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

The Exhibit

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

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

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

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

The Pieces 

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

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

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

 

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

Untitled by Gilberto Rivera

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

 

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

Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens

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

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

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

Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun

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

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

How To See “Marking Time”

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

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

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

Prison Break Becomes Reality: The Escape of Six Palestinian Prisoners

On September 6th, 2021, six Palestinian prisoners escaped from what is known as Israel’s most secure and guarded prison, Gilboa Prison. An escape conducted only with a spoon has been heralded as a heroic victory for the Palestinian people and a major security breach to the Israeli government. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is nothing new. In fact, it’s known by many as a “100-year-old issue.” Since 1948, there have been continuous arguments and battles about land control, but it has now come to be much more. Today, Israel occupies most of the West Bank and has built settlements that are illegal under international law. Aside from speaking about which country controls what land, it is vital to recognize and understand the countless human rights violations happening—most of which were committed by Israel.

Zakaria Zubeidi pictured along side the hole which was used to escape and Israeli watch guards.
Yahoo Images

Israeli Prisons

Since 1967 over one million Palestinian people and supports have been arrested in Israel by the IDF. In June 2021 alone, a total of 4650 political prisoners were detained. 200 which were children, 40 women, and 544 serving life sentences. In 2020, there were 700 sick patients arrested and not receiving the proper care. It’s been noted that the Israeli police have targeted Palestinians with discriminatory arrests, torture, and unlawful force. The main targets of arrest are typically Palestinian activists, like the six prisoners who escaped. 

In Israeli prisons, Palestinian prisoners live in “appalling conditions that are subjected to harsh treatment.” The United Nations has noted that techniques used by the Israeli General Security Service during prison interrogations constitute torture. Once arrested, prisoners and detainees begin to endure physical abuse and humiliation—all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. When interrogated, they become exposed to “physical torture and psychological intimidation.” They are beaten, put into solitary confinement, inspected, deprived of medical and sanitary resources, and many more things. The report confirmed these conditions and the treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons through multiple letters sent to the UN and posted. 

In addition to the illegal conditions of arrests and detention, Palestinian children have become increasingly targeted by Israeli detention. These children have been abducted and denied their fundamental human rights, sentenced, and convicted throughout the night. About 95% of the Palestinian children released from Israeli jails suffer from torture and ill-treatment during their time spent and throughout the interrogation process. Sick detainees have also been a massive problem within these prisons. More than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners—including those with disabilities—suffer from different physical and mental illnesses due to the poor conditions and no access to medical attention. Prisoners with cancer are denied any type of access to medical attention unless it is an emergency. Meaning chemotherapy is not an option. Routine doctor’s visits, medicine, anything a typical cancer prisoner should be provided, is not allowed. The condition of these prisons continues to worsen and violate human rights. 

The Re-Capturing of the Six Prisoners

The news of six prisoners escaping comes as a surprise to everyone. Not one person, Israeli or Palestinian, would have imagined that not one but six people could ever escape again. Once the world knew six people had escaped, the Israeli government began a search to find all six of them. The escape set off an uproar within the Israeli government as it was the biggest jailbreak seen in more than twenty years. Since the escape, Israeli prisoners have doubled down on their security, causing many Palestinian prisoners to protest and go on hunger strikes. With the current prison situation, it’s not imaginable what constitutes stronger security conditions. This is known as “collective punishment”, which is deemed illegal under humanitarian law. Posts around social media show the different forms of protests the prisoners have been doing. In addition, the manhunt included harassment of family members and violent raids across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The recapturing of the prisoners resulted in protests in the occupied West Bank and around the world. Thousands gathered to protest the rearrest and the reasons for the original arrests. Protesters in Palestine went out “in solidarity without prisoners in the occupier’s jails… it’s the least we can do for our heroic prisoners,” said Jihad Abu Adi. 

Palestinians Gathering to Protest the Rearrest of the six Palestinian Prisoners.
Yahoo Images

Since being captured, the escapees have all been tortured and beaten by the Israeli occupation forces. The worst being towards Zakaria Zubaidi. After he was rearrested, he was tortured so badly; he had to be sent to the ICU to receive urgent medical treatment. He was taken to Rambam Medical Center, located in Haifa, for treatment. It has been suspected that Zubeidi was tortured with electricity. His brother released a statement saying, “my brother is being subjected to the harshest form of torture.” Along with the electric form of punishment, it is noted that Zubeida’s leg was broken, and the Israeli prison forces did not allow him to sleep. Israeli security forces also did not allow lawyer visits for any of the recaptured. Palestinian human rights groups have asked the International Red Cross to get involved and facilitate interactions between their legal counsel and their families. 

What’s Next? 

Many Palestinians continue to live in fear of what is to come after the prison break. In the midst of fear, victory is sensed. Many journalists, Palestinians, and supporters have called this a momentous victory that showcases the strength and resilience of countless Palestinians. 

The six prisoners who escaped pictured on a poster with a woman standing with a spoon in support.
Yahoo Images

The most important thing one can do is learn the history, educate themselves, and read. Many individuals are being treated in an unfair manner which is deemed illegal under International Law. 

Check out these links, social media accounts, and books to learn more. @eye.on.palestine, an account on Instagram, posts daily updates on the occupation forces attacking Palestinians. Additionally, their accounts share pictures and post stories of what it’s like to live in an Israeli prison, access to medical care, and the food strikes conducted in protest. 

Books: 

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit 

In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story, Ghada Karmi

Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East, Abdel Monem Said Aly, Shai Feldman, Khalil Shikaki

The Realities of Being Homeless in America

An image portraying an encampment under a bridge
Source: Yahoo Images; People experiencing homelessness sleeping under a bridge

The homeless population in America tends to be neglected by the society they live in. They are among the most vulnerable, belonging to already marginalized communities that struggle to meet their day to day needs. As a result, the unhoused have little to no power or influence on social norms and affairs. As someone who has experienced homelessness both in India and in America, I have come to distinguish some of the common misconceptions society holds about the unhoused population. There are a lot of stereotypes and social stigma that surrounds the discussions around homelessness, which often blames the victims of systemic issues, instead of restructuring the conversation around how we as society can best help these marginalized groups realize their basic human rights to shelter. In order to do so, we must first understand what it really means to be homeless in America.

History of Homelessness in America

Homelessness is not an issue unique to the United States, as it can be found in countries all over the world. While homelessness in America can be found as early as the colonial times, modern homelessness rose as a response to the Great Depression, where people experienced high levels of unemployment and poverty. Especially interesting is the relationship between the growth of urban cities and the rise in homelessness. Coupled with low-wages and higher costs of living, people found it more expensive to find places to live in urban centers, such as New York and California. The aftermath of the Great Depression put a lot of people in desperate need of employment, and as the economy took to the service industry, more and more undereducated, impoverished people had no other choice but to turn to these low-income jobs. The country’s shift to a service economy meant that laborers were now being paid lower wages, leaving service industry employees unable to afford the rising costs of housing. Coupled with higher housing costs and lower wages, when people turned to social welfare programs, they found these programs to be lacking in funds as well.

Additionally, there was a campaign to “Deinstitutionalize” people held in mental asylums. While the campaign itself was well-intended, its applications were lacking in structure, and instead of providing patients with proper access to mental health resources, people with mental disabilities were released to fend for themselves. The neglect of these institutions led to the increasing numbers of mental health patients facing housing insecurity. To make matters worse, gentrification policies (made to bring in wealthy real-estate investors and high-income residents to underdeveloped parts of the city) led to the displacement of many low-income families, putting them out of their homes. These policies disproportionately  affect people of color, something that has forced many marginalized communities to fall prey to an endless cycle of poverty and degradation.

Unfortunately, one of the most concerning additions to the homeless population is the disproportionate number of youths that identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community. According to a recent study conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, LGBTQ+ youth had a 120% higher risk of experiencing homelessness. These members who already belong to an ostracized community can become more vulnerable to harassment, violence and hate crimes.

Additionally, unable to find jobs after returning home from military service, many veterans end up homeless with nowhere else to go. Although places do exist to support veterans who experience homelessness, many are either unaware of the resources at hand, or too ashamed to use these resources. As a result of the social stigma surrounding the topic, people experiencing homelessness often become withdrawn from society.

Society’s Attitudes Toward the Homeless

A bench that has armrests in-between to prevent laying down
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture that prevents the unhoused from sleeping on benches

Homelessness is received with wildly different attitudes among different cultures. America is a very diverse country, with people that share hundreds of different cultures and traditions, and these cultural attitudes can carry over in the way they respond to contemporary social issues. Different cultures share a varying definition of what a “home” means, and even more distinctions in their approach toward people experiencing homelessness. What the dominant White culture might consider to be a home, (an individual unit of space for nuclear families), might not be what someone who belongs to the Indigenous population believes. They might argue that a home is where you can interact with your community, a place to feel safe and share with friends and family. Even the attitudes toward helping people who are unhoused have strict cultural implications. As described in Islam, it is part of the every-day religious ritual of a Muslim to give alms and help the poor in their community. In Hinduism, while helping the poor with food and shelter is allowed, certain castes are not allowed to eat alongside with or sit beside  people of lower castes. People experiencing homelessness have their own unique culture, where certain skills or strategies for survival on the streets are shared amongst each other.

Along with all these complexities, the unhoused also undergo various types of stigmas, including social stigma, and cultural stigma. Social stigma can be discrimination and harassment directed toward the homeless population by the institutions, systems and people that make up society. Cultural stigma can refer to the stigma expressed by friends and family members or other religious or cultural institutions that may shame and blame the victims for being homeless.

Unhoused people also have a hard time finding employment. This is partly due to the fact that the job application requires a home address for the application process to be completed. As a result, people who are dispossessed also experience difficulties when finding housing. The applications for apartments include a proof of income/employment section and applying for government housing takes months to be processed and reviewed. Many states have long and complicated application processes, and even then, it is not a guaranteed housing option. Nevertheless, applicants can be denied, and they would still need a place to stay while awaiting their application to be approved.

Adding to these difficulties, people in the homeless community are constantly harassed with wild stares or abuse, (both verbal and physical), from members of society. The law enforcement agency, an institution designed to serve and protect people of the community, may make matters worse by deteriorating the situation further. Without proper training, police approach the homeless defensively, ready to attack at the slightest “abnormal” reactions. What they haven’t been trained to realize is that many people experiencing homelessness are also at high-risk of developing mental health issues due to the stress and realities of being homeless. These altercations can turn deadly, and unfortunately, many people of the homeless community have either been locked up or even killed by officers of the law. Many of these instances were even caught on camera, yet these officers faced little to no accountability or legal punishment.

People experiencing homelessness are also easy targets to getting their possessions robbed, and many times, police will raid their camps and confiscate what few belongings they might acquire, including sleeping tents and toiletries. Society also treats the homeless population as a burden and blames them for being “lazy” or “druggies” or “criminals/suspicious,” without any provocation from the homeless community. It can be especially insulting for the people experiencing homelessness to be judged for their situation while society simultaneously fails to criticize the state’s inability to protect peoples’ fundamental human rights to food, shelter, and other basic needs.

The Legal Response to Homelessness in America

Spikes under bridges
Source: Yahoo Images; An example of hostile architecture to deter the homeless from sleeping under bridges

The legal response to the homelessness crisis in America has not been a heartwarming one either. Urban cities all over the United States have put in place anti-homelessness measures, otherwise known as hostile architecture. These include slanted benches, benches divided by armrests, spiked and rocky pavements to prevent people from sleeping there, and even boulders under bridges. Not only are these measures inhumane, they also cost the tax-payers a lot of money. These atrocious tactics are put in place to discourage homelessness, attempting to connect rising numbers of homelessness to increased crime rates. As recently as July of this year, Los Angeles even went so far as to make homelessness downright illegal, restricting homeless encampments in majority of the city. The city has even  prohibited the homeless from sitting, sleeping, or laying in public.  Due to the fact that homelessness overwhelmingly affects people who belong to already marginalized communities, a rights-based approach is necessary, one that addresses the existing systemic issues which need to be fixed first.

Covid-19 and How it Continues to Impact the Homeless Population

An image of a crowded homeless shelter
Source: Yahoo Images; Homeless shelters can be crowded, without proper social distancing measures in place

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact many different communities in a variety of ways. The pandemic hit especially hard among the homeless population, where access to hygienic products are often slim, if not non-existent. People experiencing homelessness may not have the ability to continuously wash and sanitize their hands, with limited access to clean water and soap products. They also been experience complications with social distancing measures, forced to be in crowded spaces like homeless shelters, which has only increased their risks of getting infected. Furthermore, even when infected, or exposed to the disease, the homeless population has very limited ability to quarantine, further allowing the spread of the disease to others in close proximity. The unhoused population has limited access to healthcare and medicinal treatments, and many are already immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, which increases their vulnerability of catching the disease. Stereotypes geared toward the homeless population labeling them as “junkies” or “druggies” has influenced the care they receive, leading to many cases of misdiagnoses or mistreatment as a result of biases held by healthcare professionals and others in the health care industry. Due to the rise in unemployment numbers during the economic shutdown as a response to the pandemic, millions of people who did not qualify for unemployment benefits, and could not make ends meet, also became homeless as a result.

Some Successful Approaches to Ending Homelessness

A person sitting next to a hostile architecture with a sign reading, "Homes Not Spikes"
source: yahoo images; An unhoused person advocating against hostile architecture

There have been some successful attempts at ending homelessness in America as well as in other nations. Utah attempted to decrease its rates of homelessness back in 2015, which successfully reduced its homelessness by 91%. They executed a policy known as “Housing First,” which gave their chronically homeless populations free housing, a decision that cost the state less money than alternative anti-homelessness measures. This program unfortunately has not been a complete success, as people experiencing homelessness in other states have been migrating to Utah, making it too expensive for Utah alone to pay for the country’s increasing homelessness crisis. A national policy, on the other hand, that could implement the Housing First approach taken by Utah, may be the easiest, and essentially cheapest option to ending the homelessness crisis in America. This is essentially what Finland did. In 2019, Finland approached the homelessness issue with the most obvious of answers, by providing housing for all those who are unhoused. Like Utah, they applied the “Housing First” policy, (which came with no strings attached), recognizing that housing is an essential human right that should be protected and promoted. They also understand that in the long run, providing the homeless population with housing is the cheaper option to society. Also, as examined earlier, if applied in America, this Housing First policy will inevitably save more lives, with fewer interactions between the homeless and the police.

While homelessness is not something people are normally born into, the unhoused face discrimination, stigmatization, and marginalization from society just as much as any other group. Although people’s socioeconomic status is a major factor in determining who is most vulnerable to experiencing homelessness, as we’ve seen in the case of the LGBTQ+ youth, and older veterans as well, homelessness can impact people of any and all races, at various age levels, and at any given time. The pandemic itself has expanded the homeless population as people are unable to pay their backed-up rent or mortgage payments. While alternative approaches can assist to eradicate levels of homelessness in our society as implemented in Finland and Utah, it is crucial that we also continue to destigmatize being homeless in American society and take a rights-based approach to finding long-term solutions to end their suffering.

 

 

Uncovering Hate: Revealing Not-So-Secret Hate Symbols

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a short list of other common hate symbols:

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

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

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

The Death Penalty is Inhumane

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

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

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

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

What exactly is capital punishment?

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

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

Notable forms of Capital Punishment throughout History and Today

The Guillotine

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

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

Hanging

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

Lethal Injection

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

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

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

Electrocution

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

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

Why the Continuation of the Death Penalty Creates a Gray Area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Asian Racism in America

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic which originated in China, xenophobic attitudes towards Asian Americans have spiked and resulted in a communal fear among Asian Americans. The STOP AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Hate reporting center formed in San Francisco on March 19, 2020, in hopes of keeping a record for hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Since last spring, Stop AAPI Hate has reported more than 2,800 incidents, ranging from “verbal abuse and workplace discrimination to storefront vandalism and physical violence,” several of which have been fueled by xenophobic sentiment. The sentiment seeks to scapegoat Asian Americans for coronavirus, and the sentiment has only propelled further by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist terms to describe the virus. 

Some examples of this anti-Asian sentiment include violence towards elderly members of the AAPI community. In San Francisco, 84-year old Vicha Ratanapakdee died after getting shoved to the ground. A 91-year old in Oakland, CA, was brutally pushed from behind. In San Jose, a 64-year old woman was robbed in the middle of the afternoon. These attacks have had devastating impacts, as Cynthia Choi, a co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said in a press call. She elaborated that the AAPI community is “fearful of being in public alone, simply going for a walk and living our daily lives.” Activists have been trying to draw attention to these instances of violence and are putting forth their best effort in pressuring local governments to provide more financial support for victims. The activists also have emphasized the necessity for communities of color to stand in solidarity and focus on cross-racial education and healing in order to “raise awareness about the discrimination that different groups experience.” 

protests
Asians are not a virus, the hatred is. Source: Yahoo Images.

Another horrific incident occurred in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16, 2021 which resulted in the deaths of six Asian women and two others who were shot in their workspace by Robert Aaron Long. Long claims he was not racially motivated, but he did target Asian-owned spas. The shooting has not only shaken up the Georgia Asian community but the entire nation, and the event has received immense backlash from all communities. It is unfortunate that a shooting is bringing attention to this ongoing issue. 

Asian American lawmakers are also taking a stance to respond to the anti-Asian racism. They want Congress to pass the No Hate Act, which boosts local government funding for tracking hate incidents, along with a meeting with the U.S. Department of Justice and a hearing about recent attacks. These efforts are led by the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, chaired by Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), and has gained support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and lawmakers in the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses. Previously passed in the House of Representatives as part of the Heroes Act, the No Hate Act aims to establish regional hotlines for people to report hate crimes, provide resources for local governments to investigate the reported crimes, and focus on the rehabilitation of offenders through community service. The lawmakers in favor of this act claim that AAPI hatred and bigotry is not a new concept in America, quoting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which framed the Asian American population as “forever foreigners” in the United States. Having such a xenophobic attitude dating from so long ago is something that must be dug deeper into for it to be eradicated from the American mindset. 

aapi hate
Ongoing protests by all members of the AAPI community have commenced from the time the violence began. Source: Yahoo Images.

The severe disrespect and violence that members of the AAPI community are enduring for a pandemic that has affected the entire global population is unfair and inappropriate. In any community, the elderly are valued as wise people who have enlightening advice to pass onto their successors. The act of even pushing someone who is a senior citizen is a very lowly act that should not go unobserved or unchallenged, especially by the federal government. And the shooting of 8 people, 6 of which are Asian, is not as coincidental as Robert Aaron Long may claim. Xenophobia is a very damaging concept that is unfortunately part of American history, but that does not mean it should be repeated, especially in a time of dire need for unity against a global pandemic. 

Another Battle for Bodily Autonomy in Trans Youth

On February 10, 2021 the Alabama Senate Health Committee voted to criminalize transgender medicaltreatment for minors. With an 11-2 vote, the committee approved Senate Bill 10 (SB-10), a bill that will “outlaw puberty blocking medications and gender-affirming care for minors.” On March 3, the Alabama Senate passed this legislation, and it is currently awaiting Governor Kay Ivey’s approval. SB-10 empowers the legal system to prosecute clinicians and pharmacists with felony charges if they prescribe medication or provide treatment to aid in the transitional processes of minors. Bill sponsor Senator Shay Shellnutt (R-AL) claims that “minors are too young to be making this decision.” The Senator has also admitted that he’s never interacted with a trans teen before submitting the bill. Opponents of the SB-10 refute Shellnutt’s claim by acknowledging this decision is between the medical care provider, the patient, and the patient guardians. As such, SB-10 infringes on the private rights of parents to care for their children with necessary and proper interventions. Shellnut has mentioned that hormonal treatment and other transgender interventions cause long term issues and that a child is not mature enough to be making such a permanent decision. Shellnut’s claims are false; the effects of hormonal drugs that are puberty blockers are reversible. Also, when evaluating long term effects of gender reassignment surgeries, doctors prefer to wait until the patient is at least 18 years old before they perform the surgery.

A person holding a sign with a metaphor describing gender.
Source: www.mindfulword.org

Doctors must take the Hippocratic Oath which defines their ethical conduct and moral reasoning. There are two main tenets of the Oath: “benefitting the ill and protecting patients against personal and social harm and injustice.” Not only does SB-10 force doctors to dishonor the Hippocratic Oath, but it is also medically harmful to the patient pursuing care and prevents them from confiding in their medical care team. Dr. Marsha Raulerson says it will “take away child’s confidence in trusting doctors with their thoughts and to talk candidly.”

Healthcare providers are only one pillar of the support system for patients wishing to transition. So, when healthcare providers are unable to provide care to these young individuals, it can harm their mental and physical wellbeing and contribute to gender dysphoria. Adolescent and young adult years are incredibly formative. It’s in these years that young people thrive and when they are in need of a lot of support and care. When their support systems and adequate healthcare is taken away “adolescents can feel alone, stigmatized, and undervalued”. Rejection, discrimination, and stigma during these formative years can put young adults at a higher risk of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. The aforementioned mental health disorders can lead to the usage of addictive substances like drugs and/or alcohol, and suicidal ideation. These factors contribute to significant health disparities within the LBGTQ+ community. It’s vital the care they receive is given without stigma and affirms the patient’s sexuality and gender identity, but this care cannot be given with government intervention that holds traces of transphobia.

Protestors gathering against the transgender military ban legislation.
Source: www.britishherald.com

Gender is a very dynamic concept, and there is no binary. It is up to the individual to choose their identity. Gender reassignment treatments and procedures are one way to reaffirm and respect an individual’s choice. LGBTQ+ youth deserve to know that they are respected and that they deserve quality healthcare and treatment. Healthcare providers should not be prevented from fulfilling their responsibilities. They should be able to provide quality care and treatment for their patients. If they can’t, they should be able to refer the patient to a doctor who can provide adequate healthcare. This is not the first time SB-10 has been passed to the full Alabama Senate. It was passed all the way up to the Governor in 2020 to be signed into action and is only back on the table due to COVID-19 complications. Advocacy is an important aspect of healthcare, and providers should be willing to advocate the most for marginalized communities. It is important to lift barriers to care for these groups, instead of continuing to make healthcare inaccessible.

A separate companion bill (HB-391) is currently in the Alabama House. This bill would restrict transgender students from participating in school athletics with the gender they identify with. Lawmakers that support the bill claim that it protects fairness for female and “keeps them from having to compete against transgender athletes who were born male.” The biggest difference to make right now is to call Alabama Senate representatives and tell them the harms these bills will cause to LGBTQ+ youth and to the healthcare providers that try to help them.

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

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

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

Historical Context

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

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

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

What do the farmers want?

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

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

Biden’s Human Rights Agenda – An Event Recap

Joe Biden
Source: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

On Tuesday, February 2, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Robert Blanton, Professor and Chair of the Political Science and Public Administration Department at UAB, to our second Social Justice Café of the semester. Dr. Blanton facilitated a discussion entitled “Biden’s Human Rights Agenda.”

Dr. Blanton initiated the conversation by stating that the 2020 election of Joe Biden is a “welcomed return to hypocrisy [as it pertains to human rights in the United States].” The return to hypocrisy represents the reality of political figures making promises, and then failing to turn those promises into human rights policy. The very notion that President Biden has presented a Human Rights Agenda is a staunch contrast when compared to his predecessor’s lack of clear and defined Human Rights protective goals. Dr. Blanton suggested that President Donald Trump was not a hypocrite in regard to his approach to Human Rights. President Trump simply didn’t make attempts to address Human Rights violations domestically or internationally.

In an interview with the New York Times, then former Vice-President Joe Biden stated, “When I am president human rights will at the core of US foreign policy”. Dr. Blanton finds the President’s continued foreign policy rhetoric surrounding international and domestic issues to be interesting, and he cautioned participants to pay close attention to how human rights violations will be addressed within President Biden’s first one hundred days in office. Following this statement participants began discussing specific Executive Orders signed by President Biden that are innately Human Rights focused. Participants discussed the outcome of the Bostock Case and how President Biden’s decision to reinforce this Supreme Court decision with an Executive Order is a promising sign of the President’s commitment to preserving Human and Civil Rights. The Bostock Case prohibited employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Participants then suggested other topics they felt needed further attention from the Biden Administration, such as systemic racism, xenophobia, and COVID-19 response.

Moving forward, one participant was curious if “legislation would be passed in relation to women’s rights to reproductive health?” This discussion centered around how we classify issues within the United States and how this classification affects the seriousness and legitimacy of an issue. The participants came to the conclusion that women’s reproductive rights could potentially receive more congressional and national support if it is framed as a domestic and international health issue rather than a human rights issue. Dr. Blanton was adamant that the manner in which we categorize issues is a major factor in whether or not those issues receive solutions.

When further discussing how policy is enacted within the United States, one participant noted that “local cities and NGO’s often make larger impacts in the fight for social justice. How important is it that we [American citizens] have a Presidential administration?” A large majority of participants appreciated this question; however, they agreed that within the confines of the United States Constitution the continued election of an executive president is necessary to the maintenance of the country as a whole. Some felt the issue of private prison regulation would be best handled by the executive office. In response Dr. Blanton stated, “Private prisons exhibit overt violations of human rights” and that he did not disagree that private prison regulation should have a place within President Biden’s Human Rights Agenda.

In his final remarks, Dr. Blanton offered this quote: “Presidents are victims of events.” His point was that Joe Biden’s presidency will be governed according to the trials and complications his administration will unquestionably face within the next four years. President Biden’s administration will have to make a conscious effort to not allow the events of the world to overshadow their Human Rights Agenda.

Thank you, Dr. Blanton, and thank you everyone who participated in this stimulating discussion.

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

 

The Keystone XL Pipeline and America’s History of Indigenous Suppression

A fake pipeline with the words "stop the xl pipeline" protesting the pipeline
Stop the XL Pipeline. Source: tarsandaction, Creative Commons.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. The pipeline, which had severe environmental and human rights implications, has been on a long road towards failure. This pipeline was proposed in 2008 and has been referred to as either the Keystone XL pipeline or KXL. In 2015, the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline due to its potential threats to the climate, drinking water, public health, and ecosystems of the local communities. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama’s veto, signing an executive order to advance the Keystone pipeline as well as a similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the many valid arguments made against the two pipelines. President Trump also issued a cross-border permit to the pipeline developer, a permit that had been long sought after for the developers. Since the approval, the Trump administration has been sued twice by environmental organizations and lost each time.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by the energy infrastructure company TC Energy. It was proposed to be an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been in operation since 2010. The goal was to transport 830,000 barrels of crude, tar sand oil to refineries on the American Gulf Coast each day. Tar sands lie beneath the northern Alberta boreal forest. They contain a form of petroleum called bitumen, a relatively sludgy substance that can be turned into fuel. Because of the highly corrosive and acidic nature of the tar sands oil, there contains a higher likelihood that the pipeline will leak. A study set between the years 2007 and 2010 found that pipelines carrying tar sands oil spilled three times more per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. The southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been completed. This portion of the pipeline is called the Gulf Coast Pipeline. The climate impact of a complete and fully operational Keystone XL would be drastic. It would increase mining by accelerating the production and transportation of crude oil. It has also been determined that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other forms of crude oil. In 2017, the US State Department released a study which proved that carbon emissions could be between 5 and 20 percent higher than the original 17 percent estimation. This means an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be emitted annually, a similar impact to 38.5 million cars.

A few protestors with flags in front of the Washington Monument
Keystone XL protestors. Source: Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons.

President Biden’s executive order was a landmark achievement and a sigh of relief for indigenous and environmental activists alike. Indigenous leaders are encouraging him to go even further and cancel more controversial fossil fuel projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Several indigenous leaders, including Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine nations and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Dakota nation, have seen Biden’s executive order as a sign of the administration keeping its campaign promise to work against climate change and work with indigenous communities. Many indigenous populations have fought for over a decade to defend their water and land rights against fossil fuel companies. Goldtooth called Biden’s decision a “vindication” of the hard work and struggle many indigenous communities have put forth in protest of the pipeline. Pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines as well as other fossil fuel projects actively pollute native land and water resources as well as consistently contribute to global warming due to their high greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline has received media attention in previous years due to the police and state reactions to the protests over its creation. This pipeline transports 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, over 1,172 miles. The pipeline continually threatens the sanctity of indigenous sacred lands and the purity and safety of the local water supply. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been one of the most vocal groups in working to oppose the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There did occur a series of protests for many months, in opposition of the creation of the pipeline. The protests were primarily peaceful, with camps and prayer circles set up on the land where construction was to take place. However, despite youth and elderly leaders being in the front during the inevitable standoffs with police, Mace, tasers, and rubber bullets were used against the protestors.

A group of young protestors holding a red banner reading "indigenous justice is climate justice."
Indigenous Justice. Source: John Englart, Creative Commons.

The briefest look at American and Canadian history clearly shows that the pipeline situations are most certainly not the first instance of the government refusing to respect the lands, waters, and even peoples of indigenous groups. Until 2016, Canada officially objected to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is considered one of the most water-rich countries in the world and yet many indigenous communities continue to be provided with inadequate access to safe drinking water which provides a large public health concern for these communities. The Canadian federal government refused to provide child and family services funding for indigenous children living on reserves, a purposeful discrimination tactic against indigenous communities. It has been determined that the pervasive violence against indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In the United States, there live over 5.2 million indigenous peoples and among them, 573 federally recognized tribes, numerous unrecognized nations, and many communities scattered across the North American continent, displaced by a long history of western oppression and forced assimilation. Between the years of 1778 and 1871 alone, the United States government has signed over 370 treaties with different indigenous nations, nearly all of which promised peace, defined land boundaries, and protection of land, water, and hunting rights. Based on the current status of indigenous peoples within the United States, it is evident that these treaties and those that followed were either never fulfilled or were manipulated to provide leverage for the United States government. President Biden’s executive order ending the construction of the Keystone XL is a very hopeful step forward, however it needs to serve as a pushing off point for the administration to continue furthering both environmental and indigenous rights.