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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the beginning of a series I will be writing about Indigenous justice systems. Though Indigenous people span across the world, I will be providing information specifically on policies and relations of the United States in this blog. Indigenous justice methods are compellingly distinct processes. In this opening post, I will first summarize the history of limitations placed on Indigenous justice and then explore traditions and values behind the restorative processes of Indigenous communities.
History of Foreign Limitations on Justice Processes
First, it is important to acknowledge the history of legislation put in place by the federal government that has greatly affected Indigenous justice systems. Constant structural changes imposed by colonizers resulted in wide variations between Indigenous tribal justice systems, meaning some are more similar to the US legal system than others. However, overarching this entire topic is the question of whether Indigenous, federal, or both governments presume jurisdiction over criminal offenses in Indigenous countries.
This question was decided when the federal government essentially ended the exclusive Indigenous jurisdiction over crimes in Indigenous countries. Before exploring Indigenous justice practices, I would like to briefly contextualize the complex and confusing history of Indigenous jurisdiction.
First, the General Crimes Act of 1817 extended federal jurisdiction over crimes committed on Indigenous land in cases where the defendant is non-Indigenous. At this time, the government only cared to interfere with crimes that involved non-Indigenous people. The Major Crimes Act in 1885 granted the federal government jurisdiction over serious crimes where the defendant is Indigenous, regardless of the victim’s identity. It originally listed seven offenses but has been increased to sixteen. After negotiation, tribal courts retained concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute Indigenous people for any conduct listed as a Section 1152 or Section 1153 felony. This means that an Indigenous defendant can be prosecuted by both the tribal justice system and the federal justice system for the same offense. This is because protection against double jeopardy in the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to Indigenous nations.
Indigenous people gained more power to govern themselves in 1934 with the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act. While it recognized tribal governments, the act offered money to those mirroring the U.S. Constitution, attempting to Americanize Indigenous societies. Many customs had disappeared, and Indigenous people were intentionally challenged to create self-government among distinct nations.
Next, Congress enacted Public Law 280 in 1953, requiring six states to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction on reservations, meaning the federal government gave up jurisdiction over Indigenous people to those states. This law was opposed by Indigenous nations because it was an unconsensual process that further complicated and failed to recognize tribal self-determination.
The Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968 offered states civil and criminal jurisdiction with the “consent of the tribe” over crimes in any Indigenous country in the state. It limited the sentencing powers of tribal courts but did not require the separation of church and state because of the importance of spirituality in all processes. The Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010 intended to improve tribal safety, slightly increasing tribal sentencing authority to a maximum of 3 years and a $15,000 fine. However, these new privileges were dependent on the imposition of further regulations regarding due process protections in tribal courts.
Finally, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 authorized tribal courts special jurisdiction over non-Indigenous offenders in domestic violence cases. This was a landmark shift from the Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe in 1978, which held that tribal courts have no authority to prosecute non-Indigenous people, even if the victim was Indigenous. The VAWA was amended again in 2022 to expand special tribal jurisdiction to a list of covered crimes, including child and sexual violence, sex trafficking, and assault of Tribal justice workers. Indigenous courts can now prosecute and sentence regardless of the offender’s race for crimes against Indigenous victims that had commonly been ignored.
Because of colonization, Indigenous peoples’ principles have gone unrecognized by America’s Anglo-centric justice system. Consequently, Indigenous nations retain limited power to create a befitting legal structure that administers justice. However, they continue to persevere and have cultivated distinct methods, such as restorative and healing practices.
Harmony and Balance in Restorative Justice
In Indigenous communities, restorative court systems are similar to traditional systems where a council of tribal elders or community leaders will facilitate conversations to resolve interpersonal problems. In this type of resolution, the compliance of the offender is necessary for the families involved. Most importantly, this process attempts to heal the underlying means for a crime, preventing repetitive behavior and aiding the offender’s reintegration into the community. These types of meetings are also known as forums and can be conducted within families and communities.
In various areas of North America, circle sentencing reflects traditional Indigenous peacemaking aspects and has proven to be an effective approach to healing the offender, the victim, and the community. Specific practices vary by tribe, but the idea is to address participants’ feelings about how offenders can begin making up for their actions. Circle sentencing produces better satisfaction and healing, breaking the cycle of crime and allowing people to reconnect with spiritual traditions with the help of their community. In common Indigenous views, justice and spirituality are deeply connected.
Tribal courts differ from other methods since they use written codes rather than being passed on through tradition. These judicial forums handle a range of legal problems and are led by judges from Indigenous communities. Most defendants or plaintiffs must represent themselves since the Indian Civil Rights Act does not ensure the right to legal counsel if individuals cannot afford an attorney. Tribal courts, interestingly, still tend to use family and community forums to handle interpersonal matters. This allows for alternative resolutions, sentencing, and victim-offender mediation.
Indigenous courts intend to restore harmony and balance to one’s spirit, following the belief that people who are whole do not act harmfully. Judge Joseph Flies-Away from the Hualapai Nation says, “People do the worst things when they have no ties to people” and that “Tribal court systems are a tool to make people connected again.”
Incorporation of Values In Peacekeeping Systems
Indigenous peacekeeping systems promote the resolution of underlying problems and make an effort to keep relationships strong. Indigenous justice represents a holistic approach where communication is fluid rather than rehearsed. They recognize that argument is not an effective approach and that discussion is vital to review a problem in its entirety. Indigenous justice is inclusive of all affected individuals, different from the American justice system, which often excludes participants.
The Navajo Nation’s peacemaking process centers on the individual and helps an offender realize that what they have done is incorrect. Instead of labeling and punishing individuals as criminals to prevent them from repeating the behavior, the Navajo way separates the action from the individual. Retired Chief Justice Robert Yazzie of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court states that the process is related to k’e, meaning to restore one’s dignity and worthiness.
What I find particularly remarkable about these concepts of justice is that, instead of adopting an immediate punitive approach aimed at simply removing the offender, the system focuses on correction and rehabilitation. Offenders are obligated to verbalize their accountability and take responsibility for changing their behavior. Instead of releasing the offender after their time is served, the system supports reparations to the victim(s) and community involving apology and forgiveness. These Indigenous restorative justice approaches are distinct from America’s legal process, which focuses on labeling and punishing the offender. Furthermore, traditional types of justice are able to promote communal healing and support in reintegration rather than hiring professionals to dispute a case with little interest in the community.
Indigenous leaders continue struggling to ensure that their justice systems are meaningful to their people. We rarely consider Indigenous justice systems, but maybe we ought to start. Please stay tuned for my next blog in this series, expanding on current struggles imposed on the Indigenous justice system and its people.
What Are Institutions for People with Disabilities?
In this post, I focus on the institutions that were, and remain, facilities operating for the purpose of housing people with disabilities. The National Council for Disability (NCD) defines these institutions as “a facility of four or more people who did not choose to live together.” They summarize a report made by a consortium of self-advocacy organizations based on their experiences with institutionalization. The NCD list of criteria to define an institution, as synthesized from various self-advocacy groups, is that they:
Include only people with disabilities,
Include more than three people who have not chosen to live together,
Do not permit residents to lock the door to their bedroom or bathroom,
Enforce regimented meal and sleep times,
Limit visitors, including who may visit and when they may do so,
Restrict when a resident may enter or exit the home,
Restrict an individual’s religious practices or beliefs,
Limit the ability of a resident to select or remove support staff,
Restrict residents’ sexual preferences or activities,
Require residents to change housing if they wish to make changes in the personnel who provide their support or the nature of the support,
Restrict access to the telephone or Internet,
Restrict access to broader community life and activities.
Historically, these kinds of institutions have primarily included people struggling with mental health and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
What Were America’s First Institutions for People with Disabilities?
Mental institutions in America predate the reality of an American nation. The earliest hospital for the mentally ill, the Publick Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, was founded in Virginia in 1773. It was closer to a prison than what we would now call a hospital; patients were kept chained and shackled, physically abused, intentionally fed rotten food, and bathed in ice water. Inmates were rarely released. Many were placed or kept in prisons prior to or after their evaluation as being “insane.” This began to change in the 1840s; a new medical director attempted to use more humane approaches to treatment. Those included treatment that was consented to and largely removing chains and shackles.
The first modern institution for disabled people was founded by Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 in Boston, Massachusetts. It was considered experimental, despite others’ previous endeavors taken elsewhere, but Howe had experience in a similar environment, having founded the Perkins Institution for the Blind twenty years earlier. A contemporary article sings praises of the institution. Despite that, the electronic catalog of annual reports by the institution, renamed the Walter E. Fernald State School, ends abruptly in 1973 with a report on identifying child abuse and neglect.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy (JFK) played an important role in the early reform of institutions for people with disabilities. Many people know that Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized, leaving her permanently disabled and confined to a psychiatric institution. Lesser known is that Kennedy established the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961, the first government committee on the topic. The committee’s recommendations led to numerous regulations being changed and legislation being passed. One Panel member, Eunice Shriver, who was also Kennedy’s sister, went on to found the Special Olympics.
Institutions for People with Disabilities in Alabama
The first mental hospital in Alabama was the Alabama Insane Hospital, founded in 1859 and renamed to Bryce Hospital in 1900. Ricky Wyatt, at the time 15 years old, was committed by a court to Bryce in 1969. He was not mentally ill.
Wyatt’s institutionalization led to a widespread deinstitutionalization movement. His guardian, a former employee of the hospital, sued Bryce Hospital on his behalf. During the discovery process, Wyatt’s lawyers discovered numerous preventable deaths in the facility, as well as a complete lack of plans in case of a fire; there was no way to contact the Tuscaloosa fire department after 5:00 PM, and the fire hydrants on the property were decades old and incompatible with modern firefighting equipment.
That lawsuit, Wyatt v. Stickney (1972), was part of the beginning of a legal deinstitutionalization movement. It created a minimum standard for care at Alabama institutions for the mentally ill.
Willowbrook State School
Willowbrook was a state-funded institution in Staten Island from the 1940s until the late 1980s. The school was over its capacity in only a few years; in 1965, Robert Kennedy described Willowbrook as a “snake pit” with “rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages we put animals in a zoo.” The few changes that resulted from Kennedy’s visit were insubstantial and short-lived.
Another infamous incident in Willowbrook’s history was the hepatitis experiment conducted on the children in residence. The exact rate of hepatitis infection in children at Willowbrook is unknown; I have seen estimates ranging from 30% to 90% of children becoming infected during their time at Willowbrook. At the time, many specific details of hepatitis were unknown. Willowbrook had a local strain of hepatitis that was reputed to be less lethal than strains common elsewhere. Saul Krugman, funded in part by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, began conducting a study on hepatitis in Willowbrook – initially starting with an epidemiological focus, then shifting to a more involved study. Krugman intentionally infected 60 children at Willowbrook with the hepatitis virus by feeding them live samples of the hepatitis virus. Krugman “watched as their skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers grew bigger.”
Willowbrook left the public consciousness almost entirely until 1972, when Geraldo Rivera created a bombshell documentary that exposed the conditions at Willowbrook State School and institutions like it. In March 1972, residents’ parents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging violations of the constitutional rights of Willowbrook residents. Just three years later, as a result of the lawsuit, the Willowbrook Consent Decree created standards the institution would be Willowbrook open, however; Willowbrook State School formally closed “officially and forever” on September 17th, 1987.
Despite the promise made in the wake of the Willowbrook scandal, alumni are still mistreated today. In 2020, The New York Times published the results of an investigation conducted into recent abuses in a group home in New York where some Willowbrook alumni resided. They describe physical abuse and neglect, including injuries caused by scalding water, deaths caused by neglect, and ant infestations. The investigation made allegations against 13 employees, nine of whom still worked for the agency, and seven of those still worked in group homes at the time of the article’s publishing.
Institutions for People with Disabilities Today
In 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), along with other federal agencies, published a report on group homes, which have largely succeeded large institutions like Willowbrook or Bryce. They found that, in 49 states, health and safety procedures were not being followed.
“OIG found serious lapses in basic health and safety practices in group homes. OIG made multiple referrals to local law enforcement to address specific incidents of harm.”
Between 2004 and 2010, 1,361 people with disabilities died in Connecticut. 82 of those deaths were caused by neglect or abuse. The causes were found to be due to “abuse, neglect, and medical errors.” The OIG found that “State agencies did not comply with Federal waiver and State requirements for reporting and monitoring critical incidents.” These “critical incidents” include deaths, assaults, suicide attempts, and missing persons.
While we, as Americans, often like to think our country has advanced for people with disabilities, the reality is disappointing. Willowbrook alumni are still being abused forty years later. Group homes have been found to have widespread abusive and neglectful practices.
State Protection & Advocacy agencies exist as a legal protection for people with disabilities. In Alabama, the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program provides legal assistance to people with disabilities in cases involving civil rights violations and has the ability to investigate said cases in hospitals, group homes, schools, and any other facilities where abuse or neglect of people with disabilities occurs.
“They see me trying to do right, but my past is my problem,”said Terry Townshend, an inmate resembling countless others denied release on parole from Alabama’s prisons at astounding rates.
Before we begin, I encourage you to read Kala Bhattar’s posts on the extensive history and severity of the Alabama prison crisis concerning human rights. She offers valuable insights into the unique nature of the legal system in Alabama, and how its background connects to ever-present challenges in prisons today.
This post is going to explore the overwhelming decrease in parole rates being granted to prisoners by the Alabama Parole Board. The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) considers inmates eligible for parole after serving most of their sentence, allowing them to be released early from prison to reenter the community and complete service outside of prison walls. The declining rates of parole being granted are a barrier to the multifaceted issue of prison overcrowding pressed by understaffed facilities and increased prison violence. There are widely differing perspectives on the best strategies to calm the swelling chaos of prison overcrowding. To Alabama’s parole board, parole is not one of them.
It’s important to understand that parole is a privilege, not a right. Even if approved, inmates are released on strict conditions that may include reporting to a supervising officer, maintaining steady employment, not buying alcohol, or attending counseling to name a few. At any point, individuals can have their parole revoked and be reimprisoned.
Parole hearings are conducted based on guidelines set forth by the ABPP. They are meant to consider whether an incarcerated person is likely to reoffend. The board considers the severity of an offender’s criminal history, risk assessments, reports of institutional behavior, participation in programs or treatment, and plans for navigating problems the offender is likely to face again during reentry. These guidelines have recently been criticized as flat-out ignored by the Parole Board, likely sparked following the consistently declining rate of parole actually being granted. According to the ABPP’s Monthly Statistical Reports, Alabama has gone from a grant rate of 54% in 2017 to 10% in 2022, and it reached as low as 2% in January of this year.
A significant event sparking this change was Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, an inmate who was paroled in 2018 and, upon release, murdered three people. This tragic case led to tremendous pressure to keep inmates in prison and aligned with the sudden drop in grant rates beginning that year. When releasing convicted felons became understandably more controversial after Spencer’s release, the parole board’s actions were put under a microscope. The primary concern of the parole board seemed to shift to avoiding negative headlines.
Guidelines Being Overrun by Discretion
To be clear, the parole board ultimately has complete discretion over a decision, and the guidelines are meant to serve solely as an aid. Consequently, in May of 2023, the recommended 78% grant rate indicated by the guidelines was actually 18%. This raises questions about the disparities between parole guidelines and parole decisions. For one, why are the guidelines in place if they are consistently overlooked? This breach is represented by the conformance rate, which indicates the number of cases that matched the guidelines’ recommendation for grants or denials. It amounted to 23% in May, 14% in June, and 5% in July of 2023. This adds to years of disparities between recommended grant rates and actual grant rates present in Alabama. So, what is going on at parole hearings?
The precise reasons remain unclear. The parole board does not always articulate its reasons for approving or denying parole, even though they are required to by Alabama Code 15-22-26. Decisions were also commonly made based solely on the severity of an offense. Alabama determines the criteria for parole eligibility of certain offenses outlined in Section 15-22-27, but decisions are still weighed based on that information which the system has already approved. The point of having an additional hearing is to judge an inmate on who they are now.
Furthermore, race was an illuminated factor toward reentry this May, where 30% of decisions for White individuals conformed to the parole guidelines while 17% of decisions for Black applicants conformed to the same guidelines. However, I cannot comprehensively address the topic of race on reentry in this single blog.
The Power of Decision Makers
The drop in grant rates came promptly with Governor Kay Ivey’s appointment of Leigh Gwathney as the current board chair in 2019. Years later, Gwathney granted 2.4% parole of cases in the summer of 2023. Board members of the ABPP have tremendous discretion by law and have by no doubt used it to impact grant rates. Parole Watch documented a lack of attention toward the cases by the board and expanded on concerns about the three-chair system. A main takeaway from many perspectives on the hearing system is the influence the third seat can have on a hearing’s outcome. With two seats, the majority rule turns to a unanimous vote. When the board shrank to Gwathney’s seat, plus one, so did the grant rate from 13.2% in June to 4.1% in July.
If parole is denied, the board determines an inmates’ set off date, or how long they will wait before being reconsidered for parole. Gwathney voted for the maximum set off date in 73.4% of denied cases in the summer of 2023, more than any other seat. What makes overcrowding a progressively hopeless matter is the fact that Alabama’s Department of Corrections has an opportunity to clear crowded and understaffed prisons of inmates that are eligible by the guidelines and obvious recommendation to leave. With an 80% decrease in parole grants from September 2019 to June 2020, the population in custody increased, even as custody admissions decreased. The impact of denying parole to so many is daringly increasing the pressure of prisons that are already way above full occupancy.
Parole hearings are open to the public, but unlike other states, Alabama does not allow offenders to represent themselves. Also, no rebuttal is allowed by supporters after opponents give the final word. Often, victims or advocates will misrepresent the facts leaving supporters of parole with no opportunity to correct them. According to Parole Watch’s observations, some representatives claimed to advocate for the victim but still opposed parole even if it supported the victim’s wishes. Opponents of parole like Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) and the Attorney General’s Office, proved to have a tremendous influence on the decisions of the parole board. Of the 78.3% of hearings this summer where VOCAL was present, 96.6% were denied.
Inmates Are People Just Like Us
71 year old Leola Harris, who has end-stage kidney failure, diabetes, and cannot walk or use the bathroom on her own, will likely die before her next hearing in 5 years. Having certification by the Department of Corrections for medical parole, testimonies by nursing home staff for a confirmed living plan, a successful lie detector test denying that she murdered the victim, and two decades of good behavior was not enough to get her out of prison for her remaining years.
This is reflected by many inmates who have numerous accomplishments to advocate for their improvement but are swiftly rejected. Terry Townshend has faced a life of drug addiction and resulting imprisonment, demonstrating fighting efforts to stay away from pills and crime. His release on parole failed when he got back into drugs after being given take-home narcotics after cancer surgery. Terry did everything he could to build personal responsibility from completing substance abuse treatment programs to earning a degree in trade school, and this in turn helped him understand his addiction and how to handle it without crime. However, like many, he was held down by his failures and rejected.
Timothy Bille, a now free man who was denied parole 4 times in 18 years, expressed that “They tell you to do all these prison programs to increase your chances for parole, but when they deny guys like Terry, it feels like a lie.”
Finally, Frederick Bishop was denied parole at his hearing scheduled 10 days after he died in prison. Justice is not denying release to a corpse. His case demonstrates a lack of attention by the entire justice system toward informing relevant parties of an inmate’s status and judging them accordingly.
The reality is that Alabama prisons have become more unsafe than the free world. Overcrowding in prisons is not as much due to new crime but to repeated declines of release for experienced inmates. Advocates for less violence and victimization in prison populations would agree that prisoners of minimal risk to their community, especially under careful supervision, should be granted freedom, and therefore safety.
Jimmy O’Neal Spencer has been convicted, denied parole, and sentenced to death. It is time that thousands of others who are stuck in Alabama’s combusting, debilitating conditions deserve real chances at parole.
Stay tuned for my next article, where I will explore how the process of the death penalty, as well as the methods used to end the lives of inmates, may bring up additional human rights concerns. That article will be posted in the upcoming weeks.
October 10th is the World Day Against the Death Penalty.
It was my eighth birthday. I had gotten home from school and after eating my snack, I sat down on the couch. My birthday is in January and my mom hadn’t gotten around to packing up the expensive nativity scene from my grandmother that was set out on the sofa table behind my head. I got bored with my show, as eight-year-olds do, so I turned around and started playing with the porcelain figurines. To me, they were no more than stiff, less fun Barbies. Little did I know all it took was one little high-five between Joseph and the wise man with the frankincense before *CRACK* Joseph lost a hand.
I still remember my mother’s face when I told her what happened. This nativity scene from her mother-in-law meant so much to her and she was feeling so many emotions. I knew that I deserved to be punished in some way for my mistake. I sat in time out for a while, I got a “stern talking-to” when my dad got home, and I didn’t see my favorite (real) Barbie for weeks.
My eight-year-old, future-philosophy-student self couldn’t help but question why all of this was happening to me. It was my birthday; my parents were supposed to be nice to me that day, but I still got in trouble. I knew that I should’ve been more careful with the figurine, but I also knew that what I did was an accident. I knew as soon as it broke that I had caused a problem, but I almost immediately learned from it: this material is weaker than Barbie material so I would need to use gentler hands when holding it. But I still couldn’t figure out why my parents were doing this. As I grow up, this concern still follows me. What motivates society to punish people who break the law? How could our system of punishment improve to allow people to learn from their mistakes and to still participate in society?
Theories of Punishment
The Retribution Theory of punishment holds that people who harm others deserve to be harmed and that the justice system should give them what they deserve. I like to call this the revenge theory or the “eye for an eye” theory. The arguments for this theory are, in my opinion, not very strong. Sure, it seems intuitive that when somebody wrongs us we want to wrong them back, but what good does that do? And should we really set up an entire justice system based on retribution when that only causes more harm to people, despite if they “deserve it?”
The Deterrence Theory of punishment holds that societies should punish moral failings in a way that when people hear about the punishment for a certain crime, it deters them from committing it. For example, people may not use drugs because they are afraid of what would happen if they got caught. If we want people to stop doing drugs, according to deterrence theory, we should inflict harsher punishments for those caught with drugs. The main critique of this theory is that it does not deter people from doing the thing, it only deters people from getting caught doing the thing, thus driving the whole crime farther and farther underground.
The Restoration, Humanitarian, or Utilitarian theory of punishment is based on the idea that after a harm occurs, we should avoid any further harm coming to anybody involved. This may entail rehabilitating people with addictions to live addiction free or mandating driving school and road safety courses for negligent drivers. This doesn’t just apply to low-level crimes though. This may mean a prison system similar to Norway’s, where even the most violent criminals are kept in a remote community where their rights and privileges are upheld. The average sentence is around 8 months, and after they’ve had time to reflect on their actions, they are allowed to return to society as usual. Click here to learn about what went into the design of one of Norway’s most famously humane prisons. This theory is often criticized as being “soft on crime,” saying that if we don’t make going to prison incredibly unpleasant, criminals will not have any reason not to re-offend.
Pragmatically, when we are deciding which theory of punishment to ascribe to, we are balancing the weight of the government’s function that motivates law enforcement with the human rights of everybody involved in the crime.
So what is the government function of capital punishment and does it outweigh the most fundamental human right, one’s right to one’s own life?
It is widely agreed upon that the government’s most fundamental function is to protect the rights of people in its jurisdiction. This includes mediating conflicts in which a person impedes on another’s rights. In these terms, the crime of theft is when a perpetrator impedes on the victim’s right to own property. In this case, the government then has an obligation to interfere in some way to bring justice to the victim. Most of the time, this interference will constitute the government temporarily impeding on the rights of the perpetrator themselves. This may mean keeping them in jail until their trial, imposing a fine on them, or even sentencing them to prison time.
The right to life is inarguably the most fundamental natural human right that exists. All humans have a fundamental right to live their bodies’ natural lifespan through to its end. It can even be argued that humans have the right to the best healthcare available to extend their lifespan as long as possible. Without the right to life, no other human rights of any kind can be realized. This is why the most widely recognized phrase about human rights lists life as the first.
As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and from that, they derive inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
To take someone’s life is to take away that person’s most fundamental, widely-recognized human right.
Does the governmental function of societal safety ever justify taking away the perpetrator’s number one human right? Especially when, given that life in prison is an alternative option, societal safety is not even at risk by keeping these people alive. Many people will argue that keeping them in prison requires too many resources whereas the death penalty is a quick and easy way to save resources for the rest of society. Not only does this completely dehumanize people who have committed crimes, but it also switches the governmental interest from public safety to the much less compelling governmental interest of distributing resources. The interest in these resources is not compelling enough to justify the deprivation of someone’s life. Even if you think it is okay to impede on a perpetrator’s rights to prevent them from causing more harm to society, it is unclear that the deprivation of life would achieve this goal when life in prison is an alternative.
According to the Retribution theory, people who took another life deserve to be killed solely on the “eye-for-an-eye” principle. But something doesn’t sit right when we try to defend this principle without dehumanizing people convicted of crimes. As a society, is it a good thing that we think a certain group of people deserves to die, even if their qualification into that group was voluntary?
According to the Deterrence theory, the death penalty may actually be an effective deterrence for prospective criminals. If they knew that committing this crime may literally mean the end of their lives, they may not commit the crime. However, it is unclear that the deterrence factor of life in prison, essentially ending people’s lives as they know it, is so much less effective than the deterrence factor of the death penalty that it justifies taking lives.
According to the Restoration theory, capital punishment stands no chance. This theory is based on the hope of rehabilitation for criminals, even if that means they are only ever restored insofar as to live a meaningful life in prison. This theory is considered to be the most humane approach to punishment, and as far as research can tell, the one compatible with the lowest recidivism (re-offending) rates.
When it comes to political corruption, the first countries that come to your mind are probably prominent ones that you have heard about in the news such as North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq, and countless many others. This article will concentrate on a smaller country that is having a more profound impact on the human rights of its citizens: El Salvador. It will be done by analyzing the leadership of its president, Nayib Bukele, and how he transformed the political and social landscape of Central America by going head-to-head with gangs and crime. His actions, rather than lowering crime in his country, have only exacerbated the crisis. While many Western citizens believe that taking the fight directly to the front is justified and right, it actually does not remedy the cause of the violence: a lack of socioeconomic stability and development.
El Salvador is the tiniest country in Central America, but it was nicknamed the “murder capital” of the Western hemisphere because of the severely high homicide statistics in the world, excluding war zones. Gangs run rampant and have a staggering amount of control over the population as they facilitate the transfer of drugs and materials from the black market. For years, the previous government administrations ineffectively attempted to damper these issues, but they were unable to, which led to the rise of Nayib Bukele.
Who is Nayib Bukele?
With his rise to power as President of El Salvador in 2019, Nayib Bukele became the face of a new era of political aspirations for the people of his country. However, despite the pressures that came with him being the youngest governmental leader in Latin America at age forty-one, he faced the more daunting task of creating a government that would do away with the corrupt administrations prior to his own. By creating a political party under the name, “Nuevas Ideas”, with its English translation being “New Ideas,” while previously serving as the mayor of San Salvador, he advocated for change against the political establishment. He initially relied on the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (F.M.L.N.), a major political party that rose to power after the war between the guerrilla and government forces. The organization returned the favor years later by helping him win the office of mayor of San Salvador. However, it was his ability to form an independent party for his presidential campaign that caught the attention of the public. By becoming a political outsider, Bukele corruptly used this publicity and power of being the unheard-of candidate, and later incumbent president, to crack down on the gangs and rise in crime that have dominated the streets and consequently, which had a negative influence on the standard of living for all Salvadorans because the manner in which he did so was morally and legally wrong.
On June 1, while speaking to celebrate the beginning of his fourth year as president, he renewed his promise to construct a prison that would contain criminals and gangs. This prison, later named the Center for Confining Terrorism, was built with the idea of housing over forty thousand inmates together. Bukele, in order to present a strong front against gangs, temporarily removed constitutional rights within the country, enabling those even under suspicion for being a criminal or being a part of a gang to be arrested without any form of trial or due process. Policies that control and get rid of crime are necessary and should be implemented to the fullest extent that they can, but this course of action is not representative of a democracy but rather a dictatorship. By referencing himself as “the coolest dictator in the world,” he is recklessly enforcing a vision of control that directly disobeys the constitution of his country. Furthermore, Bukele has allowed tens of thousands of armed military personnel to roam the streets of various cities, which he then justified because it worked in one city. These measures, along with multiple drone flybys over cities and sudden detainments of any citizen, strip Salvadorans of their basic human right to live without fear of being wrongfully imprisoned. A government that rules with fear is one that does not properly rule at all because the purpose of government is to provide hope and help to people in ways that others cannot.
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images; The unnecessary torture of prisoners being for the public to witness and hopefully enact action.
Ending it once and for all?
Image 2 – Source: AmnestyUSA; An image of citizens taking to the streets to demonstrate how pressing of a matter it is.
Going forward, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has provided solutions for how to better solve issues with crime and gangs in El Salvador. They directly addressed various contributors to human rights violations, such as the Bukele administration, legislative body members, the attorney general, and other government officials. The most compelling course of action given to the Bukele administration was to confront why someone would want to join a gang, which would consist of resolving the economic and educational disparities that deprive citizens of having the chance to maintain a prosperous lifestyle. Putting people behind bars is seldom the answer to reducing crime because it does not address the issue at its core. For the legislative body, the HRW recommends that they immediately terminate the state of emergency that has allowed President Bukele to enforce soldiers in the streets and imprison any person with suspicion of being in a gang. Applying this course of action will be a challenge for the legislators because of their unicameral body that has typically leaned towards supporting Bukele.
Image 3 – Source: AmnestyUSA; An image of family that represents plenty of other families that could be experiencing similar hours.
The human rights violations that have exponentially grown in El Salvador are because of the discourse and leadership of President Nayib Bukele and his advocators. They believe that they are effectively getting rid of gangs and other forms of crime in their country, but the manner in which they are doing so has caused them to have a destructive aftermath on citizens who want no part in this war. Furthermore, the deterioration of conditions in prisons that are already housing an increasing number of inmates demands the attention of people from around the world as these atrocities deserve to be seen and heard so that its enablers are held accountable.
A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America
I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change.
As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar.
How do you provide for yourself and your family?
Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?
Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492.
Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence.
Property and Greed
When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out.
One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity.
Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.
A Culture of Climate Apathy
Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it.
We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology.
On September 15th, 2023, the Institute for Human Rights (IHR) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the Urdd, a Welsh youth organization, spent an afternoon together exploring human rights initiatives in Birmingham and the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the IHR, made opening remarks welcoming the Urdd delegation to UAB and facilitated introductions between the Urdd and members of the IHR team. Dr. Reuter then spoke on how the IHR is raising awareness of and advocating for human rights by making safe spaces to have open dialogues and hosting human rights advocacy conferences. Ms. Siân Lewis, Chief Executive of the Urdd, explained that the Urdd is the largest youth organization in the world and has been active for over 100 years. The Urdd’s primary objective is spreading a peace and goodwill message, with the focus this year being on anti-racism. The Urdd also aims to share the Welsh language and culture with others while learning about other languages and cultures around the world. The Urdd distinguishes itself in its anti-racism efforts through its “Galw Nhw Allan” (“Call Them Out”) motto, which encapsulates the Urdd’s desire to take substantive action against racism. In a video shown at the event, student leaders from the Urdd are shown describing the need to dismantle systemic racism through education to show the beauty and unity people’s differences bring to our communities.
Two members of IHR led the group in a privilege walk, an activity that involves asking participants to line up side-by-side with their eyes closed and take a step forward if they agree with certain statements, or take a step back if they agree with others. Examples of the statements read included “Take a step back if someone in your immediate family is addicted to alcohol or drugs,” “Take a step forward if you see people with your skin color in your local government,” and “Take a step back if you have ever had to skip a meal or multiple meals due to your financial situation.” At the end of the exercise, every person of color from the group was at the back of the room, and every non-person of color from the group was in the middle or front of the room. This exercise was done to highlight the various advantages and obstacles faced by people around the world and fostered a great discussion about diversity and inclusion amongst the IHR and the Urdd.
At the beginning of the meeting, members of the IHR handed out pieces of numbered paper to everyone in the meeting room. People with even numbers received a leaf to pin to their chest and people with odd numbers received a ribbon. After the privilege walk, everyone was asked to find a seat at tables decorated with pumpkins if they drew an odd number or tables decorated with scarecrows if they drew an even number. A short video on Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was shown where Ms. Elliott divided her class by eye color and favored blue-eyed children one day, and brown-eyed children the next, giving each favored group more praise and privileges over the other group. The class soon adopted hateful and derogatory views of the out-group, bullying members of the unfavored group which was distinguished by brown collars tied around their necks. To simulate this experiment, two members of the IHR went around telling people with leaves pinned to their chests to get second helpings of lunch and engaging members of that group in conversation. Contrastly, the two IHR members ignored people with ribbons pinned to their chests and neglected to mention that those with ribbons could go and get second helpings of the food being served. The experiment was revealed after lunch was finished, to the surprise of the room which had no idea the simulation was being carried out. A short discussion followed on how discrimination affects people in real life and the unique challenges faced by people daily due to discrimination.
A tour of the IHR office space followed lunch and the Urdd delegation kindly presented IHR with a flag of Wales, a Cardiff University dragon plush, and Cardiff University silk scarves. Thank you to the Urdd for the thoughtful gifts!
The final event of the day was a screening of Four Little Girls directed by Spike Lee and a Q&A session with Michele Forman, Director of the Media Studies Program at UAB, who helped with the production of Four Little Girls. The film follows the events of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, and includes interviews with the families of the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. In the Q&A session after the showing, Ms. Forman described how every aspect of the film needed to answer the question “How does it help us understand what happened to the girls that day?”. A particularly impactful statement from Ms. Forman when asked what the rationale for using post-mortem photographs of the four children killed in the bombing in the film was that the destruction and exploitation of the Black body are used too much in media, but it was needed in the film to show that we will not move on from this tragedy and will not forget “what racism comes to bear on the Black body.” Thank you to Michele Forman for facilitating an insightful discussion of the film and the Civil Rights Movement!
The IHR is grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with the Urdd and looks forward to future collaborations!
Watch the full Peace and Goodwill message video here.
** 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 Manuel “Tortuguita” 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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
Juneteenth has been historically celebrated by many Americans since the late 1860s, yet it is only recently that it has become mainstream. Today we focus on why that is, what Juneteenth celebrates, and how we can do a better job incorporating this holiday into our lives. Although it has been around for so long, Juneteenth was only recognized as a federal holiday on June 19th, 2021, following the summer protests of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the brutality experienced by George Floyd at the hands of the law enforcement system. June 19th, or Juneteenth as it is known widely by those who have celebrated it since its founding, is the day we commemorate the abolition of slavery in America, freeing enslaved African Americans through the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment.
History of Juneteenth, The Emancipation Proclamation, and The Thirteenth Amendment
The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars that Americans have ever fought, and it lasted four long years. The war was between the Union, which was made up of much of the northern states above the Mason-Dixon Line, and anyone below that line seceded from the main country and swore loyalty to the Confederacy. The Mason-Dixon line, which was passed in 1861, was designed to be a compromise that allowed Southern states to continue to use slave labor in the South in their fields and farms, while the Northern states were moving to abolish slavery within their boundaries. While the North depended on their seaports and industries, the South primarily produced the cash crops like cotton, rice, and indigo, that were being shipped across the oceans and transported by railroads across the lands. There were a few border states in the middle that did not want to give up slavery in their states. Lincoln, recognizing that he needed those states in the Union to have a chance to win the Civil War, permitted them to continue to use slavery while being a part of the Union.
In an attempt to change the course of the Civil War and keep the nation from breaking into two parts, President Abraham Lincoln wanted to weaken the Confederate forces so the Union forces could be victorious. This, he assumed, could be done by targeting the Confederacy’s economy and economic infrastructure, which at that time, was primarily dependent on slave labor. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as an executive order, freeing all the enslaved individuals in all Confederate states that did not yield to the Union troops. With the passage of this document, the South could no longer rely on unpaid labor, leaving them in financial turmoil and giving them no other option but to surrender to the Union troops. The document is largely believed to have abolished slavery entirely in America, but the reality is that this was a political move during a war by the President to ensure that the Southern economy would be devastated. This proclamation did not include the border states which were already part of the Union but were employing slavery in their states. This meant that the enslaved individuals in those border states continued to be enslaved. This proclamation also excluded those who lived in the southern states which had already surrendered to the Union, meaning that those who did not rebel against the Union were allowed to continue to use slavery as their economic system. What the Proclamation did, however, was transform the morality and cause for fighting the Civil War. The Civil War began over the question of whether slavery should exist or not, with the Vice President of the Confederacy delivering a speech declaring the sole purpose of secession to be the disagreement on slavery between the Union and the Confederacy. However, to President Lincoln, being victorious meant keeping the nation intact, and the abolition of slavery was an aftermath. Once the Proclamation was passed, many Americans were convinced that the war was being fought for the abolition of slavery in its entirety in the United States. The Proclamation even gave way for newly freed African Americans to join the Union army and help liberate their brothers and sisters in the Confederate states.
While the Union’s victory was generally a good thing for the progress of America toward equality among all people as it was first outlined in the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the document to achieve this goal. Although it changed the trajectory of the Civil War, transforming the initial cause to keep the nation united, into a moral cause of abolishing slavery, it was not until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that slavery was truly abolished in all the states of the nation. This Amendment, which had followed the proper channels of the Legislative branch, was passed right after the Civil War ended, and right before the rebellious states were admitted back into the Union. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was officially ratified into the Constitution of the United States. Along with the Thirteenth Amendment, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to all formerly enslaved individuals, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage rights to African American men, altogether addressed the Civil War’s conflicts, providing a final Constitutional solution to the issue of slavery in America.
So, where does the term “Juneteenth” come from? Although the Emancipation Proclamation had passed in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment had passed in 1864, it was not until two months after the Civil War had ended, that many of the enslaved individuals in most Southern states had been made aware of their free status. On June 19th, 1865, two thousand Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the freedom of all who were enslaved there, and the newly freed African Americans coined the term “Juneteenth” to commemorate the day they received independence and could be truly free.
The Continued Struggle for Freedom and Equality
The end of the Civil War, the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, were supposed to be the official end to slavery in America, but many scholars have pointed out that slavery only transformed into a modified system. These scholars highlight issues with the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment, which states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The amendment abolished slavery in all instances, except as a punishment for crimes, and the Reconstruction Era, which followed the end of the Civil War, took advantage of the loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. In the 1890s, legalized segregation became the new normal. The South had faced a lot of loss, both to its infrastructure as a result of the war, as well as its economy (primarily held up by slavery), due to the freeing of their enslaved laborers. Additionally, many white southerners also were not ready to accept the newly freed African Americans, who they did not view as equals.
The infamous Jim Crow laws were proposed as a solution to all of the White Southerners’ problems with the outcome of the war. These laws were made to criminalize as many newly freed individuals as possible, to re-enslave them in the prison systems, and force them to help rebuild the nation, as they had once done under slavery following the Revolutionary War. The Jim Crow laws criminalized such things as being unemployed, not bowing to white people while walking on the streets, drinking from a “Whites Only” water fountain, and many other harmless, everyday actions that displeased any white residents of the area. Many times, lies were told about African Americans simply to land them in prisons and put them to work. These laws were designed to be a criminalization of blackness.
This was also the time when Convict Leasing systems began, where imprisoned individuals would be leased to businesses and the state to work as laborers for whatever positions they needed to be filled. This could be working on farmlands, working with heavy machinery, or even in coal mines. Our own Sloss Furnaces, the famous Steel and Iron plant that transformed Birmingham from a small town into the large city it is today, made use of Convict Leasing as well. To read more about the history of the prison systems in America and in Birmingham, as well as details about the convict leasing programs, click here.
The exception in the Thirteenth Amendment has today led America to have the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world and has given way to the Prison Industrial Complex. America houses only about 5% of the world’s population, yet the mass incarceration rate is so large that 20% of the world’s prison population is made up of Americans alone. This is not only unjust, costly, and inefficient, it also shares its roots in the racist history of America’s founding. Many of those who end up in prison are disproportionately people of color, which speaks to the systemic racism present within our institutions. What’s worse, many of the people held in local jails have not even been charged with any crimes. They are awaiting their trial, too poor to post the high bail amounts. Still, others have lived out sentences for crimes they have never committed. This atrocious list goes on and on with injustices, yet a simple solution is to cut down on our incarceration rates. One reason why this is more than an issue of criminality can be determined by looking at the Angola Prison in Louisiana, a plantation farm that operates as a state penitentiary, with their prisoners in chains (like enslaved individuals of the past), officers on horseback (like overseers on the plantations), and the farmland that they are expected to till, harvest and package food for the rest of the community. Until white supremacy and racist ideology continue to exist in America, so too will these unjust forms of oppression, clouded by the legal cover provided to them by the justice system.
These facts are bleak but necessary for everyone to understand, so as to be conscious of the continued struggle for true equality in this country for African Americans, and others who have dealt with oppression throughout the history of this nation. Many people think that slavery died following the Civil War, or that it was “more than 200 years ago, so what can we do about it?” Yet, the reality remains that slavery never died, but only transformed into a modern, industrialized version of the same system, which now incorporates a wider umbrella of people to oppress. Juneteenth is not only a celebration of the resistance, courage, and triumphs over oppression by people of our past, but also a day to come together and address the new forms of oppression we face in society today. It is a continuation of the legacy of freedom, equality, and justice started by those before us.
Importance of Juneteenth
Juneteenth was officially recognized as a holiday in Texas, which was the first state to do so in 1979. It has recently been recognized as a federal holiday since 2021 after President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth is a day to celebrate the shared history of African Americans, but also the progress towards peace, freedom, equality, and justice. Fredrick Douglass, a famous orator, author, and abolitionist, in 1852, had famously asked his audience in a speech he delivered on July 4th, what Independence Day meant for those who were enslaved in America. Juneteenth is the true Independence Day for many people who recognize the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, who fought the Revolutionary War for “freedom” while enslaving African Americans and stealing lands from the Native Americans. Juneteenth is a time for the rejuvenation of culture among a group of people whose cultures were stolen from them, and all that they were left behind with are their shared ancestry and shared histories. This day is a day to instill a sense of community despite those hardships and losses. Juneteenth is also a time to reflect on the past, rejoice in the resilience and solidarity of those who fought for this freedom, and discuss current events and how to best approach them moving forward. Juneteenth is a day to learn from the past, live gratefully in the present, and prepare for the future.
How Is It Celebrated and Who Can Celebrate It?
There are many ways to celebrate Juneteenth. Many cities hold parades and festivals, with local black-owned businesses and food trucks as vendors for the event. These events might include prominent guest speakers and workshops on various topics each year, based on the community’s needs and wants. Others celebrate the holiday by holding potlucks, family gatherings, and backyard barbecues for a more intimate celebration with family and friends. If you want to celebrate Juneteenth but are not comfortable engaging in community activities, there are many things you can do in the comforts of your home, or with friends and family members as well to honor this day. For one, you could learn about the history of Juneteenth. If you are reading this article, then good job, you are already celebrating it!
You can educate yourself about the history of slavery, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and any other topic that you might not be too sure about as it pertains to Juneteenth and why it is important to celebrate it. You can do this by going to a museum near you, like the Legacy Museum in Huntsville, which is a great historical walkthrough from the times of slavery to mass incarceration today, or the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which focuses on a detailed history of the Civil Rights movement that took place in the heart of Birmingham. You can watch a documentary about these topics, including “The 13th” on Netflix, which takes a deep dive into the loophole of the Thirteenth Amendment that gave rise to the mass incarceration crisis we face today. You can listen to a podcast, like “Deliberate Indifference“, a podcast by Mary Scott Hodgins that focuses on the local Birmingham history of policing and provides details about convict leasing practices in Alabama. You could read literature written by Black authors, whether they be informational, like “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet A. Washington, or fictional like the short story, “Recitatif” by Tony Morrison. You could support Black-owned businesses, locally or online, such as buying your books from a Black-owned bookstore or going out to eat at a Black-owned restaurant. You could educate others about the importance of Juneteenth, including your friends, family members, and even co-workers. As an ally, you can maybe pick up a shift for your Black friend who may want to celebrate Juneteenth with their family, or if you are someone in a supervisory position, you could give a Black co-worker the day off to celebrate Juneteenth. Encourage and empower your Black friends, family members, or co-workers, to feel comfortable to share their opinions and voice their concerns. You could even volunteer at any local Juneteenth event to help make the events successful!
Local Juneteenth Celebrations to Attend
There are many local events that you can attend to celebrate Juneteenth in Birmingham, Alabama. Here are a few that might be of interest:
Juneteenth: The Cookout, hosted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on June 17, from 10 am-4 pm. There will be food trucks, live entertainment, a children’s village, tournaments, food competitions, genealogy workshops, and even a free tour of the museum!
Juneteenth Social is hosted by the UAB Black Alumni network at the Southern Kitchen Roof Top Bar on June 17th from 7 pm to 11 pm. Tickets are $25 each, and the proceeds go to the Kappa Delta Omega Psi Phi memorial scholarship for incoming African American Male students.
Second Annual Juneteenth Freedom Celebration, hosted by The Lifting As We Climb Foundation on June 18th, from 2 pm-9 pm at the Arlington Historic House in Birmingham. There will be food, fun, education, entertainment, and fireworks, and the tickets start at $20 for early bird tickets and $25 for general admissions. Bring small tents and lawn chairs, and be ready to eat from the food trucks on site.
Juneteenth in the Magic City 2023, hosted by Simone’s Kitchen ATL, on June 18, from 4 pm-10 pm at the Club M Compound. There will be food trucks, vendors, live bands, fireworks, African dances, and various other entertainment. Tickets start at $15 for Early Bird tickets and $20 for general admissions.
Juneteenth Pop Up Art Exhibit, hosted by Studio 2500 on June 16, at 6 pm for all the artistic, creative folks. Admissions start at $10 per person, children under 13 are free, and tickets can be purchased online at their website. They will have food, music, and an open mic, so bring lawn chairs and your own beverages, and take in the creations of our fellow Birmingham local artists and performers.
Juneteenth Open Mic is a virtual event being held on June 19th to highlight musicians, poets, hip-hop artists, and other Black artists who would like to participate. If you are a local artist and you would like to increase your followers, this is the event for you. If you just want to show up virtually to support local artists, you can do that to buy going to their website and purchasing tickets to vote. Tickets start at $10, whether you are performing, a part of the audience, or even a vendor. Again, this is a virtual event, so all you need is your laptop and internet!
However you choose to spend the day, make sure to be conscious of what Juneteenth represents to you and to those around you, and together we can actively, and intentionally work to make our world a better place for future generations!
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