In the Blind Spot of Memory: In Remembrance of Theo Calloway

Noose on tree
Source: Mississippi Today

For so long, the stories of lynching victims were, as E. Stanley Richardson wrote in his poem “Century Oak: A Conversation with a Tree”, in the blind spot of America’s memory. From 1880 – 1940, the country saw a peak in racial terror. Although black communities were terrorized before and after this period, the surge started after the 13th Amendment actualized African Americans’ freedom and lasted till about World War II. White Americans lynched black men, women, and children to reestablish racial order.

“Lynching was an extrajudicial act of racial terrorism that involved killing Blacks by hanging, burning, mutilation, and other brutal assaults at the hands of white mobs (3+ people) with impunity and no fear of legal recourse. More than simply terrorizing the victim, lynching’s purpose was to send a message to the Black community at large.” (Jefferson County Memorial Project)

NAACP flag
Photograph by Hank Willis Thomas

It was a means to violently reestablish racial order once African Americans’ freedom was recognized in the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States’ Constitution in 1865. Black men, women, and children were lynched for many reasons. A lynching could have been triggered by something as arbitrary as a Black man holding eye contact with a white man while being reprimanded or an actual crime. Most often, a claim of sexual contact between a Black man and a white woman is what spurred a lynch mob into action. The, often unfounded, claims ranged from actual sexual assault to merely whistling at a woman. The trope of the dangerous, hypersexual Black man and the pure, delicate white woman played a huge role during this time and still affects how members of these groups are portrayed today.

Nevertheless, the unlawful punishment that the white mobs felt justified to administer was ruthless and inhumane. Even though lynching can be seen as a conflict on an interpersonal level, the effects of these acts of terror go beyond the interpersonal level. The effects of the lynching are long-lasting and have altered the way that communities function. Racial terror contributed to the Great Migration between 1916 and 1970. Almost 6 million African Americans moved out of the rural Southern United States to the more urban West, Midwest, and Northeast to find economic opportunity and flee racial terror. Those that directly experienced the effects of racial terror passed down the fear to generations, as former lynching spots that have been paved or built over still bring the same amount of terror.

Lynching memorial
Photograph by Jaylah Cosby

In 2018, Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a non-profit organization in Montgomery, Alabama, committed to ending mass incarceration and inhumane or excessive punishment by providing legal representation, attempted to help the county address our collective memory of lynching.

The organization says that their National Memorial for Peace and Justice “provides a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terrorism and its legacy.” The beginning of the memorial includes large hanging iron columns, symbolic of the hanging bodies that were lynched. EJI’s staff scoured national newspapers to document thousands of racial terror lynchings. At the memorial, every iron column is designated for a United States county, and the names and dates of the individuals lynched in that county are listed below.

Towards the end of the memorial, visitors can find duplicates of each of the columns lying on the ground on the trail to the exit. The organization’s Community Remembrance Project is a tool for communities around the country to engage in the work and learn about this history. The intention is that each county will prepare by educating themselves about racial terror and ultimately memorialize the victims from their community by placing the duplicate column in the county.

memorial column
Photograph by Jaylah Cosby

The Elmore Bolling Initiative, a non-profit named in honor of a prominent black farmer and philanthropist lynched in 1947 in Lowndes County, Alabama, formed The Lowndes County Community Remembrance Coalition and held a virtual lynching memorial dedication ceremony for Theo Calloway. Theo Calloway was accused of killing a white man, and although he insisted that he acted in self-defense and waited to plead his case in a trial, he was abducted from jail by a mob of 200 white men. He was lynched on March 29, 1888, at the age of 24. The group hung his body on a tree in the courthouse’s lawn. The next day his parents came to attend his court hearing. Instead, they learned that their son had been lynched and had to recover his body that was riddled with bullets. Theo Calloway’s marker was installed outside of the courthouse during a small gathering that included some of his descendants on November 18.

A virtual dedication was held in December, as the original event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ceremony started with a solemn introduction by Arthur Nelson in which he spoke: “for the hanged and beaten. For the shot, drowned and burned. For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized”. Uplifting invocations and greetings were also given by members of The Elmore Bolling Foundation’s board and other prominent figures, like the mayor of Hayneville. Elmore Bolling’s great-grandson, J’Pierre Bolling, sang gripping renditions of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, and John Legend and Common’s Glory. A forensic genealogist gave a historical account of Theo Calloway’s lynching and information about his descendants. Lastly, the organization revealed the marker in front of the courthouse.

One of the most compelling parts of the ceremony was the candle lighting when Theo Calloway and the other victims’ names were called out of the blind spot of memory while saying, “today we remember.”

“Century Oak — A Conversation with a Tree” by E. Stanley Richardson

 

As I walked by
The Tree
… Cried out
Why don’t you hold me anymore
Sit beneath my shade
We barely ever talk
Like we once did

100 years ago
I know
You blame me
For being
Deep inside
Us
Hidden

In the blind spot of memory
All of
Our
Pent up
Pain
We
Must Feel

I know
You blame me
Because,
If I
Had not been
They
Would not have

Dangled
Your Brother
Your Sister
Your Father
Your Mother
… From my limbs
There would be

No blood
On my branches
I would
Be
Only brown
… Like you
With green hair
Without tinge
With
No hint of red
On
My wood

Please forgive me
Had I known
If I could
… I would have
Plucked myself
Up
By
The Root!

Political Women: A Double Standard

jill biden
Dr. Jill Biden. Source: Center for American Progress. Creative Commons.

On December 11th, a Wall Street Journal article was released critiquing the future First Lady’s, Jill Biden, use of the label “Dr.” The author stated that the “Dr.” in front of Dr. Biden’s name is fraudulent because it represents her doctorate in education instead of representing Dr. Biden as a medical doctor. The author also states that the title of a PhD or EdD (Doctorate in Education) might have once held prestige due to the rigor of past post-graduate programs, but no longer could be considered prestigious. As a daughter of four proud PhD holders, two of which who have PhDs in education, I found this article incredibly ignorant and insulting. However, I was most struck by the blatant encouragement of the double standards placed on women, especially women in politics.

In 2020, only 23.6% of the United States Congress is composed of women. That is 126 women out of the total 535 Congressional members, with 105 of the women represented by the Democratic Party and 21 represented by the Republican Party. To further break this down, 25% (or 25 members) of the Senate are women and 23.2% (or 101 members) of the U.S. House of Representatives are women. The lack of women representation in United States politics is shocking, especially considering the amount of women’s health and rights legislation is debated upon in the government each year. It is evident that there is a significant lack of women in the political field and those few women who have managed to succeed in such a male dominated sphere face intense scrutiny and misogyny from insiders and outsiders alike.

Hillary Clinton at at rally
Hillary Clinton. Source: Lorie Shaull. Creative Commons.

This fact is highlighted by many women in politics, but especially the experience of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and then Elizabeth Warren in the 2019 democratic party runoff. In 2016, Clinton made history by becoming the first woman to win a major party’s nomination. The reactions to her nomination were blatantly sexist. While there were many objections to the policies proposed by Clinton, a primary objection to her presidential bid was her “lack of likeability.” Her supporters were described as “disconnected” and “unlikable.” She was often compared to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a woman who, in 2016, was considered a much more likeable alternative to Clinton. Two years later, during Warren’s presidential bid, many of the characteristics applied to Clinton in 2016 were applied to Warren.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama was the subject of media and political scrutiny during and after her husband’s presidential terms. While Obama headed many interesting initiatives during her time as first lady, much of the criticism was focused on her looks and likeability. Even worse, the criticism appeared to be levied towards her identity as a woman of color. Obama has been called by prominent politicians and media outlets alike an “ape in heels,” a “gorilla face,” and a “poor gorilla.” She was said to not have the “look” of a first lady and thought to weigh too much to care about the health of the country, in direct response to her campaign to help the United States exercise more and eat healthier. In a similar fashion, she was criticized for eating too much and not supporting dessert. One person even stated that she had no business, as First Lady, being involved in such things as the health of Americans.

Michelle Obama at a rally
First Lady Michelle Obama. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

The criticism of women in politics is not just levied toward Democratic politicians. In October 2020, tapes of a secret 2018 recording of Melania Trump were released. In these tapes, Trump expressed frustration in the double standard placed on women in the White House. At the time the recordings were made, Trump was expected to work on the White House Christmas decorations, decorations that were later mercilessly mocked on social media platforms and media outlets. However, she was also being criticized for President Trump’s policy regarding the separation of families. Trump’s frustration is over the expectation placed on her, and other First Ladies, to prepare and organize the Christmas decorations for the White House, an arguably trivial thing to the general public.

Kamala Harris at a rally
Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Gage Skidmore. Creative Commons.

The political field has proven to provide some of the most difficult boundaries for women. As of 2020, the United States has continued to fail in electing a woman president. The media has continued to be more interested in the fashion habits and likeability factor of prominent female politicians instead of their support or lack thereof of pieces of legislation. There have been great strides for women despite the many challenges. Yesterday, Kamala Harris became the first woman vice president in United States history. She is also the first person of color in the position as well. Today, we celebrate VP Harris and the women on whose shoulders she stands. While we recognize these achievements, we continue to call out the sexist tendencies that persist in media and in the political sphere, and we continue to work towards the day when women are represented equally in these spaces.

The Causes and Consequences of California’s Wildfires

by Mariana Orozco, guest blogger

If you went to California’s oldest state park right now, you would probably find many trucks logging trees and trees that have been chopped down. This is the result of one of the many wildfires that have happened in parts of Washington, Oregon and California this year. Although the wildfires were sometimes started by lightning or by humans on accident, climate change is deepening the effect of the fires. The fires are larger, more intense, and harder than usual to put out, causing many Californians to evacuate their homes.

The Role of Climate Change
It is important to point out that wildfires are not unusual to Californians. They usually occur annually during the summer and fall. Due to rising temperatures from climate change, more moisture evaporates from the ground, dries the soil, making the vegetation more flammable. Not only are the fires worse due to climate change, but the fires themselves worsen climate change by increasing CO2 emissions. Also, the forest pest infestations are also creating more tree deaths.

Graph showing that the additional acres burned with climate change has almost doubled since 1985
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Due to climate change, weather patterns are shifting and the seasonal Fall rains are delayed. This year, it led to a very dry Summer and a windy Fall, making the fires more intense. The wind brings more oxygen to the fire, causing flames to spread over larger areas. With less precipitation in this arid climate and less snow due to rising temperatures, the soil and vegetation are becoming even more dry. There has also been an increase in extreme weather conditions, such as heat waves and lighting storms.

Social, environmental, and economic costs of the wildfires
People who had never been affected by the fires are now being forced to evacuate. To fight the wildfires, large financial assistance is required. Also, once communities are affected, more money is needed to rebuild them. Just to fight them, the federal government is spending an average of 2.4 billion dollars, which has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Not only are the number of wildfires increasing, but the effect on land is expanding as well. The number of acres burned is growing exponentially, with 100 more wildfires each year than the year before since 2015. With the continuous effect of wildfires, more wildlife is being destroyed, animals are being forced to relocate, and ecosystems are being damaged.

Graph showing the number of acres burned per year since 1985
Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Impact on Native Americans
Many Native American people in California have been forced from their lands due to the fires. With them, they take their knowledge of taking care of the overgrown forests. In Karim territory, one of the largest indigenous tribes in California, people are taught to keep the area around their houses burned off. Char Miller, director of environmental analysis at Pomona College, states that removing millennia of knowledge from the land has resulted in the current wildfires. One of the ways Native Americans would keep the land healthy was through lighting fires on purpose to keep extra dry fuel from building up. California state and federal agencies are starting to collaborate with each other to prevent wildfires.

What can you do?
Society needs to cut carbon emissions to stop rising temperatures. We need to agree on a shift towards renewable energy and cut our reliance on fossil fuels. In order for this to happen, you can start by voting and advocating for candidates who have strong climate change policies. In Washington, Oregon, and California, there have to be better building codes so that construction takes places away from fire prone areas. There needs to be a proactive approach by removing dead trees and planting new native species, in an effort to not harm the ecosystem. You can engage in more direct actions to reduce the effects of global warming. Things as simple as reducing your water waste, buying better light bulbs, eating less meat and throwing less food away, unplugging any electronics if they are not being used, and keeping your tires inflated can help stop global warming and reduce the effect of the wildfires in the future.

Human Rights in Appalachia: Socioeconomic and health disparities in Appalachia

The previous blog posts in this series are located here:
Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction
Human Rights in Appalachia: The Battle of Blair Mountain and Workers’ Rights as Human Rights

In the Appalachian region of the United States, there have long been overarching socioeconomic problems that have prevented the region from seeing the same levels of growth as other parts of the country, and even been part of its decline in other domains. Much of Appalachia’s population of twenty-five million people remains remote, isolated from urban growth centers and beneficial resources that exist in cities. The rural towns and counties in which many Appalachian people live have not had the ability to maintain the public infrastructure, furnish the business opportunities, or provide the medical services that are necessary to sustain populations.

There are three regions of Appalachia: the southern region, which covers parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas, and Tennessee; the central region, which covers parts of Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southern and southeastern Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee; and the northern region, which includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, Maryland, and northern and northeastern Ohio. While the entire Appalachian region struggles with higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and lack of services and infrastructure, some sub-regions suffer worse than others, and in different ways (Tickamyer & Duncan).

graph of people in poverty by age group
Percent of persons in poverty in rural Appalachia by age group: 2014-2018

Even when compared to other rural areas, Appalachia struggles on measures of educational attainment, household income, population growth, and labor force participation. Rates of disability and poverty are significantly higher in rural Appalachia than they are in other rural areas of America. In 2018, the number of Appalachian residents living below the poverty line was higher than the national average in every age group except those 65 and older. The largest disparity was among young adults (18-24), where the Appalachian population was more than 3% higher than elsewhere. From 2009 to 2018, median household income in Appalachia went up by 5%, not far behind the national average of 5.3%. However, the median household income in Appalachia remains more than $10,000 lower than the national median.

 

map of population age in appalachia
Map of population age in Appalachia

One area where disparities between Appalachia and elsewhere in the country are particularly noticeable is in healthcare. The Appalachian Regional Commission released in 2017 “Health Disparities in Appalachia”, which reviews forty-one population and public health indicators in a comprehensive overview of the health of the twenty-five million people living in Appalachia. The study found that Appalachia has higher mortality rates than the rest of the nation in seven of the nation’s leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, COPD, injury, stroke, diabetes, and suicide. In addition, diseases of despair are much more prevalent in Appalachia than the rest of the country. Rates of drug overdose deaths are dramatically higher in the Appalachian region than the rest of the country, especially in the region’s more rural and economically distressed areas. Research indicates that diseases of despair will increase under COVID-19, as well. This will be especially true for women, who experience death from diseases of despair at a rate 45% higher than the national average in Appalachia. The ARC found that, while deaths as a result of diseases of despair were more numerous in metropolitan counties of Appalachia, rates of suicide and liver disease were higher in rural counties.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact that there is a much lower supply of health care professionals per capita, including primary care physicians, mental health providers, specialists, and dentists in Appalachia. The supply of speciality physicians is sixty-five percent lower in the central sub-region of Appalachia than the rest of the nation as a whole. Other factors negatively impact health in Appalachia, as well. Nearly twenty-five percent of adults in Appalachia are smokers, compared to just over sixteen percent of all American adults, and obesity and physical inactivity are extremely prevalent. However, it is worth noting that in some areas of public health interest, such as the occurrence of STIs/STDs and HIV, Appalachia does better than the rest of the country. 

Healthcare disparities are an increasingly dramatic phenomenon. From 1989-1995, the cancer mortality rate in Appalachia was only 1% higher than the rest of the US, but by 2008-2014, it had risen to be 10% higher. In the same time frames, the infant mortality rate was 4% higher versus 16% higher, respectively. And, in 1995, the household poverty rate in Appalachia was 0.6% higher than the national average, but by 2014 was 1.6% higher. We like to think of these problems as things of the past, but the gaps are still very much relevant. Fortunately, people living in Appalachian communities are more likely to have health insurance coverage than other Americans. 8.8% of the population in Appalachia do not have health insurance versus the national average of 9.4%.

This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, some factors of the Appalachian population have put people living there at greater risk of COVID-19. 18.4% of people living in Appalachia are over age sixty-five, which is more than two percent higher than the national average. In more than half of Appalachian counties, over 20% of people are older than 65. This, combined with high rates of obesity and smoking, put many people in the “high-risk” category. COVID-19 has affected Appalachian communities in ways that don’t result in death but make surviving even more difficult. Food insecurity, for instance, is an increasingly severe problem. At one soup kitchen, “…we were serving about 200 people a day, and our numbers have nearly tripled since COVID started,” social worker Brooke Parker, from Charleston, West Virginia, said.
However, perhaps due to the isolated nature of many Appalachian communities, mortality rates from COVID-19 have not been markedly higher than the national averages.

With schools moving to online learning, problems with access to internet in Appalachia become more relevant and pressing. Around 84% of Appalachian households have a computer, which is five percentage points below the national average. 75% have access to reliable internet, which is also five percent lower than average. There is no easy solution to this lack of access to education. Even in non-Appalachian counties, students are being severely impacted by the disruption to their normal education activities.

Human rights organizations ought to keep a close eye on Appalachia as we see the results of COVID-19 on an already vulnerable and at-risk population. The ultimate consequences of the pandemic will likely be more severe here than elsewhere in the country. People living in Appalachia deserve the same assistance being offered to and resources being put towards urban centers in other parts of America. Too often have they seemingly been forgotten.

Additional References:
1. “Health Disparities in Appalachia”. Marshall, J.,Thomas, L., Lane, N., Holmes, G., Arcury, T., Randolph, R., Silberman, P., Holding, W., Villamil, L., Thomas, S., Lane, M., Latus, J., Rodgers, J., and Ivey, K. August 23, 2017. https://www.arc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Health_Disparities_in_Appalachia_August_2017.pdf. Retrieved December 3, 2020.
2. Population Reference Bureau. https://www.prb.org/appalachias-current-strengths-and-vulnerabilities/. Retrieved December 9, 2020.
3. Tickamyer, A., Duncan, C. (1990). Poverty and Opportunity Structure in Rural America. Annual Review of Sociology. 16:67-86.

Human Rights in Appalachia: The Battle of Blair Mountain and Workers’ Rights as Human Rights

In a region that has so often felt the brunt of capitalist, industrial exploitation, it follows that there ought to be a response on the part of the workers to protect their rights. This has been the case in Appalachia since the industrialists first started setting up shop in the mines and hollers throughout the Appalachian Region. Of particular note are the Coal Wars, which took place in Appalachia from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, from 1890-1921.

Preceding the Coal Wars, workers’ conditions were already very poor. Though the conditions heavily depended on the level of apathy the owners of the coal towns felt or did not feel for their workers (which was usually high), it was nearly universal that coal camps were remote, unhealthy, and unsafe, both due to frequent industrial accidents and poverty-driven crime. Companies often owned the homes of the workers, and eviction was a constant threat. Further, the usage of company stores, in which the only form of currency for the price-gouged goods was company scrip or coal scrip, forced the workers into a monopolistic, unbalanced form of trade where they were always at the mercy of their company. Companies often employed private detectives, public law enforcement, and strikebreakers who used violence, harassment, intimidation, and espionage to crack down on workers’ rights advocates’ activities (Athey). 

There was also an ethnicity-based social hierarchy enforced by the companies. Despite all the workers being low-paid, blue collar workers, Welsh and English miners were considered to have the highest prestige and received the best jobs, followed by the Irish. More recent immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe were treated the worst, with the poorest jobs. However, all groups recognized that it was them against the companies for which they worked. From the mid-nineteenth century forward, coal miners built a strong reputation for radical engagement with politically left ideologies and for militant unionization (Rowland).

Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921

It was under these pretenses of repression and disregard for workers’ rights that the Coal Wars occurred. While entire books could be written about the Coal Wars, I am going to focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest labor uprising in the history of the United States, as well as the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, and occurred from late August to early September of 1921. Since 1890, coal mines in Mingo County, West Virginia had hired only non-union workers and specifically denied their miners the right to unionize. When three-thousand miners unionized in spite of this, they were summarily fired. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was brought in to effect the evictions of the miners’ families from the company town. Police Chief Sid Hatfield, along with a group of deputized miners, confronted them and a gunfight ensued, killing the mayor of Matewan and Albert and Lee Felts, among others. Later, Hatfield went to stand trial in McDowell County for an unrelated incident and was assassinated by Baldwin-Felts agents on the courthouse stairs. A friend of Hatfield’s, Ed Chambers, was also killed by a Baldwin-Felts detective who shot him execution-style after he was wounded in the melee. When word got back to the miners that Hatfield had been killed, they began to take up arms and organize, commandeering trains and moving to fortify areas surrounding Blair Mountain. 

miners with machine gun
Blair Mountain machine gun nest. Wikicommons.

The Battle of Blair Mountain saw some forty-thousand combatants engage in armed conflict in Logan County, West Virginia. Ten-thousand striking coal miners led by Bill Blizzard faced off with Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency strike breakers, Logan County Sheriff’s deputies led by Don Chafin, West Virginia State Police, and the West Virginia Army National Guard. Approximately one million rounds of ammunition were fired and over one-hundred people were killed, with nearly a thousand miners arrested for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia (Savage).

miners surrender arms to troops
Miners surrender arms to federal troops in Logan County, W. Va. Wikicommons.

Decline in Labor Union Membership

It is hard to believe that something like this occurred less than a hundred years ago in our country. Most people, I think, are unaware of the bloody history of labor rights in the United States. Further, it appears that anti-labor sentiment and large industries have prevailed in America. The Battle of Blair Mountain unfortunately led to a decline in membership for the United Mine Workers of America, even if it also led to a greater public knowledge about the conditions in which they worked. In spite of any greater awareness, unions have, since then, continued to hemorrhage members. In 2015, NPR reported that in 1965, almost a third of all workers in the US belonged to a union. By 2015, that number had shrunk to one in ten. Their research indicated that, even at the height of membership, the South/eastern United States saw drastically reduced numbers of union members compared to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. One contributing factor to this may be “right to work” laws, more common in the South, which are state laws that prohibit union security agreements between unions and employers. Right to work laws are misleading in that they are not general guarantees of employment, but are government bans on contractual agreements between employers and union employees requiring workers to join unions if they benefit from their protection.

As I discussed in my last post, unions have been shown to raise wages, reduce wage inequality, and protect rights for workers. Higher rates of union membership tends to indicate greater respect for human rights in industry.

graph of union membership and income inequality
Union membership and income inequality. Wikicommons.

So why are states limiting the function and growth of unions? It seems a shame to me that the interests of large corporations are being given priority to the interests of their workers. This is something we should all be concerned with because workers’ rights are human rights. Workers’ rights encompass things like freedom of association, the right to strike, the prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, and the right to fair working conditions. Because most of us spend most of our time working, this should matter to all of us. Unfortunately, only a few workers’ rights are specifically enumerated in international documents protecting civil and political rights, such as the right to form and join unions. Other rights are mentioned in treaties dealing with economic and social rights. Some good news on the front of labor rights is that, recently in Europe, workers’ rights advocates have been successful in taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the right to strike is contained in freedom of association. 

In my next blog post, I will write about the broader picture of socioeconomic inequity in Appalachia and the ways in which that disparity has led to human rights failures in the region. 

Other References: 

  1. Athey, L. (1990). “The Company Store in Coal Town Culture,” Labor’s Heritage Vol. 2 #1 pp 6-23.
  2. Savage, L. (1990). Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-3634-3.
  3. Podobnik, B. (2008). Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age. Temple University Press. pp. 40–41. ISBN 9781592138043..
  4. Rowland, B. (1965) “The Social Order of the Anthracite Region, 1825-1902,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography Vol. 89 #3 pp. 261-291.

The Right to Protest: Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Lockdown Protests

protestor
BLM protestor. Source: Elvert Barnes. Creative Commons.

Throughout the summer of 2020, the cries of “Black Lives Matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” echoed across the United States. These cries took the form of protests that occurred in many cities around the country and even around the world. The increase of Black Lives Matter protests has been occurring in the months following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in May of 2020. Frustration over the lack of action by local and national authorities as well as community members themselves, led to some protestors to resort to violent tactics. It is important to keep in mind that while Mr. Floyd’s death was a catalyst that sparked the increase in protests, police brutality and the discrimination of black populations within many United States systems has existed since the times of slavery. These disparities within the system have been left unaddressed for too long, and many agree that peaceful protest will not incite the necessary action and change. However, while some of the protests have resulted in property damage and other violent acts, the majority of the protests have been very peaceful.

In response, President Trump has repeatedly called for a “crackdown” and continues to characterize protestors as violent and dangerous, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the thousands of nationwide protests have been peaceful. He declared New York City, New York, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, cities that have hosted several Black Lives Matter protests, to be “anarchist cities,” which in turn could make them ineligible for important federal funds during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump has also refused to address the very valid concerns of protestors, instead vowing to defend the police as opposed to answering the call to pursue reforms to the policing structure. He has taken an authoritarian approach to the Black Lives Matter protests, sending in federal agents to “take care of the situation” in cities where very large Black Lives Matter protests have been held. His response is in stark contrast to the response of protests held earlier in the summer, protesting state lockdowns and mask ordinances in response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

police
Riot Police. Source: Igal Koshevoy. Creative Commons.

In Portland, Oregon, federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear were called in to handle the local Black Lives Matter protests. They were part of ‘rapid deployment teams’ created by the Department of Homeland Security. Such agents were also deployed within Washington, D.C., San Diego, California, Buffalo, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In D.C., federal agents utilized “chemical agents” to disperse a crowd. Also in D.C., military helicopters flew over protestors below roof level, causing panic and leaving protestors to run for cover. Some protestors described experiences of being grabbed off the street by plainclothes policemen and agents, thrown in a van, and being taken to a location where they were held for multiple hours without being told a reason for their apparent arrest. Lawsuits have been opened due to increased injuries experienced by protestors and accusations of the agents engaging in ‘unlawful tactics.’ The deployment of these federal agents into Portland and other cities is an extremely unnecessary show of force. The federal government labeled the protection of government property and the discouragement of unrest as the excuse for the presence of the agents. This excuse angered local authorities, with the governor of Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown, declaring the influx of federal agents a “blatant abuse of power.”

A few weeks before George Floyd’s death, in late April 2020, protestors gathered outside of Michigan’s state capital chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” The protestors, many of them armed and carrying semiautomatic rifles, forcibly attempted to enter the Michigan capitol building. They were protesting the new state lockdown and restrictions that were put in place by Michigan’s governor in response to an increase of Covid-19 cases within the state. The protestors were tightly packed and very few were wearing masks. Some protestors shouted anti-government slogans and some compared Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to Hitler. One protest sign threatened to hang state officials and read, “Tyrants get the rope.” The horde of protestors was blocked only by state police and a few capitol staff members. Some of the protestors managed to get into the gallery above the main legislative floor and stood menacingly above lawmakers, waving semiautomatic rifles and shouting down at the lawmakers below. It became so bad that the few lawmakers who did own bullet proof vests began wearing them. Other similar protests occurred within Michigan and the sentiment was carried across the country.

 

lockdown protest
Lockdown Protestors. Source: Michael Swan. Creative Commons.

President Trump’s response to these increasingly intimidating and violent protests? He encouraged them. In a series of tweets in mid-April, the president called on citizens to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA…” At this time, the pressure to reopen the economy was extremely high and President Trump seceded any leadership during the pandemic to the state governors, while criticizing the ones who quickly invoked strict lockdown procedures and mask ordinances. He encouraged protestors and stoked an angry fire among his conservative supporters.

Within the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several articles protect the right to protest. Article 7 declares equal protection under the law without any discrimination. Article 20 protects the freedom of peaceful assembly. Article 19 protects the freedom of expression. These are declared as universal human rights and the constitution of the United States echoes this important sentiment. Included within the First Amendment is the freedom of protest, or more specifically “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…” Protesting has long been an acceptable way to make grievances known in the United States. So why were President Trump’s responses to these two protests so drastically different?

An argument has been made that the Black Lives Matter protests are so violent that they require a similar level of violence to be contained. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) took information from over 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations across the United States. The organization found fewer than 220 of these protests violent. This means that more than 93% of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. The definition of violence, as determined by ACLED, includes fighting against police, vandalism, property destruction, looting, blocking roads, and burning of items. They also included the toppling and destruction of Confederate and slave owner statues. Despite this evidence, many people still believe the Black Lives Matter protests to be largely violent. A poll resulted in 42% of respondents stating that they believe the majority of Black Lives Matter protestors to be oriented towards violence. ACLED believes that this misconception is perpetuated by biased and disproportionate media coverage of the protests and demonstrations.

blm protest
“I Can’t Breathe.” Source: Taymaz Valley. Creative Commons.

Many studies have shown that police and federal agents have disproportionately interfered in the Black Lives Matter protests as opposed to other protests, like the mask ordinance protest in Michigan. President Trump’s actions have showcased a true bias against Black Lives Matter protestors as he actively works to impede upon their right to protest. It can very simply come down to the racism President Trump uses to dictate many of his actions and that his supporters continue to encourage. America was never a great nation to many groups of people and the presidency of Donald Trump has pushed the United States even further from greatness.

Inclusivity in Education: Cooperative Learning with Special Education

Students sitting in a classroom.
“classroom.” Source: Lead Beyond. Creative Commons.

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that “separate” educational facilities are inherently unequal. While Brown v. Board was aimed at addressing racial segregation, it is worth noting the implications of this view of separate educations because students with learning disabilities are often educated separately from their peers.  Our current education system divides students into different categories and programs based on their perceived levels of academic ability under the assumption that this is the best way to help students reach their fullest potential.  This is problematic and leads to students’ missing the benefits of an inclusive classroom.  Though it would not be a simple task, students who have learning disabilities should be educated alongside students who do not, using cooperative classwork, where students work together to complete an assignment or task, whenever possible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” For this blog, I will be focusing on learning disabilities, particularly those that do not completely inhibit functions that are vital in a traditional classroom, such as communication. However, I do recognize that the line that I am drawing between which disabilities/experiences of disabilities my proposal would apply to and those it would not is not completely clear, as no two people with the same disability have the same experience. The degree to which a person is able to participate in inclusive and cooperative learning would have to be determined on a case by case basis.

Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has a right to an education.  Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that all people with disabilities have the right to “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.”  The use of cooperative classwork among students with and without disabilities would hopefully help more effectively access these rights for both parties.  Additionally, by helping the members of each group become more accustomed to interacting and being part of a common social group, this can also help individuals with the types of disabilities that are focused on in this blog to access their right to employment (which is given in article 23 of the UDHR and article 27 of the CRPD) and their right to participation/inclusion in their communities (article 27 of the UDHR and article 19 of the CRPD).

Our Current System

When discussing whether students who have disabilities should be educated separately from students who do not, it is helpful if we begin by considering why we use the system we currently have.  A literature review titled “Implicit Assumptions in Special Education Policy: Promoting Full Inclusion for Students with Learning Disabilities” was published by Moira Kirby in the Child Youth Care Forum in 2016.  In the review, Kirby aimed to find special education trends relating to “inclusive practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), and student achievement.”  She argues that the educational system currently used in the United States, while meant to increase access to education, perpetuates certain students’ isolation from others, as it is based on problematic assumptions about disabilities.  The first assumption is that disabilities are deviant conditions that should be “eradicated.”  The second is that “all special services should be delivered in a separate environment.”  These assumptions inform the implicit biases about degrees of educational ability.  Kirby also argues that these assumptions must be changed in order to “promote access and equality for students with learning disabilities.”   In her article, she states, “The question is not, how can we fix a disability, but how can we make our classroom environments a place where all students can learn, regardless of their need.”

The educational system that is currently in place in the US involves separating students with learning disabilities, “low-performing” students, students who meet “average” expectations, and “high-performing” students.  This system is well-intentioned, theoretically giving each group of students the unique resources they need to reach the height of their personal capabilities.  In practice, however, this system is quite flawed.  It is a system based on expectations (typically informed by assumptions and implicit bias), which become harmful to many students, especially those with learning disabilities, due to stereotype threat.  Stereotype threat is “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” and the effect that that risk can have on the individual’s performance.  Many people assume that students with disabilities will do poorly in school, and when students with disabilities know this, they often adopt those same expectations for themselves.  If academic success seems unlikely or even impossible, this can become a barrier to the motivation and access to resources that can lead to it.  Stereotype threat also leads students with learning disabilities to underestimate the quality of their academic performance overall, even at times when they are doing well.  They can start to assume that they simply cannot do well in school.

This sort of negative self-evaluation can also be damaging to a person’s mental health and well-being.  If one consistently sees themselves as not good enough, smart enough, or strong enough to do things well, it can be easy for them to fall into depression, anxiety, or another struggle with mental health.

Another problem that comes with stereotype threat is that it takes up precious cognitive resources.  Students spend part of their cognitive resources thinking about the expectations they are held to, distracting them from the work they are trying to do, and preventing them from using all of their resources to their advantage, which contributes to a decreased ability to perform well.

In her research, Kirby found that teachers who had been asked about inclusion in the classroom tended to attribute the success of attempts at inclusion to the students’ physiological traits rather than the value of inclusive practices.  She points to this belief as one that could potentially lead a teacher to believe that students with disabilities could be taught only separately from others.  They were also often found to lack confidence in their abilities to teach students with disabilities.  Parents also either had negative or neutral views on the impact of inclusive education.

In 2015, “68.2% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in the general education classroom, while 24.1% spend 40-70% of their day in the general education classroom.”  This in no way aligns with the idea that students with learning disabilities need to be educated separately from other students, and it highlights a point of concern.  If many general education teachers do not feel like they are able to teach students with disabilities, and most students with disabilities spend a large part of their day in general education classrooms, what implications do these things have regarding those students’ education?  Ideally, students would be educated by someone who felt they were qualified to teach them rather than someone who is uncertain about it.  If students with different educational needs were consistently taught in the same classroom, teachers would all need to go through the training necessary to teach students with special educational needs, allowing them to better support their students.

Students listening to teachers in a classroom.
“Classroom.” Source: PAL LTER, Creative Commons.
An Inclusive Educational Environment Can Be Beneficial For All Students

The negative impact that a segregated educational system can have on students with disabilities is not the only reason to move towards a more inclusive system.  Evidence that suggests that inclusive classrooms can lead to positive outcomes for all of the students involved.

In their article “The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs,” Ed Baines, Peter Blatchford, and Rob Webster review the results of two research projects: the SPRing (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) project and the MAST (Making a Statement) project.  Realizing that most studies regarding collaborative work in education that had previously been performed had been on a small-scale and short-term basis, the authors reviewed the results of these two projects to come to a better, more reliable understanding of the challenges of inclusive group-work in primary schools.

The SPRing project was a five-year-long project that aimed to “develop and implement with teachers a programme of principles and activities that incorporated group work  into curriculum and everyday school activities” and “to evaluate this programme relative to a control group in terms of academic progress, behavioral interaction and dialogue, and attitudes and motivation towards learning.”  The developed program included a handbook and six training sessions where teachers could develop the skills that they need to incorporate group work into their lessons.  The four main areas covered by the program included “preparing the classroom and group context for group work,” “preparing lessons and group-work activities,” “preparing adults to support pupils and groups,” and “preparing pupils for group work.”

The results of the SPRing project show that, relative to the control group, the students that participated in the program made more progress in general science tests, “were more actively engaged in task interactions,” had more sustained interactions, and “engaged in more high-level reasoning talk.”

The MAST project “involved systematic observation and case studies” of students with known special educational needs that were being taught in general education classrooms. This project’s results provided Baines and his co-authors with information about the interactions between students with special educational needs and adults/peers.  The project found that students with special educational needs “were half as likely to work with or alongside peers” as other students.  It was also found they were often isolated from the other students.  Some of the reasons for this isolation included a student with special educational needs choosing to sit away from the others, and other students being afraid of or nervous about working with them.  One factor that may contribute to each of these reasons could be that the students with special educational needs that were a part of the study may have had poor social and communicational skills.  While difficulties with communication are an aspect of many learning disabilities, inclusive group work may give these students an opportunity and a safe environment in which they can develop these skills (though a student should never be pushed to do group work if it causes them an amount of stress that is genuinely detrimental to their well-being).

This isolation of students with special educational needs may also result from traditional students and school faculty viewing people with disabilities as “the other” as being outside of normal.  This would help to explain why traditional students may be hesitant to associate with students who have disabilities.  It could also explain why students with special educational needs isolate themselves from other students, as they may have internalized their peers’ view of them.  They may feel like they are on the outside looking in, unable to be a part of the rest of the group.

In her literature review, Moira Kirby also addresses some of the benefits of inclusive educational settings, as suggested in different case studies.  In one study, elementary school students scored higher in reading and writing when taught in a general education classroom rather than a separate special education classroom.  Another study found that eighth-graders with learning disabilities had “significantly higher scores in math academic achievement tasks and self-concept” when taught in an inclusive classroom. Students from another study scored higher in math, science, social studies, and language arts.

Students without learning disabilities may also benefit from inclusive educational environments.  Students who perform well could potentially benefit from working with students with disabilities and helping them understand the topics they are learning about and the group work they might do.  Re-wording and explaining a concept to another person can

help cement one’s understanding of it.  Additionally, if all teachers have to teach classes with children with different educational needs, they would have to be prepared to work with students with disabilities, which would improve the support that those students receive and broaden teachers’ perspectives.  This could allow teachers to develop skills that would be beneficial in teaching all students, with or without disabilities.

 Concerns and Challenges

Though there are many advantages to adopting a more inclusive educational system, there are still concerns and challenges that also come with it.  One concern is that students with learning disabilities may face social rejection from their peers.   For their article “The Social and Emotional Situation of First Graders with Classroom Behavior Problems and Classroom Learning Difficulties in Inclusive Classes,” Johanna Krull, Jürgen Wilbert, and Thomas Hennemann surveyed 2,839 first graders and found that students with “classroom learning difficulties” (CLD) and “classroom behavioral problems” (CBP) were at a greater risk for social rejection than their peers.  However, the authors found several outliers in their data, where students with CLD or CBP had higher rates of social acceptance, and they interpret this to mean that, under the right circumstances, an inclusive education system is possible.  In their article, Baines and his co-authors suggest that social rejection in this context can decrease over time when students are involved in inclusive group-work (if the students remain in the same groups throughout that time). Group work allows students with disabilities who struggle with social skills to develop those skills. It will enable other students to better understand people’s experiences who are different from them, which may lead them to be more willing (and happier) to be inclusive and build friendships with other students.  If a student has no/little prior experience with students with learning disabilities, it would not be surprising to find that they are nervous or uncomfortable interacting with them.

When discussing the possibility of an integrated classroom, people are also concerned with the impact of having children with severe behavioral issues in general education classrooms, as they may become distracting or disruptive to the point of preventing any productivity in the class. This may be a factor that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children that are deemed as being too disruptive have the potential to become less disruptive with exposure to a traditional classroom setting.  There are likely situations where students truly are too disruptive to allow for a productive classroom, but that is certainly not always the case.  It is important that, if a student is found to behave in a distracting way, that they are not immediately moved into another classroom after a single incident (although consideration should be given to the severity and the nature of the interruption). They should be given the opportunity to try and adjust to the traditional classroom environment before they are placed in a different one.

Another concern is that educating students at such a range of degrees of ability in the same classroom might prevent both students with learning disabilities and students that are currently in advanced programs from reaching their fullest academic potential. This concern is largely connected to the assumption that being in the classroom means that students would all be learning from the exact same curriculum, but that is not necessarily true.

In her article, Kirby suggests that a completely inclusive classroom might not involve basing lesson plans on the categories that students have been assigned to.  Instead, each student would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In our current public education system, children in special education programs must have an IEP, a “map that lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school.” Each child has an IEP team, including their parents, at least one general education teacher (unless the child does not work with any), at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, a school psychologist/specialist, and the child.  After the IEP is developed, the team regularly meets to discuss progress and possible changes for the plan.  If every student, whether they have general or special educational needs, has an IEP, then (in theory), each student could have their personal needs recognized and met in the classroom.  Kirby also suggests that making IEPs standard for all students could reduce the impact that the stigmatization of learning disabilities has on students, as school faculty would be less reliant on separating students into different/broad categories to teach them.

Of course, creating an IEP for every student in the public school system is much easier said than done and is a much more attractive idea in theory than in practice.  It would require a significant shift in the allocation of resources in education, which may not be practical with the financial resources we currently have access to.  It would also be asking many teachers, as they would no longer be able to teach with a singular lesson plan. It is unrealistic to expect teachers to carry this burden themselves, as they are already spread too thin, given more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle.  Having IEPs for every student would likely require a serious increase in the number of teachers at each school or at least an increased/reinforced support system for school faculty. Perhaps a more feasible solution could be developing IEPs for students with a clear need for increased educational support that involves their being more present in the traditional classroom than in a separate one.  While this is still likely to feed into the stigmatization and othering of students with disabilities, there do not seem to be any strong alternatives that are both practical and successful in avoiding stigmatization altogether.

Conclusion

In short, we should aim to educate students with and without learning disabilities together whenever possible, even though it will take a lot of time and effort to do so.  We currently separate students based on expectations of their academic abilities, and these expectations are informed by and reaffirm problematic assumptions about people with learning disabilities.  This can be harmful to people with learning disabilities and prevent students with all degrees of educational needs from accessing the benefits that can come from an inclusive classroom.  However, it is important  that we recognize and genuinely consider the concerns and challenges that arise when we look to put inclusive education ideals into practice.  It is also important to recognize that the conclusions that can be drawn based on the resources used to support this argument are limited, as many gather data from anecdotal situations and small samples sizes.  These factors prevent the results of sources from being reliably representative of experiences with inclusion and students with learning disabilities on a larger scale.  The application of my argument is also limited, as I have focused on students with learning disabilities that do not completely prevent them from effectively learning or functioning in a general education classroom.  While an integrated school system is generally optimal, there are some students for which that kind of system genuinely would not work.  We cannot treat all students with disabilities as if their experiences are the same by assuming that all would do poorly in an inclusive classroom or that all would be unquestionably better off in an inclusive classroom.  Overall, even though it will not be easy, even if we can never achieve a perfectly integrated educational system, it is an important goal which we should work towards for the benefit of all students and their educational rights.

“Eat the Rich!”: A Rallying Cry Against Income Inequality

eat the rich
Eat the Rich Sign. wsquared photography. Source: Creative Commons.

Throughout the pandemic, I have found my social media use rise exponentially. I think it is a way to find human connection, when my primary form of social interaction is with my roommates. Apps like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and more recently, TikTok, allow me to check in on my friends and family across the world but they also allow for a version of political discourse to take place. From sharing news articles to posting pictures with informative captions, rallying cries have spread across the internet urging users to participate in social change as much as possible.

One of these rallying cries brought back a centuries old phrase. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in the context of the French Revolution and its aftermath, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” This sentiment has returned in 2019 and 2020 in the United States, especially as class divides become even more apparent in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The phrase “Eat the Rich!” can be seen in captions, videos, and even as a spoken phrase. Rallies and protests have seen signs with the words “eat the rich” written upon them and cities have heard the ring of those words in the form of chants. It is important to understand that in the 21st century, “Eat the Rich!” is referring to the top 1 percent, the companies, corporations, and government officials who have profited off the suffering of others. This phrase is not geared towards upper middle class families, a common misconception that has created a backlash. Instead, it is geared toward the city of New York for installing new, high tech security measures to ensure payment for the subway and toward huge companies who directly contribute to climate change as we watch an entire state burn. These are just a few examples, but the class resentment is very apparent and perhaps rightly so.

protest
99 percent protest. Andrea Mihali. Source: Creative Commons

In 2016 and 2019, American families were able to save substantially, according to the Federal Reserve data. Despite that, the wealth inequality did not shift much, and this was all before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The facts and figures of the Federal Reserve and the Survey of Consumer Finances of the past few years show a higher median income. Though these depict an improvement, the savings most Americans have do not even compare to the rates of savings before the 2008 recession and the amount of wealth the 1 percent has is nearing a three-decade high. To put this in perspective, in 1989 the top 1 percent held almost 30 percent of the United States wealth. In 2016, this number about 40 percent, and it has not shifted lower since. Stocks and other assets are starkly concentrated within the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, with the median family within this 10 percent holding about $780,000 worth of stocks. For the bottom 25 percent of Americans, this number barely reaches over $2,000. This comparison disproves the performance of the stock market as a sign of success for Americans in general, a claim President Trump often makes.

This income gap is much starker when racial disparities are taken into account. The median wealth of a black family is less than 15 percent that of a white family’s net worth. For black families, this is $24,100 in comparison to white families’ $188,200 in 2019. The median wealth for Hispanic families reached $36,100. It is becoming increasingly clear that the gap is widening due to black and Hispanic families being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus outbreak. With the impact of coronavirus comes a sharp increase in unemployment for low skill worker and high interaction jobs, jobs primarily offered to Hispanic and black workers due to the rampant discrimination in the American job market.

bezos
Jeff Bezos. Steve Jurvetson. Source: Creative Commons.

The top of the top 1 percent in the United States is Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. In August of 2020, Bezos became the first person to ever be worth over $200 billion dollars. Without a doubt, he is the world’s richest person at 56 years old. The third richest person in the world, LVMH chair Bernard Arnault, is $90 billion dollars poorer than Jeff Bezos. Amazon is one of world’s wealthiest companies and has profited greatly from the pandemic, much at the expense of its workers. The workers at Amazon have been providing essential supplies in a quick and secure fashion to quarantined individuals all across the world. While Bezos and the company of Amazon profit, these workers feel as if their own health and safety are being exchanged for Bezos’ next billion dollars. Amazon responded to the outbreak with the bear minimum: a temporary increase in wages by $2 an hour and implementing measures like temperature checks. In April, hundreds of Amazon workers protested the way Amazon had been handling the coronavirus outbreak by calling in sick to work. Groups like Amnesty International very quickly issued public responses in support of the workers and demanding Bezos respond to his workers requests. The manipulation and abuse of influence by Jeff Bezos has not been a new phenomenon.

In 2017, Bezos was awarded the National Equality Award by the Human Rights Campaign for his work in support of LGBTQ+ rights. He had pledged over $2 million in 2012 for the fight for same-sex marriage. A year after being honored by this award, Bezos and his wife each wrote checks for $5,400 to Colorado Senator Cory Gardner’s campaign, a Republican senator known for his anti-LGBTQ agenda. $5,400 is the maximum amount of money an individual can give to anyone seeking office, and eight other Amazon representatives followed Bezos example by donating the same amount of money to Gardner’s campaign. While Senator Gardner’s anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments may not be the sole reasoning behind the large Amazon support, it is incredibly hypocritical that in 2017 Bezos graciously accepted a human rights award for his work for the LGBTQ+ community.

Amazon.com
Amazon building. Robert Scoble. Source: Creative Commons.

In 2018, Amazon employees sent a letter to Bezos requesting that he stop selling the Amazon face surveillance product to law enforcement. They stated that it was a tool used to direct violate human rights. The letter came just a few days after the ACLU and other community partners delivered petition signatures, a coalition letter, and a shareholder letter to Amazon regarding the same subject of the dangers of the face surveillance product.

These are just a few examples of how a member of the top 1 percent is able to push their own agenda and further the widening income inequality gap to line their own pockets. Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world and is a primary contributor of the income gap in the United States. The rallying cry “Eat the Rich!” is aimed in the direction of Bezos and those like him including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Walmart’s Walton family. This is not a call to cannibalism but is instead a call to action. The income inequality in America is devastating and tax holes and other mechanisms designed to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor must be held accountable. The Covid-19 pandemic made the system inequity even more apparent and people are ready to fight to make the United States a more equitable place.

The Most Disrespected: What does no Justice for Breonna Taylor say about the Treatment of Black Women in America?

Used to show Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a worldwide movement in the late spring of 2020. Here is an image captured of a protest in Amsterdam. (SOURCE: Creative Commons)

On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.

        The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.

              The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).

Black Women Deserve Dignity

As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.

All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.

Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.

 

Women at a protest -shows POC women activists
Women of color have led and organized many of the thousands of protests that have taken place world wide. Shown here are a group of women protesting for Black Lives Matter. (SOURCE : Creative Commons)

Where Do We Go from Here?

For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.

For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.

Rest in power, Breonna.

 

 

 

 

 

Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction

People living in the Appalachian region of the United States have been victims of a number of failures to protect their basic human rights since at least the nineteenth century. As a result, in nearly every measurable socioeconomic category, the Appalachian region lags behind the rest of the United States in development, or even shows signs of decline. This, in combination with their remoteness and social isolation, has led to a remarkably divided society evidenced over the last hundred or so years. Outdated and incorrect perceptions of the Appalachian people have led to antagonism and a struggle to implement democratic institutions that protect some of America’s most vulnerable populations.

The Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States extend across thirteen states and are home to over twenty-five million people. Appalachia struggles with problems typical of rural poverty: social stratification, unemployment, lack of social services, poor education, and poorly developed infrastructure. The Appalachian region, and its perceived separateness from the rest of the Eastern and Southern United States, is especially relevant in contemporary times of remarkable social division. Healthcare disparities, income inequality, and extensive exploitation of Appalachian communities by outside corporations have all contributed to distrust and frustration among their inhabitants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of Appalachians sold their rights to land and minerals, leading to a massive disparity in ownership and control of the land. Ninety-nine percent of the residents of Appalachia control less than half of the land — despite the area’s vast natural resources, inhabitants remain poor (Hurst).

The Appalachian region has had a higher poverty rate and a higher percentage of working poor than the rest of the nation since at least the 1960s, in addition to low wages, low employment rates, and low-quality education. To address this, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was established in 1965, as a joint effort of ten governors of Appalachian states seeking federal government assistance. Still, by 1999, nearly twenty-five percent of the four-hundred twenty counties in the region qualified as “distressed”, the ARC’s lowest status ranking. Fifty-seven percent of adults in central Appalachia did not graduate high school, compared to less than twenty-percent for the rest of the United States. According to ARC, thirty-three percent of Appalachians suffer from poverty and their income was twenty-three percent lower on average than the level of American per capita income. There has been some improvement, however, with levels of economic distress reaching lows not seen since before the recession in 2007 (ARC.gov).

graph of distressed counties in appalachia
Number of distressed counties in Appalachia by year

In addition to economic inequalities, political inequalities are present in Appalachia. Racial divisions have often been stoked to divide workers and pit races against each other. During Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War in which Southern states were radically reformed, coal corporations discouraged education and civic action, forcing workers to become indebted to company stores, live in company housing, and generally become vulnerable to their employers. Community members regularly experienced punishment as a reprisal for speaking out against their employers. In his study of culture and poverty in Appalachia, Dwight Billings suggests that this has resulted in a fatalistic attitude in the Appalachian people, based on a history of political corruption and disenfranchisement, leading to a sense of powerlessness.

The plight of the Appalachian people is deeply ingrained in me and will remain always of academic and personal interest. My own paternal kin originally settled in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina after arriving in America. As far as we can tell, my ancestors passed through the Cumberland Gap in the mid-eighteen-hundreds or earlier, finally homesteading in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on Sand Mountain, in northeast Alabama. On the other side of my family, my maternal ancestors shared many of the same challenges living as sharecroppers and later as miners in north-central Alabama. Eventually, both sides of my family came to work in blue-collar industrial jobs in mining and steel-work, industries that would become encumbered by the same failures, oppression, and corruption that were endemic in their Appalachian cousins.  My great-grandfathers and my paternal grandfather were heavily involved in the labor movement in the American South and leaders of rights-protecting unions, such as the United Mine Workers of America and United Steelworkers, even as those same unions fell into disorder and ineffectiveness.

My research has indicated that one of the best ways we could better protect workers and their human rights would be to focus on the renewal of unions in the Southern and Appalachian Regions of the United States. Unions have been shown to raise wages, reduce wage inequality, and protect rights for workers. Higher rates of unionization and collective action generally tends to be an indicator for greater respect of human rights in industry. After declining membership from its peak in 1954, a once-thriving union movement had shrunk to nearly a third of its size by the turn of the 21st century.

graph of union membership
Union membership in the US, 1930-2010.

Corresponding with this drop in membership, middle class incomes shrank accordingly. The Labor Department did report the first increase in union memberships in twenty-five years in 2007, which was also the largest increase since 1979, but it appears that this was a short-term gain in the larger scheme of things. Taking a broader look shows that from 1983, union membership has been on a steady decline.

chart of union membership
Union membership by category, 1983-2018

One silver lining is that there seems to be a slight turning of the tide among women and Black people, whose membership in unions is stabilizing at least, if not increasing slightly. If unions are meant to preserve and protect the rights of workers, it should inspire some optimism that some of the most vulnerable workers, BIPOC and women, are seemingly joining unions at higher rates than other demographics.

In a series of blog posts for the Institute for Human Rights, I will explore some of these challenges with which the Appalachian region are faced — workers’ rights challenges and the possibility of renewal for unions, socioeconomic disparity and the ensuing human rights failures in the region, and the political inequalities that are especially present in the region. In my next post, I will tell the story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and describe the ways corporations have exploited workers and prevented unionization in the past. We will analyze how these barriers affect workers’ rights in some of the most vulnerable populations in America.

References:

  1. Hurst, Charles. (1992). Inequality in Appalachia. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition. Pearson Education. pp 62-63.
  2. Speer, Jean Haskell (January 1, 2010). “Appalachian Regional Commission”. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society and University of Tennessee Press.
  3. Denham, Sharon. Mande, Man. Meyer, Michael. Toborg, Mary. (2004). Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations. Holistic Nursing Practices 2{X)4:I8(6):293-3O1.
  4. “ARC History”. Arc.gov. Appalachian Regional Commission. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  5. Duncan, Cynthia Mildred. (1999). Civic Life in Gray Mountain. Connection: New England’s Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, Vol. 14, Issue 2, Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  6. Billings, Dwight. (1974). Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis. Social Forces vol. 53:2. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  7. Madland, Walter, and Bunker, “As Union Membership Rates Decrease, Middle Class Incomes Shrink.”, AFL-CIO, May 24, 2013.
  8. Freeman, Sholnn (January 26, 2008). “Union membership up slightly in 2007; Growth was biggest in Western states; Midwest rolls shrank with job losses”. The Washington Post. p. D2