Southern Prisons in the U.S.

by Abigail Shumate

Prisons, Historically

A quick Google search of “Alabama prison news now” will lead you to hundreds of articles detailing brutal and entirely unnecessary deaths of Alabama inmates. This is not exclusive to Alabama, it’s a trend you can find amongst most other southern states, including Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana. The UAB Institute for Human Rights already has several fantastic blog posts focusing on the injustices in Alabama prisons. Where this post differentiates from the others is in its focus on southern prisons as a whole, as well as worker’s rights within those prisons.

If you look at our country’s constitution, the 13th amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duty convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” While this amendment, along with the 14th and 15th, expanded the rights of Black Americans, the italicized portion is a perfect display of how the rights of this population are frequently given with conditions. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this does not just affect Black Americans; however, it’s vital to note that this group is disproportionately incarcerated. For example, in the southern United States, Black Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated in state prisons than their white counterparts. In states such as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and North and South Carolina, African Americans make up 38% of the population, but 67% of the incarcerated population.

Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire.
Photo of a beige building with high walls, at the top of the walls are fences with barbed wire. Source: Flickr

 

Within the Walls

Southern prisons and jails are notorious for being some of the worst in the country, with excessive violence and incredibly poor conditions. Southern prisons are grossly understaffed, and this leads to the intense mistreatment of incarcerated individuals. One example of this is this uncurbed time in solitary confinement. In Alabama, individuals can be placed in solitary confinement for “weeks or months at a time”, and because of understaffing they are denied their basic rights, such as showering. The overuse of solitary confinement is not uncommon in southern jails and prisons, and Black people deal with the brunt of this. Incarcerated Black individuals are eight times as likely to be put in solitary confinement and ten times more likely to be held in solitary confinement for excessive periods of time. Solitary confinement has intense physical and mental implications, and it can cause lasting damage to individuals kept alone for extended periods of time. The suicide rate for individuals kept in solitary confinement is needlessly high; in Georgia, for example, there were nine deaths by suicide from just February to April 2022. Similar to the usage of solitary confinement, in South Carolina there have been multiple extended lockdown periods, both before and during the pandemic. These extended lockdowns are the result of staffing shortages, which is a common theme in many southern prisons. One individual in a North Carolina Prison was forced to spend nine years in solitary confinement, and after their release they stated, “I feel like I am losing touch with reality…I feel helpless and abandoned, which makes me angry.”

Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige.
Photo of a prison from within a cell. The walls, bars, and floors are various shades of beige. Source: Flickr

While the prison system exposes people to uncountable horrors, one that has intense financial consequences is the extensive use of unpaid or underpaid labor. Worker’s rights laws in the United States don’t apply to those who are incarcerated—incarcerated workers have no right to form unions either, so they are unable to fight for improved conditions or pay. For most jobs, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and more pay nothing for the labor, and if they do pay, it’s only cents per hour. Legally, incarcerated individuals can earn five cents a day. Turning the focus back to Black Americans, many are forced into work that can easily trigger generational trauma—required to work in fields, picking fruit and cotton (further reading on this can be found in the works of Dr. Joy DeGruy). The low wages combined with the undesirable jobs could incentive states to keep people imprisoned and working, so that they are better able to profit from of the tangible goods that incarcerated individuals are producing. Portions of payment are fed back into the state, or into the companies that are leasing the incarcerated.

Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background.
Photo of a green field with rows of crops. There are large, brown trees in the background. Source: Flickr

Permanent Impacts

The financial detriment that is forced on the imprisoned is not limited to their time in jail. Ex-convicts are treated as second-class citizens, and they often have an incredibly hard time getting jobs after their time in the prison system. At least 27% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed—which is all the more shocking when you learn this rate is higher than the unemployment rate during the Great Depression. As a reminder, the unemployment rate only includes people who are actively looking for work, so this reinforces how challenging it is for previously incarcerated individuals to support themselves after returning to the general public. This difficulty perpetuates a cycle that can be hard to break—without employment, individuals must deal with less stability and surety, and this can result in them returning to prison or jail.

Impoverished individuals are more likely to commit crimes, and, unfortunately, the jobs that are open for previously incarcerated individuals often leave them below the poverty line. This claim is not unaffected by race, as white men are the most likely to be employed full-time after imprisonment, and Black women are least likely to be employed full-time. This relates back up to previous discussion in the post, and incarceration heavily impacts minority races, and it affects them much more after their time in prison.

Conclusion

The Southern incarceration system presents challenges that can seem insurmountable; however, with appropriate attention and legislative power, positive change can be made for both current inmates and those who were previously incarcerated. One effective measure that can be taken is to Ban the Box. The Ban the Box Campaign advocates for the removal of the question “Have you ever been convicted?” from job applications, housing applications, and more. This limits employers’ and loan distributors’ ability to discriminate against individuals when making hiring or other decisions.

There are also major structural changes that need to be made, including increasing pay for prison labor, improving living conditions within prisons, and limiting the time given in solitary confinement. It is important to recognize that incarcerated individuals are people too, and that they deserve the same rights awarded to everyone in the Constitution.

 

The State of Gun Violence in the United States

by Caitlin Cerillo

An image that depicts a person holding a gun. Three angles of the world are shown next to it with a red circle over the United States. This depicts gun violence as a serious issue in the United States.
An image that depicts a person holding a gun. Three angles of the world are shown next to it with a red circle over the United States. This depicts gun violence as a serious issue in the United States. Source: Yahoo Images

Gun violence has always posed a serious threat in the United States. Gun violence can come in many forms, such as homicides, suicides, accidental shootings, mass shootings, and more. It is important to notice that this blog will be about gun violence in the context of the United States. Recent decades have seen a significant spike in acts of gun violence, particularly mass shootings. Although a universally agreed-upon definition of what exactly constitutes a mass shooting does not exist, it generally entails around a minimum of four individuals being shot and/or killed. This does not have to include the perpetrator.

According to the Gun Violence Archive, well over 600 mass shootings occurred in 2023 alone. These shootings result in the lives of innocent individuals being taken, as they can occur in a wide range of places. These include places of worship (like synagogues and churches), concerts, movie theaters, grocery stores, educational institutions, parades, sports events, and more. Just six years ago, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history occurred at a country music festival in Las Vegas. This resulted in the death of 60 people and over 400 injured.

While I have not been directly affected by a mass shooting, I vividly remember hearing about mass shootings in schools since I was in elementary school. The first one was the shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. A few days after the shooting, I remember my fourth-grade teacher speaking to us about the precautions our class would have to take in the event we were to encounter an active shooter in our school. In 2018, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting occurred when I was in 10th grade. I remember being afraid to go to school the next day. Since then, mass shootings have continued to happen each day, where innocent lives have been taken. People should not have to fear going to school, practicing in places of worship, seeing a movie in a theater, attending their favorite artists’ shows, or going to the grocery store. They should not have to plan places to hide in the event of an active shooter. This poses a number of important questions: Why is gun violence, specifically mass shootings, such a huge problem in the United States? What does this mean for United States citizens’ safety? What can be done and has been done to prevent these acts of terror?

The U.S. in Relation to Other Developed Countries

The context of mass shootings in relation to other countries is important to take into consideration when understanding the significance of this issue. In comparison to other developed countries, which are defined as states with a high Human Development Index (HDI), the United States surpasses all of them regarding the occurrence of mass shootings. According to data retrieved by Jason R. Silva from William Paterson University, “the US is the only developed country where mass shootings have happened every single year for the past 20 years.” Silva is an assistant professor in Sociology and Criminal Justice with a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice. He specializes in the area of mass shootings, media and its relation to crime, and violence in educational institutions. To find his data, Silva uses the same general definition of mass shootings mentioned earlier in this article: a minimum of four individuals either shot or injured, not including the shooter.

One of the leading causes of the United States’ high rates of mass shootings compared to other countries could be the relaxed gun laws and policies—or lack thereof. Gun control has become a heated topic of discussion among United States citizens, and the debate regarding its effectiveness has gained traction due to the heightened occurrences of mass shootings. Gun control can come in many forms, like the outright ban of specific gun models like the AR-15 and other assault-style weapons, the implementation of universal background checks, safe storage laws, or stronger requirements for those who want to purchase guns. Gun control does not necessarily mean that all guns will be eradicated from the country, which is a popular assumption among opponents of gun control.

Opponents of gun control and regulation also argue that it would violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the “right to bear arms.” The Second Amendment possesses some relevant historical context, as it was originally intended to grant United States citizens the Constitutional right to form “a well-regulated militia” to protect their communities during the Revolutionary War. However, the context of society has changed. These state militias—while still existing in some states—do not serve the same purpose they did centuries ago. Proponents, on the other hand, assert that the protection of the Second Amendment comes at the cost of protecting people from senseless acts of gun violence.

A group of demonstrators at a March for Our Lives rally advocating for gun reform in June 2022.
A group of demonstrators at a March for Our Lives rally advocating for gun reform in June 2022. Source: Yahoo Images

The Role of Gun Culture

United States gun culture can also be a contributing factor to the nation’s ever-growing rise in mass shootings and gun violence. “Gun culture” refers to the specific attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings that society (or any social group) possesses regarding firearms. The term was first coined by Richard Hofstadter in 1970, who published an article titled “America (United States) as a Gun Culture,” which critiqued the country’s normalization and glorification of guns. This article was far ahead of its time, and I recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the United States’ gun culture.

In the article, Hofstadter talks about the historical context of the United States’ fascination with guns. It began as early as the Revolutionary War when the Pennsylvania rifle was used by British troops. Since then, guns have become integrated into everyday life, from hunting for food to entertainment and sport. Even in modern popular culture, the depiction of guns is typically associated with famous characters like James Bond, John Wick, and “Maverick” from Top Gun. Toy guns are constantly advertised to young children—particularly young boys—as a way to establish their “masculinity.” Additionally, video games glamorizing gun violence have amassed popularity among young people. While these examples are not the sole reason gun violence has taken a toll on the country, it’s important to note their contribution to the overall gun culture in the United States.

Last semester, I took a course on Human Rights taught by Dr. Greenstein, an assistant professor in UAB’s department of Political Science and Public Administration. We had the option to create a project pertaining to any topic regarding human rights. As the issue of gun violence is a direct violation of human rights in a multitude of ways, I chose to create a photo collage depicting the sensationalizing of firearms. I intentionally used one method of finding photos for the collage to further drive the point that gun sensationalism is extremely prevalent. To no surprise, all I had to do was walk into Walmart, where I found a whole section of firearm magazines. Each of the magazines portrayed the firearms in ways that one may find appealing, with eye-catching text, edited graphics, depictions of guns with the United States flag, and more. This shows that the sale of firearms is a lucrative business, willing to draw anyone into purchasing them.

This image depicts a photo collage made from magazine clippings. "GUNS" in big, yellow letters appear along with numerous photos of firearms.
The collage I created for a Human Rights course I took last semester shows the heavy marketing perpetuated by the gun industry. This contributes to the spread of gun culture. Source: Caitlin Cerillo

Through these examples, it can be seen why guns are normalized in our country and how they can influence the number of devastating acts caused by firearms. For this reason, steps should be taken to diminish its weight. An article by the National Library of Medicine that echoes this same sentiment urges pushing a narrative that “frames gun violence as a public health issue that has consequences on the health of the general population.” The article also mentions the importance of public advocacy through movements such as March for Our Lives, which was founded in the wake of the 2018 school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida. March for Our Lives has advocated for the end of gun violence through protests, marches, public demonstrations, and more.

Progress in Tackling Gun Violence 

While gun violence and the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States continue to be a huge problem, positive strides have been made to reduce it. September 2023 saw the country’s first Office of Gun Violence Prevention, established by the Biden administration. In October 2021, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was proposed, and by June 2022, it was signed into law by President Biden. The act aims to prevent gun violence by:

1) Offering mental health resources and guidance to state governments and schools so that mental health services are available in educational settings.

2) Implementing new gun control laws like extended background checks, implementing stricter punishments for the traffic of illegal firearms, etc.

3) Preventing funds from being used improperly and towards the provision of firearms and dangerous weapons.

President Joe Biden announced the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2023, alongside Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris.
President Joe Biden announcing the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2023, alongside Florida Congressman Maxwell Frost and Vice President Kamala Harris. Source: Yahoo Images

Through the establishment of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, the Biden administration hopes to expand upon the progress made towards preventing gun violence, like the passing of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. As of January 25, 2024, the Biden administration has announced new initiatives to promote the safe storage of firearms. Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona have worked together to spread awareness about how important safe storage is, especially because most firearms—approximately 76%—used in school shootings are acquired from the shooter’s home.

Inequalities in America’s Foster Care System

by Caitlin Cerillo

This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system.
This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system. Source: Yahoo Images

Common Misconceptions

Foster care is typically seen as a temporary living arrangement for children who are vulnerable due to circumstances like conflict in the family or home or until they are permanently adopted into a family. However, this is not the case for the hundreds of thousands currently living in the system in the United States. The average amount of time a child stays in the foster care system is just over a year and a half, with about 30% remaining in the system past two years. Many are awaiting being reunited safely with their biological parents or a relative, as their reasoning for being put in the system could have been due to anything from a parent being hospitalized to a death in the family.

On the other hand, many do not have parents or family members that they can be reunited with. Many children in foster care are subject to harsh living conditions, being moved and relocated multiple times during their time in the system, aging out, and the heightened risks of experiencing abuse and malnutrition, just to name a few. Each of these conditions can be extremely harmful to one’s mental and physical well-being. An estimated 50% of young people in the system possess a higher likelihood, 2.5%, of developing mental health disorders compared to their non-involved counterparts. Intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and more play a significant role in the experiences someone in the system may face, which will be discussed in this article.

Overrepresentation in Foster Care

One glaring issue regarding the United States foster care system includes the overrepresentation of children of color. Specifically, Black children are among one of the most overrepresented racial groups in the American foster care system. This poses a problem because Black children represent 23% of the foster care population yet only makeup 14% of the general population in regard to children, according to KIDS Count.

This can be attributed to the social and economic disparities that Black families face. Intersections between race and socioeconomic status contribute to the hardships many Black Americans face, such as barriers created by systemic racism and economic inequality that put them on unequal footing. Systemic racism—also referred to as institutionalized racism—means that practices and behaviors that uphold white supremacy are instilled in all aspects of society. Just to name a few, systemic racism can appear in healthcare, educational, criminal justice, and economic systems. Systemic racism has caused Black Americans to face inequalities when it comes to accessing quality education, equal job opportunities, and housing, which all play a role in overrepresentation in the foster care system. Due to these circumstances, Black children may be more likely to be placed into foster care.

Social workers are professionals whose role is to promote social welfare, advocate for disadvantaged populations, and aid people in overcoming the challenges they are going through. Foster care social workers deal with ensuring the well-being of individuals in foster care by conducting home visits, monitoring the health, security, and academic performance of the child, and consulting with other professionals the child may interact with, such as counselors, teachers, and medical professionals.

Implicit biases are preconceived notions that one can have towards a specific group, which affects the ways in which they interact and view that group. Unfortunately, implicit biases that can be held by social workers have also been attributed to the overrepresentation of Black children. These biases can have an influence on how the social worker may handle cases and lead to disproportionate numbers of Black families being investigated and, as a result, becoming involved in the foster care system.

So, what can be done to correct the implicit biases that may exist among foster care social workers? Implementing diversity within the hiring process can ensure an inclusive environment, which can challenge potential implicit biases. Similarly, policies that ensure inclusivity can foster a proactive decision-making process when dealing with biases. Implicit bias training could also be helpful and open the conversation to important topics like the importance of cultural competence, the impact of stereotypes and microaggressions, intersectionality, and ways to recognize and address implicit biases.

Overcrowding in the System

This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words "I've been in foster care for 1015 days..."
This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words “I’ve been in foster care for 1015 days…” Many children will stay in the system for over two years while awaiting permanent adoption. Source: Yahoo Images

While the number of children in the system has decreased within the last two decades, there are still hundreds of thousands of children who will likely age out. As a foster care child gets older, their likelihood of being adopted into a family decreases. Younger children are more desired among prospective families, with children who are nine or older being much less likely to be adopted, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

An effect of overcrowding is aging out, which occurs when a foster care child turns 18 when they are “emancipated” or no longer granted the protections and resources given to them by the system. Over 23,000 young people age out annually in the United States, which can cause them to be homeless, less likely to have access to educational resources, and often have problems with the transition to adulthood. Additionally, they may become more predisposed to a higher risk of substance abuse and teen pregnancy

This infographic shows various statistics pertaining the circumstances of young people who age out of the foster care system.
Statistics on young people who age out in the foster care system, provided by National Foster Youth Institute. Source: Yahoo Images

Addressing the problem of overcrowding requires several actions: policy changes and reform, improvements in the system as a whole, and public awareness and advocacy. Allocating appropriate funds to the child welfare and foster care system can ensure equal access to mental health services, supply improved technological systems to keep accurate and efficient data, and offer support services for foster parents. Each of these can benefit all entities involved. Public awareness of the system’s overcrowding issue can help recruit more prospective foster families and individuals seeking to permanently adopt a child.

The Connection Between Abortion Bans and the Foster Care System

In June 2022, Americans saw an overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision passed in 1973, which essentially granted the right to abortion across the country. The 2022 decision to strike down Roe v. Wade has had damaging effects on the already overcrowded foster care system. People who are pro-life and against the right to abortion will commonly use foster care as a proposed alternative to the abortion procedure. However, abortion restrictions have been found to cause a significant increase in the number of children who are put into the system, according to an analysis conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers. This results in more children having less of a chance of being adopted into permanent families and increases the number of people who will most likely age out in the system.

 

Antisemitism: From the Bubonic Plague to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The prevalence of Antisemitism in the modern world is frequently discounted. When someone refers to antisemitism, it is common for your first thought to be about the Holocaust. While Holocaust education remains important, we should also remain aware of the more current acts of antisemitism. Antisemitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. This can be manifested in many ways, both rhetorical and physical. Awareness is the first step to action, and if you discount the claims and stories of those being affected by antisemitism, you can’t contribute to the solution, and are, frequently, contributing instead to the problem.

 

It is worth noting that this post is based on a US context, as it would be difficult to capture the international nuances of antisemitism in one blog post.

 

Many people carrying signs stating “Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism.” Source: Yahoo Images
Many people carrying signs stating “Zero Tolerance For Antisemitism.” Source: Yahoo Images

 

 

 

History of Antisemitism

            Antisemitism stems back to before the Middle Ages. During the 14th century, people commonly accused Jewish people of causing the Bubonic Plague. Claims revolved around the (false) idea that Jewish people were poisoning drinking wells to spread the disease farther and faster. Centuries later, after World War I, it was common for German military leaders to perpetuate the idea that Jewish people had betrayed the country and that they were the reason that Germany lost the war. This, along with people’s need to focus on one group to blame, allowed Hitler and his supporters to rise through the ranks of German politics by claiming that the way to make the country strong again was to exterminate the Jewish people residing within the borders. These brutal opinions and stories all string together, resulting in major antisemitic events, such as the Holocaust.

 

Image of an open area in the United States Holocaust Museum. The walls are made of red brick and the ceiling is an open window. Source: Yahoo Images.
Image of an open area in the United States Holocaust Museum. The walls are made of red brick and the ceiling is an open window. Source: Yahoo Images.

 

Antisemitism Today

The COVID-19 pandemic left millions dead in its wake; deaths brought on both by the illness as well as the societal changes that it caused. Jewish people were not blamed for the pandemic like they were in the 14th century, but a rise in antisemitism online made it more accessible to the average person. As opposed to the very beginning of the 21st century, now people can connect with those who share their opinions—no matter how hateful those opinions may be. This makes it much easier for people to validate their beliefs, instead of being contradicted by those who won’t stand for hates towards Jewish people, they nestle away in communities that share their hateful sentiments.

Social media does not just provide opportunities for individuals to group together and relate, it allows social media companies to potentially profit from hate-based searches. YouTube is the greatest culprit of this issue, as it runs ads directly before videos championing white supremacist and antisemitic groups. YouTube also generates channels for musical artists or other forms of media with “significant presence.” These generated channels have included heavy metal artists with a history of antisemitism and white supremacy, as well as video games with similar ideologies.

The rise of antisemitism online correlates with the increase of physical attacks against Jewish people. Data was collected by the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry (CSCEJ), and this tells us that in New York alone, there were 261 anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2022, 47 more than in 2021. These numerical trends follow in other major cities in the United States, with an increase in hate crimes in Los Angeles and Chicago. Nationwide, harassment towards Jewish people increased by 29% and vandalism by 51%. One striking statistic is that there were 91 bomb threats towards Jewish institutions. This is the largest number since 2017, and the CSCEJ makes it clear that there is no sign of these attacks abating any time soon.

 

Someone to Blame

All throughout time, people have looked for a person or a group to scapegoat. When troubles arise, it is easy to take the blame from yourself and put it onto a group you can look disdainfully on. Not only that, but people who feel like they are at the bottom of society’s pyramid are eager to look for those who are seen as worse off than them. In the case of antisemitism, there is an interesting contradiction of stereotypes. A more traditional take on hatred views Jewish people through the lens of white supremacy, for example, the Charlottesville riots in 2017. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some antisemitism perceives Jewish people as a privileged group, both in ethnicity and in class. This view of antisemitism views Jewish people are “part of the establishment”, and this stems from economic stereotypes about Jewish people controlling financial markets.

This duality contributes to the persecution of Jewish people from all directions.

 

 

Image of a crowd of Caucasian men protesting. They are carrying flaming torches, and it appears that they are shouting something. Source: Yahoo Images.
Image of a crowd of Caucasian men protesting. They are carrying flaming torches, and it appears that they are shouting something. Source: Yahoo Images.

 

 

Creating Change

To eradicate antisemitism, there are things that must be done on both small and large scales. While you likely don’t have direct access to government policy and law enforcement, there are things that you can do as an everyday citizen to help Jewish communities. The first thing you can do is be aware of the hate that happens online. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has a great resource that helps you report antisemitism in the most effective way. Reporting actions you see in person is just as important as reporting online hate. Report antisemitism directly to the ADL as well as your local law enforcement to prevent antisemitic harassment or to help those who have been harassed receive justice. In a more policy-oriented approach, you can sign petitions that will encourage Congress to enact laws that will protect Jewish communities.

To those who do have access to a greater platform, mandates for public reports are imperative. Public reporting on hate, violence, and other antisemitic issues would bring awareness to the issues so often not brought to justice due to either the stigma of reporting or the fear that said reports will not be handled appropriately. Large-scale changes in education would also benefit Jewish communities in the United States. Educational standards need to include a Holocaust education curriculum, as well as Anti-Bias education.

It is vital that we empower ourselves and our communities to directly fight against antisemitism. And education is the first critical step. Listen to Jewish voices in your community so you know best how to create active change. Unlearn the prevalent stereotypes against Jewish people that have been surrounding you since before your grandparents were born, and continue working every day to beat the bias that has been instilled in you.

 

France’s New Ban on The Abaya in Public Schools

by Caileigh Moose

Since the 1960s, the demographics of immigrants entering France have shifted. In 1968, the largest immigrant groups included Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese, and were primarily Christian in faith. Today, the majority of these groups come from North African nations like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where Islam is the predominant religion. Thus, with these immigration shifts, in recent years, Islam has become the second largest faith in France, accounting for 10 percent of the French population, second to Christianity, which rests at almost 30% percent.

This diversification of society has unleashed reactive backlash, with many on the French right driving up what many have called anti-Islam and Islamophobic policies. Recent examples include the 2004 French law forbidding “conspicuous” religious symbols in France and the 2021 French separatism law, which extended the “neutrality principle” (under which civil servants are, among other things, prevented from wearing religious symbols like hijabs) to all private contractors of public services. One political science researcher with the National Centre of Scientific Research has deemed current French president Emmanuel Macron’s first term “gloomy” for French Muslim citizens, referring to the ever-darkening outlook for religious protections that has colored the tone of French policy during Macron’s time in office.

All these fears have culminated in the newest piece of legislation targeting France’s growing Muslim population, so that this year, as French schools started back earlier this September, their female students faced a new, highly controversial restriction: a ban on the abaya.

 

Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones.Source: Yahoo Images
Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The abaya, which is sometimes simply referred to as the aba, is most commonly known as a loose, typically black, floor-length dress worn primarily by Muslim women. The word itself, translated from Arabic, means simply “dress.” The abaya is mainly popular in the Middle Eastern region of the world, in nations like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, where the garment’s prevalence can be attributed to its alignment with cultural and religious preferences towards modesty within the area.

Its ban was justified by French Education Minister Gabriel Attal through the French concept of “laïcité.” This term essentially defines the ardent secularism that France has in relation to its public institutions, arguably much stricter than an average American’s idea of what the separation of church and state looks like. For example, this idea of laïcité has previously led to the ban of all overtly religious symbols within French public schools, including large Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and Islamic hijabs. Now, it is being used to target the abaya. French Education Minister Gabriel Attal attempted to explain the decision through the reasoning that “when put in the framework of a school, it is very clear: you enter a classroom, and you must not be able to identify the religious identity of students just by looking at them.”

Those who celebrate the law are quick to draw this religious connection between the abaya and Islam. However, it is important here to recognize that the abaya is not itself directly connected to the religion of Islam but to select Muslim cultures. Despite what the French Ministry of Education claims about how wearers of the abaya are “immediately recognizable as belonging to the Muslim religion” and, as such, violate the standards for secularism within the French educational system, opponents of the ban have protested that the abaya has no direct religious affiliation. Its wearing is not mandated by any Islamic text, nor is it compulsory dress for the religion; it merely fulfills the religion’s requirements regarding modesty.

 

A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab.Source: Yahoo Images
A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab. Source: Yahoo Images

 

In 2018, a Saudi senior religious scholar of Islam drew mixed reactions when he stated that the abaya shouldn’t be expected or necessary dress for Muslim women, citing the statistic that over ninety percent of practicing Muslim women do not, in fact, wear the abaya. Instead, most women will simply choose to wear loose-fitting dresses, ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and anything else that meets the modest standards of their religion, all of which are typical in Western culture and all of which are completely acceptable to wear inside a French school. This may lead some to ask the question: Is this ban truly in keeping with France’s educational goals of secularism, or does it simply originate from a xenophobic attitude surrounding Muslim culture and the modest standards they practice?

Many members of France’s Left would argue the latter. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a 2022 French presidential candidate, accused the ban of initiating an “absurd, entirely artificial religious war about a woman’s dress,” and Clémentine Autain, one of La France Insoumise’s MPs, called it “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims.” The ADM (Action Droits des Musulmans), a group that advocates for the rights of Muslims within France, expressed concerns about the risks of ethnic profiling in schools and how the ban might create a target on the backs of Muslim children, especially since the ban includes no clear legal definition of what an abaya is. It will now be up to the school officials and administration to determine what constitutes an abaya and what does not, further fueling speculation that the ban is discriminatory in nature and will only encourage one-sided racial and ethnic stereotyping based on “the supposed origin, last name or skin color” rather than what they wore.

However, despite bringing legal challenges and these concerns over its implementation, France’s highest administrative court, The Council of State, upheld the law in early September, finding that the abaya “was part of a process of religious affirmation” based on the comments from student discussions. France’s new school year has already seen some resistance to the new legislation, with almost 70 Muslim girls sent home on the first day of school for refusing to change their attire in accordance with the new dress code. Whether it serves to reinforce or deteriorate the rights of all French students, time will tell.

If you would like to learn more about the potential social justice impact of this new legislation and what resistance the ban will see in the future, you can visit ADM’s website.

 

International Day of Science and Peace

by Wajiha Mekki 

November 10 is the International Day of Science and Peace (IDSP), also known as the World Science Day for Peace and Development. The United Nations host this international event.

History of IDSP

Established in 1986, this historical day was initially developed to commemorate the birth of Marie Curie, a notable physicist and humanitarian. Curie was known for her innovative work within radioactivity, contributing to the discovery of radium and polonium. By 1999, its purpose changed to reflect the global needs of the scientific and humanitarian community, utilizing the day to affirm the global commitment to attaining the goals of the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge. The day and annual summit unite governmental, intervention mental, and non-governmental organizations meaningfully to promote international solidarity for shared sciences between countries and renew the global commitment to use science to benefit communities that need it most. 

The overall goal of IDSP is to help achieve the UN 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, creating a plan for prosperity for people and the planet. 

 

ISDP 2023

The 2023 theme for IDSP will be “Bridging the Gap: Science, Peace, and Human Rights.” This emphasizes the interconnectedness between science and peace, having a role in advancing human rights. Science is a valuable tool for making technological advancements, but it is also helpful in helping address social issues, reducing conflicts, and sustainably promoting human rights.

 

Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Photo of space shuttle near body of water.
Source: Flickr

Science and Human Rights

Science is frequently associated with helping improve medical interventions, solving coding bugs, and completing mathematical equations. However, contrary to popular belief, science is essential to human rights. Firstly, science has a valuable role in promoting sustainable development. Utilizing scientific methods, data can be collected to quantify the progress toward fulfilling the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ranging from climate change to poverty to infant mortality, scientific data collection and analysis methods are needed to efficiently and effectively respond to global issues. Research and innovation also contribute to the mobilization of resources to historically underserved communities, allowing them to gain access to necessities. 

Within innovation, shared desires and interests help unite countries with singular goals. Scientific diplomacy is valuable in bringing countries to the table of collaboration. This deepens connections between countries as it relates to trade and commercial interests and helps foster peaceful relationships, prioritizing human rights.

With the appropriate distribution of resources, scientific advancements help improve the quality of life for communities internationally. Applying what is traditionally “scientific” to communities gives them a chance to live a better quality of life in a cleaner environment.

It is available to educate the public about the vital role of science and encourage innovation to solve global challenges.

How Countries Can Get Involved

Beyond participating in IDSP, countries can have a role in unifying science and human rights through many different avenues. One route is to protect and invest in scientific diplomacy. By allocating funding to scientific innovation and multilateral collaborations, governments can ensure that they can focus on shared goals with their international counterparts, working collaboratively to promote peace and cooperation. Another route is developing policies that protect innovation while developing guardrails for its usage, ensuring it is mobilized to those who need it most. States have a responsibility to be an advocate and protectors of their citizens, and by working to ensure that scientific diplomacy is used for the betterment of people abroad, they can elicit change in a meaningful way.

 

INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog
INTL and MAST Students Visit US Department of State Source: GU Blog

How Citizens Can Get Involved

Citizens have a responsibility to promote peace with science, as well. The role of a community member is to primarily use one’s voice to advocate for innovation and peace; by doing so and mobilizing one’s own story, organizations are held accountable for their actions. From governmental entities, non-profit organizations, and grassroots movements, stakeholders are supported by the citizenry. It is also important to have open conversations  to explore further the nuanced introspection of science, peace, and human rights, continuing to promote awareness and understanding.

 

Food Insecurity: Ecuador and the Global Poor

Since 2014 and the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has been steadily rising, with hundreds of millions being threatened by malnutrition and hunger. In 2020, above 30% of the global population was found to be moderately or severely food insecure. Food insecurity affects different populations in distinct ways, and in order to understand this more clearly, we examine Ecuador. Here, historical contexts have unique influences on food insecurity, but also, this nation exemplifies the reality that low-income nations face when combatting hunger. 

Facts and figures of food insecurity in Ecuador 

Hunger is an issue that is widespread globally and within Latin America and the Caribbean. In fact, researchers Akram Hernández-Vásquez, Fabriccio J. Visconti-Lopez, and Rodrigo Vargas-Fernández found that the region has the second-highest figures for food insecurity globally. The region is also predicted to be the fastest-growing in food insecurity rates. 

Ecuador is just one example of why food insecurity manifests and in which populations. The country is ranked second in the region for chronic child malnutrition: 23% of children under five and 27% of children lack access to proper nutrition. 

According to the Global Food Banking Network, an international non-profit focused on alleviating hunger, 900,000 tons of food are wasted or lost yearly in Ecuador. This is an alarming statistic considering that 33% of the population experienced food insecurity between 2018 and 2020 一 a threefold increase since 2014-2016. 

Economic conditions have only been heightened in the pandemic, leading to widespread protests across the nation by indigenous people demanding equitable access to education, healthcare, and jobs. In sum, indigenous people cannot afford to get by, exacerbating existing food insecurity.

A man holding a protest sign with a few people to the left.
Figure 1: Source: Flickr, Motoperu; Protesters holding a sign that says “No more injustice, eliminate lifetime presidential salaries,” Cuenca, Ecuador.

Maria Isabel Humagingan, a 42-year-old Indigenous Quichua from Sumbawa in Cotopaxi province described why she was protesting to Aljazeera reporter Kimberley Brown

“For fertilizer, for example, it used to be worth $15 or up to $20, now it costs up to $50 or $40. Sometimes we lost everything [the whole crop]. So we no longer harvest anything.”

During a time when global inflation is rising, it is the poorest people who are at the most risk. Even those who used to live on subsistence farming are vulnerable. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) found that Ecuador’s food insecurity had risen from 20.7% to 36.8% in one year during the pandemic, and it is apparent that indigenous peoples are the most at risk during this time. 

This is not to mention the fact that during a time when global hunger is growing, there is a disproportionate impact on women. Ultimately, food insecurity, while complex and layered, is a mirror of the prejudices and inequalities of society. In order to better understand why and who is impacted, we first need to understand two components: is food available (production and imports), is the food adequate (nutritious), and is food accessible (affordability)? 

Factors behind food insecurity in Ecuador and beyond 

Environmental Racism 

Ecuador has a long history of environmental racism, and for the sake of brevity, we will be focusing on the practices of Texaco/Chevron and its impact on soil fertility. 

Victoria Peña-Parr defines environmental racism as,

“minority group neighborhoods—populated primarily by people of color and members of low-socioeconomic backgrounds—… burdened with disproportionate numbers of hazards including toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution and foul odors that lower the quality of life.”

From 1964 to 1990, Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) drilled oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater were dumped in water sources and unlined open pits left to seep into the soil and devastate clean water sources for people and agriculture. Additionally, 17 million gallons of crude oil were spilled in the disaster now known as “Amazon Chernobyl.” Ecuadorians, a good majority of which were indigenous peoples displaced from their land due to environmental destruction, levied a suit against Chevron which was won in February 2011. 

Indigenous people standing behind and looking at an open and unlined oil pit.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; Indigenous people overlooking one of 900 unlined, open oil pits from Chevron.

During the judicial process, 916 unlined and abandoned pits of crude oil were found. The human rights implications of this historic case and horrifying disregard for human and environmental safety are lengthy, in order to learn more read this blog by Kala Bhattar

With this brief background in mind, it is clear to see how this would impact agricultural production, particularly in rural areas where indigenous persons live. Moreover, Afro-Ecuadorians, while only making up 7.2% of the population, are 40% of those living in poverty in the entire country. Most Afro-Ecuadorians live in the province of Esmeraldas, one of the poorest in the country, where most people live off agriculture and “85% of people live below the poverty line.”

UN experts have found that this population is the most vulnerable to environmental racism, suffering from systematic contamination of water supplies and intimidation. 

As people suffer through the impacts of a ravaged environment, they must continue to rely on subsistence farming without aid. When crops fail to provide enough economically and for individual families, many go without in this impoverished region. 

Climate Change

Global warming is leading to changes in weather patterns that have a serious impact on agricultural production 一, particularly in low-income countries that rely on seasonal rains, temperature, and other factors. 

Climate change has also led to more severe and deadly disruptions, from hurricanes and earthquakes to monsoons, flooding, and mudslides. Ecuador has been suffering from these climate changes, despite only producing 2.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions per capita (the US comparatively emitted 5,222 million tons in 2020). 

Specifically, Ecuador has suffered from a lack of water, specifically irrigation water, landslides, droughts, and heavy rains. The last two aforementioned climate impacts are particularly salient issues as it has impacted seed development by not allowing them to germinate or produce

Image of a map with areas ranging from blue to deep red to indicate areas under threat by climate change. Latin America, Sub-saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia are the most threatened.
Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images, Mannion, et al. in Trends in Ecology & Evolution; Worldmap where biodiversity is threatened the most by climate change.

In all, the consequences of climate change are having disproportionate effects on low-income states globally in spite of the that they have historically contributed very little to greenhouse emissions. The worst impacts are on nations surrounding the equator and countries with relatively hot climates 一 both of which tend to be low-income countries. 

Ukraine War

Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, food prices have been rising. Ukraine is a leading wheat producer globally. It is the seventh-largest producer of wheat, supplies 16% of the world’s corn, and 40% of the world’s sunflower oil. In the summer of 2022, 22 million tons of grain were stranded in Ukrainian ports, causing mostly low-income countries to feel the growing threat of food insecurity. 

Additionally, Ukraine supplied 40% of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) wheat supply. The immediate impact of this is clear in the 45% increase in wheat prices in Africa alone, while any country that receives aid from WFP (which Ecuador has since 1964) is threatened directly by the situation. 

As food prices continue to soar, the price of food sold within lower-income nations remains the same, creating a gap between cost and production. The conflict has also led to increases in the price of fuel and fertilizer, leading to food insecurity in many countries beyond just Ecuador. The war in Ukraine has disrupted global food supply chains and led to the largest global food crisis since WWII

Hunger and the human right to food 

There has long been a precedent in the international human rights framework for the right to food, beginning with the first declaration (unanimously accepted) in 1948. In Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the right to an adequate standard of living is guaranteed to everyone with the express mention of food. Fast forward 20 years later, and once more, Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) reiterates (almost identically) the right to food. 

The ICESCR actually expounds further on a state’s responsibility to free everyone from hunger, specifically outlining that either individually or through international cooperation specific programs should be developed to address food insecurity and hunger. Moreover, the covenant addresses that food-importing and food-exporting countries should both be reviewed for problems that would impact the equitable distribution of food globally. Lastly, agrarian systems should be reformed to address nutrition and achieve maximum utilization and efficient use of agricultural resources.

 Image of a bowl with the words “Zero Hunger” from the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images, United Nations; Logo of the second Sustainable Development Goal to end hunger.

In 1999, the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights convened to review the progress to end hunger. General Comment 12 reiterated the obligation of states to fulfill the aforementioned responsibilities. Most crucially, however, was the specific mention that states must immediately address issues of discrimination that plague food insecurity. In the case of Ecuador, it is clear that this remains a salient issue. 

Most recently, in 2015, during a historic UN summit, world leaders adopted 17 objectives to be achieved by 2030. Known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the second objective is to create a “Zero Hunger” world by 2030. 

Conclusion: Fighting Food Insecurity 

According to the World Food Program, 60% of the world’s hungry live in areas afflicted by conflict. There is no simple way to end a conflict, but it is crucial that all states remember their commitments to the SDGs and ICESCR. This means that states need to step in to provide nutritious food when a home state will not or cannot. Just like Red Cross, journalists, and other humanitarian organizations are protected by international humanitarian law from being targeted in conflict, so too should persons ensuring food access to people. Moreover, countries should address the factors that contribute to food insecurity such as environmental racism and climate change. 

There is no one solution for this issue since there is no single cause. However, by refusing to accept these conditions, learning more about the causes and conditions of food insecurity, and demanding more, we can begin to bring about a world that truly is free from hunger.

  • Food Insecurity in Birmingham, AL by Mary Bailey
  • America: The Land of the Hungry by Kala Bhattar 
  • The Right to Food: A Government Responsibility by Zee Islam 
  • Donate to the World Food Program
  • Learn more and get directly involved with SDGs 
  • Follow @uab_ihr for Speaker events, blogs, and to learn more about supporting human rights locally and globally

 

A Short Book List of Contemporary Black Authors

*Cover Image Photo credits to Sharon Drummond*

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

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

N.K. Jemisin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibram X. Kendi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saeed Jones

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Dennis-Benn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Jones, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

Angie Thomas

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

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

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

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

Michelle Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derrick Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Rosa

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

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

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

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

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

Isabel Wilkerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Air As a Human Right

An image of air pollution coming from industrial usage
Source: Yahoo Images;

Human rights are dependent on the environment, and we can address many environmental rights issues to bring about a better world for all those who live on this green and blue planet that we call home. In this sense, environmental rights ARE human rights, and taking a human rights approach to address these environmental rights can close the gaps of inequality between the Global North and the Global South countries. I am dedicating a series to deep dive into this human rights approach to environmental rights. We began this series by focusing on how issues around food and water can be addressed with a human rights approach. This blog will focus on air, another essential need for all living things, and how issues surrounding access to clean water can be addressed with a human rights approach.

The Right to Clean Air and the Consequences of Air Pollution

Like food and water, the air is another resource that humans and other creatures cannot live without. In fact, the Earth’s atmosphere, along with the water found here, is a special phenomenon that enables the Earth to support life. The atmosphere acts as a barrier between the organisms on Earth and the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, that when consumed in large quantities, can lead to cancer and death. Even the water that exists on Earth depends on the atmospheric pressures, and the layers of the atmosphere allow for warmth to heat up our planet so that life can exist comfortably. While the atmosphere is life-giving, any minute changes to the atmosphere can have drastic impacts on all living creatures on Earth, including humans.

Layers of the Atmosphere 

An image depicting the layers of the atmosphere, along with its temperatures and the objects and phenomenon that are present in those layers.
Source: Yahoo Images

There are many layers of our atmosphere, which are characterized based on their atmospheric temperatures. The four main layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere, in order. Further out is the exosphere, and the outermost layer is the magnetosphere. Understanding the different layers of our atmosphere, and the crucial roles they play to protect life on Earth can help us better appreciate the planet on which we live. The Troposphere is the layer closest to the surface, in which we exist. This is the layer that produces much of our weather patterns and contains 75% of all the atmosphere’s air. The temperatures in this layer grow colder the farther they are from the Earth’s surface, with temperatures varying based on the weather patterns.

The Stratosphere is the next layer, which exists above the troposphere, is 22 miles long and contains the most important element of our atmosphere, the Ozone Layer. The Ozone Layer is the layer within the stratosphere that absorbs the sun’s heat and radiation, filtering the harmful rays to make them safe for consumption by all living beings. In this layer, the air is colder closer to the troposphere, and the air is warmer as it increases in height, a consequence of the sun’s UV rays and their warming effect. In the 1980s, scientists realized that some of the chemicals we were using in refrigerators and in hair sprays (chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs), were causing the Ozone Layer to develop a large opening over Antarctica, exposing all the Earth’s organisms to the harmful UV rays of the sun. There was a global effort to end the use of these chemicals, and the Earth’s Ozone Layer is in the process of healing today. This healing process will take years, as a new UN study predicts that it will take another 43 years for the Ozone Hole to fully heal.

Next is the Mesosphere, which is where all the gases exist in a mixture rather than in specific layers. About 22 miles long, this layer is where the meteors and other objects from space burn up, a phenomenon we are familiar with as “shooting stars.” Above the mesosphere is the thermosphere, which captures much of the X-ray radiation from the sun, and the temperatures in this layer rise with height. This layer exists alongside the ionosphere, where the electrons from the layer’s atoms and molecules are transformed into positive charges due to the sun’s solar radiation. This layer is about 319 miles long, with temperatures reaching as high as 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The thermosphere is the layer in which the International Space Station is positioned, and the ionosphere allows radio waves to be reflected and absorbed, allowing us to make use of those radio waves to broadcast around the world.

Beyond the thermosphere is the exosphere, a layer that is 6,200 miles long, and considered to be the Earth’s outermost layer. Home to many gases such as hydrogen and helium, the exosphere does not have any oxygen to breathe. This is the layer that contains the satellites which enable us to use tools like GPS, weather monitoring systems, and other communication networks. As with all the other planets in our solar system, Earth has an outer shell, called the magnetosphere that is responsible for creating a magnetic field around the planet that interacts with the Earth’s iron core and is responsible for protecting our planet from solar flares, cosmic rays, and the impacts of solar winds. Scientists at NASA who study the magnetosphere’s complexity propose that Earth has the strongest magnetosphere than any of the other planets in our solar system and that this magnetic field is largely responsible for making the Earth habitable.

Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and global warming

An infographic explaining the treehouse effect
Source: Yahoo Images

There are many gases that are present in our atmosphere. These gases include Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Nitrogen, and others. While these are gases that are naturally present in the atmosphere, an excessive amount of these gases can cause a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. The sun warms up the Earth’s surface during the day, and as the sun goes down and cools the Earth’s surface, this heat is released back into the atmosphere. Yet, the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere trap some of that heat in the atmosphere. This function is actually required for the possibility of life to be sustainable on Earth. Without this effect, the Earth would drop to unbearable temperatures as soon as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, when more and more of these gases are present in the atmosphere, it traps more and more heat on the Earth’s surface. This is exacerbated by the activities of humans, especially following the Industrial Revolution, as the amount of these greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere is increasing by the year.

Sources of Air Pollution and Their Health Impacts

An infographic depicting the various sources of air pollution, both anthropogenic and natural sources
Source: Yahoo Images

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) Source

There are many human activities that cause air pollution, trapping greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. While I will not be able to list them all here, I have comprised a list that includes a few anthropogenic activities that cause air pollution, as well as a few natural occurrences that add to this issue. Some human activities that cause air pollution include various things like transportation, residential use, waste management, and more. Many industries add to the air pollution through the complex processes they use when converting raw materials into usable items to be sold. These processes not only release chemicals from the materials used but also release various gases from the burning of fossil fuels that is converted into energy and heat to be used during these processes. Various forms of transportation can also cause air pollution, from driving gas cars to flying jets. We regularly use large trucks to transport our goods across states, use large cargo ships to transport goods across oceans, and use airplanes to transport goods and people across the globe. All these vehicles release greenhouse gases, including its biggest polluter, Carbon dioxide (CO2), and Nitrogen oxide (NOx), both of which can be harmful to humans in large quantities. In fact, Nitrogen Oxides can cause respiratory issues, and damage the lungs.

Another source of air pollution comes from our personal use and commercial uses. For one, our personal use of motor vehicles adds to this issue, as well as our burning of coal, wood, or other sources of energy conversion that provide us with heat. We also release chemicals into the air with the cleaning products we use, the hair sprays and perfumes we use, and even in the cigarettes that are smoked by many people. In fact, smoking tobacco releases ten times more emissions than what comes out of a diesel engine. Smoking tobacco releases what is known as Particulate Matter (PM), which is made up of minuscule amounts of dust, smoke, soot, or other particles in the air, and is one of the most harmful pollutants to humans. Their microscopic size allows them easy access to our lungs, and sometimes even into our bloodstreams, flaring up respiratory issues, and eye irritation, and could even lead to lung cancer.

An image that shows the toxic air pollution coming from near a landfill, burning electronic waste.
Source: Yahoo Images

Not surprisingly, another source of air pollution comes from our waste management practices, whether it be storing waste in landfills, or waste incineration to convert the trash into energy. Many of us simply use trash pick-up services without thinking too deeply about what happens to the trash we throw away. Much of our trash ends up in landfills, which are most likely to be located in impoverished areas, and near communities of color. These landfills are dumping sites for waste products, and although there are regulations and standards of waste disposal, much of the waste that ends up in landfills contain both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. These landfills not only produce stringent odors but also release greenhouse gases from these piles. Some of the waste that does not end up in landfills will be sent to be incinerated and converted into energy.

While this is better than storing waste in landfills, (as it is being recycled to be used as energy), the process of incinerating the trash releases further toxins and pollutants into the air, adding to the problem, even as it provides a solution. The United States parcels much of its trash to China to be incinerated there, and this is an example of environmental racism. This transaction of waste generated by the exceeding consumer culture in America was being transferred to China to deal with the consequences of eliminating the waste for us. We do not think about these instances, because our problems are shipped away across the oceans for others, who are less fortunate, to deal with it. Only recently has China stopped buying our waste, and as a result, this has caused a global issue of waste disposal.

Natural Sources

There are also many natural sources of air pollution, such as dust, forest fires, volcanoes, and more. I include agriculture in the natural sources even though it is a mixture of both anthropogenic and natural sources of air pollution. Cows, pigs, and other livestock release greenhouse gases, such as CO2, Methane, and Ammonia, through their bodily wastes. Heavy machinery, such as tractors and other farm equipment emit greenhouse gases from their exhausts. The use of pesticides and herbicides further releases toxic chemicals into the air.

An image of the air pollution coming from a volcanic eruption
Source: Yahoo images

Similarly, other natural sources of air pollution include natural disasters, such as volcanoes, forest fires, and tornadoes. When volcanoes erupt, they endanger the surrounding communities of living organisms with the hot-flowing magma. They also release toxins into the air, including volcanic smog and oxides that can cause acid rain. Forest fires also release pollutants into the air. When

You would not think that flooding impacts air quality, but this natural disaster also pollutes the air. Flooding unearths many creatures buried deep in the soil. Along with this, however, flooding causes molding of furniture, buildings, and homes. Many types of molds are harmful to humans, as they can cause respiratory issues such as asthma. These respiratory illnesses due to this natural disaster, as well as all the other anthropogenic sources of air pollution, have been amplified due to the recent pandemic. Coronavirus, a respiratory illness, has exacerbated the impacts of these conditions.

On the other end, severe droughts also can lead to an increase in air pollution. Droughts can lead to soil erosion, which can kick up dust into the surrounding air, increasing the PM amounts in the air. Droughts also dry up surrounding lakes and waterways on which dams are built to sustain the energy needs of local communities nearby. Without the functioning dams, people will likely burn more wood, coal, and charcoal for energy use, further adding to the air pollution. This air pollution can even impact the formation of clouds, and as a result, limit the precipitation coming from the clouds, leading to more droughts. This is a vicious cycle of drier and hotter weather leading to more of the same.

Apart from their cyclical nature, droughts can also lead to forest fires. When temperatures are hot and the land is very dry, this is the perfect environment for wildfires to thrive in. Trees catch on fire due to the surrounding conditions, and when these wooded areas are burning, it has an amplified effect of burning wood at home. This natural disaster releases toxic gases, and large amounts of PM, and the smoke can be very harmful for inhalation. Many areas like California, which suffer from wildfires almost every year, are evacuated during these disasters, as the smoky air is not safe to breathe in. This disaster is capable of uprooting entire communities, and the more it spreads, the more trees it takes with it. These trees, which absorbed much of the CO2 in the area are destroyed, further releasing larger amounts of the gas into the atmosphere.

An image of a forest fire, with black smoke polluting the air
Source: Yahoo Images

Finally, there is a phenomenon known as ocean acidification, that further exacerbates the issue of global warming and air pollution. The ocean absorbs much of the CO2 in the air, and through a complex chemical reaction due to the mixing of this gas with the seawater, the ocean itself becomes more acidic and the levels of carbonate ions found in the ocean decrease. These carbonate ions are an important element for the survival of coral reefs and other structures in the marine ecosystem. This phenomenon also heats up the ocean, further leading to the melting of ice sheets that support arctic wildlife and provide fresh water to the surrounding communities. Instead, these sheets are melting into the ocean, mixing with the saltwater, as a result, becoming unavailable as a source of drinking water. Along with this issue, the changes in the atmosphere, temperature, and environment lead to phenomena such as coral bleaching, which is when coral reefs are naturally bleached white, and become more vulnerable to diseases and death. Many species in the marine ecosystem rely on corals for food and shelter, and even we as humans rely on corals for our medicine and as protection from erosion.   As there are increasingly large amounts of CO2 present in the atmosphere.

Human Rights Approach to Air

An infographic that depicts the various forms of renewable energy, including hydropower, solar, wave, wind, biomass, and other forms of renewable energy sources
Source: Yahoo Images

Humans may not have control over natural disasters, but we do have control over our own actions and the impact they have on our surrounding communities and environment. There are some ways in which we can take a human rights approach to redesign our infrastructure and our society to reflect environmentally conscious lifestyles. Big industries, power plants, and sewage plants need a lot of energy to function, and this energy can be harnessed through renewable sources of energy instead of the current status quo of using fossil fuels. In recent years, solar energy, wind energy, hydropower, and wave energy are just some sources of renewable energy. A renewable source requires that it be both sustainable and self-sufficient, and while some of these sources of energy still have a bit of an environmental impact, it is not nearly as much as fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases do. Using solar energy, for example, requires solar panels that use lithium batteries which have to be mined for, but using solar energy eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel use, reducing air pollutants in the atmosphere, and as a result, improving the air quality. These renewable sources of energy are already available to us; governments need to step in and implement these infrastructures across the board.

When it comes to air pollution from personal use and commercial use, there are a number of ways to eliminate, or at least limit the number of pollutants being released into the air. As with large industries, solar panels can also be installed for use in homes and commercial buildings. Solar energy is abundant, as there is no limitation to the sun’s energy, and as such, provides a free source of electricity and heating that people in impoverished areas could benefit from, financially, as well as the health benefits they can provide. Instead of using harmful chemicals to clean with, we can make use of natural materials, (such as white vinegar) to clean with. Beauty products and hair products can be made with natural materials like rose water instead of harmful chemicals that are not healthy for us to inhale, and unhealthy to be applied on our skin.

An infographic depicting the various forms of clean infrastructure
Source: Yahoo Images

Another anthropogenic source of air pollution, transportation, can also be addressed with new technology. Hybrid cars have been on the market for decades now, which switch back and forth between fuel and electricity to run the vehicle. Newer models are available today that are fully electric vehicles, and as such, run solely on electricity rather than fossil fuels. This prevents the emission of toxic gasses into the atmosphere that is released from traditional car exhausts. The EPA reports that even accounting for the electricity required to charge the electric vehicles, and the manufacturing stages, EVs have lower emissions of greenhouse gases than gasoline and diesel vehicles. We as a society need to transition from these gasoline and diesel vehicles to using electric-powered vehicles for our transportation needs. Also, designing trains and buses that use electric power to run, and constructing the necessary infrastructure to be used broadly can also address the transportation shortages that many people in rural areas and the outskirts of urban areas face.

Finally, we can change some of our habits of waste disposal to be more conscious of our practices. We can be mindful of the waste that we are disposing of, by composting food wastes and recycling cardboard, metals, and plastics properly. We can demand more regulations on single-use plastics, and demand that companies find creative solutions for single-use utensils and tableware. For example, there have been historical practices in many parts of the world that have incorporated single-use tableware with an environmentally conscious framework by making use of leaves to create plates, bowls, and cups, and using coconut shells as scooping spoons. These products are organic, and as such, will be biodegradable, instead of plastics, which are very difficult to break down naturally. We also need to think of innovative ways to transform trash into usable energy without adding more pollutants into the atmosphere.

An infographic focused on thing that can be done at the residential level to incorporate green living
Source: Yahoo Images

If we cut down our activities in these areas, it will reflect on the severity of our natural disasters, and as such, have an indirect impact on reducing the air pollution caused by these natural sources.

In the upcoming blogs, we will focus on how infrastructure, the economy, our healthcare system, and even our technologies are impacted by the environment, and as such, impact our human rights as a whole.

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

Cover Image Photo credits to Chad Davis. 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Autopsy revelations and public record reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protests of destruction over Cop City construction 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The creation of labels and narratives impacts on social justice movements 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing dynamics of protests: Resisting assaults on social justice attempts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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