prevention methods. Iraq has begun to install 16 earthquake warning stations throughout the country. Iraq experienced some aftershocks from the initial earthquakes. Since then, they have worked to put different stations to monitor the earthquakes and future ones on the borders connected to Syria and Turkey. In addition, Saudi Arabia has built around 3,000 temporary homes to be sent to the victims in Turkey and Syria. Public, influential figures such as Cristiano Ronaldo have sent aid to those affected. There have been many reasonable efforts that have been made and shown.
What can you do?
In times like these, after the shock has been visible through news cycles, articles, and social media posts, people tend to think that this disaster is fixed, but that is not the case. The weeks after an initial humanitarian disaster can be much worse than the first day of it. As time passes, more family members are identified as dead or remain missing. Incomes for families have entirely disappeared, and now humanitarian aid support is required to survive. Those who have lost their homes are now living in community shelters or on the streets, and the conditions of those affected will continue to worsen unless we do something about such a situation. Hundreds and thousands of homes, schools and businesses must be rebuilt. The importance of donations, providing awareness and finding ways to help continues. Even though the earthquakes have stopped, millions continue to be displaced. Below are resources to donate and learn more about the cause.
Armed conflict often results in a wide range of human rights violations, includingright to life, liberty, and security. Conflict can have a devastating impact on human rights, leaving individuals and communities vulnerable to a range of abuses and violations. Oftentimes,during military conflicts, the elderly are overlooked when it comes to human rights abuses. Despite being among the most vulnerable members of society, the impacts of armed conflict on older people are often underreported, highlighting the need for greater attention and support for this marginalized group.Human Rights Watch released a report addressing the significanthuman rights violations older people endure during wartime. The report calls for the United Nations (UN) to end the abuses, provide protection, and facilitate humanitarian assistance for the elderly. The report documents a pattern of violations against the elderly in African and Middle Easterncountries experiencing war.
Pattern of Abuses
Older people are more likely to experience a range of physical, emotional, and economic challenges during times of conflict. Government and non-state armed forces have unlawfully attacked and killed older civilians, subjecting them to summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, rape, abduction and kidnapping, and the destruction of their homes and other property.Older people are more likely to be injured or killed during armed conflict due to their reduced mobility, impaired senses, and other health issues. In the Central African Republic, for example, the armed forces executed Dieudonne, a blind 60-year-old man in July 2017.Many older people rely on family members and caregivers for support, but armed conflict can disrupt these networks, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.In Ethiopia, after Tigrayan forces recaptured most of the Tigray region in 2021, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained older Tigrayans in Addis Abeba. Amhara forces in control of the Western Tigray zone detained elderly people in overcrowded detention facilities, subjecting them to beatings and other forms of ill-treatment.The stress and trauma of living in a conflict-affected environment can have significant impacts on older people’s mental health and well-being, and may exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.In South Sudan during government operations against rebel forces in February 2019, a soldier made a 50 year-old woman carry looted property, beat her with a gun, and raped her repeatedly.Sexual assault can have profound and long-lasting effects on an individual’s mental health and well-being.
Unable to Receive Aid
Another facet of the abuse is that displaced older people cannot access humanitarian aid. People experiencingmust flee in order to access basic services such as food, shelter, and medical care. During hostilities,many older people have chosen not to flee their homes because they think they will not be harmed, or they want to protect the land they have had in their families for years. Also, limited mobility and disability lead to fewer elderly choosing to flee. In 2017, Myanmar security forces pushed older people who could not flee back into burning houses.Displaced older people have also faced difficulties in registering for and receiving humanitarian aid. In South Sudan in 2017, displaced older people who sought refuge were more likely to face difficulties in receiving aid than those who fled to Protection of Civilians sites within UN bases.Amnesty International has documented the failure of humanitarian actors to meet humanitarian standards and be inclusive of older people in their responses to conflict-driven displacements.
We should be concerned with the gross negligence of elderly’s human rights because every person deserves respect and dignity. Elderly individuals have a wealth of life experience and knowledge to share, and they deserve to be valued and respected for their contributions to society. Due to their age, older people are one of the most vulnerable groups, so it is up to us to do all we can to ensure their safety and protection. Protecting the human rights of elderly individuals is a matter of social justice. As members of society, they have the same rights and entitlements as anyone else, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that these rights are upheld.
I grew up in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Not inside the perimeter as one might say, I spent my childhood in the forests for hours at a time. My brother and I never grew bored of the endless possibilities and freedom we felt among the oaks: they are some of my most treasured memories. So, whenever we drove into Atlanta proper, I would watch the trees blur by as we encroached further to the city’s heart, well past the notorious highway 285 that encircles it. I always had a tree in sight no matter the distance we ventured into the city, and it always reminded me that home could extend and coincide with a vibrant metropolis rising ever closer in my sight. This always soothed me and put me at peace.
Not all is peaceful in the forest, however.
When protesting is rebranded as domestic terrorism
Since the quiet release of plans to demolish South River Forest (also known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm) in 2021, protesters have been camping in the forest for months. Local organizations have banded together in order to advocate for the forest and resist police attempts to forcibly remove protesters. These organizations includeDefend the Atlanta Forest, Community Movement Builders, a Black-led nonprofit serving working-class and poor Black people, and the newly formed Stop Cop City group.
These organizations have intersecting goals that culminate in mutual aid to stop the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center known as “Cop City.” Leaders from the Community Movement Builders described the project as a “war base” wherein “police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements.”
One reason for the clear disdain for the project, aside from the historical implications discussed further below, is that the proposed site resides in unincorporated Dekalb county. Thus, those living in the neighborhood had no representatives on the council that approved the project in the first place. After public outrage at the lack of transparency and community engagement, the Atlanta council begrudgingly allowed public comments before the vote in September 2021. The council received 17 hours of recording on the proposal with 70% (or 12 hours) expressing opposition. The plan still passed 10-4.
Protesters have created makeshift barricades from mounds of illegally dumped material such as automobiles and tires in the forest. There is no water or electricity in the encampments so the protesters live very frugally to defend their beliefs. Access to water has continued to be an issue as police try to cut off supplies in an attempt to disperse the protesters and conduct regular raids and wreaking camps.
Confrontations with the police have only become more frequent: and with more serious consequences. At first, some activists found themselves with trespassing charges, but protests escalated on January 18th when demonstrator Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a 26-year-old queer environmental activist, was lethally shot by Georgia state police.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation released a statement that Tortuguita, they/them, did not “comply with verbal commands” and allegedly shot a Georgia State Patrol trooper who is in stable condition. As a result of these alleged sequence of events, Tortuguita was shot over a dozen times by multiple different firearms and there is no body cam footage of the tragedy.
Now, the state is planning to convict 18 activists of domestic terrorism charges which holds a possible sentence of up to 35 years.
Local authorities have continued to falsely claim that organizations involved in resisting police development plans are “domestic violent extremists.” During the bail hearing for those arrested on Jan. 18th, bail was denied to four activists while two were given the unprecedented amount of $355,000, along with conditions for ankle monitors and curfews.
What once would have been considered a sit-in protest has now been twisted into “domestic terrorism.”
Considered a private-public venture between the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the 85 acres slotted to be turned into a police compound would cost $90 million to construct. Renderings of the project include indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, an auditorium, classrooms, a space dedicated to explosion tests, and a mock miniature city to practice high-speed chases and burn-building training.
The Public Safety Training Academy Advisory Council was formed under the previous mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, on Jan. 4, 2021. According to investigative work conducted by the Mainline, a woman-led independent magazine based in Atlanta, the council was comprised entirely by “government, police, and fire officials, including Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen and APF CEO and President Dave Wilkinson.”
After meeting on Jan. 22, Feb. 12, March 4, and March 26 in 2021, the plan that would become Ordinance No. 21-O-0367 (Cop City) was introduced on June 7th the same year. It was passed shortly thereafter on September 8th, 2021.
Two-thirds of the costs ($60 million) to construct Cop City are coming from corporate donors such as Chick-Fil-A and Delta. Otherwise, despite the desperate and apparent need for affordable housing, food, and other life-affirming infrastructures, the remaining third of the costs ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers.
The land is currently under lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation for only $10 a year (see page 10) and construction started this February.
Hidden racist history of the forest continued with the development of Cop City
Before South River Forest became known as such, located in the bustling perimeter of Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan, the land belonged to the Muscogee Creek nation. In the early 19th century, these people were forcibly removed from their land by ever-encroaching settlers on the East coast and South Florida.
In 1821, Georgia held its fourth land lottery, dividing the Muscogee Creek home into 202.5 acres. Between an 11-year period (1827-38), 23,000 Muscogee were driven from their lands by white, enslaving men.
Soon after, the land became a part of a complex of plantations that exploited the labor of enslaved people. The proposed South River Forest zone contained at least 9 plantations. The names of these plantation owners will not be given here, however, to learn some of the known names of enslaved peoples residing in this area, please read this article.
Eventually, this land was sold to the city of Atlanta which was then used as a city-run forced agricultural labor prison that ran uninterrupted from 1920 to nearly 1990, being officially shuttered in 1995.
Originally, the land became the first “honor farm” in the state, allowing trustworthy prisoners and those with minor infractions to work off their time. This was only a mask for a new form of slavery, cruelty, and so much worse as the Prison Farm ran, without clear archived records, for decades. The last official record comes from a 1971 health inspection record.
There are no official reports on the number of people who died under the inhumane working conditions, but there is a widespread belief that some inmates who died were buried in unmarked graves though none have been found yet. A little of what we know is troubling at best and stomach-churning at worse. In 1941, a prison superintendent reported housing 9 Black prisoners in a 12 ft space, alongside numerous reports of sexual violence from guards, and inmate deaths, often under suspect circumstances.
In one example, prisoners were allowed to handle Sulfotep, which was only contained in unlabeled squeeze bottles and is an extremely toxic chemical pesticide only supposed to be dispensed by licensed company personnel. We know this because of the death of Leroy Horton, who was serving only a 20-day sentence, and who had been sprayed with the substance by another inmate at his own request after contracting lice at the prison. He served only four days of his sentence and died three weeks later due to these gross malpractices in safety protocols and sanitary living conditions.
Now, the land is once more under contract by state policing structures.
Benefits and necessity of urban forests
Atlanta has been called the “City in the Forest” for its vast canopy coverage and abundance of trees within the city. That is because Atlanta leads the nation and major metropolitan cities in canopy coverage at 47.9 percent.
The canopy is not distributed evenly across the city, rather it decreases as one approaches downtown and increases as one approaches the outskirts, making the presence of South River Forest within the perimeter that much more extraordinary. Researchers also found that the lowest canopy coverage was along transportation corridors, but was over 90 percent along stream corridors and in nature preserves.
More and more cities are tracking the number of trees they foster because of the multitude of benefits they offer. This ranges from combatting urban heat island effects, reducing heating and cooling costs overall, providing blue/green space which improves mental health, acting as stormwater management to control flooding, and sequestering carbon thus improving air quality, combatting carbon emissions and climate change.
Results from a Montgomery, Alabama analysis found that urban forests removed 3.2 million lbs of pollutants from the air annually which is valued at $7.9 million. Moreover, the urban forest sequestered 11,263 tons of carbon each year and stored a total of 1.45 million tons of carbon.
In Atlanta, climate scientists have warned that destroying woods will make the city more susceptible to flooding and dangerously hot temperatures. Other concerns over the South River Forest area are worsened air quality due to construction, fires, and weapons training. In this mainly Black part of metro Atlanta, people have been historically neglected. According to the US Census, 75 percent of the neighborhoods near the forest are Black and suffer from high poverty rates and health challenges like diabetes and asthma.
The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter issued a statement on behalf of Black and Latinx community members, who have long been victims of environmental injustice and pollution within the city, stating their vehement opposition to the destruction of the South River Forest.
Intersections of social ecology and human rights
In recent years, there has been a burgeoning movement to connect ecological and social issues together: known as the theory of social ecology. Murray Bookchin, a pioneer in the environmental movement and social theorist, has stated that ecological problems stem from social issues which in turn are exacerbated by ecological destruction. This vicious cycle has become the driving force behind new movements to address climate change and foster more awareness of the interdependence of people and their environment. Without this widespread recognition, social-ecological theorists have argued that hierarchical societies that rely on violent institutions like prisons and police are more likely to treat their environment and people as entities to be dominated, conquered, and/or controlled.
In the case of the South River Forest/Cop City contention, this theoretical framework can be easily illustrated, alongside numerous normative international human rights standards.
Firstly, the plans to develop Cop City were done so surreptitiously; there were no public announcements on the proposal before voting, nor were community members and organizations/specialists asked to participate in the development of the plans. Secondly, the council that approved the plans was not elected by anyone from the community in which the Cop City construction will take place. These are prime disregards for political and public representation: foundational blocks for democratic governance, rule of law, and social inclusion. From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR):
“Participation rights are inseparably linked to other human rights such as the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and the rights to education and to information.”
Next, the economic and social human rights of the South River Forest community are also being threatened. Economically, once again without any representative input, ⅓ of the cost ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers. Socially, each human has the right “to social protection, to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being.” These rights are being threatened by the gross environmental degradation of a low-income community that already suffers from health conditions such as asthma. Moreover, it has long been scientifically proven that blue-green space increases one’s mental health 一 an explicitly aforementioned social right.
Lastly, we come to environmental rights. The task of succinctly explaining them can be a lot, I encourage readers to look on our site in the “Environmental Rights” category for even more insight. However, in this case, where the environment is the key concern of protest, one should return again to social-ecological theory. In human rights, the right to health found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,cannot be fully achieved in an environment that contributes to worse air quality, mental health, and dangerously high temperatures. The right to security, found in Article 3 of the UDHR, cannot be achieved in an environment where the community is under threat of more flooding, subject to burns, bombs, and shooting daily, and lives in fear of violence. And this can go on and on.
Ultimately, this issue is complex and multifaceted: and it deserves public and civilian representation and more time than 7 months of deliberation to destroy a forest hundreds of years old.
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