On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.
“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.
The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.
The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.
September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief
On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).
Black Women Deserve Dignity
As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.
All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.
Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.
Where Do We Go from Here?
For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.
For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.
During the 2016 election, I was 17 years old, meaning that I was too young to vote and just old enough to be very frustrated by this barrier. Now, for the 2020 election, I am excited to cast my vote in my first presidential election and have thrown myself into learning as much as I can about domestic and international politics. Through this process, I have begun to recognize political trends and waves. Idealism has shifted and flowed along the political spectrum throughout history. Recently, many countries across the world have taken a conservative shift in their political maneuvers and with their elected officials. What makes this shift slightly different is the large rise of nationalism across many countries.
What is Nationalism?
For a definition, people with nationalist leanings dislike the rise of globalization in social structures and political institutions. There is a rather large emphasis on putting national interests and needs before global ones, hence the name “nationalism.” Nationalism is understood to be focused on the ‘cultural unit of the nation.’ However, for a significant portion of history, one’s political leanings were not reliant on national boundaries. This changed in Europe after the Protestant Reformation. The state became more reliant on the people who resided within the nation instead of outside forces like the Catholic Church. Soon, nationalism and self-determination became integral parts of the view of democracy.
Nationalism is the strong support of a country, akin to patriotism. Self-determining nationalism refers to a desire for a state rooted in a self-identity. This is the basis of white nationalism, the desire for a white state. Some people may believe that nationalism is rooted in the American story and that without it the Constitution might not even exist. However, realistically, racism and racists in general feel represented and validated by Donald Trump’s form of nationalism. The campaign of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are set in a very distinctively nationalist direction. The primary issue with this stance is that Donald Trump’s definition of “American” excludes quite a few groups of people who live in the United States. This is called ethnonationalism. A few examples of the ethnonationalist tactics employed by Donald Trump and his party include the creation and fascination with the border wall between the United States and Mexico, the Muslim ban, and the active separation of families along the Mexican border, among many others. Similarly, a rise in white nationalism has occurred, encouraged by the Donald Trump base.
Nationalism Throughout History
During the Industrial Revolution, it became apparent that aspects of a shared identity, such as shared literacy in a single language, would be important to a nation’s success. Thus, the assimilation of groups outside of the collective norm of the country became perceived as a top priority. This assimilation happened through civic institutions but also through ethnic cleansing, war, and other violent methods in order to completely wipe out any cultures or traditions considered to be “different” from the nation’s own. In the 1900s, there was a separation created between the ideas of ‘liberal capitalism’ and ‘nationalist democracy.’ This history lesson is to depict the ebbs and flows of nationalism throughout history. It is not uncommon to witness a resurgence of nationalism; however it is important to understand the negative consequences in order to navigate the resurgence in the most effective way for all groups.
Benefits and Dangers of Nationalism
Nationalism can be utilized for development. Throughout history, nationalism can be attributed to a rise in the buying and selling of domestic products, recruitment in the military, and general patriotism. The idea of a shared identity connected to a country is a motivator among citizens. In Korea and Taiwan officials were able to implement the Japanese inspired top-down nationalist model that greatly encouraged growth. However, nationalism can also encourage exclusion and competition. In Europe, imperialism and colonization were often justified by nationalism. These were two techniques employed by western countries to overtake and completely control countries in Africa and in the Asia, the extremely negative consequences of which are still being seen today. During World War II, Adolf Hitler employed nationalist techniques in order to secure his base and rationalize his tactics as in the best interest for Germany. Nationalist sentiment, seen as establishing one group to be the rightful citizens of a country, is dangerous in an increasingly globalized world.
Nationalism Across the Globe
After 2016, there was a large rise in nationalist sentiment across the world. Perhaps the most popular stage for this phenomenon was the United States with the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a nationalist platform with the slogan, “America First.” In Germany, the nationalist AfD party has become a major opposition party, and in Spain right-wing Vox has become prominent within the Spanish Parliament. Similarly, nationalist leaders have ascended onto the political stage in China, the Philippines, and Turkey. Nations are no longer made up of a single ethnic, religious, or language group. This increase in exclusionary nationalism that we are seeing could prove to be potentially very dangerous for the groups considered to be “outsiders.” It is important to understand the many different facets of nationalism in order to protect against the negative consequences it brings as these political leaders rise in popularity.
As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) expands throughout the United States (U.S.), its impact has rapidly reached vulnerable communities south of the border. As the 10th most populous country in the world, Mexico is beginning to experience an influx in COVID-19 cases and, especially, deaths which has exacerbated many inequalities throughout the country. This blog addresses Mexico’s relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has influenced human rights issues concerning gender-based violence, indigenous peoples, organized crime, and immigration.
As of late-August, approximately 580,000 Mexicans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 62,000 have died from the virus. Mexico’s capital of Mexico City is currently the country’s epicenter with over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. North of the capital, Guanajuato is nearing 30,000 confirmed cases as the second-largest hotspot, while the northern border state of Nuevo León has nearly 28,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, on the Gulf side, Tabasco and Veracruz are each nearing 28,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, the southern border state of Chiapas, which has a large indigenous population, presumably has the lowest death rate (<1 death per 100,000 cases) which ignites concern about access to COVID-19 resources throughout this treacherous nation.
Mexico is on track to set an annual record for number of homicides since national statistics were first recorded in 1997. Femicide, which is the murder of women and girls due to their gender, has increased by over 30%. In the first half of 2020, there were 489 recorded femicides throughout Mexico. Much of this violence is attributed to the increased confinement of families since the arrival of COVID-19. For Mexican women, these atrocities are often the result of domestic abuse and drug gang activity which have both been on the rise. Regardless of how and why these acts are committed, it is plain to see that the vulnerability of women in Mexico has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), has been notorious for downplaying the country’s proliferation of gender-based violence. Despite an 80% increase in shelter calls and 50% increase in shelter admittance by women and children since the start of the pandemic, AMLO has insisted 90% of domestic violence calls have been “false”. As part of the COVID-19 austerity response, AMLO has slashed funds for women’s shelters and audaciously reduced the budget of the National Institute of Women by 75%. This all comes after the country’s largest ever women’s strike back in March, which AMLO suggested was a right-wing plot designed to compromise his presidency. AMLO has consistently scapegoated a loss in family “values” as the reason for the country’s endless failures while he promotes fiscal austerity during a global crisis.
Recently, 15 people at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the indigenous municipality of Huazantlán del Río, Oaxaca were ambushed and murdered. The victims were attacked after holding a protest over a local proposed wind farm, while the perpetrators are presumed to be members of the Gualterio Escandón crime organization, which aims to control the region to traffic undocumented immigrants and store stolen fuel. In 2012, members of the Ikoots indigenous group blocked construction of this area because they claimed it would undermine their rights to subsistence. This unprecedented event has garnered national attention from AMLO and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) as they seek to initiate a thorough investigation. As demonstrated, existing land disputes have been further complicated by the presence of COVID-19 and have thus drawn Mexico’s indigenous peoples into a corner of urgency.
On the other hand, with many Mexicans unable to work and put food on the table, drug cartels are stepping up to fill the void. The Sinaloa cartel, which is one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups and suppliers of Fentanyl and heroin, has been using their safe houses to assemble aid packages marked with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s liking. Although this tactic has long been used by the drug cartels to grow local support, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to further use impoverished Mexicans as a social shield. These acts of ‘narco-philanthropy’, which is one of the many weapons employed by the drug cartels, has enraged AMLO who has relentlessly defended his administration’s response to COVID-19. This irony reveals how growing incompetence from Mexico’s government has left its people vulnerable to not only the pandemic of a generation but more drug cartel activity.
As shown, issues notoriously attached to Mexico, namely femicide, indigenous autonomy, organized crime, and immigration, have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Femicide has grown due to a culture of misogyny that has proliferated during the lockdown. Indigenous communities have developed more distrust for the federal government, particularly as it relates to public health and land rights. Organized crime groups have extended their reign of terror on the Mexican people by weaponizing the effects of COVID-19. Immigrants, mainly from Central America and the Caribbean, are not only running from their dreadful past but also face the challenging prospects of a world with COVID-19.
As a global influence, Mexico fosters the responsibility to uphold international standards related to women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights. Despite each of these issues having their own unique human rights prescription, they could all be improved by a more responsive government. This has rarely been the case for AMLO who has consistently minimized the urgency, and sometimes existence, of human rights issues in Mexico. Furthermore, austerity measures provoked by COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Mexico’s most vulnerable populations because they exacerbate existing inequalities and serve as a basis for future conflict, insecurity, and violence. One of the most important ways the Mexican government can limit these inequalities is by properly addressing the war on drugs which includes closing institutional grey areas that foster crime, strengthening law enforcement, and ensuring policies carry over into future administrations. All the while, the U.S. must address its role in Mexico’s drug and arms trade. Confronting these growing concerns from both sides of border is the only way Mexico while encounter a peaceful, prosperous future.
While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.
As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.
This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.
Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.
This article was originally published on the Lister Hill Center for Health Policy blog on June 19, 2020.
Discussions of police in everyday life have triggered strong reactions from citizens as long as we have had the concept of police. Arguments over whether they should wear uniforms, whether they should be paid, and whether they should carry weapons have all persisted throughout time and across multiple countries. The concept of the police in America was borrowed from the British system of having “beat cops” or officers who patrolled at the local level. In England, still today, these community officers do not carry weapons. The British police force was established in 1829 and employs the concept of police by consent, not by force. As a result, the general opinion is that arming the police sends the wrong message to citizens and creates more problems than it solves. Yet, in the US, officers cannot envision a police force that is not armed with firearms. Policing in America has evolved over time and developed into a punitive system of “enforcement” that has pushed the entire system away from community problem solvers and toward a militaristic mind set of reactions to certain situations, often without rational analysis of what is actually occurring. Thus, policing has evolved more toward fighting a war– the war on drugs, the war on poverty – in which police are the soldiers and citizens are the subjects. However, the evidence is clear that overuse of police as a form of social control has devastating consequences for the health of communities (Public Health Behind Bars, Robert Greifinger, 2007). Such over-policing leads directly and indirectly to destabilized communities and overall social injustice. Further, it creates a system in which activities of the poor and minorities are more highly policed and punished than activities of the wealthy or white majority. Communities that suffer the most from over-policing generally suffer from a host of other deprivations and become tangled in a web of instability. Once that occurs, perceptions of destabilized communities begin to shape the ways that people outside the community view persons who live in those communities. Persons from those communities are often portrayed as more violent, more aggressive, and less likely to respond to reason. These labels apply to everyone from that particular community, including children, and often follow those children as they enter school. Children from these communities are labeled trouble makers at very young ages (as young as 3 or 4) and are often pushed out of mainstream educational facilities. Because of interaction with the criminal justice systems, adults have trouble finding jobs and/or stable housing, and family dynamics are disrupted. A cycle of negative police/citizen interaction begins to occur because of overuse of punitive approaches to address social problems, and police officers are tasked with providing interventions across a wide array of social services more appropriate to social workers, school and marriage counselors, substance abuse counselors, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and general mechanic and car maintenance.
When police are the first responders to social problems, punishment is the response most often handed down. Punishment, enforcement, and restraint are the skills for which police receive most of their training. Examples of this problem can be noted across the life span, but are perhaps most easily demonstrated in adolescents. For example, white youth and minority youth participate in delinquency such as recreational drug use, underage drinking, skipping school, fighting, and other types of delinquency at similar rates. Self-report studies indicate that delinquency is almost universal as a part of adolescent development. However, black and brown youth are held in juvenile detention centers at 3 to 4 times the rate of their white counterparts. Their numbers continue to increase even when juvenile crime statistics drop. Part of the reason for the disproportionate numbers of youth in juvenile detention stems from the presence of police officers in schools. Because these youth are identified as more dangerous and less amenable to treatment, school-based police officers respond with punitive practices that work to remove them from school. Once removed from school, the only real intervention at the community level is the juvenile court. Most black and brown youth live in urban areas with larger public schools. More police officers are assigned to these schools; therefore, more poor children and children of color are victims of overusing police and courts for behaviors more appropriately handled by schools and parents. Overuse of punitive practices creates a school to prison pipeline that suspends and expels more minority youth from school than their white counterparts. Even when youth are “caught” for the same activity, the minority youth is more likely to be arrested, petitioned to juvenile court, and detained in a detention center which sets off an array of negative interactions and social stigma that is almost impossible to overcome. The school to prison pipeline creates generational disenfranchisement, poverty, and systematic oppression of entire communities.
But problems in school are not the only contributor to the overuse of police in society. Lack of adequate health care also works to ensure that poor people and people of color will go to prison instead of to mental health clinics or rehabilitation centers for substance abuse and mental health issues. Instead of having diagnoses that are recognized and treated, even at very young ages, people without adequate health insurance or preventative health care are labeled by the symptoms of their illnesses. As services shrink in the community, law enforcement is used as the social service delivery system for this group. Instead of citizens receiving counseling and accurate mental health diagnosis that could treat their health issues, they are arrested, incarcerated, and offered very few if any services. For a drug charge, a person with insurance will likely go to a rehab facility. A person without insurance will likely go to prison. Studies indicate that 20% of jail inmates and 15% of prison inmates suffer from major depression or psychosis and as many as 87% of those have comorbid substance abuse issues. Citizens without insurance in our society are more likely to have unresolved trauma, which is often exacerbated by interaction with poorly trained police officers. Those same individuals are more likely to be perceived as dangerous, more aggressive, and not amenable to treatment. As a result, they are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be detained prior to trial, and more likely to be incarcerated. When they are eventually released (95% will return to communities) they are sent back to communities with little to no continuity care plan which almost insures that they will encounter the criminal justice system again.
So, what alternative police practices and systematic strategies could we envision that would work to dismantle this perpetual cycle of violence, trauma, and overall injustice that is levied disproportionately on poor and minority communities? First, I would propose that police agencies examine the role of police in everyday life and create policies that actually reflect those defined roles. The role of the police is “to protect and serve.” Let’s unpack that statement – to protect and serve – not to arrest, apprehend, serve as judge and juror, intimidate, harass, incarcerate, shoot, bully, or kill – protect and serve. Yet most of our emphasis in police departments across the US revolves around tactical weaponry, restraint techniques, defensive driving, and legal procedures of arrest that will lead to convictions. Perhaps refocusing training on de-escalation strategies, trauma informed care, and implicit bias could provide better understanding and more opportunities for officers to assist in resolving conflicts peacefully. Do police officers really need full armored SWAT gear? And military grade weaponry? When police posture defensively as if their role is to protect themselves against dangerous citizens (again as if they are soldiers and citizens are the subjects) the response from citizens is likely also to be defensive and reactionary. Beyond new recruits at the police academy, officers who have been on the force for long periods of time and serve as field training officers need the same training as new recruits on the above-mentioned issues. Many times, they work to undermine positive training received in police academies. If these more seasoned officers resist training, or refuse to comply with new protocols, they should be reassigned to departmental activities that do not require citizen interaction. We can no longer afford to have business as usual and rely on statements like, “that’s the way it has always been.” Agencies must be proactive in removing old ways of thinking and performing and replace them with more educated and better-informed practices that work to restore police-community relations. A merit system could be implemented that rewards positive behavior with pay incentives or merit toward promotions. Police should be treated as professionals, paid as professionals, and held accountable as professionals.
Secondly, I would propose that we examine the services for which police are being used in place of other, more appropriate social service delivery specialists. For example, commissioned law enforcement officers are not the proper authority to handle adolescents in schools – especially when dollars spent to employ the police could be redirected to employ social workers and counselors to address the underlying causes of much adolescent behavior. The experiment with School Resource Officers (SROs) was intended to create trust among students and police where police would function in a counselor/educator role. However, the reality has been that schools have turned over general disciplinary actions as well as drug/alcohol enforcement provisions to SROs. They do not work as much in an education/counselor capacity as they do as the enforcer for a host of school-based rule infractions that lead to more kids being suspended, expelled, or processed in juvenile court. Instead of fostering healthy relationships with police and students, students do not trust them and try to avoid them. A better alternative seems to be to employ a school based social worker at each school instead of an SRO. One argument for SROs has been the prevalence of school shootings and the need for student safety. However, school shootings were not the original intent of SROs, and school shootings remain very rare occurrences. When these tragedies do occur, it is rarely an SRO who protects students or who intervenes during these instances, which makes school safety concerns an inadequate argument for placing police officers in schools. Their presence adds to the school to prison pipeline and works to create hostility between youth and police very early in life. Zero tolerance policies should be replaced with restorative community policies within schools to teach negotiation strategies that students could actually use in future interactions. Dialogue about complex issues should be encouraged among students and opportunities should be seized to provide education around community health, community harm, and community restoration.
This conversation would not be complete without recognizing that the work of policing a community is stressful. Rarely do police officers receive adequate training for the job. Even more rarely do they receive counseling and support for their own trauma that they experience on the job. For example, one of the most stressful parts of law enforcement jobs is not the hostage negotiation that ends in a shoot-out; instead, it is responding to traffic accidents. Officers might retire from the police force without ever using their firearm, but the chances of them viewing a dead child in an overturned car after a crash are high. When officers’ trauma is not addressed, that trauma becomes the lens through which everything else is viewed. A normal response is to have a heightened sense of self-preservation – and every possible encounter with a citizen presents the possibility of a negative outcome. Some of the resources within police departments should be reinvested in the officers to provide training, support, and counseling that they need to be healthy community members both on and off the job. To complement these resources, the culture within the department must also change to promote positive mental health among officers. Currently the stigma of mental health issues as signs of weakness permeate police culture. Changing those views will take time, but the culture of health that is discussed in communities must also apply to police agencies throughout the US.
Finally, and probably the most inflammatory part of this post, we must have honest conversations about the systematic racial oppression in the US and the role that all systems of government have played in developing and keeping it in place. Minority groups are presented as more dangerous, more violent, more in need of police, and only responsive to force. Such portrayals are not accidental, but work specifically to detract from empathy that might otherwise be shown to them as fellow human beings. The scourge of racism is so deeply engrained in our justice systems in the US that even minority officers do not know how to discuss it, react to it, or work to dismantle it. The militarized hierarchy within police agencies causes a veil of silence among officers who fear reprimand if they are perceived as trouble makers, liberals, or sympathizers. Citizens have so little trust in the police, or the system of justice, that they are often victims without a voice. These are not characteristics of a free society, and they must be replaced with conversation, understanding, and a shared vision for what citizens want the police to do in their communities and how that will be accomplished. In the end, police officers are public servants, and their role is to protect and serve the community and every member of the community. For anyone who reads this and has an interest in taking a deeper dive into racism in the US, I would recommend three books to read: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum; and So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo.
The opioid crisis in the United States is not something I often hear about in the news nowadays. Or maybe it is so often in the news that the title fades into the background amongst the news about politics. However, the opioid epidemic affects millions of people across the United States, and it has affected them for years. Human rights concerns connected to the epidemic have begun to grow in recent years as controversies regarding the United States health care system and law enforcement systems have come to light.
The crisis began with the expansion of opioids for medical purposes in the 1990s. The initial goal with opioids was to treat pain but the drugs soon became exploited by pharmaceutical companies eager to increase their profit revenue . Before the addictive and harmful properties of opioids became known both to the public and to healthcare professionals, prescriptions for opioid medications increased rapidly across the country.
The introduction of extended-release oxycodone in 1996 along with claims by the manufacturers that it was less addictive and effective for up to 12 hours was a major catalyst for the epidemic. There are three described waves of opioid overdose deaths in the United States. The first wave began with an increase in the prescription of opioids, increasing since at least 1999. The second wave included overdose deaths involving heroin, the increase beginning in 2010. The third wave included an increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) in 2013.
The first reaction to the opioid crisis was to limit the number of prescriptions in the market. However, this drove many to use the less expensive and more accessible street heroin. Cheaper and stronger opioids kept reappearing on the market, leading to an accelerated rate of fatal overdoses. Most addictions start with diverted supplies instead of among doctors’ patients. This was the case with heroin, which causes 4% of those who were using prescription opioids to switch to heroin. While 4% seems like a small percentage, 4% of the large number of people taking opioid pills is actually very large and enough to exacerbate the crisis . In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency. Over 130 people die every day from opioid-related overdoses and 10.3 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2018. In 2017, more than 70,200 people died from drug overdoses. Of those 70,200, around 68% involved opioids.
White Americans make up roughly 80 percent of opioid overdose victims. The attention of the coverage of the opioid crisis has primarily centered on white Americans, pushing aside the attention on minorities affected by the crisis. Minorities made up 20 percent of opioid related deaths in July of 2019, but that number is growing. The crisis has highlighted the racial disparities in the US healthcare system as many experts believe that the number of opioid related deaths in minority populations would be greater if minorities had access to the same level of health care as white Americans. It is known that people of color have had a significant lack of access to the American healthcare system throughout history and throughout the recent years. This disparity lowers the probability that non-whites in American would be prescribed opioids and thus lowers the chance that the population would suffer fatal overdoses. Despite the low death rates due to the exclusions within the health care system, the abuse of opioids is still abundant in communities of color. Scientists have witnessed a doubling of overdose death rates among African Americans, a factor that is being overshadowed by the media and societal focus on the death rates of whites.
The law enforcement system has failed minorities in the opioid crisis as well. The War on Drugs, an attempt at cracking down on the opioid epidemic, has disproportionately affected African American communities across the United States. Studies have shown that law enforcement officials target black communities for drug violations significantly more than they target white communities. While drug use is similar between white communities and black communities, members of the black community are 13 times more likely to be arrested for buying and using drugs. In 2013, black and Hispanic populations represented 29 percent of the entire United States population. Despite this, the number of black and Hispanic prisoners arrested for drug related charges dominated that of whites. Not only is this true, but the United States Sentencing Commission also released a report stating that black prisoners receive longer sentences than white prisoners, despite both groups being convicted of similar weighted crimes.
The opioid crisis has hurt millions of people and families across the United States, one of the most diverse countries in the world. Despite this, the national attention has primarily focused on how the crisis has affected the white population. It is important to focus not only on how the opioid crisis has affected minorities, but also how the health care and law enforcement systems have responded to the opioid crisis in minority groups. The disparities within these systems must be fixed in order to provide an equal treatment of all groups.
 The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.
 The Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Opioid Crisis in America. 2017.
Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.
Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.
A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.
Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities
Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.
As the crowd chanted the words “Reactionary? No, visionary” in synchronization, we could envision the power of community and our passion to create change. Our minds were synced in for a collective purpose and hearts full of warmth and unity. This was at the first For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of March earlier this year. I had the incredible opportunity to attend and bring back home a plethora of inspiration, information, and ideas on using art as a tool for activism.
What is For Freedoms?
For Freedoms is an artist-run platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the U.S. inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century. Their belief is to use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues through non-partisan programming throughout the country. Hank Willis Thomas, the cofounder of For Freedoms says that “The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to affect change. Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen, and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide.”
About the Congress
The For Freedoms Congress gathered delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to come together to share their mutual passion of using art as a tool for advocacy and activism. We were honored and proud to represent the Institute for Human Rights, UAB, and the state of Alabama at this nationwide platform. The Congress spanned over three days in the historic city of Los Angeles to celebrate its role as the birthplace and driver of many important artistic-led cultural movements over the decades. The use of remarkable locations such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japanese American National Museum, and the Hammer Museum added to the artistic aura of the conference and gave us an opportunity to explore these exciting places.
Over the course of the conference, we got to attend a number of artist-led planning sessions, creative workshops, art activations, and performances on topics ranging from refugee rights to gun violence, indigenous rights to gender equality, and the criminal injustice system to public art policies. In addition, featured townhalls were held on each of the four freedoms that sparked constructive dialogue between the participants.
Culture, Art, and Advocacy
The foundation of all the discussions and sessions at the Congress lies on one fact: culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To make this right a reality, activists, advocates, and cultural institutions from around the country came together to share their ideas, foster collaboration, and to create a platform for civic engagement. They committed to keep playing their part in their respective communities to help make this right a reality for all through public action and commitment to the American values of equality, individualism, and pragmatism.
We need to make sure that cultural and social groups are able to express themselves and exercise their right to art in addition to other human rights. The right to art suggests that it should be accessible to everyone and is synonymous with free speech and self-expression. It goes back to having the freedom to speak up for one’s own self, to have representation, and to practice religion and cultural ways free from any fear or want.
Art is a powerful tool to bring communities together and it speaks to people, which is why it can be used in all kinds of fields to foster equity, inclusion, and justice in society. For example, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of art education and its access in our education system. Art education fosters social development, provides a creative outlet, enhances academic performance and intellectual development, and promotes out-of-the-box thinking for students. Brett Cook, an interdisciplinary artist and educator, led a dialogue on community and collaboration to explain how arts-integrated pedagogy can cause healing and tell stories that reinvent representation. He used The Flower of Praxis as the basic model to foster socially engaged art practices with a focus on art education for collaborative outcomes. It starts with preparing the soil by reflecting on personal experiences and moves through the leaves of connecting with others, seeking new understandings, generating critical questions, and critical analysis to grow into the flower of informed action. The process keeps going by reflection influencing action and eventually generates activism and civic engagement.
Making the voices of people more audible by telling their stories through art and narrative can help create a new moral imagination on pressing issues and social injustices. Art can be used to express what human rights mean to a certain group of people. It gives people the right to their own ways and to tell their own stories. The session “Art Stories on Migration” made me realize the potential of art as a tool for advocacy and how it can be used to create a sense of belonging among disoriented populations. It can redefine identity and help answer pressing questions like who belongs to the economy? Who belongs to the healthcare system? Who belongs to the American identity? It can help communities take ownership and build representation in creative ways. The language of visuals activates the aesthetic perceptions of individuals and facilitates a deeper understanding of issues beyond the surface level. Making the stories of refugees and migrants visible through artistic media gives voice to their struggles and highlights their contributions. Responding to the question of suggesting creative activities or solutions in response to the issues of migration, one participant shared their video project in which immigrants re-read the Declaration of Independence to reflect on what those words mean to them, not just historically but also contemporarily. Another delegate suggested using inclusive language and terminology in museums and other public spaces, such as newcomers or people who migrated instead of refugees or immigrants, enslaved people rather than slaves, and First Americans instead of Native Americans. There are also various avenues for advocacy for non-profit organizations and public charities to lobby, advocate, and encourage participation in politics, elections, and other social movements.
One of my favorite sessions at the Congress was the “This is Not a Gun” workshop. It was based on using collective creative activism to highlight the stories of injustices inflicted on the American people at the hands of law and order. Since the year 2000, United States police have “mistaken” at least 38 distinct objects as guns during shootings of a majority of young black American men, none of whom were armed. The participants shaped these mistaken-as-gun objects in clay, giving presence to their form, the human rights violations, and racism prevalent in America today. While carving out these everyday objects like a flashlight, hairbrush, and sandwich, we paid tribute to the victims and had a meaningful conversation around accountability, equity, safety, and social justice in our country. It made us reflect on the racial profiling, police brutality, societal trauma, and the role we can play in addressing these issues by coming together to support our people and our communities.
The takeaway message from the Congress was that art has the potential to make a difference in the social discourse and to create change through public engagement. The For Freedoms Congress built a collective platform for artists around the nation to stimulate public action on pressing national issues. In the words of For Freedoms delegates,
We are a collective of artists, creatives, and cultural institutions. We believe citizenship is defined by participation, not ideology. We are anti-partisan. We use the power of the arts to drive civic engagement, spur public discourse, and inspire people to participate in our democracy.
When I studied abroad in Spain, I had many discussions with my host family comparing the United States and Spain. These conversation topics ranged from politics, social expectations, and the weather. One topic that my host mother was especially interested in is the American health care system in comparison to the Spanish health care system. Spain has a universal health care system while still allowing private insurance whereas the United States has purely private insurance. Neither system is perfect. However, as the Covid-19 crisis continues to progress it is important to understand how the crisis brings to light the many issues with the American health care system.
It is a well-accepted fact that the United States was significantly less prepared for the impact of Covid-19 than most other developed countries. By any metric of pandemic preparedness, America is significantly behind the rest of the developed world in regard to medical supplies. The country has a severe lack of health care infrastructure within the system; even before the international pandemic, the United States had fewer doctors and hospital beds than the majority of other developed countries. The United States lacks in the number of doctors per capita with 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people. The comparable country average is 3.5 per 1,000 people, which shows just how behind America is. The United States also has fewer hospital beds per capita than the majority of other developed countries. To make matters worse, America has some of the highest rates of unnecessary hospitalizations. These are hospitalizations of patients with chronic conditions that have preventable treatment, making it unnecessary for the patient to be hospitalized. With a pandemic such as Covid-19, these unnecessary hospitalizations are diminishing. However, in the beginning of the crisis within the United States, unnecessary hospitalization significantly slowed down the efficiency of the health care system in caring for Covid-19 patients.
An important trend in the preparedness of the United States for Covid-19 is that the United States, with a private health care system, was noticeably less prepared than countries with universal health care systems. It is true that universal health care is not the perfect response to pandemic emergencies like Covid-19. This is shown by Italy, a country who has a federalized national health insurance program. Italy still needed to lock down and for a while had the highest case and death rate than any other country. However, countries like Italy with universal health care were able to begin recovery and slow the spread of the virus much quicker than those without.
As health providers have been working tirelessly to make the necessary changes to care for Covid-19 patients, private health insurance companies have been making very few changes to their processes. One system health care providers have been implementing is telemedicine, a program that allows patients to securely consult with their health care providers virtually therefore easing the burden on the infrastructure of the hospitals. Despite President Trump expanding provisions on telemedicine, private health companies are not required to pay health systems for telemedicine. At the same time, while some insurance companies have waived some Covid-19 related costs, out-of-pocket expenses are not waived resulting in patients needing to pay thousands of dollars. To put these costs in perspective, in 2018 the average amount for a patient covered by private insurance admitted to the hospital for a respiratory condition similar to coronavirus was $20,000. Additionally, as hospitals across the country prepared for an influx of Covid-19 patients, stable patients without the virus were forced to stay in the hospital beds. These patients, who should have been moved to a rehab facility or released, were taking up unnecessary space due to private insurance companies taking multiple days to authorize the next steps for each patient. This has been a known delay in hospitals before the pandemic but now it is a delay that has dire consequences.
Quite possibly the biggest problem in the American health care system is cost. This problem is unique to the United States. Citizens are required to pay higher out-of-pocket costs than those in most other countries, leading Americans to forgo their health care in order to save money. Reports have shown that 33 percent of Americans reported a cost-related barrier to receiving care. This is in comparison to the 7 percent who reported the same in Germany. In 2019, a study showed that 33 percent of Americans also reported postponing medical care due to the cost of that care. It is only in the United States that citizens are risking thousands of dollars in order to seek help in a medical crisis like the one posed by Covid-19. A major concern across the world is that Americans will not seek care for corona symptoms due to the high costs of healthcare in the United States and the high amount of people without insurance in the country. This will spread the disease significantly faster than officials within the country would like to believe.
As the Covid-19 cases rise in number across the country, an unusually high number of African Americans in the United States have been infected with Covid-19. This news, while terrible, is unfortunately not shocking and highlights the many racial inequalities in the health care systems. Coronavirus does not have a racial factor but the structural racism within the American health care system is evident. African Americans are over-represented in many essential workplaces making the population more at-risk than other populations. At the same time, African American populations are less likely to have health insurance coverage leading to a disproportionate number to not receive the necessary help from the health care system. There also exists a racial empathy gap that disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanics within the United States. A racial empathy gap is when medical professionals show less empathy and sympathy to African American patients who are experiencing pain. Human rights workers have been working on mandatory reviews to ensure that health workers are providing an equitable form of treatment for minority patients. However, due to a bias developed and enforced by societal constructs of different races, there exists a higher risk for minority populations within the American health care system.
A few examples of problems within the American health care system that have been exacerbated by Covid-19 are highlighted above. While officials within this system and within the government must work to make necessary changes, it is also important to recognize the lifesaving and tireless health care workers who work within the imperfect system. Covid-19 has shown the country how necessary health care workers are. Nurses, doctors, surgeons, and so many other health care providers have dedicated an immense number of hours to fighting Covid-19. These individuals who are working to save lives within the corrupt health care system are extremely important and we must recognize their hard work while we work to make the system fairer and more equitable.
I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.
Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.
The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.
Freedom of Speech
The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.
Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.
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