Food Insecurity in Birmingham, AL

Outdoor Food Market with Vegetables
Source: Yahoo Images

The USDA reports that there are about 23.5 million people in the US that reside in a food desert, including over six and a half million children. A food desert is described as an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food. Many believe that the term ‘desert’ incorrectly implies that a lack of affordable and healthy food is naturally occurring, and a better term to describe the subject is food apartheid, which also includes the discrimination of communities of color regarding economic opportunity and access. For the case of this post, we will use the two interchangeably. In Alabama alone, close to two million residents live in a food desert, and almost 150,000 of them live in Birmingham. This accounts for 69% of the city’s total population. A 2019 update also found that there is at least one area that is identified as a food desert in each of Birmingham’s nine City Council Districts.  

Birmingham’s Efforts to Eliminate Food Desertification 

Birmingham Mayor Randal Woodfin speaking
Source: Yahoo Images

At the end of March 2022, the Birmingham City Council voted to approve an incentives package for a new Food Giant supermarket in the city’s Five Points West area. According to the Birmingham Watch, the Food Giant store will be located at 2257 Bessemer Road, the former location of a Winn-Dixie grocery store that shut down in 2018 after the chain filed for bankruptcy. Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke on the efforts to eliminate food deserts saying, “We’ve been aggressive since day one in finding the most creative things we can do to support putting a dent in food insecurity and getting more grocery stores in our community,” he said. “I think we’ve been told ‘no’ a gazillion times. … Now, we’re happy to share with the public that a brand that is known, that people trust and that provides quality food is coming back to Birmingham.” 

In addition to the positive effects of bringing a new and much-needed grocery store to the area, Jay Mitchell, Mitchell Foods Vice President of Retail Operations, said the store looks to hire locally through social media, hiring events, and job fairs. “We will be bringing some team (members) from our adjacent stores, but most of the hiring will be right here,” he said, adding that the average wage will be between $11 and $12 per hour. The project brings in many promises to increase economic development, which has proved to be exciting for the city administration, the Food Giant team, and the residents of West Birmingham themselves. 

National Food Apartheid 

According to a report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, there are over 6,500 food desert tracts in the United States. People who reside in food desert tracts are more likely to have abandoned or vacant homes, and those who live in these areas tend to have less education, lower incomes, and higher unemployment rates. 

Graph showing Food Insecurity by RaceThis chart goes on to show the differences between food insecurity rates based on race. Although each demographic has seen a decrease in their food insecurity rate over the last several years, there is still a very large gap between the races, with the biggest difference being between Black and white Americans, who have a difference of roughly 10% between the groups. Even worse, there are countless combined consequences that can hurt already marginalized communities from living in a food apartheid, including an increase in obesity and physical conditions like diabetes due to the lack of access to affordable and healthy food options. 

Ways to Help 

Despite the current efforts to help, there is still a great need to assist those who are experiencing this human rights crisis at hand. Although the complex issue holds no simple solution at the local, state, or national level, there are many ways to contribute to the cause. The first step to begin making a positive change is to educate yourself on the levels of food insecurity in your area and who it primarily affects. Learn if anything is currently being done by your city, county, or state government or private organizations. Familiarize yourself with food banks in your community and consider forming the habit of donating to them periodically if you can do so. Food banks and pantries usually also take donations of unused toiletries for those in need and special products for pregnant mothers and babies, but you should check what each place is willing to accept in advance. In addition, you can also ask what their most needed items are throughout the seasons. Regardless of how you choose to help, we can all make a positive difference by educating ourselves and others on the causes and effects of food insecurity. 

The Consequences of Overturning Roe v. Wade

I wanted to immediately straighten out my perspective in this argument.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images; An abstract image of a group of individuals holding a sign that reads “Our Body = Our Choice.”

This is an unprecedented time we live in. We are currently living through climate change, a pandemic on pause, and an international conflict that has the potential to turn global. People around the world are struggling with conflicts and atrocities, at times, due to the American military’s involvement, while hundreds more are dealing with increasingly dangerous heat waves as a result of the climate crisis. Still, others are trying to face the consequences of the pandemic, including the devastation left behind due to the loss of lives and the increasing financial insecurity that continues to widen the inequality gap between the struggling and the affluent. War in Ukraine wages on as we enter the fourth month since its beginnings, with what seems like no end in sight, while the Pentagon discusses options of US involvement in the fight against Russia. Now, the precarious attack on women’s rights seems to be the latest hurdle for Americans. This regression of rights in the democratic nation which has claimed countlessly throughout history to “spread democracy into the world,” seems beyond ironic and hypocritical.

The History of the Abortion Rights Movement and Context Behind Roe V. Wade

I wanted to include an image of what was considered proper family values, with a working dad, and a house wife tending to her children.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a typical nuclear family structure that promoted “family values” of the Religious Right. A hard-working dad waves to his wife alongside his growing son as the housewife waves back dutifully.

Before analyzing the recently leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision attacking women’s right to privacy, we should examine the history and context behind the controversial topic of abortion. How did abortion become such a controversial, political issue? Well, in order to have a holistic view of this topic, we have to examine the Religious Right movement that took place in the 1970s in what is known as the Sunbelt states or the lower half of the United States. This movement involved the grass-roots participation of churches and other Christian organizations in politics to push for a more traditional, “moral” policy platform in response to the growing feminist and gay liberation movements of the time. These Religious Right organizations aimed to reverse bans on prayers in school, shift toward more traditional values, and limit sexual freedoms, including pornography, sex work, and even abortion rights. One specific organization, known as the Moral Majority, declared “war against sin” and was especially involved in electing officials to government offices who were sympathetic to their cause. The Religious Right movement was so successful in its “family values” campaign that it was in part responsible for the Equal Rights Amendment’s failure to be ratified, thaks to one devoted, conservative activist by the name of Phyllis Schlafly. They also vehemently opposed the right to abortion that was secured by the passing of Roe v. Wade, and they constantly attempted to have the decision overturned. To the members of the Christian New Right, abortion was a sin, and many believed it to be the murder of an unborn child. They provided Bible verses from the scripture to support these beliefs, disregarding the countless scientific developments that were being published that stated otherwise. While they were concerned about abortion rights and attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Christian New Right has failed to consider the basis upon which the Supreme Court case was decided, and the precedent it would set if overturned.

Roe v. Wade is a Supreme Court case that was brought before the court in 1970 regarding the legality of an abortion law in Texas which criminalized abortion in most circumstances. The decision, in this case, was based on the right to privacy guaranteed in the “due process clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that a person should not be denied the right to life, liberty, and property without going through a legal process that is fair and meets some fundamental standards of justice. This essentially means that the state or federal government cannot limit fundamental rights such as the right to privacy.

What Overturning Roe v. Wade Would Mean

I wanted to showcase some examples of contraception methods that might also be impacted by the overturning of privacy rights.
Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting condoms and birth control pills, two contraception methods under attack as a consequence of overturning Roe v. Wade.

The Roe v. Wade decision was an expansion of privacy rights that had been referenced as a precedent for this ruling. Privacy rights range from women’s right to birth control to the right to same-sex marriages, was used to overturn sodomy laws, and even applies to issues concerning data privacy. Overturning such a monumental decision can have devastating consequences on not only women but all citizens across the nation. This regression of rights, in an attempt to end all abortions, will not have the intended effect. Women are going to continue to require and desire to have abortions, either due to health complications, personal preferences or after surviving traumatic instances of sexual abuse. Abortions are not going to magically stop happening and making it illegal to get or perform an abortion is not going to stop rape and incest from occurring either. If history is to be the judge, what is more likely to happen instead, is that women are going to attempt dangerous and untested procedures in desperate attempts to get abortions, which can be life-threatening for the women in many instances.

As part of their anti-abortion crusade, many states, (which includes Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, and seven others) are not providing exceptions for instances of rape and incest in the anti-abortion laws they have proposed, and many politicians, (such as Pete Ricketts, a Republican Governor of Nebraska, or Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa), have been asked for clarifications about this very issue on multiple occasions. What they constantly reply is that even a rapist’s child is still a child, meaning that women who are raped or have been victims of incest cannot receive abortions in these states and will be forced to carry to term the children of their abuser. To place such an expectation on victims of abuse and force them to live through the immense trauma that these laws would demand is not only unjust but purely evil.

Another cruel consequence of the anti-abortion laws many “trigger” states are prepared to pass is the impact these laws have on the ability of women to have an abortion after miscarriages and stillbirth. Procedures utilized to address miscarriages and stillbirths involve the same medications and procedures used for abortions. Outlawing these medications and procedures can tremendously impact women experiencing miscarriages or stillbirths and place caregivers in delicate positions legally. Due to the fact that many states have prepared to criminalize abortion and have encouraged neighbors to report anyone getting an abortion or helping someone else get an abortion, hospitals, and abortion clinics are also placed in vulnerable positions. Originally proposed by Texas, four more states have passed similar proposals for the enforcement of abortion laws through the involvement of citizens. While all this sounds like it came from a bad dystopian novel, we are only at the tip of the iceberg of consequences, so to speak.

Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images; A woman depicted behind bars. Overturning Roe v. Wade would criminalize abortion in certain states, and some states even have laws that would press felony charges on medical professionals who provide aid in the abortion process. These consequences disproportionately impact women of color.

The denial of abortion rights portrays the backsliding of American democracy, but the criminalization of abortion leans toward fascist tendencies. The right to abortion is not simply a women’s rights issue but also a voting rights issue that can be catastrophic for the survival of our democracy. A brave Congresswoman, Lucy McBath, addressed a hearing on abortion rights conducted by the House Judiciary Committee after sharing her personal experiences with two miscarriages and a stillbirth. She questioned, “If Alabama makes abortion murder, does it make miscarriage manslaughter?” Many states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Utah, have already proposed laws incriminating abortions. In an extreme proposal, Texas “trigger” laws would deem abortions a second-degree felony with sentences up to 20 years, and in cases where the fetus is dead, (meaning miscarriages or stillbirth), the charges can become first degree felonies and the sentence can be anywhere between five years to life in prison. Many states are even proposing fines on top of prison sentences for abortions. These laws not only target the women getting abortions, but also anyone who assists in the process. People charged with felonies in many states in America lose their right to vote, even after having served their sentences. If abortions are criminalized and women and “abortion-sympathizers” are charged with felonies, this would be a form of state repression of an entire voting block. If women are sentenced to jail and prison time for abortions and using contraceptives, they will also be disenfranchised as a result of their “criminal” record. This can set dangerous precedents for privacy rights in general and is fundamentally a threat to democracy.

The Myth of the “Pro-Life” Argument and Why “Just Moving” is not a Practical Option for Many Americans

I wanted to include this image to showcase how passionate people on the anti-abortion side really are about this issue.
Figure 5: Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting women from an anti-abortion rally, holding signs that read, “Repent. Abortion is a sin against God,” with chalked outlines of fetuses occupied by women protestors.

The “pro-life” stance, one of the biggest misnomers in American history, has been responsible for forcing women to have unwanted births and taking away women’s agency over their own bodies. This sentiment mirrors the dystopian society of Gilead from the famous series by Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. The “pro-life” argument is only concerned about the birth of the fetus in question. Once the baby is born, families are left to fend for themselves, without any saftey nets in place to help these families raise healthy children. First off, there are very limited legal protections in place to ensure that once a baby is born, the mother and the child will receive all the assistance they require to develop a healthy and nurturing childhood for the newborn. Along these lines, affordable childcare options in America are minimal, and the foster care system has proven to be underfunded and ineffective, oftentimes even acting as a breeding ground for abuse and neglect of the very children they are supposed to care for. Maternal leaves are not mandated by states or the federal government, but rather left for individual companies to decide whether to offer them or not, and paternal leave, (for the father to have a chance to bond with the newborn child), is almost unheard of in this country. Additionally, people who are poor might not be able to afford the high costs of childcare, or even doctor visits during pregnancy and prenatal care to ensure a healthy pregnancy. People living in impoverished situations might not be able to feed another mouth in their family due to financial situations, and these hardships have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. Politicians and media platforms  stress the unborn “child’s” right to life while they argue why holding immigrant children in cages at the border is justified. The same “pro-life” supporters are also in favor of loose gun regulations and refuse to listen to the many children who are asking their representatives to pass stronger gun laws to prevent school shootings. The fact that the same people in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade are also in favor of banning forms of contraception that prevent pregnancies in the first place, signals that this decision is rooted in a far more sinister legacy of controlling women’s autonomy.  This has been the case throughout history, throughout the world. Women have been deemed second-class citizens until very recently when we secured the right to vote through the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment even though it never was fully ratified. Up until 1974, when the Fair Credit Oppurtunity Act was passed, women were not even allowed to own credit cards in their names. These “pro-life” arguments simply serve the purpose of restricting women’s right to privacy and the right to their own bodies. During the pandemic, anti-maskers cried, “my body my choice.” Those same anti-maskers today are adopting the “pro-life” argument to dictate what a woman can do with her body, in a shallow attempt to secure the rights of unborn zygotes.

Furthermore, there are many states, (13 to be exact) that have been set to pass extreme anti-abortion “trigger” laws immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a total of 23 states that are set to restrict abortions. These are predominantly red states, and one of the popular arguments from anti-abortion enthusiasts is that you can simply move to a blue state if you don’t like the policies your state passes. This is not a simple task. For one, it requires tremendous amounts of money to be able to even move anywhere in today’s inflated economy. Jobs have to be lined up, and if you have children, you have to look into school districts and make sure they can be enrolled with no issues. If you own property in your current state, you can’t just move. You have to be able to afford to either spend on a secondary living situation while your current home is being sold, or you have to wait until you can sell your home before you can move. For people who are experiencing poverty, those families that live paycheck to paycheck, will be forced to continue living in these red states, and as a result, be forced to live with these anti-abortion laws. Some states, like Missouri, are even restricting women from seeking out-of-state abortions, criminalizing those seeking the abortion as well as those who help with the process. With all this said, research shows how all these laws will impact poor and marginalized people the most, and this is yet another example of how the state criminalizes poverty.

Other rights that may be threatened by the overturning of Roe v. Wade

Figure 6: Source: Yahoo Images; Other rights under attack from the overturning of Roe v. Wade include LGBTQ+ rights like same-sex rights, and the right to contraception, and even challenge the livelihood of sex workers.

Since Roe v. Wade is fundamentally based on the freedom of privacy, overturning this law can set precedent to attack and target other rights. In the leaked draft of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito argues that Roe v. Wade was an unconstitutional judgment based on weak arguments and alleged that the case has been responsible for deepening the societal divide. In the draft, Alito argues that the basis for Roe v. Wade (mainly the right to privacy) was “invented” and “flawed,” insisting that the judgment was unconstitutional. Many scholars familiar with setting legal precedents claim that overturning this precedent, which carries the legacy of the right to privacy, can in turn have devastating consequences for other privacy rights.

One such group that might be targeted as a result of overturning Roe v. Wade is the LGBTQ+ community. The right to same-sex marriages can come under scrutiny, and based on Alito’s opinions on sodomy laws, the LGBTQ+ community can be specifically targeted. Although sodomy laws, which criminalized sexual behavior deemed inappropriate by the state, are general enough to appear as they apply to everyone, history has shown that these laws were used mostly to target the homosexual community and even the larger LGBTQ+ community as a whole. These scholars also claim that other rights, such as the right to contraception, are also under scrutiny. Their fears are reasonable, since the same arguments which supported the right to privacy applied in the ruling of Roe v. Wade (which is under attack on the basis of its constitutionality), are the same justifications used to legalize contraceptives in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. Following this framework, same-sex marriages, which were legalized in 2015 through the ruling passed on Obergefell v. Hodges, can be deemed unconstitutional, and so too can interracial marriages, which were made legal by the ruling on the case, Loving v. Virginia.

While Alito reassures that this draft is aimed at overturning abortion rights alone, this decision sets a dangerous precedent for other privacy cases to be challenged as well. Should there be an attack on contraceptive methods such as birth control, plan B pills, and condoms, the freedom for people to lead sexually healthy lives is at risk, and as a result, can lead to even greater restriction of personal freedoms, and women who are raped or have been victims of incest will not be able to access these resources to prevent any unwanted pregnancies.

Sex workers are yet another community that will be harmed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and other proposals that restrict sexual freedoms. Too many people in the media focus on the “picture perfect” cases, and many sex workers and their lived experiences are ignored as a result of this media bias. Sex workers use contraceptives and condoms to protect themselves from both unwanted pregnancies and unwanted sexually transmitted diseases. Their livelihoods are greatly impacted by these laws, and the wellness of these sex workers is put at high levels of risk. What’s worse, these sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations are among the most marginalized people in society, and as a result, will feel the implications of these rulings disproportionately. Although there is an immense stigma that surrounds this topic, sex work is also a form of work, and it is important to remember that many sex workers are simply trying to earn a living. Sex workers are already dealing with issues of having their contraceptive needs met, including spreading awareness of safe sex practices in their community, and fact-checking misinformation being disseminated about contraceptive methods and how they should be used. Restricting access to contraception can have life-changing implications for sex workers, and fundamentally cause more financial challenges as their stream of income is jeopardized.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

I wanted to include this because so many times, people always like to remind a woman what her "place" in society is. This is the perfect message for those people.
Figure 7: Source: Yahoo Images; A protestor holds a sign that reads,” A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.”

Regardless of your opinions about sex work, abortion, or any of these topics, these are incredibly personal issues and should be left for each individual to decide on what they believe is in their best interests. For too long, women have been restricted and controlled, mind, body, and soul, to meet the needs and pleasures of the patriarchy, and religion and morality have been misused as justifications to continue treating women like second-class citizens. The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2018 claimed that the right to life begins at the time of birth, when the child can exist separated from the mother’s body. While this establishes an international legal standard on this controversial topic, the right to an abortion, (and right to privacy), is fundamentally being framed as an issue of constitutionality rather than a human rights issue, and as such, there is not much room for the UN to be involved legally in American affairs. On the national level, we can pressure our Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into law, so that it can be protected until a majority-Republican Congress reverses it in the future. For this to happen, Congress needs to be serious, and even though the majority of Americans support the right to an abortion, congressional representatives seem to be divided firmly along partisan lines. Still other abortion rights activists have taken to the streets, protesting outside of the homes of the Supreme Court Justices who are in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, in an attempt to convince them to change their decisions in the final vote.

On the state level, overturning Roe v. Wade will allow states to make decisions on abortion rights, so each state will vary in its laws. First, being aware of your own state’s abortion laws can be helpful in determining what your options are and how you can help. In Alabama, while access to contraception is still legal, almost all forms of abortions will be deemed illegal immediately following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Additionally, medical professionals who assist in providing abortions will also be considered Class A felons. While Alabama abortion laws do not allow for an exception in the event of rape or incest, they do allow abortions in severe cases where the health of the mother or fetus is at risk, but only after two separate opinions from doctors advising to do so. With that being said, there are non-profit organizations and abortion providers striving to form an underground network to provide safe abortions for women that wish to have them. Some method these organizations are using is to invest in mobile abortion clinics to meet women at the border of the closest state where abortion would be legal to help make abortion more accessible for women living in red states.

Finally, you can help in two more simple, yet profound ways: participate and educate. It’s time to start paying attention. Participation is not just voting, but also organizing, and educating others about the injustices that are happening around us, and helping people understand the real consequences behind issues you care about, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Share your stories with others to help destigmatize abortions and normalize safe sex debates and practices in society. Educate yourself about your state’s policies, but also familiarize yourself with organizations that provide help to those who are impacted, whether medically or otherwise. Democracy is very fragile, and as hard as rights are to secure, it is just as easy to lose them if we don’t hold accountable the people in power. One of the most telling insights gained from looking back at the days of Nazi Germany was that in retrospect, one could see the accumulation of attacks on rights, but because the public chose to stay silent, the fascists kept pushing until it was too late for the people to stand up and defend their rights. Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen to us today, not on abortion rights, not on environmental rights, and not on our human right to life, liberty and human dignity.

India’s UAPA: A Crackdown on Indian Activists

In a move that enraged the international community, the Indian government arrested a Kashmiri human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in late November 2021. Parvez, a native of the disputed Jammu Kashmir region that borders India and Pakistan, worked extensively on covering suspicious disappearances and investigating the stories behind unmarked graves in Kashmir. His family reports that authorities ransacked his belongings and confiscated all electronics while threatening their lives, an example of India’s growing role in squeezing the soul out of human rights advocacy using the UAPA.  

#Human rights banner from a protest
“Human Rights for Future” Banner from Amnesty International Source: Unsplash

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is an anti-terrorism law that was originally enacted in 1967 to expand Indian authorities’ powers to address individuals that were or were suspected to be a threat to national or economic security. Despite its supposed justified intent, the controversial law has given the federal Indian government unprecedented power over the criminal justice system. In 2019, a new tenet permitting the categorization of individuals rather than organizations as terrorists was added to the law. People could be jailed without clear evidence or bail for months and even decades. A trial is not guaranteed, and if one trial is granted, but the case fails, there is no provision that allows the incarcerated person to be released. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), since 2015, arrests made under this provision have increased by 72% in 2019.  

The most widely covered injustice of the UAPA occurred in Bhima Koregaon, a town a few hours south of Mumbai, India. Annually, on January 1st, Dalits in Bhima Koregaon celebrate the victory of their ancestors over an upper-caste ruler as part of the British Army. In 2018, they clashed with Hindu residents during the celebration which resulted in 16 activists jailed under the UAPA for inciting violence at the deadly event. 3 years later, no official charges have been brought up against the 16. All the 16 activists were advocates for historically marginalized groups such as Dalits to protect their rights and elevate their status in society. One of the accused was released in early December 2021 on bail, and another was only released under a temporary medical release after concerns arose about his deteriorating health in July.  

Rv. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and activist from the state of Tamil Nādu was another one of the 16 jailed in connection with the riots that occurred in Bhima-Koregaon, despite never having visited the town. He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, was infected with Covid-19, and experienced multiple falls and injuries while detained. His requests for accommodations considering the spasms and locked muscles caused by Parkinson’s were also denied by the NIA. No requests for bail were granted even when his health began declining in the spring. Swamy died in jail on July 5th, 2021, because of what the Jamshedpur Jesuit Province calls inadequate health facilities and a lack of regard for human life in dire prison conditions. 

Similar caste violence prefaced the 2020 Delhi Riots in which Hindus and Muslims fought over a new unconstitutional citizenship law. Three student activists were implicated in the violence and were arrested under the UAPA, despite fervently denying the allegations. The three were released after one year on bail, although a fourth student activist is still behind bars for other charges under the UAPA.   

The same pattern repeats in every arrest made under this law: circumstantial detainment then extended detention with no promise for bail or trial. In fact, less than 3% of those brought in by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) are convicted while many others have died waiting for trial. The right to due process with a fair and speedy trial is a key part of democracy, neither of which is given to those arrested under the UAPA, further suffocating human rights advocacy and discouraging potential activists. Human rights organizations including Frontline Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Watch fear for the health of free speech in India.  

Gavel
Gavel on a court surface representing law and justice Source: Unsplash

Lawmakers in the congressional houses of India’s federal administration control all of the UAPA provisions, but the judiciary of India, including the Supreme Court, has expressed its frustration and opposition to the anti-terrorism law. Not only is it unconstitutional, but the UAPA also infringes on broadly accepted ethical boundaries and totalitarian behavior. Academic experts, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and activists of all ages step into their shoes every day preparing to face the UAPA when they give voice to marginalized communities.  

This should not be brushed under the rug as a rare occurrence, because the UAPA is another dangerous tactic utilized by the ruling party in India to limit dissent. Akin to determined vultures, over the last couple of years, the government has circled closer to limiting basic freedoms including privacy, speech, assembly, and press. The law was initially aimed to combat terrorism but is now used as a legal tool to silence opposition, tightening the fist around minority populations. As the walls continue to close in, there is a very real possibility for the UAPA to become a harbinger of stifling, authoritative power in India, drastically shifting the definition of terrorism to encompass nonviolent political activity, otherwise known as activism. 

"Human Rights Violated by Modi Government in India" Protest Banner
“Human Rights Violated by Modi Government in India” Protest Banner Source: Unsplash

The UAPA is only a small part of a growing tsunami of problems seen around the globe. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), India has fallen to 53rd place in the Democracy Index – evident of a growing trend of backsliding democracy. The EIU has attributed India’s shortcomings to the increasing focus of religious sentiment in what is supposed to be a secular state, reinforcing harmful traditional stereotypes about wealth, race, and caste, while preventing social mobility for the less fortunate. Last year, India unveiled a new citizenship plan that hinders persecuted Muslims from becoming naturalized Indian citizens, a proposal that inflamed religious tensions already encouraged by India’s national Prime Minister.  

Human rights advocates and activists are the light in the dark for millions of people around the world, not only in India. Similarly, more than a few countries are seeking ways to funnel away basic rights that they see as disruptive to their goals of obtaining more control over their people and thus an iota of more power in the global discourse. If India succeeds with this violation of human rights and human rights defenders, it will set an irreversible precedent that countries similar to India in their ideological associations will follow. The international community must call for action and consequences for India’s actions. More support and funding from the international community should flow into the judicial system to question the legislation passed by Congress as well as organizations defending human rights activists to ensure the marginalized in India stand a fighting chance.   

The Hijab Row: The Latest on India’s Nationalist Actions

Societal destabilization is a normal part of any dystopian novel. The government cannot come to a consensus, politicians treat countries as puppets, and somehow, an awkward yet powerful adolescent is thrust into the spotlight to save the world. It is slowly dawning on the world that this outlandish twist of fate is now a reality.  

In January 2022, Karnataka, a state on India’s southwestern coastal border, banned hijabs in educational institutions. The epicenter of this issue is at the Government Pre-College University for Girls in the Udipi district of Karnataka, where Muslim students say that when they returned to school this past September, they were threatened to either remove the hijab or be marked absent. The girls were not allowed to attend classes or write their exams in their hijabs. This situation is not only a paramount issue and manifestation of India’s growing nationalist agenda, but also signals a threat to a fundamental right guaranteed in the Indian Constitution: religious freedom. 

Muslim woman wearing a head covering
Muslim woman wearing a head covering Source: Unsplash

Politics 

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling political party of India, is infamous for its right-wing actions against minorities. The pride of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a devout Hindu and believes that a superior India will only be restored to glory by becoming homogenous, a passion increasingly echoed across India. In recent years, minority alienation in terms of religion, caste, and gender has accelerated. Hindu activist groups in Karnataka believe the hijab ban is essential for social equality and for providing an unbiased classroom for every student to learn. Hindu student activists view the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim girls and wish to remove them for the sake of religious equality in education. They also compare the hijab to a saffron shawl Hindus often wear in religious ceremonies. It was implied that if hijabs are allowed, then every Hindu should be allowed to wear the saffron shawl to class as well.  

History 

Despite the social equity of this ban, the defense of upholding it is rather weak. This ban forces Muslim girls to choose between their religion, their bodily autonomy, or their education. Who can learn properly when they don’t feel comfortable in their own body? When the hijab is a part of your identity, not wearing it can be a source of ceaseless discomfort and alienation from your body and your perception of yourself.  

17-year-old Aliya Assadi, a karate champion in the city of Udupi, summarized the necessity of the hijab in one statement. Much like other Muslim girls, Assadi derives confidence and is assured by wearing her hijab. Removing it is not an option for her because it is a lifestyle that she pays her respects to. Assadi does not feel oppressed in her hijab but being forced to remove it is embarrassing and humiliating.  

Rows of seats in a university lecture hall
Rows of seats in a university lecture hall Source: Unsplash

The National Congress Party, BJP’s competition, vehemently opposes the hijab ban and stated that it is a violation of religious freedom. The BJP’s response asserted that the hijab is not an essential manifestation or practice of Islam, and therefore, the ban is not a violation of the Constitution. The Quran, the primary religious text in Islam, states that “It is not that if the practice of wearing hijab is not adhered to, those not wearing hijab become the sinners, Islam loses its glory, and it ceases to be a religion.” Based on this one quote, the Karnataka High Court deemed the hijab not essential for religious practice, ruled that the ban was constitutional, and dismissed all petitions made by Muslim girls barred from attending class. However, the hijab has more meaning than a literal interpretation of the Koran. Each of the groups that practice Islam in India and across the world have different cultural values and exhibits diversity in their traditions. Similarly, the hijab has underlying traditional value for each person or group, and in some parts of the world, the hijab is a symbol of resistance.  

Religious freedom, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Banning hijabs imposes on equal access to education and women’s rights because, without comfort and peace of mind in oneself, students cannot learn to their optimal ability. Yet, this problem does not extend to male students. This is the reason for their apparent alienation from the education system, which should be teaching them how to be successful and advocate for their beliefs. The right to education without discrimination on religion or gender is a universal human right—a human right that is being violated.  

Future Implications 

As religious divides deepen between Muslims and Hindus in India, human rights defenders worry that other states will consider enacting a similar ban on hijabs now that the precedent has been set. This is a potential slippery slope that may alienate the Muslim population with additional restrictions and obligations narrowing their sense of self. Already, far-right Hindu groups have claimed that Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, is in the process of creating a hijab ban and Uttar Pradesh is next. The majority of both states’ politicians identify as members of the BJP, as well.  

The Muslim girls, however, are not close to surrendering in this fight. They plan to appeal to India’s Supreme Court for a final, unbiased verdict on the case. The young people of India, now the majority age group in the country, are attempting to take India’s future into their own hands. The ramifications of this case, if the Supreme Court were to hear it, will be momentous.  

For years, a Hindu nationalist agenda has decreased the rights and autonomy of minorities of all classes. Often, these moves were underhanded and created through loopholes or loose interpretations of the law—just as the hijab ban was. Once the ban’s constitutionality reaches the Supreme Court, the whole country, including the federal administration, will be put on trial for their actions in the past and the future by India’s minority and majority populations.  

Women in hijabs at a protest with signage "Hijab our Right"
Women in hijabs at a protest with signage “Hijab our Right” Source: Flickr

International Consequences 

Unfortunately, islamophobia and minority discrimination are ideologies that have centuries of history behind them, and it will be challenging to fight this growing movement. When we think of history makers and game changers, it is often about one person with enough strength and bravery to face the world. However, lasting progress is sustained by consistent change and accountability. Anyone can fight and advocate against Islamophobia, and, eventually, a little effort from millions can be amassed into a movement capable of changing society from within.  

Countless organizations, lawyers, and legislators are facing the brunt of standing their ground against harsher political movements, but the public perspective must change first. In India, is important to communicate the despicable nature of Islamophobia online. Residents can report to the police commissioner or the District Magistrate in-person, or they can tag national authorities on social media such as the Ministry of Home, international human rights groups, and UN agencies. Openly support your neighbors or community members and help them file FIRs against Islamophobia acts and follow directives from local anti-Islamophobic organizations. In America at least, people can support anti-Islamophobic legislation and communicate with their government representatives about their discontent and rage over the treatment of their Muslim counterparts. People can also support American Indivisible and Shoulder to Shoulder, organizations that work to dismantle structural islamophobia. Regardless of your location, demonstrating solidarity and opening honest conversations is an imperative initial step to combating Islamophobia. 

How Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill Endangers LGBTQ+ Rights and History in U.S. Education

Florida's Congress
Source: Yahoo Images

A school district may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students, under the condition that the “Don’t Say Gay” house and senate bills currently in Florida’s state legislature are moved into law. The legislation was moved forward by the Florida State Education Committee last month. Controversy arose over how exactly “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” will be interpreted and the potential for LGBTQ+ history to be erased from public education. The bill, named “Parental Rights in Education”, also encourages parents to sue schools or teachers if such topics are covered in the classroom without the parents’ prior notification and approval. If approved by other state Senate committees and the State House, it will go into effect on July 1 of this year.

Legislation Creates National Controversy 

Formally known as House Bill 1557 and Senate Bill 1834, opposers have begun referring to the legislation as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill due to its attempt to deem sexual orientation and gender identities as subjects too taboo for public schools in America. LGBTQ+ activists have been both shocked and disheartened by the creation of such bill, which directly attacks both school children’s rights and securities. Heather Wilkie of the Zebra Coalition, a Central Florida LGBTQ+ advocacy group, told ABC News, “We have to create a learning environment where they feel safe and healthy, or it’s not an effective learning environment.” She went on to say, “When you have laws like this, that directly attack our kids for who they are, it prevents them from learning. It prevents them from being able to be healthy.” Advocates nationwide, including myself, believe that this legislation teaches children that speaking about gender identity or sexual orientation is shameful and should be hidden, which directly creates discrimination based on such identities. On top of this, LGBTQ+ history is especially important to preserve and expand upon in public education because of the extreme discrimination the community has faced and constant struggles the community deals with today. 

Despite the human rights violations at play, many are still in support of the approval of the “Parental Rights in Education” Bill. Among supporters is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has publicly vocalized his favor for prohibiting any dialogue regarding LGBTQ+ topics in the state’s primary schools. According to this NBC article, Gov. DeSantis stated that it was “entirely inappropriate” for teachers to be having conversations with students about gender identity, citing instances of them telling children, “Don’t worry, don’t pick your gender yet.” He added, “The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools.” 

White House denounced the Bill 

As a counter to Gov. DeSantis, both the Biden-Harris White House Administration and President Joe Biden have communicated their disapproval of the Florida legislation via their twitter accounts. The White House shared a post stating, “Today, conservative politicians in Florida advanced legislation designed to attack LGBTQI+ kids. Instead of making growing up harder for young people, @POTUS [President of the United States] is focused on keeping schools open and supporting students’ mental health.” President Biden “retweeted” the post to add, “I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are. I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.” 

Other Attempts to erase LGBTQ+ History 

Gay Pride Flags at Protest
Source: Yahoo Images

Unfortunately, anti-LGBTQ+ efforts such as these are not uncommon by American lawmakers. One instance took place in March of 2021, when Tennessee Rep. Bruce Griffey proposed House Bill 800, which would completely erase all topics and people involved in the LGBTQ+ community from the state’s public school curricula. In addition, House Bill 529 was introduced by Rep. Debra Moody, seeking to require parental notification and approval 30 days before any child is taught curriculum regarding sexual orientation or gender identity. Although these bills are stated to have the intention of protecting parents’ rights, erasing any part of history is detrimental to a child’s education. A successful learning environment includes exposure to wide ranges of ideas and beliefs, in addition to learning how to respect beliefs that are initially unfamiliar. 

Ways to Help  

While attempts to delete discussions regarding the LGBTQ+ community in public school systems remain constant, counter efforts also persist, including the American education organization GLSEN, which works to ensure that “every student has the right to a safe, supportive, and LGBTQ-inclusive K-12 education.” Additionally, you can use  this template to send a letter to lawmakers urging them to oppose “Don’t Say Gay Bills” HB 1557 and SB 1837.  

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice for the World Day of Social Justice

 

People in shape of a justice scale
Source: Yahoo Images


Yesterday, February 20th, 2022, marked the 14th annual global observance of the World Day of Social Justice, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly on June 8th, 2008. Since 2009, the day has marked a celebration that reflects on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all through employment, social protection, and social dialogue, in addition to fundamental principles and rights at work, according to this article from Baker College. Social justice is defined as the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights, and opportunities. Social justice is also referred to as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The UN General Assembly has also conveyed their recognition of social development and social justice as a crucial aspect of peace among nations worldwide. 

What are Human Rights? 

Human rights are commonly referred to as rights everyone has just because they are human. These rights are specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an international document laying out 30 fundamental rights and freedoms of all human beings. Examples of these include the right to life without discrimination, slavery, or torture, in addition to explaining that all humans are equal before the law and that the law protects all human rights. The UDHR was drafted by representatives of various demographics and backgrounds and is considered a milestone in human rights history. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948, as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” 

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice 

Women protesting injustice
Source: Yahoo Images

To better understand the concept of social justice, the definition has been broken into four core principles: access, equity, participation, and human rights. These four principles apply to issues such as: 

  • Reproductive Rights 
  • Access to good education 
  • Employment Discrimination 
  • Voting Discrimination 
  • Disability Discrimination 
  • And many others

Since human rights is one pillar of social justice, a “just” society is impossible within the absence of security for all human rights. 

Although their meanings are different, the concepts of human rights and social justice are often correlated closely, especially in academia and political debates. Here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences’s Political Science Department, a concentration of study in human rights and social justice is offered within the political science major, like many other institutions worldwide. Outside of academia, the general public often groups human rights and social justice together in regard to their stance on politics. Unfortunately, many social injustices and human rights issues have become controversial topics in America, further polarizing the U.S. political climate, especially within group rights (minorities rights, rights of people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.). Understanding the relationship between human rights and social justice can bring about a more unified approach to how these issues are perceived and addressed. 

Ways to Celebrate the World Day of Social Justice 

Woman with sign: "We will not be silenced"
Source: Yahoo Images

Becoming an advocate for social justice in society can happen at any time, but with the current celebration of the World Day of Social Justice, it is a great time to start. Celebrating this day can be done by taking the time to examine your own beliefs and values to increase your self-awareness regarding the way you view injustices in society and your level of sympathy for those who are currently facing a human rights crisis. From there, examine what you are doing to help and what you can be doing. Furthermore, researching a few injustices in society that interest you or sharing your experiences of enduring discrimination in your own life can shed light on the importance of this day and the constant work to be done to create a “just” society across the globe. If you choose to celebrate this day by donating monetarily, here is a list of organizations accepting donations: 

Pegasus: A Frightening Era of Digital Surveillance

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

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

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

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

India 

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

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

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

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

Middle East 

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

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

Palestine 

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

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

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

El Salvador 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

America: The Land of the Hungry

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

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

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

Food Deserts

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

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

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

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

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

Food Insecurity: Some Hard Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Government Food Aid and Government Food Aid

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

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

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

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

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

How COVID has Made Food Insecurity Worse

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

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

What Can We Do About It?

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

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

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

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

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

Policing for Profit: An Ongoing Alabama Investigation

police
Source: Yahoo Images

Brookside, Alabama – a poor town, 70% white, 21% black with a small but growing Hispanic population and a median income “well below the state average” has made national news because of the Brookside Police Department (BPD). The BPD has managed to double the impoverished town’s total income from 2018 to 2020 as a result of its 640% increase in fines and forfeitures. How can a town with no traffic lights collect $487 in fines and forfeitures in 2020 for every man, woman, and child while the Brookside Police Chief Mike Jones claims, “It’s not about making a dollar?”

Brookside Changed in 2018

From 2011 to 2018, the town of 1,253 people reported a total of 55 serious crimes to the state of Alabama across the span of eight years. In 2018, with the appointment of Mike Jones as Police Chief of the BPD, this changed significantly: police stops soared between 2018 and 2020; fines and forfeitures – including the seizure of cars during traffic stops – doubled from 2018 to 2019; and eight additional officers were hired.

Nine full-time officers for a town that stretches six miles, has no traffic lights, and has a population of 1,253 people is “far larger than average.” According to the 2018 FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR), the average size of a police force in the southern United States was three officers per 1,000 residents. As of last year, Brookside had one police officer per 144 residents. As of January 2021, the department announced via Facebook that it had hired six more officers, in order to “expand our dedication and commitment to provide superior community service & protection.” The Facebook page is no longer available to the public.

The lack of transparency does not stop there. While Chief Jones and Mayor Mike Bryan claimed that “neither the town nor the police department relies on the revenue” police officers bring in, audits by Philip Morgan & Co. showed that the town was indeed dependent on the ticket money. From 2018 to 2020, spending on police alone increased 560%, from $79,000 to $524,000. The correlation is reason for causation, for total arrests (custodial, misdemeanor, and felony) rose 1,109% from 2018 to 2020. Additionally, the BPD issued more than 3,000 citations in 2020 – a 692% increase from 2018. The revenue that was brought in increased overall town spending 112% from 2018 to 2020.

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Brookside Police Department purchased unmarked cars and a fully loaded truck with taxpayers’ money. Source: Yahoo Images

Where is this money going? Towards purchasing unmarked, tinted vehicles for the BPD to severely patrol the six miles the town covers, in hopes of collecting even more revenue. The Brookside police officers, according to Jones’s testimony, wear gray uniforms with no Brookside insignias. They also do not list their names in tickets.
In one case, a young man, Thomas Hall, was stopped for speeding and was found with a small amount of marijuana. He was charged with a misdemeanor possession and five counts of possession of drug paraphernalia: rolling papers, the bag the held the marijuana, cigar wrappers, a small jar “that once may have held marijuana,” and a small tray that “might have” been used to roll a joint. On the ticket, the arresting officer was listed as “Agent JS” and assisting officer as “Agent AR.” Hall is not the only one with unnecessary charges tacked onto his citation.

February Town Hall

On February 2, 2022, more than 200 people gathered where 31 people spoke of the victimization they had endured from a “rogue police department that bullied, tormented, and in some cases ruined their lives.” Residents of all demographics – black and white, old and young – demanded that tickets given by the Brookside force be voided and their money be returned. Common themes emerged during the emotional conversation, including how the police was targeting residents and drivers in an aggressive manner, adding on as many charges as possible to the citations, and frequently ticketing outside of its jurisdiction.

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People line up outside of Town Hall to pay their citations. This cuts into their personal work time, furthering their lack of income. Source: Yahoo Images

Brookside PD Leadership Resignations

After CNN and AL.com launched investigations into the recent events and actions of Brookside PD on January 19, 2022, Mike Jones resigned on January 25, 2022. He could not be reached for any comments. Leah Nelson of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice stated Jones’s departure is good news but that he is “just a symptom of the problem. We need policy reform.” Nelson’s statement is one that is supported on both sides of the aisle; what is happening in Brookside is not a partisan issue, and it is gaining national attention.

Brookside is a Continuation of History

A 2019 Governing Magazine report found that fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of general fund revenues for nearly 600 jurisdictions across the United States. This trend first was noticed after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, where the town issued 32,975 arrest warrants in 2013 for nonviolent offenses. It has been happening across the United States – California, Georgia, even Washington, D.C., for years on end, eroding the already-thin layer of trust between the community and law enforcement.

Another force adding to this erosion is the practice of sentencing people to jail when they are unable to pay their debt – an illegal practice as decided by the United States Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia (1983) and again in Timbs v Indiana (2019).

In Bearden, the court held that in “revocation proceedings for failure to pay a fine or restitution, a sentencing court must inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay. If the probationer could not pay despite sufficient bona fide [sincere] efforts, the court must consider alternative measures of punishment other than imprisonment.” Imprisoning someone who may not possess $850 to pay within four months deserves the opportunity to defend why s/he/they could not do so, instead of being locked up.

In Timbs, the Eighth Amendment was contested – specifically, the application of “excessive fines imposed” to state and local governments. In an unanimous decision, all of the Supreme Court justices agreed that Mr. Timbs’s vehicle, valued at $42,000, should not have been seized by the state for a ticket that was worth $10,000. When delivering the majority opinion, the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke on behalf of the justices, administering the opinion that cities charging citizens high fines and fees and seizing property worth far more than their debt were “a threat to American freedom.”

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This cartoon is how the BPD has been depicted. The need for reform is greater than ever. Source: Yahoo Images.

What’s next?

While policy reform is the main goal and various Alabama departments continue their investigations of the BPD, I would advocate for our readers to not forget the issue of police reform. This human rights abuse seriously affects more Americans than you know, and it is harmful to the quality of innocent people’s lives. People that are already struggling to make ends meet are being charged absurd ticket fees, and the taxes they are paying are not even benefitting them.

Reform is mandatory, and if our representatives on both sides of the aisle can come to this common conclusion, we should no longer question it. Rather, we should invest in searching and strongly advocating for alternatives to limit the police’s power. The universally-understood purpose of a police force is to protect a people, but how can said people trust the protectors if they are the ones exploiting them?

As we have seen in Brookside, the police’s abuse of power has resulted in the accumulation of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, which is only being reallocated to fund the police – the abusers of authority. Taxes are meant to assist the welfare of the state, but all the evidence indicates otherwise. Hosting a town hall meeting is simply the first step, and while it provided the residents of Brookside with an outlet to vent their ongoing troubles, the Alabama legislature and local and state governments must collaborate to ensure that Brookside PD’s actions are never repeated.

Visual Representations for Brookside

Brookside Revenue Sources Over Time

Brookside’s 2020 Revenue Streams

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.