Russia’s Attack on the Ukraine: Why You Should Care

After weeks and months of rising tension, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian troops moved over the border into Ukraine and the Russian air force started attacking cities and strategic locations like military installations and airports. These attacks have happened all across the country, not only in some of the contested provinces in eastern Ukraine. These areas have experienced violence and fighting since 2014 after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders have condemned Russian actions, with the U.S. and EU announcing additional sanctions on Russia and security-related, economic, and humanitarian support for Ukraine. NATO and the UN have held emergency sessions.

Map of Ukraine with Russian attacks on 2/24/22.
Source: New York Times, 02/24/2022.

 

While this conflict seems far away for us here in Alabama, these developments are impactful, significant, and not to be underestimated for multiple reasons.

Impact on Geopolitics and the International Order

Most importantly, this is the first time since World War II that we are seeing what will likely shape up to be a full-blown international war in Europe. The Russian aggression against Ukraine puts the international order generated at the end of World War II at risk and shakes the very foundations of international relations. The invasion violates international law and denies principles and tenets established by the United Nations Charter, namely the concept of collective security, the maintenance of international peace through multilateralism and institutions, and the outlawing of the use of force in international relations. The war also threatens to destabilize Europe and undermines the order established after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s. This has the potential for severe and long-term consequences for Eastern European countries that were formerly under Soviet influence.

From a geopolitical point of view, the invasion highlights Russia’s expansionary tendencies and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to assert his power and restore regional dominance. Reinstating direct or indirect Russian control over Ukraine – a country that was formerly a part of the Soviet Union and before of the Russian Empire – has long been on Putin’s agenda. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the following eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union to include countries that were formerly within the Soviet sphere of influence (e.g., Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Baltic States, and the Czech Republic) have humiliated Russia’s ambitions to be perceived as a major world power and undermined its influence in Eastern Europe. NATO announced in 2008 that it would consider membership of former Soviet Union states Ukraine and Georgia, which Putin considered a direct threat to Russia’s influence. When Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was overthrown in 2014 and a pro-European government was installed, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and started to support pro-Russian separatist forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk. Tensions have grown since then, culminating in the Kremlin calling the Ukraine “not a state”, designating it an artificial country, and Putin’s speech justifying the invasion by accusing the Ukrainian government of a genocide against the country’s Russian-speaking population. He has also issued warnings to NATO and the U.S. that interfering would lead to “consequences you have never seen”.

Soldiers in Ukraine
Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.

This has implications not just for the Ukraine, but also for other former provinces of the Soviet Union like Georgia and Kasakhstan. Further, it might set a precedent for other countries like China, which has long contested the independence of Taiwan and the validity of Taiwan’s statehood, or Serbia, which has disputed Kosovo’s recognition as a state. If the international community and Western power show a weak response, China might feel emboldened to take military action to annex Taiwan.

The Human Rights Perspective

From a human rights point of view, there are two particular points of concern I want to highlight. First, there is the potential of grave human cost. In the first hours of the invasion, 40 Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and dozens more wounded. While Russia’s defense ministry promised not to attack cities or put civilians at risk, we all know that this is not how war works out or how Russia has fought its past wars (think Chechnya and Syria). Human rights violations, especially against women, children, and other vulnerable groups, tend to be widespread in armed conflict. A number of agencies have already called for a ceasefire to protect people in the Ukraine and to allow for humanitarian action, but so far we have yet to see any progress on this.

Second, there is the larger issue of authoritarian regimes expanding to the detriment of democracy and human rights. The “democratic recession” or the decline of democratic institutions and individual rights even in countries that were traditionally stable liberal democracies with high levels of freedom (including our own…) has been demonstrated by political scientists over the years (the term was coined by Larry Diamond, but see also here and here for other approaches). While scholars are debating the impact of democratic decline, Freedom House scores have consistently declined since 2005, showing democracy and human rights in crisis.

Meeting of the UN Security Council.
Meeting of the Security Council. Source: Nagpur Today.

It seems that the foundations of international peace, democracy, and human rights are at risk. Russia’s open aggression shows that these foundations are crumbling or at least are perceived to be crumbling. Putin is not alone in his interpretation  – other authoritarian leaders in China, Venezuela, and Iran, and even some heads of state of democratic countries like Poland and Hungary, have openly defeated traditional avenues of political interaction, trade, treaty making, and diplomacy in favor of hard power and force.

Where does this leave us? At this point, it is unclear how the war between Russia and the Ukraine will unfold, how long it will last, and what the exact human and economic costs will be. We also don’t know yet how the world will respond beyond strong condemnation and imposing sanctions. What we do know is that there is great volatility and potentially long-lasting consequences from this fall out. This is a dangerous situation that we need to observe carefully. It has major implications for geopolitics and will affect us here at home.

What can you do to support the people in the Ukraine?

2022 Olympics Shine a Spotlight on China’s Record with Human Rights

The Olympics serve a global spotlight for the world’s best athletes. The tradition was born out of Ancient Greece over 3,000 years ago. After not being held for over a millennium, The Modern Olympics began once more in Athens, Greece in 1896, and have been held in alternating cities every four years since. The Winter Olympics began being held as a separate set of games in between each occurrence of the Summer Olympics in 1994.

The Olympics were famed not only for bringing the world’s most power athletes together for weeks of competition, but also for the prosperity they would bring to the host city. The Olympics bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists, and provide cities incentives to build state-of-the-art stadiums, creating new jobs locally. Despite this, the Olympics have also come under scrutiny in the last few years because they also bring major disadvantages to the host cities and nations.

To make way for new Olympic facilities, impoverished neighborhoods within cities are often demolished. This occurred in Beijing just fourteen years ago when they hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and this mass eviction of the urban poor became an extremely hot topic during the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games, when the city had to use Police Pacification Units to clear out the city’s favelas in a highly militarized way.

used to show one of china's new construction projects
The Olympics brings temporary economic prosperity to the host nation via the need for elaborate new construction projects, such as depicted in this image. SOURCE : Google Images

These acts of forced removal have been called out by human rights activists as dangerous violations of human rights, but this is not the only way human rights affects the Olympic games and their respective host cities. The worldwide attention the Olympics receive every two years highlights not only the host city, but the host nation. The 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted once again by Beijing, have put China into hot water as international press have scrutinized China’s alleged human rights violations. So what has been going on in China?

China’s Crackdown on Dissent

News outlets across the globe were fascinated by China’s COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which began in early February. Using a massive amount of manpower and resources, China constructed an Olympic “bubble”, or quarantine zone which will house over 11,000 athletes from all over the world. The bubble consists of a “closed loop” of stadiums, conference centers, and over seventy hotels, and all athletes inside this bubble will have no contact with the wider Chinese population. The Chinese central government is taking precautions to absolute extremes, even warning citizens not to intervene if an Olympic vehicle is involved in a car crash while transporting athletes between facilities.

But China’s Olympic “bubble” serves a dual purpose – it also keeps Chinese human rights activists away from the games. Prominent human rights activist Hu Jia was placed under house arrest in order to keep him out of the public eye for the duration of the Winter games. In an interview with CNN, he wrote that “In China, people like me are called ‘domestic hostile forces’… that’s why they have to cut me off from the outside world”. Jia has been under house arrest since January 15.

Human rights activists, who have monitoring China for decades, report that crackdowns on activists and speech — which can range from shutting down social media accounts to house arrests, detentions or enforced disappearances — are typical in the lead up to high-profile events in China, where the Communist Party keeps a tight lid on dissent. But the situation continues to deteriorate in China as controls on dissent tighten year-round, and the protocols for “sensitive” and “normal” periods have begun to blur.

China’s Record with Human Rights 

The Human Rights Watch continues to watch China and their increased authoritarianism in the past few decades. Their 2021 report overviews several alarming trends in the Communist nation.

After the COVID-19 pandemic originated in the nation in the late fall of 2019, it was reported that “The Chinese government’s authoritarianism was on full display in 2020“. Authorities in China were criticized globally for initially trying to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan province. China has all refused to comply with international requests for an independent investigation into the government’s initial handling of the pandemic. It has also been alleged that Chinese authorities placed families of COVID victims under harsh surveillance.

But China’s recent rise in authoritarian behavior even predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Hong Kong experienced six months of intense antigovernmental protests, leading to the adoption of a new “National Security Law” on June 30 that was labelled by Human Rights Watch as “draconian”. Activists were deeply alarmed by the broad and sweeping language of the new legislation, which penalizes “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Under the National Security Law, even the use of common political phrases such as “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” have been outright banned, stifling free speech throughout China.

Perhaps most alarmingly, China has also come under international scrutiny for allegations of genocide and other crimes against humanity enacted against the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority ethnic group who mostly reside in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Activists have reported the presence of “re-education camps” which have allegedly been used to detain over one million Uyghurs in recent years, with hundreds of thousands more being sentenced to prison. Evidence has also been brought forth showing the Chinese government’s use of Uyghur people for forced labor, and some women have been forced to undergo sterilization. The re-education camps have also been reportedly rife with sexual violence against Uyghur women, as reported by survivors. Cultural genocide has also been reported, as several Uyghur religious practices have been banned in the region, and China has demolished Uyghur mosques and tombs.

shows a re-education camp
An image captured of a Uyghur “re-education” camp in the Xinjiang region. It is alleged that over one million Uyghurs have been placed into these camps.

As China continues to project power on the global stage through their economic successes, military prowess, and spotlight events such as the Olympics, it is important to remember that authoritarianism does not protect human rights. China, from a surface-level perspective, may be viewed as one of the biggest success stories of our modern age. Their economy is the second-largest in the world, and many in China are enjoying an amount of prosperity not seen in the regions in centuries. Their citizens, especially those who want a better future for China, are paying the price for this alleged “success”, as their rights to freedom and privacy are infringed daily by the robust Chinese surveillance state. Modern states should be based on robust human rights, and China will need to enact several heavy reforms to move away from their current authoritarianism. China can become one of the world’s leading powers in the 21st century, but they can only do so if they uphold the rights of their citizens.

Pegasus: A Frightening Era of Digital Surveillance

Imagine a secret company tapping every word you say and email you read, all because someone decided you are a threat. It may seem draconian and futuristic, but this is the reality of human rights activists around the world under a mysterious spyware called Pegasus. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Pegasus is an international symbol of decreasing privacy, invasion of privacy restrictions, and increasing digital surveillance of citizens by their governments.  

Pegasus, named after the Trojan horse, is a malware created by an Israeli cybersecurity company known as the NSO group. The spyware was initially intended as a global weapon against terrorism and crime. Normally, most malware infects a device through an email or link containing the software, but Pegasus requires no action on the receiver’s device to become embedded in the device’s systems. Through the “iMessage zero click” exploit, Pegasus is automatically downloaded onto the target’s iPhone. Only a digital security lab has the resources to detect Pegasus on a device, because the program itself does not cause any disruptions to a device’s function.  

Pegasus spyware can access GPS location, calls, texts, contacts, emails, and more dangerously, encrypted and private data such as passwords. Attackers can gain access to a device’s microphone and camera, as well, which opens the door to unauthorized agencies recording audio or video without the owner’s knowledge. The first use of Pegasus was traced to 2013 and has since impacted over 45 countries, but international investigations only began a few years ago. Earlier in 2021, an international collaboration of news media including Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International launched The Pegasus Project to investigate, country by country, the impact of Pegasus use. Evidence has shown that governments use Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and public officials although every country accused has denied the allegation or insisted that it was necessary.  

Painted image of a CCTV camera on a white background
Black CCTV camera stamped on white paint on a concrete wall; Source: Upsplash

India 

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is accused of using Pegasus to illegally spy on people they classify as “Anti-India” or having an anti-government agenda.  

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project found over 300 Indian phone numbers including those of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers being tracked by the surveillance software. Four years earlier, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is protected under the Constitution. Despite the legal provision, the Indian government has used excuses of national security and protection when confronted with allegation of using the notorious spyware. This year, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to investigate the data produced by the Pegasus Project and determine whether the government did use Pegasus to spy on citizens and thus, violated the law.  

The Indian government has expanded the umbrella of legal surveillance since the passing of the 1885 Telegraph Act and 2000 Information Technology Act, rendering any word of restricting unauthorized surveillance from them laughable. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for enforcing the 2021 Information Technology Rules, but the legislation has increased the hunt for human rights activists and news outlets that criticize the government’s actions. Initially passed to prevent social media misuse, the rules act as an access card to control streaming sites, social media services, and online news sources that are crucial for citizens to become aware of accurate, although incriminating, investigative reports. 

Journalists sitting down and taking notes at a press conference
Journalists in search of the truth are targeted by governments. Source: Upsplash

Middle East 

Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, and Turkey show similar patterns of digital repression over the last couple of decades. The UAE is already known for having the most surveillance over its people in the world. By claiming the invasive surveillance efforts for national security, the Emirati government tracked conversations of its residents, Qatari officials, members of the Saudi Royal Family, and other opponents. In 2016, a human rights activist from the UAE, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted with Pegasus in 2016 before his arrest in 2017 and subsequent 10-year jail sentence. Fellow activists and scholars have sufficient evidence to suggest that governmental surveillance caused his illegal arrest. 

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a progressive journalist from Saudi Arabia, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel and went into hiding in 2017 after the government threatened him. From Turkey, he wrote articles chastising his home government. After his death, Pegasus was allegedly used to keep tabs on his son, fiancé, and other affiliations without their consent.  

Palestine 

Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization, found Pegasus on the phones of 6 Palestinian activists that began in July 2020. The activists belonged to human rights and civil society organizations such as Defense for Children’s International – Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Work Committees in Israel of which 6 have been declared terrorist organizations despite lacking credible evidence supporting the designation.  

Most Israeli surveillance laws do not apply to security companies and give them free reign to use the NSO’s spyware. In 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for invading the popular international messaging platform WhatsApp on 1400 devices. And on November 23rd, Apple sued the NSO Group in California Court for violating a federal anti-hacking law by providing dangerous software to spy on their Apple customers. Despite the obvious unethical nature of spyware, the Israeli government fully licenses Pegasus and is a client of NSO Group. Experts speculate whether the Israel had a role in the hackings around the world, which may be considered an international crime if proven.  

Zoom of a computer screen with green and white lines of code
Source: Upsplash

El Salvador 

The Pegasus Project also uncovered illegal surveillance of investigative journalists in El Salvador, a region in Central America torn apart by frequent gang wars and corruption. Citizen Lab and Access Now forensically analyzed phones from reporters at El Faro and GatoEncerrado, media outlets that have been facing the brunt of President Nayib Bukele’s wrath in the race to retain his position. Evidence gathered by journalists and human rights organizations suggest that Bukele negotiated deals with El Salvador’s deadliest gangs in return for political advantage. Some individual’s phones were hacked over an extended period while others were infected intermittently when the media houses were investigating corruption in Bukele’s administration.  

In 2021, the Biden Administration officially blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser known surveillance company, Candiru, as well. This severs each company’s access to hardware necessary for maintaining servers and outsourcing the software. 

Access to accurate information, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and privacy is crucial to maintaining autonomy and a fundamental human right. Backsliding democracies and military states are re-instituting citizen surveillance digitally – endangering the lives of millions that are fighting for the future of their people. To contribute to cybersecurity labs and human rights organizations working to increase legislation against digital surveillance, please donate to the Citizen Lab (https://engage.utoronto.ca/site/SPageServer?pagename=donate#/department/91) and Frontline Defenders (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/donors). 

Additional Information related to recent digital surveillance and human rights violations: 

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/unsafe-anywhere_-women-human-rights-defenders-speak-out-about-pegasus-attacks_en.pdf 

If you would like to learn more about the people the Pegasus Project, follow the link below https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/#/  

 

America: The Land of the Hungry

To portray what food security means to those experiencing food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a caregiver and child surrounded with sunflowers, standing in a garden. There are words that run along the image describing what food security means to the people in this community.

As an immigrant from India who has become an American citizen, food insecurity is something that I have witnessed a lot in my short lifetime. As a kid, I remember seeing people on the streets of India, both young and old, begging for mere scraps, and felt guilty for not being able to do anything to help. Yet, little did I know that I would come to experience similar food insecurities, but in America, a land supposedly filled with life, liberty, and happiness. It was in America that I first became aware of the realities of being poor, and it was here that I learned how to live off of $20 a week.

Among other things that have come into the limelight due to the pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the growing food insecurities in America. The United States is one of the most affluent nations in the entire world, yet it is also home to some of the largest food deserts in the world. This phenomenon, which is an incomprehensible reality in one of the richest nations in the world, has only become worse over the past few years, mainly due to the increasing inflation coupled with stagnant wages, which have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Food insecurity has become a reality to many Americans who live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet, even with working multiple jobs.

Food Deserts

I included this image to showcase the precooked meals that are frozen and a convenient meal choice for hard working Americans.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the frozen foods aisle in a grocery store

So, what are food deserts and why should we care about them? Well, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), food deserts are areas in which access to healthy food and groceries is limited due to a number of reasons, including distance, individual abilities, and even the location of the neighborhood someone resides in. Distance becomes an issue for those who live far away from stores that sell fresh produce, including those who live in rural areas as well as those who live on the outskirts of urban areas.

Distance can be an even greater challenge if the person or family does not have reliable transportation. This is especially true in rural areas where public transportation does not extend to. Even with public transportation being available, the bus routes in most cities run on scheduled times and have limited hours of service. This means that anyone that works odd hours may not have access to the public transportation system. Furthermore, people that live farther away from grocery stores and that don’t have reliable transportation may have to be able to walk home, meaning that they can only purchase the amount of food they can carry in their hands. This also means that they have to make frequent trips to the grocery store to be able to have their nutritional needs met.

Similarly, individual abilities, such as family income, can greatly impact the food choices a person has access to. Purchasing healthy food is expensive, and if you want something that is free of pesticides or harmful chemicals (organic produce), it’s going to cost you even more money, money that you may not have. Additionally, eating healthy is not always a choice that people with low income have; the choices they are usually presented with are eating something (even if it is unhealthy) or starving for the next few days. You still have to have the energy to go to work and make money to pay your other bills. Roughly half of the American population made less than $35,000 annually, according to the Social Security Administration’s wage reports from 2019. These statistics have only increased as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic.

The neighborhood that a person lives in has a direct impact on their access to fresh food as well. Due to racist policies such as gerrymandering and gentrification, neighborhoods are separated based on the average income of their residents, and this usually means that the poor, (which are made up disproportionately of Black and Brown people), are pushed into underdeveloped areas and away from the up-and-coming neighborhoods in the urban centers. As a result, businesses are more reluctant to open up in impoverished areas, fearing that they won’t make much profit, and this extends to stores that sell fresh produce.

Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts

I wanted to showcase how prevalent food insecurity is, and how it is concentrated a lot more in the South.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the United States from a 2017 analysis of food insecurity in America

If the USDA definition of food deserts is applied in the United States, at least 19 million people live in food deserts. Looking closer to home, in Alabama, as of 2017, over 16% of its residents are facing food insecurities. Even right here in our own backyard, Birmingham Times reported in 2019 that around 69% of Birmingham residents live in food deserts. That is over half of the Birmingham population! As I have learned as recently as this semester during a Social Justice Café event, (a weekly event sponsored by the Institute of Human Rights at UAB that focuses on social justice issues), around 25% of UAB students are cutting meals, close to half of our UAB student population can’t afford to eat healthily, and over 35% of UAB students experience chronic food insecurity! I am one of these students; I am not ashamed to admit it. Despite how much I conserve and try to budget, I still cut meals constantly, I continue to not be able to afford to eat healthily, and I have been experiencing chronic food insecurity since before the pandemic. The reasons behind my struggles are no fault of my own; they are a domino effect of the various systemic failures that continue to plunge millions of hard-working Americans into poverty and as a result, food insecurity.

Eating Healthy: Why it’s a problem especially if you are poor

I wanted to include this image to portray how expensive buying fresh produce can really be.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture showcasing the various produce selections at a grocery store with prices depicted next to each item

If a person has access to $20 for a week’s worth of groceries, spending it all on a couple of fruits and vegetables will not ensure that they can feed themselves and their loved ones for the next few days. What will help them make it through the week are spending on canned goods and processed food items that have a longer shelf life and cut down the time of food preparation. This means buying dollar menu items at fast-food restaurants or shopping at dollar stores for cheap snacks and pre-cooked meals. Low-income families who have experienced food insecurity for generations may not have acquired the knowledge to cook healthy food in a timely manner. They may not have had the resources to learn how to cook, or never had anyone to learn from.

Additionally, eating healthy requires that people cook with fresh, raw ingredients to avoid the preservatives and chemicals used in processed foods for a longer shelf-life. This also means cooking with items that may go to waste if not cooked in a timely manner. Most Americans struggling with food insecurity work low-income jobs, sometimes multiple jobs at a time, and the last thing they want to do is go home after a hard day of work and prepare meals for their family. Fast food is an easy, convenient alternative, and it is this convenience that has made them successful despite the unhealthy, low-nutritious food they sell.

Furthermore, this consumption of unhealthy foods with little nutritional value leads to chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even eating fruits and vegetables that have been grown with the use of pesticides and herbicides has been proven to expose those consuming them to toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. Therefore, to truly enjoy healthy produce, people have to purchase organic foods, which doubles the costs of groceries. Additionally, having adequate access to healthcare is another major challenge for those that live below the poverty line, and generally targets households that are already marginalized. These disparities have only been exacerbated due to the pandemic. As a consequence of the way that American healthcare is set up, most people living in poverty tend to avoid going to the doctor unless they absolutely have to, which further perpetuates the cycle of reactionary medical care rather than a precautionary one. Food insecurity is also surrounded by stigmatization, blaming the starving people for failing to put food on the table for themselves and their families instead of focusing on why this trend is common amongst almost half of the country’s hard-working citizens.

Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid

I included this image to bring attention to the existence of food pantries and their part in combatting food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture outside of a food pantry in Baltimore

Well, what about the government? Doesn’t it help those that are facing food insecurities? Government food aid comes in the form of SNAP/EBT benefits, commonly known as “food stamps,” and while it has helped many people struggling with food insecurity, this program has a lot of issues with it (too many to discuss in this blog). For today, however, let’s just examine some of the eligibility requirements to even qualify for food assistance. For one, Congress sets a threshold, requiring that people applying for the program must prove to the government that their income and expenses together show that they are living over 100% below the poverty line.

Furthermore, states can also add additional requirements such as passing a drug test or passing a background check. Some states disqualify applicants that have a criminal history from receiving assistance. If you’ve read my previous blogs about the realities of re-entering society after being imprisoned, you know why this is problematic.

Additionally, if the applicant is an immigrant, legal or illegal, qualifying for food assistance is almost impossible. Those who think that citizenship should be a requirement for food assistance don’t understand what human rights are. Food is a necessary resource that ALL humans have to have, and any person struggling to eat deserves to be helped, regardless of their citizenship status. There is also a requirement that people applying for assistance should have a job working at least 20 hours a week. This means that if you are unemployed, you cannot qualify for food assistance. That is exactly when you need the most help when you have no income or are transitioning from one job to another. On top of all these extensive eligibility requirements, if you are on strike, expressing your right to protest, something secured to you by the Constitution of the United States of America, you will not be able to qualify for food assistance. These conditions that require the people struggling with poverty to prove they are poor enough to receive assistance are demeaning, insulting, and undignifying to those who require the aid.

There are local non-profit groups and state institutions that provide food banks and food pantries where people can go to access food, but these places are usually located in more populated areas, meaning that people who live in rural areas or on the outskirts of cities face additional struggles accessing these food aid institutions. Transportation again becomes an issue for people living far from food banks and further limits their accessibility. Additionally, due to the stigma that surrounds food insecurity, people are made to feel guilty about their situation, and as a result, many avoid going to the food banks altogether.

How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse

The recent pandemic has changed many aspects of day-to-day life for people around the world. It has intensified the struggles of many Americans who were barely making it through life before the virus took hold. This same trend holds true when analyzing the pandemic’s impact on people experiencing food insecurity in America. The number of people struggling to feed themselves and their families has increased from 19 million in 2017 to over 50 million people in 2020. This is understandable, as many Americans lost their jobs during the shutdown of the economy, and many did not qualify for unemployment benefits.

Furthermore, due to the unhealthy nature of cheap foods, many Americans are experiencing malnutrition, dealing with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems, among other health issues. These health conditions have made them more vulnerable to catching the virus, and without an income, paying for healthcare becomes a major issue. Additionally, health insurance in America is tied to employment, and many Americans lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown, and as a result, also lost their health insurance coverage. All these factors have collectively worsened the lives of the poor and marginalized communities, adding to the growing financial instability and food insecurities these families face.

What Can We Do About It?

I decided to include this image to showcase how community gardens can help in the fight against food insecurity
Source: Yahoo Images; A man standing with a shovel inside of a community garden filled with growing vegetables and plants.

There are a lot of systemic issues to unpack that either leads to or exacerbates food insecurities. These issues need to be addressed through public policies that would help those struggling to eat by putting more money back into their pockets. These measures include pressuring our local policymakers to support legislation that would increase wages, lower eligibility requirements to access federal food aid, make healthy food more affordable and accessible, provide better public transportation, make healthcare affordable and accessible, and regulate businesses that exploit people to meet profit margins. All these things could help destigmatize food insecurity in our society and empower people to help themselves.

While food insecurity is a systemic issue that needs greater attention from our policymakers, there are still things that we can do ourselves. First, for those who are experiencing food insecurity here on campus, a resource called Blazer Kitchen is available for students and staff members, and their families to take advantage of. Blazer Kitchen is an onsite food pantry for those experiencing food insecurity. I’ve used Blazer Kitchen before, and while it is still a newly growing program, I have been grateful to have this resource at hand.

Second, for those who want to help reduce food waste, those who wish to shop at home, or those that have transportation limitations, Imperfect Foods is an online delivery service that has partnered with Feeding America (an organization aimed at ending food insecurity) to find a sustainable way to cut down food waste while simultaneously providing access to healthy foods for people who are food insecure. So much food gets wasted due to issues of over-harvested crops, changes in packaging, or even due to cosmetic imperfections that don’t always pass the scrutiny of the retail buyers. Instead of letting all this food go to waste, imperfect foods, and other such companies, strive to make use of these goods. This service also addresses the issue of transportation by having these imperfect goods delivered to your house.

Finally, only people who live on properties with land can have access to personal produce gardens right now. Sponsoring local community gardens around the country can help educate people on how to grow their own food, can provide jobs for people to maintain these gardens, and provide access to healthy food options within walking distance. Localized community gardens can also decrease the carbon footprint left behind by massive corporate grocery stores that have to transport goods across states and can cut down on food waste as well. Also, share your experiences with food insecurity; let others know that you are experiencing it too. This helps start the process of destigmatizing this issue while educating others about the realities and complexities tied into your experiences. If you have the means to, donate to food banks and other such nonprofit organizations that provide help for those who desperately need it. Even if you never get to meet the people you are helping, know that they still greatly appreciate it. I know I do.

International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People

In 1977, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) declared November 29th as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. On this day, the UN holds an annual meeting containing the UN General Assembly and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. This day promotes an opportunity for the international community to recognize the conditions of Palestine. Last year in 2020, the UN committee launched an exhibit focusing on the wall built along the occupied territory of Palestine. This wall is a landmark of significance for thousands of Palestinians as it holds as a symbol of solidarity and resilience. The wall contains poems and different forms of art from many Palestinian artists. This wall has been ruled to be illegal by the international court of justice, yet it holds much significance regarding the fight for Palestinian freedom. 

International Day of Solidarity with Palestine Flyer
Solidarity With Palestine: Yahoo Images

Significance of the Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People: 

The declaration of this day was and continues to be a meaningful step to recognizing the injustices occurring in Palestine. This day serves as a general reminder to the UN and the rest of the world that there are still growing factors that continue to implement misery and suffering among Palestinian people. This year, the UN held the observance at the headquarters in Geneva. During the meeting, the conflicts that occurred this past year were highlighted and spoken about. Such as the expansions of illegal settlements, demolition of Palestinian homes and structures, and the occurring violence caused by the Israeli government and army. In May, Israeli settlers and army forces marched into a Palestinian neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, and removed many Palestinians out of their homes. At the General Assembly meeting, Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian activist and journalist from Sheikh Jarrah, gave a speech describing the day the Israeli Jewish Settlers took half of his home. Last year, at the 2020 observance, the Secretary-General of the UN, stated: “we must also do all we can to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people.” The recognition of suffering and the occupation, although small, is a big step in fighting for human rights injustices across the globe. The day of solidarity also calls on the critical humanitarian and development needs of Palestinian refugees, especially during the times of the pandemic and the growing conflict.

 

Mohammed el Kurd giving a speech at the UN.
International solidarity with Palestine November 29, 2021. Yahoo Images

An Update on Palestine: 

The current conditions of Palestine continue to worsen as time passes by. More individuals are being displaced, more homes are being demolished, and the fight for freedom still continues. Although November 29th provides awareness and brings light to the question of Palestine, it is essential to recognize that every day these events occur. Palestinians are still living under occupied territories with restricted movement. This past year served as a reminder for the Israeli-Palestine conflicts such as the Nakba, also known as the catastrophe. In the spring, many homes in Palestine were demolished and given to Israeli settlers, which was a repeat of events that occurred in 1948 and 1967 in Palestine. Protests occurred all around the world, standing against the settlements and in support of the Palestinian liberation. As the obstacles for Palestinian liberation continue to worsen, the fight for freedom continues around the world.

 

Protests in East Jerusalem against the illegal settlements
May 2021 Protest in Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine. Yahoo Images

Human Rights Support for Palestine: 

Although the war has been occurring since 1948, there have been acknowledgments worldwide in support of Palestinian human rights. Past U.S. legislation includes H.R. 2407, introduced by representative McCollum in 2019, promoting human rights for Palestinian children living under the occupation. This bill also addresses the most significant factor allowing Israel to continue its injustices: U.S. funding for the Israeli military. The bill calls on the U.S. to cease all funding due to the indirect support that violates international human rights law. Unfortunately, this bill did not make it out of the House of Representatives. However, the bill has been reintroduced, and Rep. McCollum continues to support it along with the introduction of an additional H.R. Bill 2590. This bill directly addresses the U.S. funding and alliance with Israel in efforts to stop the aid of military detentions of Palestinian children. U.S. taxpayer money should not be used to support international human rights violations. With the rise in support by various groups, political organizations, and advocacy groups, it has a higher chance of passing and becoming law. In addition, Palestinian awareness being recognized through congressional bills and days such as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people, there is great promise in the future of this bill.

What’s Next: 

November 29th serves as an important reminder to the international community that the Palestinian struggle still exists, but it is not where our support should end. The topic of Palestinian liberation needs to be spoken about more and recognized. It is imperative to continue educating oneself and others about the Palestinian struggle and its history. A human injustice that occurred in 1948 still exists today and has worsened in aspects. Acknowledgment and bringing it to the attention of members of our government is critical. 

For more information, check out these links:

To learn more about the events that occurred in Palestine this past year and the reality of what many Palestinians go through daily watch Mohammed El Kurd’s speech given this year.

To learn more about the history of Palestine and Israel: Check out this interactive link explaining the history.

Women’s Education in Afghanistan

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August, a bleak future dawned on girls and women across the country. Despite the Taliban’s promise to be supportive of women’s goals under Islamic law, the deadly crackdown on the progress of women’s rights has already begun.  

The Taliban regime, like the older one that ruled from 1990-2001, upon capturing the capital, shut down the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for Protection of Virtue and Vice. Later, they announced that women cannot go out in public without a male relative or without being fully covered, and female workers have been instructed to stay home. Education, politics, sports, freedom of expression, and whatever else requires women venturing outside with a voice has been banned by the government, punished by beatings or floggings.  

Afghan Women in Veils
Afghan women in veils with the words “Taliban vow to respect women We can still see We can still watch We can still notice We will no longer accept.” Source: Flickr

Education and Occupations 

Girls’ education in Afghanistan took a lot of effort to achieve, but many obstacles, specifically financial security and accessibility, still stand in the way. Knowledge gives individuals mobility and power to decide their future for themselves — a source of pride that Afghan women have fought for. In Afghan villages and cities alike, many women and girls would work for low wages in poor conditions to finance their education, and now these efforts and opportunities have been ripped away.  

Pride is now fear. After the fall of the Afghan cities Kabul and Herat, the Taliban prohibited girls over 6th grade from attending school and segregated universities between genders. Boys were allowed back weeks ago, but no indication was given to girls — a silence that told them to stay home. The regime previously stated that education will resume under the laws of Islam. Even if girls can go back to school, they may not learn certain subjects such as engineering, vocational education, cooking, and government studies.  

Dreams of becoming pilots, surgeons, activists, and lawmakers have evaporated for Afghan girls, and women already educated under a democratically controlled Afghanistan are seeing their lives turn on their heads. A university student who was supposed to graduate with two degrees from the American University of Afghanistan and Kabul University frustratedly remarked that she must hide any IDs, diplomas, and all evidence that she received a higher education, throwing away decades of work for her career. If she does not do so, she risks the lives of herself and her entire family. 

A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
A class for girls in a village school outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Source: Flickr

The Taliban is not their only issue, however. Many female political figures remaining in Afghanistan fear retaliation from men they jailed or sentenced. Despite the years of progress since the last Taliban occupation, women in powerful roles still made men in Afghanistan uncomfortable. The Taliban has not instituted strict restrictions on law and order  allowing incidents of physical and sexual violence against women to increase. 

Female Workers 

Women have taken to streets demanding their rights back as the Taliban prepares to deal with international questioning for their rise to power. Although once numerous after the fall of Kabul and Herat, protests are now few and far between. Organized protests were broken up by the Taliban’s gunshots, beatings, and killings in early September, effectively dampening the morale of activists. Now, the regime demands prior registration with a detailed account of the event and any slogans that are to be chanted, decreasing the right to assembly in the nation. 

Female journalists, teachers, activists, and especially judges are also being targeted by the oppressive regime. It is common practice for the Taliban to break into homes of instrumental feminist voices and threaten their families, and the United States’ promise to protect Afghan women activists from the Taliban has fallen flat.  

Former Afghan legislator Fawzia Koofi fled Afghanistan to Qatar after she was placed under house arrest and guarded day and night by the Taliban. Parliament members Shagufa Noorzai and Homa Ahmadi escaped to Athens, Greece, along with 177 other high profile female lawyers and judges with help from the Melissa Network and Human Rights 360. Even though activists like Koofiand Noorzai are far from their home country, they have already started networking to protect the rights of women and girls from where they are. 

In late August, 15 members of the inspiring 20-member Afghan Dreamers fled Afghanistan, with 10 arriving safely in Mexico City, Mexico, and 5 in Doha, Qatar. This all-girls robotics team made waves after winning multiple international robotics competitions in the United States and becoming a luminescent symbol of the potential of girls in science, mathematics, and engineering. These girls left with the hope of continuing their education and competing in robotics tournaments. Some girls voluntarily stayed behind to help education efforts in Afghanistan. They all hope that their achievements and stories will empower girls in their home country to fight for their education and convince the regime to adapt to a new generation of women. 

Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab.
Private Afghan universities require girls to wear an abaya and niqab. Source: Flickr

Education as a Human Right 

The Taliban violated many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 26 proclaims that basic and fundamental education should be free, compulsory, and equally accessible. Education is stated as the driving force to foster respect for human rights and personal freedoms all over the world which is crucial for women to rise from societal restrictions. 

The head of the Afghan Women’s Network, Mahbouba Seraj, emphasizes that Afghanistan is not the same country that the Taliban left. Women will not sit and stand by while they try to take away their rights. Over 6 million women have established their presence in traditionally male-dominated fields such as media, medicine, law, and government. She believes that the gender equality movement in Afghanistan will prevail over the Taliban’s resistance.  

Earlier in October, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to approve a rapporteur on the grounds of Afghanistan to investigate and report civil and human rights violations. The European Union’s ambassador to the UN cited particular concern for the restrictive actions of the Taliban against women and girls. In addition to the UN, the public can offer donations to other international human rights organizations that are also working on the safety of female Afghanistan officials and girls seeking to continue their education such as Amnesty International, CARE, and Women for Afghan Women.

The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Celebrity Perpetrators

Girl with text "The Truth about Sex Trafficking"
Source: Yahoo Images

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.  

Who is most at risk? 

Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.  

Trafficking in the Pandemic  

In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications.  The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.” 

Celebrity Sex Traffickers  

Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly
Source: Yahoo Images

American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety. 

Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources. 

The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly 

people protest outside with #MuteRKelly signs
Source: Yahoo Images

Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.  

Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison. 

Learn more about supporting possible sex trafficking victims and how to receive help by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

The History of Policing in the US and Its Impact on Americans Today

Feature Picture
Several policemen in riot gear spray the camera crew walking by with a fire hose. Source: Yahoo Images

Policing in America has a long history, one that dates back to the founding of this country. Although it has always been a controversial issue, the recent instances of police brutality that have come to light along with the increasing momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement have forced it back into the social and political limelight. The differences in beliefs are influenced by popular political outlets and political activists on both sides of the spectrum. However, when examining the history and the facts surrounding the creation and implementation of the policing system in the US, it is clear that policing also shares a racially biased history.

The History of Policing in America

The history of policing can be traced back to the days of slavery in colonial America. In the South, where slavery was central to the economy, slave patrols, responsible for capturing runaway slaves and returning them to their masters, was the first unofficial police in America. Considering how slavery itself was one of the most egregious treatments of mankind in human history, slave patrols were especially cruel in the ways they captured runaway slaves and punished them for their daring escapes. Slave rebellions were a constant threat to the economic status quo of the southern plantation owners, and slave patrols ensured that these owners were able to intimidate and punish any insurgencies or revolts. In return, these wealthy plantation owners protected the interests of the slave catchers. As a result, this practice created a social hierarchy between the wealthy landowners at the top, the slave patrols separating the wealthy from the poor, and the slaves who were at the bottom of this hierarchy.

To show that the history of policing as slave patrol is a known fact
A crowd of protesters advocating for the end of police brutality. One of the women in the crowd holds a that reads, “US police began as slave patrol.” Source: Yahoo Images

These slave patrols slowly morphed into policing units in charge of breaking up insurgencies that began to rise in the aftermath of the Civil War. When the Civil War ended, many colonists, especially Southerners, felt threatened by the population of freed African Americans, arguing that they would disrupt the social order. As a result, African American communities experienced an increase in violence committed against them in the form of police brutality. The Reconstruction Era, which came immediately after the Civil War,  was a racially charged environment, as the newly freed citizens attempted to live peacefully amongst their oppressors.

During the Reconstruction Era, cruelty was the policing style, and protecting the economic interests of the wealthy proved very beneficial to these units. Police were used as a way to provide a sense of security for the white communities, keeping the black communities intimidated and segregated from the white population. Additionally, reconstructing the South after the war would require a lot of free labor, and much of the reconstruction that took place was achieved through the enforced hard labor of the newly freed populace, who were shortly enslaved again, this time through the prison system.

Known as the Jim Crow laws, a number of legislations were passed in an attempt to keep the black and white communities segregated, and racist policies were put in place to target and imprison people of color. In part due to the loophole in the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery except as a form of punishment, policing centered around rounding up and arresting African Americans for violating the racist Jim Crow Laws, denying them their fundamental rights as human beings. Racism was still rampant in the South and was especially tolerated under the prison system. Ironically, the loophole provided by the thirteenth amendment gave rise to today’s prison industrial complex.

These racist policies were further encouraged by the passing of the “separate but equal” verdict by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, and they continued to target African Americans for simply existing. The Plessy v. Ferguson case argued that as long as both white communities and black communities were able to have access to the same resources, they could remain segregated. The verdict only emboldened and encouraged policing to incorporate racism into lawful practice. Unfortunately, this legal segregation lasted almost a hundred years, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Continuing their roles of breaking up insurgencies, policing during the Civil Rights Movement centered around riot control. As the Civil Rights Movement took place, inspiring hundreds of people to come together to demand justice, police were on the frontline of the opposing end, protecting the economic interests of America at the expense of human beings. Police used water hoses, police dogs, tear gas, and other crowd control measures to break up protests and peaceful sit-ins. The police would also brutally beat up and bruise the peaceful protesters, while others were incarcerated for daring to protest for their civil rights.

Policing since then has evolved to incorporate discriminatory practices, such as the “stop and frisk” policy – which empowers police to stop and search someone without a warrant if they have a reason to believe that individuals are doing something wrong – or the practice of racial profiling individuals to “fit” the description of a suspect the police can then target. Along with these practices, the war on drugs further aggravated the situation, granting the police the power to detain drug users by racially targeting people of color, and further enabling discrimination and harassment of marginalized communities. Today, the discrimination that is present in policies like stop and frisk, and racial profiling; and the war on drugs upholds the social hierarchy created during the times of slavery. These unethical policies continue to bolster the wealth and income inequality between wealthy communities and marginalized communities.

Additionally, the Revolving Door Phenomenon continues the historical practice of sabotaging marginalized communities. The Revolving Door Phenomenon refers to the fact that even after prisoners have served their time and get released, many of them end up back in prison. This is largely due to the many difficulties they face upon re-entering society, like finding employment, finding housing, securing transportation, and not being able to vote and be represented, to name a few. They can also face homelessness, and as a result, become victims of police brutality. Unfortunately, police brutality is still rampant to this day with no accountability of the police. The Black Lives Matter Movement, which became a worldwide phenomenon during the summer of 2020, is attempting to bring an end to police brutality and the violent murders of unarmed African Americans committed by the police.

Police Brutality and Rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement

To show how popular the movement has become
Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles. July 1st, 2020; Source: Yahoo Images

The Black Lives Matter protests began in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy that was murdered by a White man on Neighborhood Watch. The man, George Zimmerman, was acquitted, facing no form of accountability for his actions. The hashtag movement gained further popularity when Michael Brown was murdered by a White officer, and yet again, no one faced any charges for the killing of a Black man. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged people to record and report any instances of police brutality they witness, and soon, hundreds of civilians reported such instances on social media.

The murder of George Floyd was caught on camera, and this recording enraged the public. As a result, the Black Lives Matter Movement expanded nationwide, and over the years, has become a worldwide phenomenon. This movement brought attention to the frequent instances in which innocent African Americans were brutally murdered by the police. An NPR investigation revealed that since 2015, there have been 135 instances in which the police have murdered unarmed African Americans. They also found that of these 135 instances, 75% of the time, the officers were White. Another source places the total number of people who have died at the hands of police as high as 1,126, and that’s just in 2020. They allege that 96% of those deaths were a result of being shot. Reprehensibly, these instances continue to occur, as people such as Tameer Rice, Bryanna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, Jamarion Robinson, Ronald Greene, and too many more have continued to face cruelty at the hands of the police.

Especially jarring is the cruel way in which Ronald Greene was murdered. The brutal death of Ronald Greene, an African American man who was beaten and shocked to death by a group of police officers, has been under investigation since 2019. The police falsely testified that he had died in a car crash, but body camera videos show the extent to which the police viciously killed Greene as he begged them to stop. Additional reports came back on Greene’s autopsy that further discredit the claims of the police that Greene sustained fatal injuries due to a car crash. Heartbreakingly, this is yet another instance of police brutality that was allowed to occur.

To show just a few of the names of the people who have been victims to police brutality
Among a group of protesters, one activist holds a sign with the names of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, three of the well-known victims of police brutality. Source: Yahoo Images

Accountability

One of the main reasons why police brutality continues to take place is due to the fact that the police face no real consequences for their actions. As has been the case too many times, police are reported to be found in compromising situations, leading to the inhumane treatment and in many instances, death of innocent people. Following those reports of human rights violations, it has also become common-place to find that those officers accused of brutality rarely get charged or punished for their behavior. They are generally held accountable only due to public outcry. Unfortunately, even then, accountability comes in the form of simply getting transferred to a different department. Too many instances over the past decade have highlighted the dangers of a militant police force without proper policies in place that hold responsible those that abuse the law. Policing leads to a power dynamic between communities and authorities, and in the wrong hands, without the proper measures of liability in place, can lead to an abuse of powers and people alike. As a result of the racial history that plagues America, the relationship between the police and marginalized communities is one that is (understandably), very fragile and filled with distrust.

Reform or abolish?

Many people have proposed policies to reform the police system in America. This can get pretty complicated, as police departments all across the country follow different rules and regulations and are state-funded entities. This can mean that implementation and enforcement of regulations can be a difficult task, requiring different entities for each state. Furthermore, there is not much data collected on policing misconducts, and the available data can be biased or lacking details. Additionally, many of the acts of police brutality are explained away using legal powers vested in the police, such as the ability to use force while conducting an arrest. The vague language of the policy allows the police to use excessive force and justify their actions in court. Moreover, police unions hold a tremendous amount of political power and influence and protect their officers from facing any real accountability. Even the attempts at limiting qualified immunity, (which protects government officials from civil lawsuits) have gotten nowhere, as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has yet to be passed in the Senate.

An info graph that showcases some of the misuses of the police budget and supports calls to defund the police.
An info graph that depicts some of the data that supports defunding the police. Source: Yahoo Images

As a result, cries to abolish the police have increased since the Black Live Matter protests of summer 2020. While police may be effective in situations where a crime has occurred, the abolitionists of today argue that police only complicate things in some instances, including interactions with people of color or when approaching people with mental illnesses or disabilities. Without being educated on systemic racism and the role of the police or having the proper training to care for people with mental or physical disabilities respectively, the police can make things worse, even if they are attempting to de-escalate the situation. The abolitionist approach is to restructure the entire policing system in order to divide the undertaking of community safety and security into various different institutions that are tasked with protecting the human rights of individuals. This enables the option of having other agencies in place aimed at solving community issues and nurturing a relationship with people within the community, making it more accessible and reliable for the community members to ask for assistance. Doing so could eliminate the oppressive climate brought on by the social hierarchy that has been ever-present in policing throughout American history. By reshaping society and its structures, we can ensure that the needs of the people in society are met, while preserving their fundamental human rights.

 

 

A Look at Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The Exhibit

Girl in front of Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts  (AEIVA) has welcomed a new exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. The exhibit explores the United States’ criminal justice system, mass incarceration, discrimination and the very concept of justice with works from more than 70 different artists. Many of the pieces on display come from artists who are or were incarcerated, who used art as an essential outlet and form of expression within prison. Nonincarcerated artists are also featured, influenced by the damages of mass incarceration within their families and neighborhoods. The entire exhibit creates a critique of mass incarceration from a human right’s perspective, representing the voices of incarcerated persons that are typically silenced or ignored. “Marking Time” boasts three galleries of moving pieces that speak to the gravity and scale at which the human rights violations within our punitive justice system disenfranchise impoverished and minority communities throughout the United States, and features data and interviews that discuss ways these glaring problems should be addressed and combatted. 

“Marking Time” was organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, who has spent a decade researching the importance and development of visual arts and creative practices for incarcerated persons. Dr. Fleetwood deliberately removed any mention of charges or reasons for conviction for the incarcerated artists featured in the exhibit, forcing viewers to remove a layer of prejudice or thought regarding whether or not the artist is inherently a “good” or “bad” person, or deserving of their incarceration. As I progressed through the galleries of “Marking Time ”, one of the first things I noticed was exactly that; how I continuously perceived the artworks as being the creations of a fellow artist, not a criminal or prisoner. This intentional shift in perception creates an environment of thoughtfulness, analysis and depth that may not have been achieved otherwise, and makes the exhibit an excellent ignition for thought, conversation and activism.

When analyzing the works themselves, I was surprised to see how many were masterfully created from hair gel, sheets, uniforms, newspapers and contraband items when traditional art supplies were not accessible. Incarcerated artists are often limited in the tools they have to create art from, but countless works within “Marking Time” reveal the true resilience of an artist’s spirit, and how artistic expression can prevail above the smothering limitations of prison.

The Pieces 

As this exhibit has been analyzed and discussed through its many travels from MoMA to AEIVA, I wanted to highlight a few of the pieces and discuss their particular significance to the conversation of human rights within the United States punitive justice system and mass incarceration.

Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney

Hundreds of sketched portraits decorating a wall.
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

Loughney’s series, Pyrrhic Defeat, is named for a theory within criminal justice studies that explores how a failing criminal justice system that discriminates in its criminalization of certain groups substantially benefits certain elites. Mark Loughney has created over 750 portraits of his incarcerated peers in order to mark the passage of time within his own sentence, as well as provide fellow inmates with a positive alternative to the dehumanization caused by mugshots and prison IDs. His pieces provide the individuals with a level of personalization, dignity, and respect that is often forgotten and ignored within the prison system. Loughney spends 20 minutes on each sketch, and has to carve a creative, open atmosphere for each session out of the typical chaos and disruptions within a prison environment.

Untitled by Gilberto Rivera

Three mixed media paintings depicting the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gilberto Rivera, Untitled, 2020. Newspaper, caulk, silicone, spray paint, acrylic, and markers on canvas and recycled canvas. L: 48 ½ x 60 in C: 59 ¾ x 51 ⅜ in R: 48 ¼ x 60 in, Overall: 60 x 156 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

This Triptych by Gilberto Rivera places a spotlight on how mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted vulnerable communities throughout the artists’ hometown of New York. Rivera was a graffiti artist prior to his incarceration, and this piece truly reveals the artist’s emotions and style in a brilliant display of keywords, colors and figures. Rivera’s triptych incorporates newspaper clippings that highlight his disgust for how minority and immigrant essential workers were neglected as well as the fear incarcerated people experienced throughout the public health crisis. Prisoners across the globe were put into lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the result of this is an experience extremely similar to that of solitary confinement; a punitive mechanism proven to have extreme mental and physical health consequences. Despite these sweeping lockdowns, extreme overcrowding lead prisons to host the majority of the largest single-site outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Despite these major outbreaks and casualties, prisoners fell to the bottom of priority lists for treatment and aid when medical equipment and essential items faced shortages. Rivera’s piece displays frustration and criticism of these issues that have hardly received the mainstream coverage they deserve.

Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens

Three painted panels with painted blueprints of a slave ship and federal prison overlapping.
Jared Owens, Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016. Mixed media on birch panels. Each: 48 x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. Source: Original Photo

With Ellapsium, Jared Owens addresses the racism of the criminal justice system as well as hierarchies and power struggles within Fairton, the correctional institution where Owens was imprisoned.  This complex work features symbolism as a form of rebellion and disapproval, and bears an immediately recognizable resemblance to the infamous map of the Brookes Slave Ship from 1788 that displays how slaves were forced to live through their passage to America. This intentionally chosen symbol represents the violence, dehumanization, and other atrocities that slaves faced in early American history. The second and less known image present in this work is a blueprint of the Fairton prison; Owens’ combining of the two blatantly compares the horrors of the historical institution of slavery to the atrocities and discrimination committed by the United States’ current carceral state. Owens also utilizes color symbolically throughout his piece, and all of the colors used correlate to the artist’s daily life within a federal institution. The green of the institutional walls represents restriction and being subdued, blue represents the uniforms worn by prison guards, and brown represents the uniforms of those imprisoned. Orange, the most used color within the piece, was used within Fairfield to indicate areas that were off limits and unavailable to incarcerated persons, so Owens deliberately used that color for the boundary between the blueprint of the slave ship, of Fairfield, and the world outside of the two. 

Owens is open about how his pursuit of art posed a legitimate threat to him within the Fairfield facility. Being caught with planks of wood to paint on or stretch canvas could have resulted in solitary confinement, extension of his sentence, or complete confiscation of personal possessions and art supplies. While these overwhelming restrictions greatly limited Owens while he was in prison, he has chosen to use his experience to create, raise awareness, and call for change- like so many artists featured alongside him in “Marking Time”.

Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun

A rack of uniform orange detention hoodies, with patterns on the interior lining.
Susan Lee-Chun, Peace, Love, Harmony, 2007. Cotton fabric and dye. 36 x 60 x 18 in. Courtesy of artist. Source: Original Photo

Women on the Rise! (WOTR) was a feminist art project founded by Dr. Jillian Hernandez to provide girls in juvenile detention facilities with a platform for self-expression and dialogue. Inspired by her participation in this project, Susan Lee-Chun worked with a group of girls in juvenile detention to explore the politics of fashion, and asked her participants to “Think about who you are, what words, images or symbols define you or your beliefs. Use them to create a fabric design”. The resulting hoodies on display conform to detention center uniforms on their exterior, and on the inside feature patterns with rainbows, checkers, and the word “Love”. Upon completion of this project, Lee-Chun attempted to give the girls she worked with the resulting hoodies of their creation; and was denied that request. None of the girls involved were allowed to wear the hoodies. In public defiance, Lee-Chun’s hoodies now hang among the many artworks of “Marking Time”, criticizing a system that would prioritize conformity and uniform over the individuality, creativity and expression of a child. 

How To See “Marking Time”

If you would like to see “Marking Time” and any of the artworks or artists featured above first hand, the exhibit is free and available to the public until December 11. Reserve your free ticket to view the exhibition here. Spaces per time slot are limited to 10 for a one-hour long visit. If you cannot make your time slot for any reason, please cancel the booking or call 205-975-6436. If you have any issues with booking your ticket or would like to reserve a group tour, contact AEIVA at aeiva@uab.edu. 

Visitors must wear a mask at all times inside the AEIVA building and keep socially distanced. Free and metered parking is available along the streets surrounding AEIVA. Safety is UAB’s priority. The pandemic is a fluid situation that UAB is monitoring, in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts; events will be subject to change based on the latest COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

All upcoming “Marking Time” programs are designed as hybrid events, with both in-person and virtual components. AEIVA is prepared to move any of the events entirely virtual at a moment’s notice. Visit AEIVA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the latest updated information.

Afghanistan’s Deteriorating Healthcare System

Afghanistan’s healthcare infrastructure is crumbling after its foreign assets were frozen and donor organizations pulled funding after the Taliban takeover. The Taliban is a Pashtun Islamic extremist group that is known for imposing strict religious and conservative rule over their areas of operation including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organization previously served as the government for southern Afghanistan in 1996-2001 during which the healthcare system had collapsed. The child mortality rate was 2x as high as it was in 2012 and polio was widespread. Safe drinking water and sanitation were also nonexistent.

Over the past two decades, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have historically provided 75% of the funding and supplies to support the healthcare systems in 31 out of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. As a result, the Middle Eastern country has seen enormous improvements in the healthcare system. As of 2018, with over 3,000 medical facilities staffed and supplied, about 87% of the population were able to receive services. Maternal and child mortality rates also plummeted and infectious disease treatment programs helped decrease mortality rates.  

International donor support started declining even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health and other public health organizations were barely able to compensate. The economic decline at the onset of the pandemic made medical resources even more scarce. Hospitals began charging payment for supplies such as meals and scalpels previously free to patients, and patients were forced to use their own money to buy surgical equipment. In April 2021, President Biden announced that the United States would withdraw all of their 2,500 troops from the Afghanistan, triggering the entire NATO (North American Treaty Organization) alliance to withdraw a total of 7,000 troops. The process was completed in mid-September. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban rose to power once again in Afghanistan.

 A pile of international notes from the United States, Turkey, and Europe.
A pile of international notes from the United States, Turkey, and Europe. Source: Unsplash

The World Bank then froze $600 million in health care aid funded by the US Agency for International Development, the European Union, and others. The $600 million was part of the Sehatmandi project, a global initiative to increase health facilities in Afghanistan, which was a collaboration with the Afghanistan government. The withdrawal shut down 2000 of the 2800 facilities that the project previously funded, leaving healthcare workers and patients out in the wind. Currently, healthcare workers have not received payment in 6 months and do not know when they will receive payment. Many patients struggle to reach the remaining facilities because the trip there is either unaffordable, geographically dangerous, too far, or the route is lined with Taliban conflict. 

If provided now, donors feared that donations and allocations would be misused by the Taliban to generate income for the militant group instead of for healthcare problems. There is speculation that if the funds are released, wages will never reach workers and medical supplies will be bought then sold to the public at astronomical prices. All entities are waiting on instructions or action from other governments to search for a way to transfer donations in order to circumvent the regime’s administration.  

Healthcare for Children 

A toddler girl biting into her shirt sleeve next to her parent.
A toddler girl biting into her shirt sleeve next to her parent in Afghanistan. Source: Unsplash

Hunger is becoming more widespread as inflation rates climb and supply chains grow unsteady. The Integrated Food Insecurity Phase Classification (IPC) reported that half of Afghans will face acute food insecurity before winter arrives.  

Malnutrition and malnutrition-related illnesses are far more dangerous than any other disease for children. Specific types of malnutrition called acute severe malnutrition and child kwashiorkor, a severe protein deficiency, is prevalent in Afghanistan and are caused by eating too little food or not at all. It can be treated by administering Ready To Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) and oral hydration therapy. Over 2 million children under 5 years old do not have access to this life saving treatment in Afghanistan. At least half of the children in the country are victims of malnutrition and in light of the food scarcity, mothers unable to produce breastmilk have resorted to feeding infants water mixed with sugar. 

Staffing shortages are also insurmountable. Nurses and doctors fled the country fearing what the Taliban’s takeover could mean for their lives. In the main children’s hospital in Kabul, nurses previously caring for 4 babies now have to care for 24 babies each while hospital staff try to squeeze 3 infants into 1 incubator due to equipment shortages. Current staff are overworked and still have to take up jobs at other institutions to get by. Medicinal needs are also not being met for children and adults. Drug cabinets and storage closets become emptier every day as the influx of patients has depleted the resources faster than can be transported into the country. 

A hand holding a cluster of large, yellow tablets.
A hand holding a cluster of large, yellow tablets that are basic medications that Afghans need. Source: Unsplash

Women’s Health 

The aid cuts have also decreased access to essential healthcare resources for women and girls, including contraception and family planning. Many women carry out risky pregnancies and are subjected to unsafe reproductive procedures without modern medical equipment. Prenatal and postnatal care for infants is not provided, and postpartum care for new mothers is nonexistent. Despite the labor shortages, a great deal of responsibilities for maternal health clinics are on the backs of midwives. Midwives continue to perform complicated surgeries, dangerous deliveries, and other reproductive procedures.  

Expensive medicines and transportation to clinics for health problems are not feasible for the majority of Afghan women. Beginning in early 2017, extremist groups turned their sights on medical facilities in Afghanistan, which led to increase of attacks on aid workers, doctors, and hospitals. Mounting fear against staying in maternity clinics has also driven many women away from seeking help.  

Covid-19 Pandemic 

The lack of data and accountability in Afghanistan makes it difficult to comprehend the extent to which the virus has contributed to the death rate. Around the world, Covid cases are increasing, and the Afghan population is largely unvaccinated. According to the latest data from the United Nations, only 2.2 million of 39 million individuals have been vaccinated, while 1.8 million doses are waiting to be distributed.  

Public health experts worry that an impending 4th wave of the disease will render the healthcare infrastructure irreparable. Dead bodies line hospital morgues and overflow into the outside corridors as the lack of fuel has stopped ambulances from operating. Many sick patients suffering from Covid don’t bother coming to hospitals, because they know they would not be able to receive medical assistance. Hospitals, private practices, and clinics are resorting to hastily assembling makeshift wards outside hospitals to accommodate Covid patients.  

The healthcare situation in Afghanistan has been worsening for years, and in light of the looming public health disaster, much more support from the international community is needed. The snowball effect of international neglect will continue unless major monetary, political, economic, and healthcare interventions are considered. Nonprofit health organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have been tackling both maternal and child healthcare as well as managing Covid cases in 5 provinces, but people can help by donating to Doctors Without Borders, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and increasing awareness for the healthcare crisis in Afghanistan.