The Separation Between Human and Nature

A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America

A Native American elder wearing a traditional headdress made of beads and feathers.
Much Indigenous cultural and epistemological wisdom is passed down by their Elders. Source: Yahoo! Images

I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change. 

As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar. 

Concrete Jungles

How do you provide for yourself and your family? 

Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?

A bright orange monarch butterfly sitting flat with wings open on a yellow flower.
The monarch butterfly has recently become endangered because of deforestation and climate change affecting their migration patterns. Source: Wellfield Botanical Gardens

Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492. 

Symbiotic Humanity

Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence. 

A drawing of three pilgrims meeting three Native Americans in front of the Mayflower.
Squanto (right of center) was a member of the Samoset tribe, known for being friendly to the European colonizers, teaching them language, agriculture, and traditions. Source: Yahoo! Images

Property and Greed

When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out. 

One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity. 

Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.

A huge wildfire burns in front of a dark sky and behind a row of trees in Quebec.
This wildfire season has been the worst Quebec has ever seen. Indigenous people, while only 5% of Canada’s population, make up 42% of wildfire evacuees. Source: Global News. Click here to read more about the personal effects that these wildfires have caused Indigenous families and communities.

A Culture of Climate Apathy

Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it. 

We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology. 

 

Diwrnod Gyda’r Urdd (A Day with the Urdd)

Image shows the Urdd delegation and the IHR team posing with a flag of Wales.
The Urdd and the IHR. Source: Institute for Human Rights.

by Sumaira Quraishi

On September 15th, 2023, the Institute for Human Rights (IHR) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the Urdd, a Welsh youth organization, spent an afternoon together exploring human rights initiatives in Birmingham and the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the IHR, made opening remarks welcoming the Urdd delegation to UAB and facilitated introductions between the Urdd and members of the IHR team. Dr. Reuter then spoke on how the IHR is raising awareness of and advocating for human rights by making safe spaces to have open dialogues and hosting human rights advocacy conferences. Ms. Siân Lewis, Chief Executive of the Urdd, explained that the Urdd is the largest youth organization in the world and has been active for over 100 years. The Urdd’s primary objective is spreading a peace and goodwill message, with the focus this year being on anti-racism. The Urdd also aims to share the Welsh language and culture with others while learning about other languages and cultures around the world. The Urdd distinguishes itself in its anti-racism efforts through its “Galw Nhw Allan” (“Call Them Out”) motto, which encapsulates the Urdd’s desire to take substantive action against racism. In a video shown at the event, student leaders from the Urdd are shown describing the need to dismantle systemic racism through education to show the beauty and unity people’s differences bring to our communities. 

Two members of IHR led the group in a privilege walk, an activity that involves asking participants to line up side-by-side with their eyes closed and take a step forward if they agree with certain statements, or take a step back if they agree with others. Examples of the statements read included “Take a step back if someone in your immediate family is addicted to alcohol or drugs,” “Take a step forward if you see people with your skin color in your local government,” and “Take a step back if you have ever had to skip a meal or multiple meals due to your financial situation.” At the end of the exercise, every person of color from the group was at the back of the room, and every non-person of color from the group was in the middle or front of the room. This exercise was done to highlight the various advantages and obstacles faced by people around the world and fostered a great discussion about diversity and inclusion amongst the IHR and the Urdd. 

At the beginning of the meeting, members of the IHR handed out pieces of numbered paper to everyone in the meeting room. People with even numbers received a leaf to pin to their chest and people with odd numbers received a ribbon. After the privilege walk, everyone was asked to find a seat at tables decorated with pumpkins if they drew an odd number or tables decorated with scarecrows if they drew an even number. A short video on Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was shown where Ms. Elliott divided her class by eye color and favored blue-eyed children one day, and brown-eyed children the next, giving each favored group more praise and privileges over the other group. The class soon adopted hateful and derogatory views of the out-group, bullying members of the unfavored group which was distinguished by brown collars tied around their necks. To simulate this experiment, two members of the IHR went around telling people with leaves pinned to their chests to get second helpings of lunch and engaging members of that group in conversation. Contrastly, the two IHR members ignored people with ribbons pinned to their chests and neglected to mention that those with ribbons could go and get second helpings of the food being served. The experiment was revealed after lunch was finished, to the surprise of the room which had no idea the simulation was being carried out. A short discussion followed on how discrimination affects people in real life and the unique challenges faced by people daily due to discrimination. 

A tour of the IHR office space followed lunch and the Urdd delegation kindly presented IHR with a flag of Wales, a Cardiff University dragon plush, and Cardiff University silk scarves. Thank you to the Urdd for the thoughtful gifts!

The final event of the day was a screening of Four Little Girls directed by Spike Lee and a Q&A session with Michele Forman, Director of the Media Studies Program at UAB, who helped with the production of Four Little Girls. The film follows the events of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, and includes interviews with the families of the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. In the Q&A session after the showing, Ms. Forman described how every aspect of the film needed to answer the question “How does it help us understand what happened to the girls that day?”. A particularly impactful statement from Ms. Forman when asked what the rationale for using post-mortem photographs of the four children killed in the bombing in the film was that the destruction and exploitation of the Black body are used too much in media, but it was needed in the film to show that we will not move on from this tragedy and will not forget “what racism comes to bear on the Black body.” Thank you to Michele Forman for facilitating an insightful discussion of the film and the Civil Rights Movement!

Image shows black and white photographs of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
Victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Source: Yahoo Images.

The IHR is grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with the Urdd and looks forward to future collaborations! 

Watch the full Peace and Goodwill message video here

A Short Book List of Contemporary Black Authors

*Cover Image Photo credits to Sharon Drummond*

Reading has always been one of my passions. It’s a unique entryway to view the world through another person’s eyes. Scientific research has shown that the more someone reads, the more empathetic and understanding that person is. It is these skills and values that reside at the core of human rights. To recognize the inherent dignity of every person, we must first be able to critically reflect on our own lives, positions, and privileges and grasp that our realities are not everyone’s. 

To bring about a more caring, empathetic world, we need to learn to look beyond ourselves. Below are some authors whose pioneering work does just that. 

N.K. Jemisin

Cover of the book The Fifth Season. Author N.K. Jemisin.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of N.K. Jemisin’s books, The Fifth Season. Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images, Photo credit to Laura Hanifin; An image of the author, N.K. Jemisin.

N.K. Jemisin is an author at the forefront of science fiction writing 一 in fact, she’s changing it at this moment. 

Having been compared to greats in the genre like Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, and Ursula K. Le Guin, Jemisin is one of the rare authors whose work has won not only the Hugo Science Fiction Writing Award but also the Nebula Award. 

Only 25 books have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and Jemisin’s third novel in her Broken Earth trilogies is one. 

Moreover, she is the first author in history to receive three consecutive Hugo Awards for every book within her critically acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy. The series is set in a broken world, literally, with a plot full of betrayals, murder, and a mother’s unbroken determination to save her daughter.

If you’re someone who loves science fiction, you need to read Jemisin’s works 一 one series in particular.

Ibram X. Kendi

Author Ibram X. Kendi. Cover of the book Stamped from the Beginning.
Figure 3: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to American Association of University Professors; An image of the author, Ibram X. Kendi. Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of Ibram X. Kendi’s books, Stamped from the Beginning.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is a name you should become familiar with if you’re interested in antiracist scholarship. As the author of 13 books for adults and children, he is one of the world’s leading historians and antiracist researchers. 

Dr. Kendi is an Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, teaching at prestigious institutions like Boston University and American University. He is also the Founding Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research in the United States, while also being a contributor to The Atlantic and CBS News. 

He authored the book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, making him the youngest person in history to receive the award. 

Alongside this book, he also published the internationally renowned How to Be an Antiracist. He has worked alongside other authors to make both critical works accessible to teenage and children audiences. As of 2021, he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the Genius Award. 

Learn more about Dr. Kendi’s transformative research and start your own education into antiracism by checking out his site.

Saeed Jones

Cover of the memoir How We Fight for Our Lives.
Figure 5: Source: Saeed Jones site; An image of the memoir by Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives.

Saeed Jones is an award-winning poet and non-fiction writer. His poetry has won the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry and the 2015 Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award, as well as, a Lambda Literary Award. 

His memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, won the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Non-fiction. It is a poignant true story of Jones’ coming-of-age in a rural Texas community as a gay, black man. 

Jones’s work is a sincere and heartbreaking presentation of the realities that Queer individuals reconcile with as they grow into their gender and sexual identities. Not to mention the added stigmas racial and ethnic minorities face. 

If you’ve been wanting to break into the poetry scene or buff up on your memoir and/or Queer writing, you can find more of Saeed Jones’ work here

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Author Nicole Dennis-Benn.
Figure 6: Source: Wikimedia Commons; An image of the author, Nicole Dennis-Benn.

The work of Nicole Dennis-Benn has been compared to the pioneering and lyrical works of Toni Morrison. Her debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was named the New York Time Book of the Year in 2016. Moreover, it earned the Lambda Literary Award for its portrayal Queer individuals. 

Similarly, her second novel, Patsy, also received the Lambda Literary Award in 2020 and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. 

Nicole-Benn has taught at several writing programs at Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, NYU, and more. She is a recipient of the National Foundation for the Arts Grant and has published essays and shorter works in numerous esteemed publications 一 many of which have been nominated for or won awards as well. 

She is the founder of the Stuyvesant Writing Workshop and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her two sons and wife. 

Being born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, her two novels are set in her home country. If you are someone looking to expand their reading beyond the borders of the U.S., check out the writings of Nicole Dennis-Ben. 

Robert Jones, Jr.

Author Robert Jones Jr. sitting on some steps with his novel The Prophets.
Figure 7: Source: New York Times, Photo credit to Naima Green; An image of the author, Robert Jones Jr. alongside his debut novel, The Prophets.

Formerly known as “Son of Baldwin,” Jones’ debut novel, The Prophets, came into immediate acclaim. The novel focuses on the love story of two enslaved men during the 19th century and their struggle to retain this small facet of themselves as another enslaved man begins preaching to garner favor with their enslaver. 

His work, while fiction, contains lines of text that read like poetry and demand to be reread over and over as one processes both the cruelty and beauty of his prose. 

The novel won the 2022 Publishing Triangle Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. The Prophets has been translated into at least 12 different languages. 

Jones has published in the celebrated anthologies Four Hundred Souls and The 1619 Project. He is currently working on his next book. 

Angie Thomas

Author Angie Thomas. Cover of the book The Hate U Give.
Figure 8: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the author, Angie Thomas. Figure 9: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of Angie Thomas’ books, The Hate U Give.

For those who are fans of young adult literature, Angie Thomas has become an established name in the genre. Her work has hit the big screen, and though The Hate U Give does not explicitly mention organizations like Black Lives Matter, due to the timing of the movie’s release, it does feature BLM-esque organizations. It is important though that this work not be conflated with the actual people of BLM. 

Thomas was born and raised in Jacksonville, Mississippi, and attended Belhaven University where she received her BFA in creative writing. In fact, her New York Times bestselling novel, The Hate U Give, began as her senior project in college. 

She has since published five works with two being made into major motion films. If you enjoy young adult literature, check out some of Angie Thomas’ works here

Michelle Alexander

Author Michelle Alexander. Cover of the book The New Jim Crow.
Figure 10: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the author, Michelle Alexander. Figure 11: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

Michelle Alexander is more than just a renowned author, she is also a civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. 

Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, helped transform the national dialogue surrounding the imprisonment of Black Americans. It was published in 2010 and has spent over 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Her haunting and true words from her book pierced through veils of dismissal on the ever-worsening problem of racial policing in the United States: 

“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

She has worked both in academia and the public and private sectors, engaging in civil rights litigation and even serving as the Director for the Racial Justice Project in Northern California. 

Her work and her writing have had profound impacts on our legal systems and continue to urge for reform. Check out her work alongside that of Isabel Wilkerson to learn about racial caste systems in the United States. 

Derrick Barnes

Image of the award-winning book I Am Every Good Thing.
Figure 12: Source: Derrick Barnes site; An image of one of Derrick Barnes’ awarding winning novels, I Am Every Good Thing.

Derrick Barnes is an award-winning children and young adult author. Several of his books have become critically acclaimed

His book Stand!-Raising My Fist For Justice won the 2023 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award and a Coretta Scott King Award Author Honor. His other work, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, received a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor, the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, and the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers. In 2022, he became a National Book Award finalist for his graphic novel Victory

After he published I Am Every Good Thing, he was nominated once again for a Kirkus Review, making him the first author to ever win the prize for his 12th release. 

Before becoming a successful author, Barnes was the first Black creative copywriter hired by the greeting cards giant, Hallmark. 

If you’re looking for more novels to diversify your library or classroom, check out Derrick Barnes’ work here

Jonathan Rosa

Author and anthropologist Jonathan Rosa. Cover of the book Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race.
Figure 13: Source: Yahoo Images, image credits to Standford University; An image of the author, Jonathan Rosa. Figure 14: Source: Standford University; The cover of Jonathan Rosa’s book, Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race.

I want to mention Jonathan Rosa’s work, Looking like a Language, Sounding like a Race: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and the Learning of Latinidad, because of its profound impact on our understanding of how language influences our perception of other racial groups. 

Dr. Rosa is a Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at Standford University whose work focuses on how colonial structures have influenced the construction of racial minorities, resulting not only in institutional inequities but also in linguistic stigmatization. 

It is an undeniable fact that we judge a person’s intellect and ability on their written and spoken skills. However, this is never an accurate portrayal of a person’s capability. Jonathan Rosa thoroughly researches this by conducting over 24 months of ethnographic work in a highly segregated Chicago high school. Dr. Rosa unveils how the experiences of young Latinxes are inextricably complicated by racial identity and an imposed view of “proper” speech. 

If you are someone who is interested in languages and how we come to understand the world and people through our abilities of speech, you should read this work and challenge ingrained assumptions of racialized speech you may not have even realized you had. 

Isabel Wilkerson

Author Isabel Wilkerson. Cover of the book The Warmth of Other Suns.
Figure 15: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of the author, Isabel Wilkerson. Figure 16: Source: Yahoo Images; The cover of one of Isabel Wilkerson’s books, The Warmth of Other Suns.

Isabel Wilkerson is an acclaimed author of non-fiction that weds poetic narrative with the harsh realities of marginalized communities. Her first work, The Warmth of Other Suns, focuses on the real stories of three people during the Great Migration. 

In order to complete her investigative work, she interviewed over 1,200 people and dedicated 15 years to detail the journey of the 6 million people who emigrated from the Jim Crow-oppressed South. 

She is the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for her piece on a fourth-grader from Chicago’s southside and two stories reporting on floods in 1993. 

She continues to work in journalism for the New York Times and has taught at several prestigious institutions. Her most recent work, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, once more displays her incredible talent for incisive research and profound scrutiny of the systems of oppression that plague the United States, Nazi Germany, India, and many more societies. 

If you are someone who enjoys historical narratives, Wilkerson’s works are masterful pieces of extensive research alongside bittersweet anecdotes of people living through systemic discrimination. 

Conclusion

If you liked this book list, check out this list of foundational Black authors here

To learn more about book bans and their threat to human rights, read the article by Nikhita Mudium: “Book Bans in the United States: History Says it All.” 

 

The People v. The Police: The Ongoing Battle over South River Forest

Cover Image Photo credits to Chad Davis. 

 

 

** Some information in this blog was obtained from reputable news sources who reported on evidence obtained from public records requests. Narratives constructed from this have been presented as such and are still under investigation, please take this into consideration.**

This blog is a follow-up on the ongoing protests against the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, otherwise known as Cop City. 

To learn about what Cop City is, its historical background, and efforts to end this mega-development project from destroying Atlanta’s last major urban forest, read my article here. In the meantime, the Atlanta City Council approved the funding for the Atlanta Public Safety Center, i.e. “Cop City” in early June 2023. What is described below are the developments since my last post. 

Since March, the movement to stop Cop City and relationships with law enforcers have only become more contentious. Construction in the South River Forest has begun, while the efforts to stop it have only become more fervid.

Autopsy revelations and public record reports

Environmental activist ManuelTortuguita” Teran (they/them), was lethally shot 13 times on January 18th, 2023. The altercation between state troopers and protesters began simply over the forced removal of activists from the site soon to be developed into the nation’s largest police training facility. Instead of peaceful dialogues or dispersions, the incident ended in the tragic killing of Manuel Teran. 

Much speculation surrounds this event given the lack of body-cam footage as state troopers do not usually wear body cams. Given the presence of multiple other agencies, however, such as the DeKalb County police departments, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and possibly the FBI, the lack of footage is concerning in and of itself. 

In whatever case, Teran’s family has released the conclusions of an independent autopsy they had done. Based on the location of bullet wounds, the report hypothesized that Tortuguita was more than likely in a cross-legged seated position, with their hands raised in the air. Tortuguita suffered from multiple gunshot wounds, but most tellingly, they had several exit wounds through their palms. 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) released a statement on Friday, March 10th stating that the initial autopsy was conducted by the DeKalb Medical Examiners Office and that the GBI would not be communicating more at present due to concerns over the ongoing investigation. The state has still not released its own autopsy report over two months after Tortuguita’s death. 

In spite of this, incident reports have become available (alongside the independent autopsy) and state that, in contradiction to widespread claims that police acted in “self-defense,” just the opposite is true. 

These new records were obtained by The Guardian through a public records request with the Georgia Department of Public Safety 一 previously unreleased in the wake of international outrage calling for answers and accountability. The written narratives are not to be totally trusted, memory is a fragile thing often more subject to our imagination than we would like to believe. With this in mind though, a tentative sequence of events can be gleaned from the multiple officers’ reports on the day of Teran’s killing. 

The following is the sequence of events gleaned from reports accessed by The Guardian. 

Before the police raid, officers and SWAT teams were briefed on the ‘domestic terrorists’ trespassing in the forest beforehand, with claims that demonstrators might possess rifles, pistols, explosive devices, or Molotov cocktails. It was stated that the Defend the Atlanta Forest group had national contacts and widespread solidarity. Additionally, officers were warned about the possibility of booby traps and tripwires. Lastly, officers were warned some protesters may throw fecal matter or urine, and since, quote, “it was known that some trespassers carried STDs” this may lead to infection for the city personnel. (It should be noted this is not how STD transmission works.)

Three search teams of officers were deployed into the forest. The second team, consisting of SWAT, were the ones who encountered the large encampment where Teran resided. They approached their tent from behind and noted movement inside, the tent flap was closed. This is where some accounts start to contradict slightly in their order of events, however, the main components remain the same. 

Officers ordered Manual Teran to exit their tent or they would be arrested for trespassing, to which they responded, “No, I want you to leave.” 

At this point, Teran either opened the flap slightly, surveyed, and then re-closed the entrance, or asked what they were being arrested for without opening their tent flap beforehand. In either case, Teran opened and closed their tent flap at one point to which one officer wrote that this was “resisting orders.” 

Then there was an order to fire a pepper ball gun into the tent and chaos ensued. 

After hearing cracking sounds inside, officers began firing into the tent. 

One officer called out they had been hit and medics rushed to provide immediate medical attention. The same was not given to Teran. 

After opening their tent with a ballistic shield and a diversionary device was deployed, officers found Teran with multiple gunshot wounds, “unquestionably deceased.” 

Coinciding these written accounts with body cam footage of officers in other parts of the forest, at 9:01 am four shots were heard followed by a flurry that lasted approximately 11 seconds. At 9:02 am officers heard on the radio that one was injured. 

Body cam footage caught the discussions of police a few minutes after the incident and caught one asking, “Did they shoot their own man?” 

An image of a cardboard sign that reads “Climate Justice Now!” with the letter “I” in climate as a thermometer and the letter “O” in now an image of the Earth.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images; A protest sign that reads “Climate Justice Now!”

Tortuguita is the first environmental activist to be killed by the police in America. 

Protests of destruction over Cop City construction 

As construction began on the proposed Cop City site in the Weelaunee Forest, attempts to remove protesters have a renewed fervor. Two ‘clearing out’ raids to remove protesters from the forest have been conducted by police since construction began, the first of which resulted in the death of an activist. 

Nearly two months later, Cop City has come under the scrutiny of international attention, and feelings surrounding the issue have only intensified. In the first week of March, protesters planned to hold a “week of action” wherein a coalition of people from various social justice networks would come together over the growing concerns to stop Cop City. 

An image of people holding signs in the air that read “Black Voters Matter” as they come down a set of stairs.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images, Photo credit to Black Voters Matter Twitter; LaTosha Brown (Front Left) and Cliff Albright (Front Right), founders of Black Voters Matter while in Mississippi on a Voting Rights Tour.

These included Atlanta-area residents, organizations such as the Community Movement Builders and Black Voters Matter, and a local rabbi. The week was to include a music festival, a Shabbat, and a “know your rights” workshop. 

However, during the music festival, certain protesters entered the construction site and set fire to construction equipment. The events escalated further to include throwing bricks at officers. In the end, 35 people were detained. 

This too has become massively contentious as 23 of the 35 detained were at the Weelaunee Forest Festival 一 located over a mile away. On March 5th, an hour after the events at the construction site, police arrived at the festival and began arresting people, especially those with out-of-state IDs. These individuals have been charged with domestic terrorism (a sentence that can carry up to 35 years) for ‘vandalism’ and ‘arson’ of the site over a mile from the concerts. 

On March 23rd, a judge denied bond to 8 out of 10 defendants. Only two were granted bond at $25,000 and with numerous other conditions. One was a law student who had been at a food truck in the area when arrested. They were almost forced to withdraw from school before finally being granted a bond and being ordered to wear an ankle monitor. Another person was denied bond because they live in New York as the sole caretaker of her aging uncle with dementia. She was denied bond because the judge deemed her a “flight risk.” 

These arrests of people attending the music festival have been called indiscriminate because of a lack of evidence from the police and little to no case from the prosecution. Micah Herskind commented

“During these bond hearings, it was clear that the prosecution has not yet put together any case. They are using these fallbacks. You know, one of the examples that they gave was that people were wearing black and that that was evident of playing on the team, of being on the side of the protest. And so, you know, the charges are all really shaky. There’s really no legitimate evidence that’s been put forward.”

Intake paperwork of arrested individuals also noted mud on people’s clothes as probable cause for being at the construction site despite the music festival being hosted in the South River/Weelaunee Forest.

Tensions have only been rising, and with it, the threat of violence, in whatever form be it legal or physical, has become apparent on both sides of this contentious issue. 

The creation of labels and narratives impacts on social justice movements 

Since protesters are being labeled as domestic terrorists, we need to understand the implications of this language, or better yet, where it originated from. 

In an email from April 2022, the Atlanta police and fire department described the movement to save the Weelaunee Forest as a group of “eco-terrorists” in correspondence with the FBI over unspecified investigations. 

This would not be the first instance of the FBI insinuating violent behaviors in those with environmental concerns. 

An image of the back of an unknown person with a jacket that reads “FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”
Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; Image of an FBI Terrorism Task Force jacket.

The Stop Cop City movement gained international attention after the killing of Tortuguita Teran, however, support had already crossed state borders in the U.S. as demonstrators spread their message on social media. 

On July 18th, 2022, a Twitter account named “Chicago Against Cop City” began posting information on the campaign to resist the construction over 700 miles away. Additionally, a post on the same day promoted a speaking event at a local bookstore on Chicago’s West side. This was one of several events that activists held over the year, and across the country, to educate people on the plan to construct Cop City and raise awareness surrounding the issue. 

According to research conducted by Grist, it took less than two weeks for the FBI to flag the account and begin tracking posts on the account, including other Chicago activist groups, and events. Grist also obtained FBI records through a Freedom of Information Act request which they have made publicly available. This first document focuses on the “potential criminal activity” of groups resisting the development of the Obama Presidential Library, Tiger Woods golf course, and Chicago Police Training Center that would destroy over 2,000 trees (page one). 

It goes on to claim that Chicago Against Cop City is a “spin-off” of the Defend the Atlanta Forest group (page 3), however, according to a spokesperson for Rising Tide Chicago they do not know who created the Chicago Against Cop City Twitter account and claim that it “doesn’t appear to be a formal group.” 

Mike German, a former FBI agent who now works as a fellow for the Brennan Center for Justice in the Liberty and National Security Program, reviewed the documents and stated that the FBI had made several misleading statements meant to create a narrative. While it is true that some violent and destructive events in Atlanta have occurred, no evidence was given in this dossier to support any direct connection with either organization in Atlanta or Chicago. Moreover, the Chicago Police Training Center did not require the clearing of forested land, and most controversy in the last couple of years on the issue focus on the cost of construction being $170 million. 

In the second document, on page 15 the Defend the Atlanta Forest group (DTAF) is called “a very violent group” and noted that Chicago has several projects of a similar nature (threatening environmental spaces against public wishes). This report then claimed that “DTAF members came to Chicago to provide training to like-minded individuals.”

While these documents have an emphasis on Chicago, the first document I mentioned also includes photos of similar accounts in Minnesota (page 12). 

According to Adam Federman, one unnamed activist who had traveled to Chicago in July 2022 had only given “informational slideshow presentations” that had no training and merely focused on raising awareness about the issue. 

A spray-painted image on a red wall with dark red, bolded “Free Speech” with smaller text below with an asterisk saying “conditions apply.”
Figure 4: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to Chris Christian; Image of graffiti saying “Free Speech *conditions apply.”

None of the “evidence” collected by the FBI has shown any encouragement of violent tactics. 

In the end, the dossier that was created by the FBI on August 16th, 2022 is important for several reasons. One, the FBI is clearly monitoring actions that are protected by the U.S. Constitution and as human rights, which include freedom of speech and assembly. These rights are clearly laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Preambles 18, 19, and 20. 

Moreover, the usage of the labels “Anarchist Violent Extremists (AVE) and Environmental Violent Extremists (EVE)” set the tone for how these groups and their concerns are approached by law enforcement (page 4). This has been made clear in the case of Tortuguita Teran when teams that entered the forest that morning were informed about the alleged “violent nature” of the DTAF activists. 

Changing dynamics of protests: Resisting assaults on social justice attempts

It is clear that the issue over the destruction of the South River forest is one that extends beyond Atlanta. Groups in Chicago have contested the destruction of Jackson Park on the South side and other green spaces. Also, concerns over police militarization are not just in Atlanta but extend hundreds of miles away in the United States. This very reason has prompted resonation with abolitionists and environmental activists alike. 

More and more police training facilities are being built across the country and some are estimated to cost around $120 million to $150 million in construction. Two have been proposed in both Pittsburgh and Chicago despite public outcry. 

However, in the face of this coalition building across specific issues and geography, new and more frightening narratives are being written to undermine the efforts of these groups. This is not to say that violence and destruction are answers but to emphatically denounce strategies that seek to end civil rights and social justice movements with arbitrary arrests, exaggerated charges, and monitoring of activist groups. 

The use of social media is a revolutionary tool for activists since it has the power to succinctly and quickly reach a broad audience 一 a crucial step in sustaining a thriving movement. This, alongside workshop events on rights and training on peaceful civil disobedience (this latter one not being mentioned as occurring in the Chicago or Atlanta groups), are tactics that are protected and signal a thriving political culture. This shows that a nation has strong democratic values as people seek to not only engage with their local and national governments but also do so with the equality of all people.

Instead of monitoring with suspicion and animosity, we should celebrate the diversity of people who have come together to raise their voices in support of their goals. There is hope here. What may look like tensions, anger, divisions, and even hate, also shows us the passion of so many people of different backgrounds and social causes being engaged. It shows us that there are those who will not accept a lack of representation, lack of community, or lack of safe environment. It shows us that, if only the channels of communication would open, there are people screaming, chanting, and singing for the opportunity to work for a future for us all. There are people who are fighting in the forest for more than just the space, but for a future. 

After a public meeting that stretched 14h and in which many people spoke out against the project, Atlanta City Council approved “Cop City” in a vote of 11-4 on June 6, 2023. The Council agreed to provide $31m in public funds for the center’s construction and approved a provision that requires the city to pay $1.2m a year over 30 years ($36m total) for using the facility. The rest of the $90m project is to be funded by private donations to the Atlanta Police Foundation, the non-profit responsible for planning and building the center. Atlanta organizers unveiled a plan to stop “Cop City” at the ballot box.

If you want to learn more about activism or the organizations mentioned in this article, check out the links below. Also, if this is an issue you feel connected to, please contact your local, state, or federal representative to express your concerns directly. Urge your representatives to reach out and begin talks with any activist groups because we all have a part and voice to play in securing our rights and ensuring the best, most equitable community. 

  • The Implications of Selective Activism on Human Rights by Danah Dib 
  • The City in the Forest Soon to be Cop City by Alex Yates
  • Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we Celebrate Human Rights Day by Chadra Pittman  
  • Parallels of Democratic Turmoil: Looking at Riots in the U.S. and Brazil by Alex Yates

The City in the Forest Soon to be Cop City

I grew up in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Not inside the perimeter as one might say, I spent my childhood in the forests for hours at a time. My brother and I never grew bored of the endless possibilities and freedom we felt among the oaks: they are some of my most treasured memories. So, whenever we drove into Atlanta proper, I would watch the trees blur by as we encroached further to the city’s heart, well past the notorious highway 285 that encircles it. I always had a tree in sight no matter the distance we ventured into the city, and it always reminded me that home could extend and coincide with a vibrant metropolis rising ever closer in my sight. This always soothed me and put me at peace. 

Not all is peaceful in the forest, however. 

When protesting is rebranded as domestic terrorism

Since the quiet release of plans to demolish South River Forest (also known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm) in 2021, protesters have been camping in the forest for months. Local organizations have banded together in order to advocate for the forest and resist police attempts to forcibly remove protesters. These organizations include Defend the Atlanta Forest, Community Movement Builders, a Black-led nonprofit serving working-class and poor Black people, and the newly formed Stop Cop City group. 

These organizations have intersecting goals that culminate in mutual aid to stop the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center known as “Cop City.” Leaders from the Community Movement Builders described the project as a “war base” wherein “police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements.” 

One reason for the clear disdain for the project, aside from the historical implications discussed further below, is that the proposed site resides in unincorporated Dekalb county. Thus, those living in the neighborhood had no representatives on the council that approved the project in the first place. After public outrage at the lack of transparency and community engagement, the Atlanta council begrudgingly allowed public comments before the vote in September 2021. The council received 17 hours of recording on the proposal with 70% (or 12 hours) expressing opposition. The plan still passed 10-4. 

Short cement barricades with hearts painted along their length.
Figure 1: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to John Ramspott; Barricades constructed by Cop City protesters from debris and illegally dumped material.

Protesters have created makeshift barricades from mounds of illegally dumped material such as automobiles and tires in the forest. There is no water or electricity in the encampments so the protesters live very frugally to defend their beliefs. Access to water has continued to be an issue as police try to cut off supplies in an attempt to disperse the protesters and conduct regular raids and wreaking camps. 

Confrontations with the police have only become more frequent: and with more serious consequences. At first, some activists found themselves with trespassing charges, but protests escalated on January 18th when demonstrator Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a 26-year-old queer environmental activist, was lethally shot by Georgia state police.

 Protesters walk down the street holding signs that say “Stop Cop City” and a large forefront banner “We Fight Like Hell For The Dead & Living.”
Figure 2: Source: Flickr, Chad Davis; Protesters in Minneapolis after the killing of Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation released a statement that Tortuguita, they/them, did not “comply with verbal commands” and allegedly shot a Georgia State Patrol trooper who is in stable condition. As a result of these alleged sequence of events, Tortuguita was shot over a dozen times by multiple different firearms and there is no body cam footage of the tragedy. 

Now, the state is planning to convict 18 activists of domestic terrorism charges which holds a possible sentence of up to 35 years. 

Local authorities have continued to falsely claim that organizations involved in resisting police development plans are “domestic violent extremists.” During the bail hearing for those arrested on Jan. 18th, bail was denied to four activists while two were given the unprecedented amount of $355,000, along with conditions for ankle monitors and curfews. 

What once would have been considered a sit-in protest has now been twisted into “domestic terrorism.”

So what is Cop City? 

Cop City is the name that has been given to the project to construct the nation’s largest police training facility

Considered a private-public venture between the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the 85 acres slotted to be turned into a police compound would cost $90 million to construct. Renderings of the project include indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, an auditorium, classrooms, a space dedicated to explosion tests, and a mock miniature city to practice high-speed chases and burn-building training. 

The Public Safety Training Academy Advisory Council was formed under the previous mayor,  Keisha Lance Bottoms, on Jan. 4, 2021. According to investigative work conducted by the Mainline, a woman-led independent magazine based in Atlanta, the council was comprised entirely by “government, police, and fire officials, including Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen and APF CEO and President Dave Wilkinson.”

After meeting on Jan. 22, Feb. 12, March 4, and March 26 in 2021, the plan that would become Ordinance No. 21-O-0367  (Cop City) was introduced on June 7th the same year. It was passed shortly thereafter on September 8th, 2021. 

Two-thirds of the costs ($60 million) to construct Cop City are coming from corporate donors such as Chick-Fil-A and Delta. Otherwise, despite the desperate and apparent need for affordable housing, food, and other life-affirming infrastructures, the remaining third of the costs ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers

The land is currently under lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation for only $10 a year (see page 10) and construction started this February. 

Hidden racist history of the forest continued with the development of Cop City 

Before South River Forest became known as such, located in the bustling perimeter of Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan, the land belonged to the Muscogee Creek nation. In the early 19th century, these people were forcibly removed from their land by ever-encroaching settlers on the East coast and South Florida. 

In 1821, Georgia held its fourth land lottery, dividing the Muscogee Creek home into 202.5 acres. Between an 11-year period (1827-38), 23,000 Muscogee were driven from their lands by white, enslaving men.

Soon after, the land became a part of a complex of plantations that exploited the labor of enslaved people. The proposed South River Forest zone contained at least 9 plantations. The names of these plantation owners will not be given here, however, to learn some of the known names of enslaved peoples residing in this area, please read this article

Eventually, this land was sold to the city of Atlanta which was then used as a city-run forced agricultural labor prison that ran uninterrupted from 1920 to nearly 1990, being officially shuttered in 1995. 

Originally, the land became the first “honor farm” in the state, allowing trustworthy prisoners and those with minor infractions to work off their time. This was only a mask for a new form of slavery, cruelty, and so much worse as the Prison Farm ran, without clear archived records, for decades. The last official record comes from a 1971 health inspection record. 

A set of bars within a decaying building structure covered in graffiti, formerly the now abandoned Atlanta Prison Farm.
Figure 3: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to John Ramspott; Within one of the abandoned prison farm structures.

There are no official reports on the number of people who died under the inhumane working conditions, but there is a widespread belief that some inmates who died were buried in unmarked graves though none have been found yet. A little of what we know is troubling at best and stomach-churning at worse. In 1941, a prison superintendent reported housing 9 Black prisoners in a 12 ft space, alongside numerous reports of sexual violence from guards, and inmate deaths, often under suspect circumstances. 

In one example, prisoners were allowed to handle Sulfotep, which was only contained in unlabeled squeeze bottles and is an extremely toxic chemical pesticide only supposed to be dispensed by licensed company personnel. We know this because of the death of Leroy Horton, who was serving only a 20-day sentence, and who had been sprayed with the substance by another inmate at his own request after contracting lice at the prison. He served only four days of his sentence and died three weeks later due to these gross malpractices in safety protocols and sanitary living conditions. 

Now, the land is once more under contract by state policing structures.

Benefits and necessity of urban forests

Atlanta has been called the “City in the Forest” for its vast canopy coverage and abundance of trees within the city. That is because Atlanta leads the nation and major metropolitan cities in canopy coverage at 47.9 percent. 

The canopy is not distributed evenly across the city, rather it decreases as one approaches downtown and increases as one approaches the outskirts, making the presence of South River Forest within the perimeter that much more extraordinary. Researchers also found that the lowest canopy coverage was along transportation corridors, but was over 90 percent along stream corridors and in nature preserves

More and more cities are tracking the number of trees they foster because of the multitude of benefits they offer. This ranges from combatting urban heat island effects, reducing heating and cooling costs overall, providing blue/green space which improves mental health, acting as stormwater management to control flooding, and sequestering carbon thus improving air quality, combatting carbon emissions and climate change.

Results from a Montgomery, Alabama analysis found that urban forests removed 3.2 million lbs of pollutants from the air annually which is valued at $7.9 million. Moreover, the urban forest sequestered 11,263 tons of carbon each year and stored a total of 1.45 million tons of carbon. 

In Atlanta, climate scientists have warned that destroying woods will make the city more susceptible to flooding and dangerously hot temperatures. Other concerns over the South River Forest area are worsened air quality due to construction, fires, and weapons training. In this mainly Black part of metro Atlanta, people have been historically neglected. According to the US Census, 75 percent of the neighborhoods near the forest are Black and suffer from high poverty rates and health challenges like diabetes and asthma

The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter issued a statement on behalf of Black and Latinx community members, who have long been victims of environmental injustice and pollution within the city, stating their vehement opposition to the destruction of the South River Forest. 

Intersections of social ecology and human rights

In recent years, there has been a burgeoning movement to connect ecological and social issues together: known as the theory of social ecology. Murray Bookchin, a pioneer in the environmental movement and social theorist, has stated that ecological problems stem from social issues which in turn are exacerbated by ecological destruction. This vicious cycle has become the driving force behind new movements to address climate change and foster more awareness of the interdependence of people and their environment. Without this widespread recognition, social-ecological theorists have argued that hierarchical societies that rely on violent institutions like prisons and police are more likely to treat their environment and people as entities to be dominated, conquered, and/or controlled. 

In the case of the South River Forest/Cop City contention, this theoretical framework can be easily illustrated, alongside numerous normative international human rights standards. 

A spray-painted message on South River walking trails that reads “Stop Destroying the Earth and Its People.”
Figure 4: Source: Flickr, Photo credit to John Ramspott; Spray-painted messages from protesters on walking trails within South River Forest.

Firstly, the plans to develop Cop City were done so surreptitiously; there were no public announcements on the proposal before voting, nor were community members and organizations/specialists asked to participate in the development of the plans. Secondly, the council that approved the plans was not elected by anyone from the community in which the Cop City construction will take place. These are prime disregards for political and public representation: foundational blocks for democratic governance, rule of law, and social inclusion. From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): 

“Participation rights are inseparably linked to other human rights such as the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and the rights to education and to information.”

Next, the economic and social human rights of the South River Forest community are also being threatened. Economically, once again without any representative input, ⅓ of the cost ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers. Socially, each human has the right “to social protection, to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being.” These rights are being threatened by the gross environmental degradation of a low-income community that already suffers from health conditions such as asthma. Moreover, it has long been scientifically proven that blue-green space increases one’s mental health 一 an explicitly aforementioned social right. 

Lastly, we come to environmental rights. The task of succinctly explaining them can be a lot, I encourage readers to look on our site in the “Environmental Rights” category for even more insight. However, in this case, where the environment is the key concern of protest, one should return again to social-ecological theory. In human rights, the right to health found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, cannot be fully achieved in an environment that contributes to worse air quality, mental health, and dangerously high temperatures. The right to security, found in Article 3 of the UDHR, cannot be achieved in an environment where the community is under threat of more flooding, subject to burns, bombs, and shooting daily, and lives in fear of violence. And this can go on and on. 

Ultimately, this issue is complex and multifaceted: and it deserves public and civilian representation and more time than 7 months of deliberation to destroy a forest hundreds of years old.

Offer your support and learn more below: 

A Brief Judicial History of Religious Freedom

US Supreme court building
(source: yahoo images)

The first line of the first amendment in the Constitution of the United States, also known as the Establishment clause, asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This clause, although seemingly simple in nature, has been the root of many judicial battles throughout the United States’ history. Religion, as a human right, has always been a topic of political debate.  

One might inquire as to why this is the case: what makes the freedom of religion such a sensitive topic? In this blog, I seek to answer this question by outlining fundamental cases which have shaped how our legislators interpret our right to religion. Moreover, this blog shall conclude with how our fundamental right to religion is being interpreted today, as well as what is potentially in store for religious interpretation in the future. 

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) | Introduction of the Lemon Test

US constitution
(source: yahoo images)

Our journey begins in 1971, with the landmark Supreme Court Case of Lemon v. Kurtzman which involved the states of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The issue materialized when both of the aforementioned states decided to introduce legislation that would use taxpayer money to fund church-affiliated schools. In doing so, the government funds would pay for teacher salaries, textbook costs, and many other educational materials. Funding church-affiliated schools could be construed as a violation of  the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court followed this logic, and with an 8-1 ruling, they decided to strike down the legislation passed by Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, no longer allowing state funds to go to church-affiliated schools.

What is particularly remarkable about this case is that it formally introduced the so-called Lemon Test, a judicial test constructed to see if legislation defies the Establishment Clause. The Lemon Test has three ways to test and see if a piece of legislation defies the clause:

  • The piece of legislation must have a secular purpose;
  • The piece of legislation must not advance or prohibit the practice of religion;
  • The piece of legislation must not force the government into “excessive entanglement” with religious affairs.

If a piece of legislation passes the Lemon Test, then it does not defy the Establishment Clause and can proceed to further scrutiny. That is, the legislation will be evaluated to see if aligns with the other amendments. With these three prongs noted, one can see how easily Lemon v. Kurtzman would have failed the Lemon Test. 

Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) | Application of the Lemon Test

Wallace v. Jaffree, a case that took place in the state of Alabama, is another landmark Supreme Court case involving a dispute in legislation around religion. In 1981, Alabama decided to introduce legislation that mandated a 1-minute moment of silence at the start of class in all public schools. Although, ostensibly, the legislators claimed that this moment of silence could be used either for reflection or prayers, the legislation’s intent was to create an opportunity for students to pray before school started.  

This decision naturally upset many non-religious parents, and multiple lawsuits soon followed, climbing their way up all the way to the Supreme Court. Throughout this process, the Alabama legislators argued that this bill does not defy the Establishment Clause, as the moment of silence can be used in any way that pleases the student— not necessarily just for prayer. However, the fault in this is that the introduction of the bill was done to allow students to pray, not to give them a moment of silence; thus, this bill failed the Lemon Test’s first prong as it did not have a secular purpose. In a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held that the bill defies the Establishment Clause. 

Oregon v. Smith (1990) | Introduction of RFRA

street signs saying church and state
(source: yahoo images)

This case, unlike the aforementioned ones, has a bit more nuance to it and led to a wide range of implications. This case is the primary reason Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which is one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, having passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97-3. 

In Oregon v. Smith, two people, who both worked at a drug rehabilitation center, were fired due to having consumed peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The issue at hand, however, is that their consumption of peyote was done during a sacred religious practice. This case did not make it to the Supreme Court because the drug rehabilitation center fired them (as the center very much can fire whoever they please — they are a private entity); it made it to the Supreme Court because after they were fired, these two individuals sought unemployment benefits and were denied due to being fired for consuming drugs, which is considered “workplace misconduct.” 

However, unlike the previous cases, the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of the appellants. The Court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that since the denial of unemployment benefits due to workplace misconduct is a rule of general application (meaning it does not specifically target any people or religious practice), it is constitutional. 

However, as one might conclude, many did not like this outcome. Therefore, as aforementioned, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to clarify some of the issues raised by Oregon v. Smith. The first clause of RFRA states its purpose, saying that it aims to prohibit “any agency, department, or official of the United States or any State (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”

This first clause seeks to prohibit exactly what was the outcome in Oregon v. Smith, but it also comes with some limitations. That is, Congress is free to burden one’s exercise of religion if (1) doing so will further a compelling government interest; and, (2) doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. The introduction of this incredibly bipartisan bill, as we will shortly explore, has some interesting implications. 

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) | Application of RFRA

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, we see the RFRA being put to use which leads to an interesting implication from the outcome of this case. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby sprouted from one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), namely, that all nonexempt employers are legally required to offer their employees health coverage and benefits, including contraceptives, some of which stop an egg from fertilizing. Before progressing with the case, we ought to make note that some employers, primarily religious institutions such as churches, are exempt from the ACA.

Hobby Lobby, a crafts company, is a tightly-owned company, meaning that there are only a few number of people who own the company. All of these owners, moreover, do not want to comply with the ACA since they believe life begins at conception and to thereby provide their employees with free contraceptives would go against their religious beliefs. However, if a company does not comply with the ACA, it would have to pay a fee per employee. For Hobby Lobby, the total cost would amount to about $475 million per year. 

Hobby Lobby was conflicted about whether they should go against their religious beliefs and supply their employees with contraceptives or instead pay $475 million a year and adhere to their religious stance. Due to this ethical dilemma, Hobby Lobby decided to sue the Department of Human Health Services (those who implemented the ADA), and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby cited RFRA, stating that the ACA mandate does not comply with RFRA’s second clause. They argued that forcing Hobby Lobby to offer its employees contraceptives is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government decision. Rather, Hobby Lobby stated that they, like religious institutions, should be exempt from the ACA, as that is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest (health care for employees). The employees of companies who are exempt from the ACA have their health care paid for by taxes. 

The Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is correct—the least restrictive means indeed is making Hobby Lobby an exempt company, thereby allowing governmental taxes to pay for the health care of their employees.

What is remarkable about this case is its implication that the Supreme Court stated that the best course of action to resolve a religious dispute over health care is to simply allow the government to fund health care. One might argue, then, that the Supreme Court is hinting toward universal health care, as they view that as the least restrictive means. 

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) | Abandonment of the Lemon Test

bill of rights
(source: yahoo images)

The last case we shall discuss is one that has been all over the media recently: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. In this case, a high school football coach decided to kneel and pray before and after games. The school district feared that his actions would violate the Establishment Clause, so they asked him to stop. When he did not, they fired him.

Claiming his first amendment right to the freedom of religion was violated, he sued the school. The lawsuit eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, and, by a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled in the coach’s favor, stating that he was not complicit in praying since he did it during post-game periods when people were free to do as they pleased.

However, something remarkable also happened in this case: the Supreme Court decided to stop using the Lemon Test, which has been in practice since 1971. Instead of the Lemon Test, the Court stated that they will decide disputes over the Establishment Clause by “accor[ding] with [what] histor[ically] and faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.”

What this means, we do not yet know, as this is yet another new change by the Supreme Court. Throughout history, the Lemon Test has proved itself to be a great way of settling legislative disputes, so one could only wonder why the Supreme Court decided against it.

Summary

US Capitol Building
(source: yahoo images)

As I showed with this blog post, cases revolving around religious freedom are by no means simple, but the courts, thankfully, have historically always ruled in favor of the Establishment Clause, never seeking to subdue religious freedom.

However, after the abandonment of the Lemon Test in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, it is clear that the Supreme Court is planning on interpreting the Establishment Clause differently than they have had since 1971. What this means for upcoming cases, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that religious freedom, despite how tricky it might be at times, should remain a human right. 

The American Education System and The Treatment of Disabilities in America: A History

An image with characters with various disabilities holding hands forming a circle around the words, "Diversity, Difference, Disability".
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images;

Even though 1 in 6 people around the world experience disabilities, they are often among the forgotten groups within our society. While people with disabilities today are living under better conditions than their ancestors, there is still a lot of progress needed to be had to ensure that people with disabilities can lead a life of dignity and independence, free from the stigma and failures of society’s ableist mindset. In this two-part blog, we will focus specifically on children with disabilities within the American education system, but before that, it is necessary to frame the historical context surrounding the American education system, and how disability in America has been treated as a whole. As a result, part one of this series will focus on setting the historical context, exploring the American Education System as well as the treatment of people with disabilities throughout American history. The second part of this series will focus on exploring the contemporary issues faced by children with disabilities and their families within the American Education System and learn about a human rights framework for disability rights.

History of America’s Education System

The Unequal Distribution of Knowledge

An image depicting young children posing in front of the heavy machinery they worked with inside the textile mills.
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images

Since the founding of this country is rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, many groups of people have been historically denied access to education. Traditionally, children from poor backgrounds were expected to help their families on the farm or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. As the industrial revolution took hold, child labor transferred from the farms to the factories, and many industries, such as the textile industry preferred to employ children to exploit their minuscule features. The petite features of the children came into use when they were needed to get into tight spots, or when operating machinery that required smaller extremities. Child labor in America was not outlawed until 1938, meaning that many children from poor families were illiterate and disadvantaged in comparison with children from wealthier families, who could afford to educate their children instead.

In addition to the absence of child labor laws, the patriarchal structure of American society deemed it more important for boys and men to be educated than their female counterparts. While poor families were denied access to education on the whole, even among wealthier families, the education of boys was prioritized over educating women. Women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers in the private sphere, and the public sphere was reserved for their male counterparts. Many women were denied access to education, were not permitted to participate in politics and were limited to feminine jobs (such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work) when they did participate economically in the larger society. It was not until the 19th century that women were given more flexibility in their pursuit of higher education. Of course, not all women shared the same experiences, and white women were better able to receive education than women from other races, and as expressed earlier, wealthier women had more opportunities to educate themselves than did women living in poverty.

Furthermore, the foundations of white supremacy upon which America was built denied people of color access to education. Education provides the key to empowerment, and the status quo did not want to empower those they deemed to be inferior. Due to the hierarchical nature of this supremacist mindset, people from different groups were “dealt with” in different manners. For immigrants, access to education depended on their country of origin. Some immigrants, such as those from Asian countries, were barred from receiving education in America until the 1880s and were instead used for hard labor, like constructing railroads. European immigrants, on the other hand, were well-received by many in America, (with the exception of the Irish), and were granted many of the rights shared by American citizens at the time. There was however, a difference in treatment between the Old immigrants, (which were members from wealthier backgrounds with skills and education levels from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe that came to America in the early 1800s), and the New immigrants (who were mostly impoverished, unskilled laborers from Western and Northern Europe who migrated to America in the late 1800s).

In addition to immigrants, the indigenous population of America also received access to education with a different approach. In an attempt to force them to forget their rich cultural histories and erase the cultural differences between the indigenous population and the larger (White) American society, children from different tribes were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where they would learn to be assimilated into the American culture. Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language, engaging in their cultural practices, or even wearing cultural clothing (whether it was casually or for cultural practices). This is one of the reasons that today when people appropriate Native American culture (and attire), it can be very insulting, as they were punished for practicing their culture and wearing their traditional clothing.

An image with two side-by-side photos of the same three indigenous children before and after being forced into boarding school to be assimilated.
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images;

Furthermore, during the enslavement of African Americans, who were deemed to be on the lowest level on this racial hierarchy, access to literacy was denied to them and outlawed, making it punishable by law for African Americans to be literate. This law was another way in which racist leaders of the time maintained control over the enslaved population. Following this period, there were many racist laws and social barriers to education for African Americans over time, and it was not until the famous passage of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that African Americans were given the right to equal education. With all that being said, there is still an ongoing struggle to bring equity, inclusion, and diversity into the American education system.

There can be a whole blog dedicated to the housing market, its impacts on funding for the local schools, and how this influences the level of education the children within those districts experience. As mentioned in previous blogs on similar topics, this funding practice tied to the housing market is, yet another way racism has seeped into American institutions. Transforming the American Education system into a more inclusive one will be a difficult fight ahead, as cries against teachings with an anti-racist approach are molding the current curriculum within the education system today.

The Historical Struggle to Secure the Right to Education for People with Disabilities

A black and white image depicting young children with disabilities outside of their school, with a sign that reads, "School Days at Eastwood, 1949."
Image 4 – Source: Yahoo Images

This exclusive approach to education also historically denied access to disabled individuals as well. American society has been structured with an ableist mindset, and people with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized by the larger society. In the past, many states prevented children with disabilities from attending school, choosing to place them in state institutions instead. Some wealthier families with disabled children could afford to home-school them, but the rest of the children with disabilities within society were not given that opportunity.

Even after education was required for all children, many states refused to provide accommodations for their students with disabilities, and the responsibility of securing access and mobility was placed on the children and their families, rather than the state. Judith Heumann, a well-known disability rights activist, was denied entry to her elementary school during the 1950s because the school district deemed her a “fire hazard” for being mobility impaired and having to use a wheelchair. It was not until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHC; later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA) in 1975 that educational rights were protected for groups in need, including children with disabilities. While education access was protected under this law, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was needed to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all aspects of society.

The Horrific History of Disability in America

How were People with Disabilities Viewed in the Past, and how has that changed today?

An image depicting a man who is audio-visually impaired, being held down as a priest performs an exorcism on him to "free" him from the demons possessing his body. This was a popularly held belief about people with disabilities.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a man who is audio-visually impaired, being held down as a priest performs an exorcism on him to “free” him from the demons possessing his body. This was a popularly held belief about people with disabilities.

Understanding the historical context behind the American education system is only one part of this conversation. Outlining the lens through which disability is viewed today, and in the past, is necessary to comprehend the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system. Today, people with disabilities are viewed in four ways. For one, following the traditional views of disability, most people with disabilities are simply ignored by society, both as a population, as well as systemically. You can see this is the case by simply looking at some of the ableist framings of our infrastructure. Needless to say, being an invisible group within society comes with its own challenges.

Another common way society approaches people with disabilities is to view them as the “super-crip” (which is extremely insulting) and look at their achievements as “inspirational.” People who believe this highlight people with disabilities in a supernatural sense, similar to how many African Americans were portrayed as supernatural beings with superhuman strength and abilities. This troupe was not helpful to the African American community then, and it is not helpful to people with disabilities today. Some may argue that this troupe seems to be a positive outlook of the group, but upon closer inspection, it is important to recognize the stress and burden of success this places on people with disabilities to feel accepted by society. It also encourages the mindset that these people who achieve extraordinary things are superhuman and that their achievements are highlighted because there is a general conception that this is abnormal for the group. Additionally, for a person with disabilities, it can be insulting and demeaning to hear the phrase, “if a person with a disability can achieve this, so can you!”

Another tactless way in which people with disabilities are regarded, as inferior to the rest of the population. Many able-bodied individuals either view them as a burden to society or simply objects to be pitied. This can have the impact of treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens and making them feel as if they are lacking in some way or another. Those who show pity toward people with disabilities may have good intentions, but their actions treat people with disabilities as victims of fate, rather than with dignity and humanity.

Finally, some people within society treat people with disabilities as if they have undergone a tragic event (whatever led to their disability), and people require “saving” or “treatment” to be “cured” of their ailments. This too is not the case. People with disabilities adapt to living their lives with their disabilities, and they don’t require anyone to “save” them from their disabilities. This is extremely insulting and rude to even think that, and it has the same connotations as would a “white-savior complex” within the context of race. The underlying belief in both of these situations is that the person doing the “saving” believes that the person that needs to be “saved” cannot do this for themselves and that they require the help of the “savior”.

While it is important to understand the contemporary views of people with disabilities, it is equally relevant to familiarize ourselves with the ways in which people with disabilities have been treated in America in the past. Until the 19th century, people with disabilities were separated from participating with the rest of the larger society. During colonial times in America, people with disabilities were treated in a similar light as the Salem witches, either burned or hanged. Others viewed disability as a sign of God’s disapproval of the colonists, and people with disabilities were treated as though they were possessed. Still, others felt that people with disabilities were a disgrace to their family and their community, and many were shunned from their homes. The larger society lumped criminals, poor people, mentally ill people, and people with disabilities under the same roof, labeling them as outsiders. This practice evolved into the many horror stories that we may be familiar with today regarding asylums and their treatment of their patients. An important note: as it is with other American institutions, racism, and sexism disproportionately impact the lives of people of color and women within these institutions, and this translates into how they are perceived and treated by the larger society as well. This remains true for people with disabilities with identities that are not aligned with the patriarchal, white society.

The mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities within asylums

An image depicting an asylum, where people with disabilities were forcibly committed. In this image, there is a bed, and a wheelchair in the room big enough for one person, but many facilities were not as fortunately funded or furnished.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an asylum, where people with disabilities were forcibly committed. In this image, there is a bed, and a wheelchair in the room big enough for one person, but many facilities were not as fortunately funded or furnished.

People with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups that were stigmatized by society, were pushed into asylums. These were large “hospitals” stocked with medical equipment and personnel in which the goal was to provide care and treatment for the patients that resided within these asylums. The reason I placed hospitals in quotations is that many of these asylums were simply places to house all the people society did not want. These patients were experimented on, abused, neglected, and had almost no rights to defend themselves. Some patients that were from wealthy families were able to be treated at home, but others that came from meager backgrounds were not as fortunate. Many of the staff working within these institutions were unsympathetic towards their patients, feeling burdened by their very existence. Many people (within the institution and outside in the larger society) believed that people with mental illness and people with disabilities were “acting out” on purpose, to make life harder for those “upstanding” citizens of society. Many of the patients were misdiagnosed, and the institutions went from trying to care for the patients to “cure” the patients of their disabilities. The stigmatization of these groups within the asylums meant that their needs and wants were ignored. In addition to that, because it did not require a professional recommendation from a medical practitioner to admit patients into the asylums, many people were wrongly admitted to these institutions (because of personal grudges or disapproval of their behavior) for years without the right to defend and protect themselves.

Of course, it is not wise to lump every institution together and generalize about their treatment of their patients. While some were genuinely trying to take care of their wards and research ways to help “cure” them, others were less sympathetic to the plights of people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. For one, similar to the issues that American prisons face today, asylums were overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. This meant that each individual residing within the institutions was not given the personal care they required, and instead, they were all lumped into groups to receive generalized treatments. This was problematic in so many ways, but the most obvious is that disability takes many shapes and forms, and each individual had different needs that had to be met. Approaching a group of people with disabilities with generalized treatments meant that the doctors and nurses never took time to understand the details of each person’s disability, much less how best to approach them. As a matter of fact, because many believed disabilities to be a spiritual problem (a person being possessed by the devil), early “treatments” for mental illnesses and disabilities came in the form of exorcisms. When medical professionals finally were able to understand that this was a bodily illness, not a spiritual one, they then proceeded to conduct various experiments on the patients without having any knowledge of how to treat their patients. This is where the tortures began.

An image of a patient bound with straps, a barrier in his mouth, and hooked up to an instrument that administered electroshock therapy. This "treatment" and others were used upon patients within the sanatariums to "cure" individuals with disabilities.
Image 7 – Source: Yahoo Images

Medical personnel proposed many treatments to “cure” people with disabilities, including inhumane procedures that involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull in an attempt to bleed out the disease in question. While it is easy to judge in retrospect, in the beginning, many of the doctors truly believed that they were “curing” their patients with the various treatments they provided them, even as many recognized the inhumane nature of their treatments.

Other various treatments were administered to the patients, which can be defined as abusive and torturous today. Many women with disabilities were abused sexually, both by other patients and their caregivers. In addition to these incidents, many states (through the support of the law) practiced forced sterilization of disabled individuals in these institutions. The justification for this practice was expressed as cleansing humanity of these various illnesses and disabilities. Inspired by the American practice of eugenics, Nazi Germany expanded upon this practice to include everyone that did not fit their description of the “Aryan” race. To this day, America has not acknowledged this practice, and forced sterilization continues to be legal in the United States because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927. The case in question, Buck v. Bell maintained that the sterilization of Carrie Buck (a woman who was raped and accused of “feeblemindedness”) was not in violation of the Constitution. This ruling permitted the forced sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities and other traits deemed “unwanted” by the general public. While the Supreme Court has outlawed forced sterilization as a form of punishment, it has never overturned its ruling made in Buck v. Bell. As a result, this practice is technically still supported within the legal framework.

With very little funding, the living conditions within the institutions also proved to be dangerous. The asylum itself was built to be uncomfortable because there was a belief that comfortable living would encourage patients to stay there forever. This meant that there was poor insulation, keeping the buildings cold. Due to the shortage of staff, many patients were restrained or locked up, while others were neglected altogether. These conditions, along with the “treatments” they received, exacerbated the patients’ conditions and were detrimental to their mental and physical health. Finally, as a result of society’s exclusion of this vulnerable population, many people outside of the institutions were not aware of what was taking place within. The patients inside these asylums were all but forgotten, invisible to the rest of society.

Deinstitutionalization

An image of a patient in a mental institution being dragged out by two staff members.
Image 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; When the institutions closed without much warning, many of the patients were left stranded to fend for themselves with no help from the government.

In an attempt to expose these terrible conditions to the larger society, journalists and activists spread accounts about the conditions within the asylums. Many were able to do this by investigating these institutions firsthand, and images (and videos) of the ill-treatment of the patients began circulating. As people started learning about the horrific conditions in which their loved ones were being kept in, the asylums faced a lot of backlashes. Amid all the backlash, in 1946, President Truman passed the National Mental Health Act to begin research on neurological issues. It would not be until 1955, however, that things changed drastically for those suffering from mental illnesses. Thorazine, a psychoactive medication that was introduced as a way to treat mental illness, and the population within the institutions peaked around this time. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to take a community-based approach to treat mental health, but it lacked the funding to progress in any substantial way. In 1981, Ronald Reagan takes a drastic step to stop government funding to help with mental health, forcing institutions to close their doors and leaving the patients on the streets.

This dramatic change provided no cushion for the patients to fall on, and much experienced homelessness as a result. With nowhere to go and no help from the government, many people with disabilities lost their lives because of this policy shift. These individuals never received any compensation for their ill-treatment, nor were they given any transitional housing or aid to help restart their lives. Of those that did not end up dead, many people with disabilities were imprisoned for causing “public disturbances.” Unfortunately, this practice continues to exist today, especially impacting people of color, and people living in poverty disproportionately. Of course, the imprisonment of people suffering from physical and mental disabilities exacerbated their conditions, and the lack of care and treatment resulted in many deaths. With nowhere to go, and no rights to protect this vulnerable population, people with disabilities continued to suffer due to systemic failures.

The movement for disability rights

An image depicting the disability movement, with many people with disabilities gathered to fight for their rights. They hold a banner that reads a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Image 9 – Source: Yahoo Images;

Eventually, following the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements such as the Women’s Rights movement, and the sexual revolution that fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities came together to stand against discrimination toward them from the larger society, and fight for their rights to exist and prosper like any other groups. People with disabilities wanted to challenge the practice of institutionalization and employed many of the tactics that were used during the Civil Rights Movement. They staged sit-ins in governmental buildings like the FBI building, challenged the mobility norms of society by blocking busses (that denied accessibility to people with disabilities) from moving, and they protested on the streets, able-bodied allies and people with disabilities alike, fighting for their rights.

People with disabilities were also exhausted with the ableist society they lived in and began to challenge the many barriers within society that kept them from living as independent individuals. They did not need someone to hold the doors for them; they wanted the doors to remain open automatically long enough for them to pass through. They wanted accessible sidewalks on which they could move their wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking devices (if applied) safely, and independently, without having to depend on others to take care of them. People with disabilities and their caregivers began to challenge the largely held view by society that people with disabilities were a burden to society. They argued that societal barriers made them dependent on others and implementing disability-friendly solutions can provide the community with the independence to live their lives freely.

In 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, specifically, Section 504, people with disabilities, for the first time, were protected by law from being discriminated against. This act recognized that the many issues faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment, transportation, and accessibility issues, were not the fault of the person with the disability, but rather, a result of society’s shortcomings in failing to provide accessible services to the group. While this was a major win for this community, this law only applied to those who accepted federal funding, meaning that the private sector, and even many of the public sector, could still discriminate against people with disabilities. Following the passage of this act, many people with disabilities were instrumental in ensuring its enforcement. Many of the sit-ins referred to above happened at this time, as an attempt to keep governmental offices accountable. Protestors would block the entrances into the government buildings, or stay in the buildings past close time, refusing to leave until the necessary changes were agreed to be made to the buildings (such as including ramps to the building or elevators inside the buildings) to meet the Section 504 requirements. This continued until Ronald Reagan issued a task force to stop the regulatory attempts made by supporters of Section 504, and the protections secured by the IDEA, an act that protected the educational rights of children with disabilities. Over the following years, his decision resulted in hundreds of frustrated parents and people with disabilities alike questioning the justification for stopping the regulatory actions of Section 504. This backlash, accompanied by the tireless leaders of the community meeting with White House officials, ended in Reagan reversing his crackdown on Section 504, allowing regulations to continue on businesses that refused to incorporate practices outlined in Section 504.

Additionally, following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, people with disabilities, along with other protected groups such as race, gender (and sex), and religion, were protected from discrimination in housing. The first passage of the act initially only included race, religion, national origin, and color, as the protected groups. It was not until 1974 when sex (and gender) were added to this list, and not until 1988 when the disability community was added.  Still, this act was especially important for people with disabilities because it required home builders to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the inhabitants to live comfortably and move around the housing unit.

Following these many small victories came the biggest one of them all, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA). This law was the first general law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of society, including in housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and many other social services that impacted the lives of this protected group. The passage of the ADA focused on four main themes: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Full participation focuses on the ability of people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives, including having access to transportation, entering and exit buildings without issues, being able to vote on inaccessible sites, and enjoying life without social barriers that prevent them from being able to do so.  Equal opportunity centers on being able to be employed without facing discrimination due to their disability and being able to take advantage of other such opportunities free of discrimination. Independent living brings attention to the ableist framework that society is structured in and recognizes the need for a more disability-friendly society, with access to handrails, ramps, curb cuts, and other options such as disability-friendly online sites (that for example, speak the menu out for you if you are a person with visual imparities) to raise the living standards for people with disabilities. The basis of this pillar is to empower people with disabilities with tools they can use for themselves in order to live independent life. Finally, the economic self-sufficiency piece mainly concentrates on the economic security of people with disabilities. This includes access and accommodations to receive higher education, better employment opportunities (including training, transportation access, and mobility within the workspace), and other such necessities to promote economic self-sufficiency within the disability community.

A cartoon image of people standing together calling for equal rights with the words, "all human beings are born free and equal," quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948.
Image 10 – Source: Yahoo Images

Many communities across the United States are brainstorming innovative ways to be more inclusive, but we are far from being a fully inclusive society. People with disabilities remain among the invisible groups within society, not because their advocates are not loud enough, but because their cries are being ignored by lawmakers and their local representatives. Globally, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) in 2006, working to shift the mindset of people’s views on disability as a whole, as well as protect and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities by empowering them to fully participate in society with the dignity and humanity they deserve.

While this blog mainly focused on the historical context of the American Education System and the perception of people with disabilities in the past and today, the next blog will focus more on the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system today, the many challenges they continue to face, how the pandemic has impacted their learning and development, and the human rights framework necessary for disability rights to do what we can to be more inclusive and less ableist as a society.

 

The Implications of Selective Activism on Human Rights

With the start of quarantine in 2020 and the rise of the social media app TikTok, many activist movements come to light and shed knowledge on the horrific injustices. One of the most prevalent examples is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020 and the period following it; it has become crucial for individuals to speak out against injustices. In a sense, it is part of “cancel culture” not to speak out, or if you speak out on the incorrect issues. As important as that is, it has been observed that many liberals and progressives only stand against injustices for specific issues. In a way, it involves choosing who is more worthy of having their rights protected. This may seem like an extreme notion or definition of selective activism, but it is essential.

The idea of selective activism was first introduced to me while reading “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics” by Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. Even though this book specifically regarded the issues of Palestine and Israel, it dealt with an extremely important point and message; when we label ourselves as activists, we must be activists in all important issues. This is not to say that selective activism is always done intentionally; sometimes, it is by mere mistake or lack of knowledge on various issues. Everyone is guilty of this. Sadly, there are so many human rights injustices in our world that it is impossible to dedicate all your time to fighting for them. But what one can do in these situations is to be cautious of all issues at their prevalent times.

Picture of a poster at a protest stating "we will not be silenced"
Source: Yahoo Images

What is Selective Activism?

Selective activism is closely linked to the idea of selective hearing, only hearing what you want to hear. Its advocating for specific things only. The best way I have found to explain selective activism is through this quote in the book: “progressives and liberals who oppose regressive policies on immigration, racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and other issues must extend these core principles to the oppression of others.” Some questions arise when speaking of selective activism; how do we choose? What makes one cause more worthy than another? The answer is simple. There are always causes that we feel especially connected to and that we constantly advocate for, but what is essential is that if one labels themselves as an activist, progressive, or humanitarian, then this needs to apply to all issues. If one is going to protest the killing of innocent individuals in America, then the same support must be shown to women in Iran. If one is going to advocate for Ukrainian refugees, then activism must be shown to MENA refugees and those whose countries are still under occupation. Ravyen Monroe, a writer for Affinity Magazine, explained it perfectly: “You can’t be an activist but stop advocating for certain groups when you get mad. You don’t get to pick and choose who is worthy of respect and who gets degraded by terms that have oppressed them for centuries…That’s not how activism works.”

Showcasing activism; hand united
Source: Yahoo Images

Instances of Selective Activism

The most recent example of selective activism can be the world’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis compared to refugees from the MENA region (see blog on this topic here). Although what Ukrainians are going through is indescribable and is seen as an urgent humanitarian crisis, the problem is selective activism. The attention given to Ukrainian refugees was commendable. They were given the necessary aid and protection as needed. However, the same support was not extended to refugees from the MENA region. An Armenian writer explained this as a betrayal and stated, “it hurts to feel that certain people are prioritized in the eyes of the media, and thus, the world.” This type of selective activism is not limited to political activism and can also be seen in environmental activism. For instance, climate change activists. Many took the stance against using plastic and began investing in metal straws once it became a trend but continued to utilize plastic throughout their lives.

Impact of Selective Activism

Selective Activism has negative implications and effects on the world, like the forgotten issue of the Yemen crisis, Islamophobia in European countries, refugees, etc. The list is long and never-ending. Despite the many important human rights crises in the world, some face extreme critical conditions that tend to be forgotten. Many become activists when issues are trending, yet will forget about them once they are off the mainstream media. As illustrated, it is not possible for one to advocate for every cause or injustice. But, if one labels themselves an activist and sees many prevalent issues but ignores it, then that is participating in selective activism. An inclusive solution would be to continue the fight for human rights for all and to stay educated. If there are specific humanitarian causes important to one, make sure you are advocating for all the individuals affected. Below are books, movies, and resources that expand upon the notion of selective activism.

photo art of ways to advocate.
Source: Yahoo Images

Books:

“Except for Palestine: Limit on Progressive Politics” By Marc Lamont Hill & Mitchell Plitnick (This book opened my eyes to the idea of selective activism and its existence)

Movies:

Many movies educate one on the many humanitarian causes. My favorites are:

  • The Hate You Give
  • Farha
  • Swimmers

 

Parallels of Democratic Turmoil: Looking at Riots in the U.S. and Brazil

People filled the plaza in the place where all three powers of governance meet in Brasília, Brazil. A sea of green and gold as hundreds of citizens displayed their nation’s colors before entering the seats of power, destroying property, and overpowering the police. People climbed to the roof of the Congress building and unfurled a flag that read “intervention.”

Raging riots in the wake of a new presidency

On January 8th, 2023, citizens stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices in objection to the newly incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Their rage and fear came after the loss of former president Jair Bolsonaro and a false belief that the October 2022 election had been rigged. 

Bolsonaro had steadily fostered suspicion against the integrity of Brazil’s voting system for years, even making such false claims on his 2022 campaign trail. After being ousted, his refusal to concede, alongside his previous claims of fraud, left his supporters reeling. Many demanded for months that the military step in and deny letting da Silva take office on Jan. 1st. 

While the military did not listen to the demands, they did not completely rule out the possibility of vote rigging either. In spite of the fact that the Defense Ministry found no evidence of fraud during the election, one comment stated that “It is not possible to guarantee that the programs that were executed in the electronic voting machines are free from malicious insertions that alter their intended function.” No evidence has been found to support this conjecture either. 

A large plaza with a statue of two elongated figures, the Brazilian flag flying, and buildings in the distance.
Figure 1: Source: Flickr, Leandro Neumann Ciuffo; Three Powers Square with Os Candangos statue and National Congress building in the background, Brasília, Brazil.

In the wake of growing suspicions and conspiracies, Bolsonaro supporters, known as “Bolsonaristas,” stormed the Three Powers Plaza (named after the three branches of governance located there) in a massive demonstration that soon turned violent. 

The facts and events of the U.S. and Brazil riots

The similarities between January 6th, 2021 in the United States and January 8th, 2023 in Brazil are stark. Aside from the dates themselves, both these events signal serious declines in trust in democratic institutions. 

In both instances, supporters overpowered police before entering capitol buildings, breaking windows, stealing items, and documenting their own crimes in the offices of elected legislators. 

People holding flags in support of Trump while pushing against federal police in SWAT gear.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; Rioters in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6th, 2021.

When capitol riots in the U.S. occurred, it was during the ceremonial certification of the election results and interrupted this important step before President Biden’s inauguration. On the other hand, in Brazil, President da Silva had already taken office nearly a week before. When demonstrators arrived, congress was not in session, nor was anyone within the buildings that Sunday.  

A crowd of people fighting with people in SWAT gear amid smoke on the street.
Figure 3: Source: Flickr, The Pursuit Room; Bolsonaristas riot at the Brazilian capitol against federal police.

This distinction, while slight, is significant to note because, during the time of the riots in Brazil, the actual transition of power had already occurred. In the case of the U.S., the symbolism surrounding the counting of ballots represented a key component of the democratic transition. 

Moreover, in the U.S., citizens only targeted the Congress building, while Bolsonaristas also attacked the presidential palace and Supreme Court. This aligns further with claims that Bolsonaro had made during his term about the Supreme Court conspiring against him. 

Of most importance, and concern, is how federal police responded initially in Brazil. In the case of the U.S., many sources reported that security forces had been unprepared for such escalations, but in Brazil, channels to “invade Congress” had formed on the apps WhatsApp and Telegram. These channels had gathered tens of thousands of followers. Bolsonaristas had formed groups across the country with the intention of renting buses to the capitol for “violent anti-government action.” 

In spite of the clear evidence pointing towards citizen insurrection, the Federal district police and military police took no action. During the riots, many security forces were seen smiling, taking photos, and interacting with Bolsonaritas. 

Transnational connections in far-right groups

Just as former president Donald Trump had attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election result, so too had Bolsonaro engaged in making the same false claims over vote-rigging. Incidentally, Bolsonaro had come to be known as the “Trump of the Tropics” during his time in office. But false claims over vote rigging don’t end with these two heads, former aids, current politicians, and social media play a crucial role in fostering anti-democratic extremism. 

Two years after the riots in the U.S., concerns over the legitimacy of Brazil’s election have been a contentious topic among far-right groups in the United States. These groups do not know anything about Brazilian politics, however, social media has connected the two continents to reinforce illegitimate beliefs about the accuracy of democratic processes. 

An image of a smartphone on a wooden table displaying different social media apps.
Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images, Sankt-Petersburg Russia November 11, 2017; Social media apps on a phone.

During the 2020 U.S. election, conspiracies over the voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic had been extremely popular in supporting false claims of vote rigging. Now, these conspiracies have re-emerged but in the context of Brazil, circulating online and in far-right media, despite the fact that neither company’s products were used in Brazil. These lies have found their way onto Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Truth Social, and Gettr (alternative platforms popular on the right). 

During the Brazilian riots, Bolsonaristas held a banner that stated “We want the source code” in both Portuguese, the nation’s most spoken language followed by Spanish, and English. This is a direct reference to the conspiracies spread first in the U.S. further emphasized by the languages of choice. 

Moreover, dating back to October, Steven Bannon, former Trump aid, has been drawing parallels between the Brazilian election and the U.S. on his podcast. Sites like The Gateway Pundit have published blogs the morning after the first round of elections in Brazil about “MASSIVE fraud” and Matthew Tyrmand, a conservative activist, has repeatedly pushed the idea that Smartmatic machines were used in Brazil to tens of thousand on Twitter and Gettr. 

Incidentally, Bannon, who has also been pushing for supporters to run in local elections and become election workers and poll watchers, has developed close ties with Bolsonaro’s family.

According to Madeline Peltz the Director of Rapid Response at Media Matters, a left-leaning non-profit and media watchdog, “There’s a sympathetic audience for it in Brazil, and there’s certainly a sympathetic audience for it in the States. The building of a coalition between those two groups is really a win-win for Steve Bannon and the right-wing movement broadly.”

In Germany over a dozen were arrested in 2021 for planning to overthrow the government, while in Australia, the U.S.-centric conspiracies over machine-based voting fraud (even targeting Dominion again) had to be publicly debunked by the Electoral Commission. 

In the end, far-right groups are taking inspiration in each other. Not from a shared set of goals or identities, but from their refusal to accept a candidate’s loss stemming from deep-seated anti-democratic stances. With social media to bridge distances and languages, it has become ever harder for governments to stop false election claims and silence the dangerous rhetoric of election deniers. 

Political environments and human rights

The United Nations maintains democracy as one of its core values alongside promoting international cooperation and human rights. 

Democracy does not always equal or improve human rights. However, the values outlined in normative human rights frames overlap significantly with democratic governance. Democracy provides environments that are more likely to support human rights, as is the case with Articles 8 (right to national tribunals), 9 (arbitrary arrest), 10 (right to a fair trial), and 12 (arbitrary interference) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) just to name a handful. 

In countries with weak rule of law, government institutions, and corruption, there is a 30 to 45% increase in the risk of civil war and a higher risk of extreme criminal violence. Any country can suffer from one or more of these factors which then threatens the personal security of people and their human rights. 

According to Freedom House, a non-profit that conducts research on democracy, human rights, and political freedom, the last 16 years have been marked by a democratic decline globally. For example, President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has undermined democratic institutions designed to check executive power. In Peru, riots for the past five weeks have demanded the government disband the legislature and president in favor of new elections, and in the most extreme case, that the military step in to rule. As the youngest democracy in Latin America (restored in 2001), Peru has long suffered poor living conditions which have made the population steadily view the government as corrupt, ineffective, and unfair. In fact, a 2021 poll from Vanderbilt University found that only 21% of the population was satisfied with democratic rule

Brazil is a young democracy, previously under a military dictatorship between 1968 and 1985. Considering Bolsonaro’s praise of military rule in office, and the attack on all three democratic institutions, the riots on Jan. 8th signal a larger issue 一 a rejection of the democratic results overall. 

In the case of Brazil specifically, Bolsonaro’s term was marked by rises in violence, especially against Queer people, diminished environmental protections, and displacement of indigenous peoples

Conclusion

While citizens always have the right to self-determination, this does not give anyone the right to inflict harm on someone’s personal security or engage in violent acts. In a democracy, tides are always able to change, switching between ideologies and agendas based on the popular vote of the nation. In the case of Chile, violent demonstrations did prompt a constitutional rewrite, however, once this democratic process began the violence ceased and turned towards peaceful demonstrations. 

As President da Silva begins his new term, he will be faced with many challenges to unite Brazil. However, he has already taken major steps in the wake of the riots, arresting hundreds in a single day, beginning an investigation, and removing individuals from security positions. 

For us, we must remain committed to the values of human rights, recognizing the inherent dignity of everyone and continually striving for equity and equality. To do this, we must have faith in the governments that ensure us these rights, and in the cases that do not, we must organize peacefully, research and reach out, and live our lives by our belief in human rights. 

To learn more and get involved, visit these sites and blogs below: 

Attack on Gender-Affirming Healthcare in Texas

After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States. 

Cube beads spelling the word “transgender”; Source: Unsplash

Introduction

In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing. 

Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.  

Image of protest with posters listing "Transgender Healthcare"
Image of protest with posters listing “Transgender Healthcare”

Medical Evidence 

In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.  

When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.  

Overhead view of medications and hormone therapy. Source: Unsplash

The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.  

Alabama and Florida Response

Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination. 

Black and white image of a protest with the phrase "No Body Is Illegal" centered.
Black and white image of a protest with the phrase “No Body Is Illegal” centered.

On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.” 

Current Status

A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.

Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.  

To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.