Prisoners of Conscience

Recently, upon landing at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, avowed critic of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 embezzlement charge. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that that trial had been politically motivated and resulted in an unfair conviction. The arrest came as no surprise; Navalny had made clear that he expected to be arrested when he returned home to Russia. Still, the Russian government’s blatant repression of one of their loudest critics inspired outrage and disappointment from around the world.

Photo of Alexei Navalny
Navalny in 2014. Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta. Wikimedia commons.

Navalny had been taken to hospital in Germany in after he became very ill aboard a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20th and nearly died. He was in a coma for over two weeks before making a remarkable recovery. The German government in September determined with “unequivocal proof” from toxicology tests that Navalny had been poisoned with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. In December, investigations by The Insider and Bellingcat with CNN and Der Spiegel implicated Russia’s Federal Security Service in the attempt on Navalny’s life. Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been a target for criticism by Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation for years, called media reports that he had ordered Navalny’s poisoning a U.S. backed plot to discredit him. Putin suggested that Navalny was not important enough to be poisoned, adding “[i]f someone had wanted to poison him, they would have finished him off.”

Amnesty International last week added Navalny to its list of prisoners of conscience as a result of his arrest. Commenting on his detention, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office director, said, “Aleksei Navalny’s arrest is further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him. His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest levels.”

Protests in response to Navalny’s arrest and the widespread corruption amongst Russian political leaders erupted January 22nd. As of when this was written, over three-thousand our-hundred protestors had been arrested, including Navalny’s wife, lawyers, and more than twenty-five known associates. Most are being held without charge. In Moscow, more than fifteen-thousand protestors gathered and endured temperatures as low as negative fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.

Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia
Protestors in St. Petersburg, Russia. Associated Press / AP Photo / Dmitri Lovetsky. Fair use.

Prisoners of conscience are those who are imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views, as well as those under persecution for the nonviolent expression of conscientiously held beliefs. The term was coined in 1961 in an article The Forgotten Prisoners by Peter Benenson, a lawyer and activist who founded Amnesty International. Today, Amnesty International is actively campaigning for the release of around one-hundred fifty documented prisoners of conscience, although the number of people who meet the definition is certainly much higher than that. Amnesty International figures that there are “likely thousands more”. Currently, Russia, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Belarus have the highest number of known, documented prisoners of conscience, although information about political prisoners is sometimes heavily restricted, particularly in China and North Korea. It is likely that there are dozens, if not hundreds more prisoners of conscience in these countries alone.

Last year, Amnesty prisoner of conscience Rubén González was released after being held since 2018 on charges that he had “insulted” the armed forces in Venezuela. González had been acquitted in 2014 after a five year trial for organizing a strike. While he was imprisoned, he was the only civilian prisoner in the military wing of the La Pica prison in Monagas. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, criticized González’ conviction and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention characterized his imprisonment as arbitrary. Amnesty International’s campaign for González’ release is representative of their work across the globe, showing that international condemnation is an effective tool against the incarceration of prisoners of conscience.

In Iran, Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer who has twice been arrested for her campaigns both for opposition candidates and for women’s rights. In 2010, Sotoudeh was charged with spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. The Washington Post characterized the arrest as emblematic of “an intensifying crackdown on lawyers who defend influential opposition politicians, activists, and journalists.” During her first imprisonment, Sotoudeh staged three hunger strikes, with two of them lasting four weeks and seven weeks respectively. In 2018, Nasrin was arrested again, and charged with espionage, dissemination of propaganda, and disparaging the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. For this, she was sentenced to five years.

Accurate information about prisoners of conscience can be hard to come by, because the states that are more commonly imprisoning people for ‘thought crimes’ are also the states more likely to be highly suppressive of reports about their human rights abuses. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience range from absolutely none, reported by the Ministry of Interior, to thirty-thousand reported by the Islamic Human Rights Commission and the BBC. In addition to their arbitrary detention of political activists, Saudi Arabia has also been heavily criticized by human rights bodies for their prolific use of capital punishment, including against people who were children when they were accused of crimes. In 2016, Ali Sa’eed al-Ribh was executed, despite the government admitting during trial that he was under the age of eighteen at the time of his alleged crimes. Because Saudi Arabia is party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are legally required to ensure that no one under the age of eighteen at the time of a crime is sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of release. Currently, several young Saudis are awaiting execution, including Ali al-Nimr, who was seventeen, Abdullah al-Zaher, who was sixteen, and Dawood al-Marhoon, who was seventeen when they were arrested. In addition, in 2017, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj’s death sentence was upheld on appeal for crimes committed when he was sixteen. All of their crimes relate to anti-government protests.

Photo of Loujain al-Hathloul
Loujain al-Hathloul. Creative Commons.

In 2018 and 2019, Saudi Arabia came down heavily on feminist activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who has been imprisoned since May 2018. al-Hathloul is known for her campaigns against the driving ban, and has been detained many times previously for offenses such as driving a car and appearing on camera with her face and hair uncovered. For the first several months of her detention, she was not allowed to contact her family or lawyer. al-Hathloul was subjected to beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, and sexual abuse. During her first trial in March of 2019, she was charged with “promoting women’s rights, calling for the end of the male guardianship system, and contacting international organizations and foreign media.” Saudi Arabia has, over the last decade or so, made some purely performative and milquetoast changes to their repressive policies. In 2017, King Salman decreed that women be allowed access to some government services without the consent of a male guardian. The case of al-Hathloul and others show without a doubt that nothing substantive has changed. Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most repressive powers in the world — for women, for activists, for critics of the regime. All of this from a country that we, in the United States, continue to support economically and diplomatically. And, for the last four years, have only become closer with.

The plight of prisoners of conscience around the world should be a priority for any freedom loving people and all freedom loving states. Amnesty International continues to do important work to bring awareness to and win freedom for political and ideological prisoners. Hopefully, governments that believe in liberty will start to hold each other accountable and unite against states who do not. Until the last prisoner of conscience is freed.

Further reading:

Who Are Prisoners of Conscience?

List of Designated Prisoners of Conscience

 

Reproductive Justice: Voices Not Just Choices

What Is Reproductive Justice?

Indigenous women, women of color, and trans people have long fought for the right to make decisions about their bodies. Coined in 1994, the term reproductive justice is defined as the “human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

One way to differentiate reproductive justice from reproductive rights is that the latter is the “legal right to access health care services such as abortion and birth control”. Initially, spokespeople of this women’s rights movement often included educated wealthy, middle class White women. This left marginalized communities and minority women who did not have easy access to their rights with minimized opportunities to voice their problems and experiences. This begs the question of what good are these rights, if they aren’t accessible. Built upon the United Nations human rights framework, reproductive justice is an intersectionality issue where reproductive rights and social justice are combined so the voices of LGBTQ+ people, marginalized women, and minority communities are uplifted.

Abortion as a Voice, Not a Choice

Choice comes from a place of privilege. The chance of deciding reproductive options is more easily accessible to middle class White women, while these same options are typically unavailable or restricted for poor, low-income women of color. These are the same marginalized women who historically bore the burden of unethical research in reproductive medicine from issues regarding the study of gynecology, to sterilization, and everything in between. For example, James Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, conducted medical procedures on enslaved Black women, which is unethical in more ways than one. No consent was given. A patient that has no knowledge of what is going on or what is being done to them cannot give consent. As an enslaved person, the patient was not seen as a human being, but rather as property, and therefore no consent was necessary. The medical procedure was purely experimental, and Sims’ likely had poor knowledge of what he was doing which made his actions torturous. Women like the patients Sims practiced on, women of color, women who were and are oppressed and marginalized, women with disabilities, and people of the LGBTQ+ community continue to be exploited, and it is important that their voices are heard now more than ever.

Source: Robert Thom, circa 1952. From the collection of Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan. Sims’ not only purchased Black women to conduct his inhumane experiments on, but he did so on the belief that Black women could not feel pain.

Often there are misguided notions that reproductive justice is just about abortion, and while access to abortions is a major component of the movement, the movement does not end there. Reproductive justice also goes on to include access to proper sex education, inclusive to all genders and sexualities, affordable contraception, and access to safe and healthy abortions. It’s not enough for abortion to be legalized. “Access is key,” meaning that the cost of the medical procedure is bearable. Medical expenses include travel to a medical provider, paid time off from work, prescription costs, dietary expenses, relocation, etc. all of which can cause difficulty in accessing care. As something that women of color, women with low incomes, and the LGBTQ+ community have brought to attention, reproductive justice is an umbrella that goes beyond the pro-choice versus pro-life debates. It calls into light that factors such as race and class in society affect each woman and LGBTQ+ persons differently. This means not every person has the choice to choose or not choose a pregnancy due to lack of access to services, stigma, or historic oppression, which is where the pro-voice movement intercedes.

The pro-voice movement is meant to “replace judgement with conversation” from both pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Abortion is an incredible emotionally and morally draining topic to converse on, and it’s a decision that should be void of politics and instead filled with empathy and compassion so an individual can make the healthiest choice and live their healthiest life. It is important to validate a person’s lived experiences and to acknowledge that they made the best decision they felt like they could with the resources available to them at the time.

Stigma Around Reproductive Health

There is lack of access to the topic of reproductive health due to incomprehensive sexual education in school systems. Access to this information, access to proper medical care, access to contraception and abortion “is a political, human rights and reproductive justice issue.” Some educational systems fail to mention how to obtain contraceptive methods, how to use them, and which methods are more suited for an individual. This lack of information and stigma around sexual education does not reduce the incidence of unsafe and “unprotected sex or rates of abortion.” In fact, lack of education around contraception and restrictive abortion practices leads to more unsafe abortions globally due to financial burdens as well as social and cultural stigma.

Source: Maria Nunes. An LGBTQ+ Pride event takes place in the Caribbean.

Another issue is heteronormativity which is the trend in sex education focusing “on straight, cisgender young people, but ignores LGBTQ+ youth.” These conservative views that do not cater to a whole population of young adults exacerbates this stigma around sexual and reproductive health. This leads to people feeling like they cannot ask questions due to fear of social repercussions or that their sexuality is abnormal. Not being provided with “information to address their health needs, leaves the LGBTQ+ youth at risk for sexual violence and unprotected sex,” making them more vulnerable to various sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and mental health disorders. As important as it is it to address reproductive justice and reproductive health as a women’s issue, it’s even more important to know that LGBTQ+ people “can get pregnant, use birth control, have abortions, carry pregnancies, and become parents.” Part of fighting for and providing reproductive justice involves activism against controlling reproductive voices, and often controlling sexualities and gender expressions are synonymous with gatekeeping those voices.

Providing access to sexual and reproductive healthcare to LGBTQ+ people is one way to ensure that all communities are able to have information, resources, and the power to make their own decisions about their bodies, genders, sexualities, families, and lives. Access to reproductive healthcare can come in the form of gender affirming care and treatment for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals. Having free access to reproductive education is a foundational piece within the reproductive justice movement. Talking about the framework around sex and reproductive justice is so much more than sex. It involves intersectionality and considerations of reproductive health regarding pregnancy, abortions, racial and class division and discriminations, maternal mortality rates, and environmental conditions. It’s about the dichotomies between oppression and liberation, individuality and collectivity, and most importantly choices and voices.

Source: Terry Moon for News and Letters. An individual in Chicago attends a protest in support for Planned Parenthood.

What Are Three Things I Can Do?

  1. Understand that it’s not about being pro-choice or pro-life. Understanding abortion is about validating people’s stories and experiences. If you haven’t experienced abortion or don’t know of someone who has, the first step is to come from a place of compassion and empathy.
  2. Know that reproductive justice goes beyond being a women’s issue. The same resources and information given to women need to be disseminated throughout the LGBTQ+ community.
  3. Research organizations such as SisterSong, Planned Parenthood, and URGE to start your activism and make your impact.

Poland’s Rise in Populism

In 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) became the majority in the Polish Parliament alongside the presidency for the first time since 2007. The Law and Justice Party is a right-winged populist party that has faced ongoing controversy and scandals since its formation in 2001. The Law and Justice Party began as a center-right party with an emphasis on Christianity.  The party began forming coalitions with far-right parties in 2007, which positioned its ideology closer towards nationalism and populism. During the last few years support dwindled for the PiS; however, their messages calling for family unity and Christian values have appealed to deeply religious sectors of the country. A country that is trending towards nationalism and populism risks violating the rights of those that the nation deems as “other”. By establishing a national identity, particularly around religion, they are also establishing those that do not belong to the national identity. This carries the risk of isolating and ostracizing individuals.

Protestors march for LGBTQ rights in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

The Polish identity is tied very closely to Catholic beliefs and practices. Around 87% of Polish people  identify as Roman Catholic. In Poland Catholic values are taught in public schools, over ⅓ of Polish citizens attend church regularly, and the Polish government has an intense working relationship with the Catholic Church. Public ceremonies are often held with the blessings of priests, and church officials often act as a lobby group having access to large amounts of public funding. Priests in the countryside of Poland often campaign for members of the more conservative party who support legislation that aligns with the ideals of the Catholic Church. This close relationship is criticized because of the archaic and often divisive legislation that the Church tends to support. The Catholic Church’s alignment with the government will inevitably ostracize those who are not Catholic as well as those who live their life in a way that the Catholic Church condemns. The issue is at a governmental level, this allows for discriminatory policy to be passed.

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

The support of the Catholic Church was paramount in the Law and Justice Party candidate winning the 2020 Presidential election. President Duda, the PiS candidate, narrowly won re-election after a very divisive campaign against the progressive Mayor of Warsaw.  President Duda exploited negative rhetoric citing LGBT ideology as being more destructive than Communism. Poland’s history of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) occupation accompanied with this rhetoric led to the success of President Duda in the 2020 Presidential election. PiS members and Catholic Clergymen asserted LGBT values as being in opposition to family values and sought to associate the LGBT community with pedophilia. President Duda’s narrow win ignited mass unrest spreading throughout Polish cities as progressives viewed his win as a step back for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe.

President Duda of Poland meets with President Trump of the United States (Source: Creative Commons)

LGBTQ Free Zones

Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric did not begin in the 2020 Polish elections. Over 100 towns and regions around Poland have declared themselves LGBTQ Free Zones since 2018. These declarations are largely symbolic; however, they have further divided the country and suppressed the LGBT community. LGBTQ free resolutions have been pushed by the Catholic Church and politicians across Poland. Protests against these zones have resulted in mass countermarches of right-wing Poles that have ended in violence. The LGBTQ community has continued to face oppression from their government and these zones just serve as a way to further disenfranchise them.

“Stop Financing LGBT+” Sign hanging outside a building in Warsaw (Source: Creative Commons)

Access to Abortion

Along with the anti-LGBT legislation, Poland’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of strict regulation of abortion. Poland previously had regulations only allowing abortion access to victims of rape, incest, preservation of the mother’s life, and if the baby has fetal defects. Legal battles erupted in 2019 by the Law and Justice Party to ban abortions in the event of fetal defect. Judges nominated by PiS members ruled in favor of a ban of all abortions due to fetal defects, which account for approximately 98% of all Polish abortions. The decision led to outcry across Poland inspiring protests in almost every major city.

 What is the future of Poland?

The future of Poland is unknown, and it is clear the Polish government has become increasingly populist and nationalistic. Public figures are using rhetoric that divides the general population from “western elites” and activists within their country that seek to strive towards more encompassing human rights. Polish activists are fearful of future legislation that will further violate human rights. International human rights activists, the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have all attempted to pressure Parliament to pass legislation showing outward support of the LGBTQ community. Polish officials responded claiming LGBTQ people have equal rights in the country and organizations should instead focus energy on Christian discrimination taking place internationally. As part of the international community, we can demonstrate our support for the people of Poland by staying up to date on what is happening there. It is also important to create dialogue around the issues in Poland which can include everything from social media posts to organizing events that bring awareness to the situation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voter Fraud and Voter Suppression: America’s Legacy of Eliminating the Right to Vote

vote 1
Polling Station. Source: Pete. Creative Commons.

Ever since Joe Biden secured enough electoral college votes to be considered the President-Elect, the word “fraud” has been used in many capacities. Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans have been calling for recounts of the votes in many states, due to claims of voter fraud. The New York Times published an article where top election officials in all 50 states reported if they saw any evidence of fraud and none of them were able to report an issue. The only one that did not respond at all was Texas, where the Lieutenant Governor offered a $1 million reward for any form of evidence of fraud. In the 2016 election, Trump also claimed fraud occurred, even going so far as to appointing a commission for the 2016 election. This commission was unable to find any credible evidence for fraud. There have been instances throughout history of individual level voter fraud. There are even some cases of more organized instances of voter fraud such as in Chicago in 1982 and in Brooklyn in 1984. However, these cases were never to the extent that could swing a presidential election and since then jurisdictions have tightened their laws and technology surrounding voting has evolved.

With this have come many claims that mail in ballots could be the source of any possible voting fraud. While mail in ballots have always been used (think absentee ballots), there was a significant increase of usage this year due to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last two federal presidential elections, nearly one in four Americans voted by using the mail in ballot system. There have been increases in voting by mail in ballots over the years and even with these increases, fraud rates have remained very, very small. There are many tools to address some very valid security concerns when it comes to mail in ballots. The primary method for determining and preventing mail in voter fraud is identity verification. Each voter is required to include personal identifying information such as their address, driver’s license number, or the last four digits of their Social Security number. This information is used to match the mail in ballot with the information stored on voter registration rolls. The signature on every ballot is matched with the corresponding signature on the voter registration record. Bar codes are also utilized to track ballot processing and help voters understand where their ballot is in the process. The bar codes are also used to help states identify any possible duplicate ballots. Similarly, ballot tracking programs allow the United States Postal Service to track a ballot from drop off to delivery. Anyone who commits voter fraud by using mail in ballots is considered a felon and could receive $10,000 in fines.

vote 2
Vote by Mail. Source: outtacontext. Creative Commons.

This current focus on alleged voter fraud completely disregards the systemic disenfranchisement of people of color within the United States, especially in regards to their right to vote. Despite non-Hispanic white people being a shrinking percentage of the United States, they have held tightly onto their political power through discriminatory practices that go back many centuries. In the 2020 election, this power was very clearly shrinking and more desperate attempts to hold on to it were made. These included slowing down the mail by taking away funding from the United States Postal Service, hurriedly appointing a Supreme Court justice, shutting down polling places in Black communities, refusing to count people of color in the 2020 census, calling for the election to be over before all of the ballots have been counted, and not allowing public schools and government agencies to discuss the long American history of disenfranchising non-white voters. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the Shelby County v. Holder decision to remove the “preclearance” requirement. The preclearance requirement required states with a history of discrimination against non-white voters to get federal authorization for any changes they make to voting laws and rules. After the removal of this requirement, discrimination against BIPOC communities has persisted in many states, if not all.

One such state where we can clearly see the effects of the Shelby County v. Holder case is Georgia. In Georgia, the demographics have been rapidly changing and it has become a battleground state in elections over the past few years. Brian Kemp, the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia, worked hard to close polling places in Black communities, eliminate resources for election officials in Black communities, and removing people of color from voting lists. In Georgia counties like Fulton and Cobb that are becoming more and more diverse by the year, the wait time for voting was over 6 hours. The consolidation of polling locations due to the pandemic did contribute to the extended wait time. In some areas, Georgians waited for 11 hours to vote. In others, people waited in line and voted, all within 10 minutes. An analysis from Propublica found that within Georgia, predominately black precincts were more likely to have the longest wait times for voting even though those were the areas where a majority of new voter registrations occurred. It was largely due to these tactics that Stacy Abrams narrowly lost the Georgia governor race to Kemp. Since then, Abrams has been a champion for Black voters, pulling together one of the biggest voter registration campaigns in Georgia and in the United States. It is thanks to her hard work that Georgia flipped blue during the 2020 presidential race.

vote 3
Voting Lines. Source: bunnicula. Creative Commons.

In 2018, Stacy Abrams began a large voter registration project in Georgia and it is to her effort that Biden owes his victory in Georgia. In the 2016 election, 500,000 black Americans voted in Georgia. In 2020, more than twice this number voted, making 1.2 million black voters in Georgia this year. Of all of the new voters in Georgia, registered after November 2018, half are black and 45% are under 30, two demographics that tend to vote bluer. Many other black women worked with Abrams to ensure this victory. Such advocates include Nsé Ufot, Helen Butler, Deborah Scott, and Tamieka Atkins. This is a long and mostly overlooked tradition of black women leading the charge for voting rights

Despite the adamant refusal to acknowledge the history of oppression of people of color by white people, these 2020 voter suppression tactics are reminiscent of the voter suppression measures used during the Jim Crow era. During this era, poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation factors were used to keep Black and low income populations from voting. Now, officials in Florida require people convicted of a felony, primarily black men due to over policing, to pay all of their court fines and fees before allowing them to vote. Some states, including Texas, have determined that officials do not have to notify voters if their absentee ballot was rejected. Fake poll watchers are encouraged by the sitting President to intimidate voters. The claims of voter fraud largely aimed at black and Latino communities have not changed in the years between the Jim Crow era and 2020.This is not just a problem within the southern states, as it is often believed. Proof of voter oppression is found in New York, Connecticut, and New Hampshire along with many other states. When discussing voter fraud, it is important to discuss all of the injustices voters have faced this election cycle. The refusal to change current discriminatory policies and the persistent continuation of new voter suppression tactics show an inherent disregard for the rights of many communities. It is clear that no election changing voter fraud has occurred this election cycle, however the conversation remains centered around this subject instead of addressing the number of people of color who were unable to vote due to purposeful legislation created by largely white lawmakers.

 

Cancel Culture: A Societal Obligation or Infringement on Free Speech?

A large majority of people spend their time online talking to friends, sharing and obtaining news, or connecting with family. Our lives being connected to the internet has forced us to learn how to network and find our way around social media platforms. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, facilitated the creation of “cancel culture” as we know it today. Cancel culture is used to call out behaviors and actions of individuals and corporations that convey opinions or feelings which are objectively questionable or not appropriate from a public perspective. Engaging in cancel culture typically requires a series of hashtags that proclaim an individual is being cancelled. A hashtag followed by the word cancelled or a hashtag with a person’s name followed by the phrase “isover” are the most commonly used hashtags within the tradition of cancelling. This brings us to an interesting dilemma of whether or not cancel culture is an infringement on freedom of speech.

Infringement on Freedom of Speech

Cancel culture has proven to be an effective method to identify the actions taken by individuals and corporations to rectify mistakes. Recently, in light of social justice movements such as the Black Lives Matter Movement and #MeToo; during an election year, cancel culture has been used to take down racist statues, rename buildings named after white supremacists, call out celebrities and prominent figures in society, and address “racist, sexist, or homophobic views or ideologies.”

Cancel Culture from Two Perspectives

The first perspective is often from the people who are advocating against cancel culture. These people often have large platforms, and they are upset that their freedom of speech is being infringed upon due to the policing of cancel culture and they’re afraid of being criticized for their opinions. The first perspective against cancel culture revolves around the inability to take criticism.

The second perspective involves those that do not engage in exercising their right to free speech and expression. People are afraid of the repercussions of cancel culture so they choose to not express themselves. This second perspective of cancelling is more concerning because it involves actively suppressing the beliefs, ideologies, and perspectives of people and a true cancelling of these voices.

There is a delicate balance in defending the right to freedom of speech and holding individuals and corporations responsible for their actions. The issue with cancel culture is that there is no gradation and all missteps have the same severity of punishment. People can be fired, and student admission can be halted as a result of this. In most cases, it’s a trend to be cancelled where people jump on a bandwagon without the slightest amount of information on what they are cancelling.

On the other hand, “defending speech has become a tool to bully others into silence.” Often, proponents of free speech will quote the right to speech and expression granted by the Constitution to prevent others from criticizing them. While it can be a useful tactic in the short term to support an argument, it leaves no room for compromise. This tactic makes it impossible to find the equilibrium in a conversation, which I argue can be almost as bad as cancel culture.

A protestor holds us up a fundamental part of what defines the freedom of speech. Source: theduran.com
A protestor holds up a fundamental part of what defines the freedom of speech. Source: theduran.com

A Different Option: Call Out Culture

More often than not, free speech is not being infringed upon. It is often a case of what boundaries are being set to speak in a public setting and if those boundaries are acceptable. While it is our responsibility to be open and receptive of opposing views, these views are not always in concordance to what a majority of people might believe. This gives leeway for a new type of action where the public can participate in call out culture instead of cancel culture. But before calling out, it is still important to give the opponent a chance to respond and hear their responses to avoid regressing and participating in what can be a very toxic culture. Responses do not need to include canceling, suppressing, or removing, but can include educating, accepting, and forgiving. This gives room where we can set boundaries safely and simply say, “I do not agree with you,” but even with this it is very situational where some actions are above disagreeing and need to be addressed properly.

For example, in 2016 a Pepsi advertisement featuring model and influence Kendall Jenner was incredibly tone deaf, and downplayed the severity of protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. The outcry against the ad prompted a response from Pepsi and Jenner apologizing for the missing the mark on trying to project “unity, peace, and understanding,” and for putting Jenner is this position. The public seemed to not hold Pepsi to the same standards that Jenner was held, and to this day still is, and essentially made her accountable for the apology, when every one that participated in the situation and production should have also been held responsible. On the other hand, Larry Nassar, who was national team doctor for USA gymnastics, was charged for hundred of cases of sexual assault under the pretext medical treatment for the athletes. Him, his actions, and his behavior harmed hundreds of lives and families, and so the public outcry against the individual, his actions, and the system that supported him was warranted and justified in a situation. Did he deserve to get cancelled? I think most people would argue yes, in a situation that is very black and white both morally and legally. Then the question becomes one of gradation. Did Jenner, a decent person often on the right path, deserve to get cancelled and held to the same standards of accountability, just as Nassar, and risk facing a stagnant and declining career for a misstep? For this, I think most people would argue no, because, yes while the ad was harmful to several communities, it was no where near the severity of Nassar’s actions. Yes, her participation needed to be addressed, but did it warrant “cancelling” a targeted individual because of their background instead of education them?

How to avoid cancel culture?

  • Do your own research on the situation or individual – the one being called out or cancelled as well as the individual doing the calling out or cancelling.
  • Evaluate the gradation and the consequence of the action in question, and ask yourself if cancel culture actually works.
  • Try to address how toxic it can be for your mental health and identify if there is another way to help.
  • If you do decide to engage, make sure to call out and educate instead of cancel.

Human Rights in Appalachia: The Battle of Blair Mountain and Workers’ Rights as Human Rights

In a region that has so often felt the brunt of capitalist, industrial exploitation, it follows that there ought to be a response on the part of the workers to protect their rights. This has been the case in Appalachia since the industrialists first started setting up shop in the mines and hollers throughout the Appalachian Region. Of particular note are the Coal Wars, which took place in Appalachia from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, from 1890-1921.

Preceding the Coal Wars, workers’ conditions were already very poor. Though the conditions heavily depended on the level of apathy the owners of the coal towns felt or did not feel for their workers (which was usually high), it was nearly universal that coal camps were remote, unhealthy, and unsafe, both due to frequent industrial accidents and poverty-driven crime. Companies often owned the homes of the workers, and eviction was a constant threat. Further, the usage of company stores, in which the only form of currency for the price-gouged goods was company scrip or coal scrip, forced the workers into a monopolistic, unbalanced form of trade where they were always at the mercy of their company. Companies often employed private detectives, public law enforcement, and strikebreakers who used violence, harassment, intimidation, and espionage to crack down on workers’ rights advocates’ activities (Athey). 

There was also an ethnicity-based social hierarchy enforced by the companies. Despite all the workers being low-paid, blue collar workers, Welsh and English miners were considered to have the highest prestige and received the best jobs, followed by the Irish. More recent immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe were treated the worst, with the poorest jobs. However, all groups recognized that it was them against the companies for which they worked. From the mid-nineteenth century forward, coal miners built a strong reputation for radical engagement with politically left ideologies and for militant unionization (Rowland).

Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921

It was under these pretenses of repression and disregard for workers’ rights that the Coal Wars occurred. While entire books could be written about the Coal Wars, I am going to focus on the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest labor uprising in the history of the United States, as well as the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, and occurred from late August to early September of 1921. Since 1890, coal mines in Mingo County, West Virginia had hired only non-union workers and specifically denied their miners the right to unionize. When three-thousand miners unionized in spite of this, they were summarily fired. The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was brought in to effect the evictions of the miners’ families from the company town. Police Chief Sid Hatfield, along with a group of deputized miners, confronted them and a gunfight ensued, killing the mayor of Matewan and Albert and Lee Felts, among others. Later, Hatfield went to stand trial in McDowell County for an unrelated incident and was assassinated by Baldwin-Felts agents on the courthouse stairs. A friend of Hatfield’s, Ed Chambers, was also killed by a Baldwin-Felts detective who shot him execution-style after he was wounded in the melee. When word got back to the miners that Hatfield had been killed, they began to take up arms and organize, commandeering trains and moving to fortify areas surrounding Blair Mountain. 

miners with machine gun
Blair Mountain machine gun nest. Wikicommons.

The Battle of Blair Mountain saw some forty-thousand combatants engage in armed conflict in Logan County, West Virginia. Ten-thousand striking coal miners led by Bill Blizzard faced off with Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency strike breakers, Logan County Sheriff’s deputies led by Don Chafin, West Virginia State Police, and the West Virginia Army National Guard. Approximately one million rounds of ammunition were fired and over one-hundred people were killed, with nearly a thousand miners arrested for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia (Savage).

miners surrender arms to troops
Miners surrender arms to federal troops in Logan County, W. Va. Wikicommons.

Decline in Labor Union Membership

It is hard to believe that something like this occurred less than a hundred years ago in our country. Most people, I think, are unaware of the bloody history of labor rights in the United States. Further, it appears that anti-labor sentiment and large industries have prevailed in America. The Battle of Blair Mountain unfortunately led to a decline in membership for the United Mine Workers of America, even if it also led to a greater public knowledge about the conditions in which they worked. In spite of any greater awareness, unions have, since then, continued to hemorrhage members. In 2015, NPR reported that in 1965, almost a third of all workers in the US belonged to a union. By 2015, that number had shrunk to one in ten. Their research indicated that, even at the height of membership, the South/eastern United States saw drastically reduced numbers of union members compared to the Northeast, Midwest, and West. One contributing factor to this may be “right to work” laws, more common in the South, which are state laws that prohibit union security agreements between unions and employers. Right to work laws are misleading in that they are not general guarantees of employment, but are government bans on contractual agreements between employers and union employees requiring workers to join unions if they benefit from their protection.

As I discussed in my last post, unions have been shown to raise wages, reduce wage inequality, and protect rights for workers. Higher rates of union membership tends to indicate greater respect for human rights in industry.

graph of union membership and income inequality
Union membership and income inequality. Wikicommons.

So why are states limiting the function and growth of unions? It seems a shame to me that the interests of large corporations are being given priority to the interests of their workers. This is something we should all be concerned with because workers’ rights are human rights. Workers’ rights encompass things like freedom of association, the right to strike, the prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, and the right to fair working conditions. Because most of us spend most of our time working, this should matter to all of us. Unfortunately, only a few workers’ rights are specifically enumerated in international documents protecting civil and political rights, such as the right to form and join unions. Other rights are mentioned in treaties dealing with economic and social rights. Some good news on the front of labor rights is that, recently in Europe, workers’ rights advocates have been successful in taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the right to strike is contained in freedom of association. 

In my next blog post, I will write about the broader picture of socioeconomic inequity in Appalachia and the ways in which that disparity has led to human rights failures in the region. 

Other References: 

  1. Athey, L. (1990). “The Company Store in Coal Town Culture,” Labor’s Heritage Vol. 2 #1 pp 6-23.
  2. Savage, L. (1990). Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-3634-3.
  3. Podobnik, B. (2008). Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age. Temple University Press. pp. 40–41. ISBN 9781592138043..
  4. Rowland, B. (1965) “The Social Order of the Anthracite Region, 1825-1902,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography Vol. 89 #3 pp. 261-291.

The Right to Protest: Black Lives Matter and the Anti-Lockdown Protests

protestor
BLM protestor. Source: Elvert Barnes. Creative Commons.

Throughout the summer of 2020, the cries of “Black Lives Matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” echoed across the United States. These cries took the form of protests that occurred in many cities around the country and even around the world. The increase of Black Lives Matter protests has been occurring in the months following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in May of 2020. Frustration over the lack of action by local and national authorities as well as community members themselves, led to some protestors to resort to violent tactics. It is important to keep in mind that while Mr. Floyd’s death was a catalyst that sparked the increase in protests, police brutality and the discrimination of black populations within many United States systems has existed since the times of slavery. These disparities within the system have been left unaddressed for too long, and many agree that peaceful protest will not incite the necessary action and change. However, while some of the protests have resulted in property damage and other violent acts, the majority of the protests have been very peaceful.

In response, President Trump has repeatedly called for a “crackdown” and continues to characterize protestors as violent and dangerous, despite the fact that over 90 percent of the thousands of nationwide protests have been peaceful. He declared New York City, New York, Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, cities that have hosted several Black Lives Matter protests, to be “anarchist cities,” which in turn could make them ineligible for important federal funds during the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump has also refused to address the very valid concerns of protestors, instead vowing to defend the police as opposed to answering the call to pursue reforms to the policing structure. He has taken an authoritarian approach to the Black Lives Matter protests, sending in federal agents to “take care of the situation” in cities where very large Black Lives Matter protests have been held. His response is in stark contrast to the response of protests held earlier in the summer, protesting state lockdowns and mask ordinances in response to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

police
Riot Police. Source: Igal Koshevoy. Creative Commons.

In Portland, Oregon, federal agents dressed in camouflage and tactical gear were called in to handle the local Black Lives Matter protests. They were part of ‘rapid deployment teams’ created by the Department of Homeland Security. Such agents were also deployed within Washington, D.C., San Diego, California, Buffalo, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada. In D.C., federal agents utilized “chemical agents” to disperse a crowd. Also in D.C., military helicopters flew over protestors below roof level, causing panic and leaving protestors to run for cover. Some protestors described experiences of being grabbed off the street by plainclothes policemen and agents, thrown in a van, and being taken to a location where they were held for multiple hours without being told a reason for their apparent arrest. Lawsuits have been opened due to increased injuries experienced by protestors and accusations of the agents engaging in ‘unlawful tactics.’ The deployment of these federal agents into Portland and other cities is an extremely unnecessary show of force. The federal government labeled the protection of government property and the discouragement of unrest as the excuse for the presence of the agents. This excuse angered local authorities, with the governor of Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown, declaring the influx of federal agents a “blatant abuse of power.”

A few weeks before George Floyd’s death, in late April 2020, protestors gathered outside of Michigan’s state capital chanting, “Let us in! Let us in!” The protestors, many of them armed and carrying semiautomatic rifles, forcibly attempted to enter the Michigan capitol building. They were protesting the new state lockdown and restrictions that were put in place by Michigan’s governor in response to an increase of Covid-19 cases within the state. The protestors were tightly packed and very few were wearing masks. Some protestors shouted anti-government slogans and some compared Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to Hitler. One protest sign threatened to hang state officials and read, “Tyrants get the rope.” The horde of protestors was blocked only by state police and a few capitol staff members. Some of the protestors managed to get into the gallery above the main legislative floor and stood menacingly above lawmakers, waving semiautomatic rifles and shouting down at the lawmakers below. It became so bad that the few lawmakers who did own bullet proof vests began wearing them. Other similar protests occurred within Michigan and the sentiment was carried across the country.

 

lockdown protest
Lockdown Protestors. Source: Michael Swan. Creative Commons.

President Trump’s response to these increasingly intimidating and violent protests? He encouraged them. In a series of tweets in mid-April, the president called on citizens to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA…” At this time, the pressure to reopen the economy was extremely high and President Trump seceded any leadership during the pandemic to the state governors, while criticizing the ones who quickly invoked strict lockdown procedures and mask ordinances. He encouraged protestors and stoked an angry fire among his conservative supporters.

Within the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, several articles protect the right to protest. Article 7 declares equal protection under the law without any discrimination. Article 20 protects the freedom of peaceful assembly. Article 19 protects the freedom of expression. These are declared as universal human rights and the constitution of the United States echoes this important sentiment. Included within the First Amendment is the freedom of protest, or more specifically “the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…” Protesting has long been an acceptable way to make grievances known in the United States. So why were President Trump’s responses to these two protests so drastically different?

An argument has been made that the Black Lives Matter protests are so violent that they require a similar level of violence to be contained. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) took information from over 7,750 Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations across the United States. The organization found fewer than 220 of these protests violent. This means that more than 93% of Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful. The definition of violence, as determined by ACLED, includes fighting against police, vandalism, property destruction, looting, blocking roads, and burning of items. They also included the toppling and destruction of Confederate and slave owner statues. Despite this evidence, many people still believe the Black Lives Matter protests to be largely violent. A poll resulted in 42% of respondents stating that they believe the majority of Black Lives Matter protestors to be oriented towards violence. ACLED believes that this misconception is perpetuated by biased and disproportionate media coverage of the protests and demonstrations.

blm protest
“I Can’t Breathe.” Source: Taymaz Valley. Creative Commons.

Many studies have shown that police and federal agents have disproportionately interfered in the Black Lives Matter protests as opposed to other protests, like the mask ordinance protest in Michigan. President Trump’s actions have showcased a true bias against Black Lives Matter protestors as he actively works to impede upon their right to protest. It can very simply come down to the racism President Trump uses to dictate many of his actions and that his supporters continue to encourage. America was never a great nation to many groups of people and the presidency of Donald Trump has pushed the United States even further from greatness.

The Muslim Uyghur Devastation and Cultural Genocide in the Xinjiang Province of China

I was in 4th grade when I was asked if I was a terrorist. I was asked by a person who I thought was my friend. I was asked this horrible question because of the color of my skin. I was too young to realize I was being targeted along with another classmate of the Islam faith, and that my culture and Hindu background were gravely mistaken because of stereotypes and misinformation. While I have never been a victim of Islamophobia, that day I got a touch of what many Muslims face on an everyday basis. Some stories we hear, and some we don’t. Right now, cultural devastations and genocides are taking place in China due to widespread Islamophobia.

MODERN CONCENTRATION CAMPS

The Uyghurs are a Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China, which was once East Turkestan, but was annexed in 1949. Since 2017, more than 1 million of the 11 million Uyghurs have been places in 85 concentration camps, but China chooses to refer to these as re-education centers. Muslim anecdotes of life inside the camps consists of beatings, interrogations, and detainments for their religious beliefs and practices. Since the beginnings of these camps, the Xinjiang government has prohibited men from growing out the beards and women from wearing face coverings, while also destroying mosques, which are Muslim places of worship. Following United Nations probes, China claims that because the Uyghurs hold extremist views that are threatening to national security the concentration camps are justified.

For most of us, our views of a concentration camp typically include Nazi Germany and the atrocities that took place during World War II. But, our representative heuristic clouds our judgement when we try to compare what is currently going on in China to what was happening in World War II, but the bottom line is, “A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of the crimes they committed but simply because of who they are.”

Image shows a demonstration in Turkey in support of Uyhgur Turks in China. Source: Middleeastmonitor.com
Image shows a demonstration in Turkey in support of Uyhgur Turks in China. Source: Middleeastmonitor.com

ETHNIC CLEANSING OF UYGHURS

Some of the stories that have been gathered from the concentration camps include reports of forced sterilizations on Uyghur women, bans against fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and attending mosques. While China claims to be a democratic nation, the continuation of Uyghur persecution indicates that religions in China must be of Chinese orientation and the people should assimilate into a socialist society regardless of their own personal beliefs.

The Chinese government had “turned the Uighur autonomous region into something that resembles a massive internment camp.” After World War II, the nations of the world have promised to uphold and protect the rights of citizens globally. In light of recent events we are once again in the middle of another gross and egregious instance of human rights abuse.

A statement released from the Human Rights Watch states that, “A body of mounting evidence now exists, alleging mass incarceration, indoctrination, extrajudicial detention, invasive surveillance, forced labor, and the destruction of Uighur cultural statements, including cemeteries, together with other forms of abuse.”

ISLAMAPHOBIA

Islamophobia and unfounded fear of Muslims, and people from the Middle East, is something that has plagued the modern world since the 2001 September 11th attacks. The attacks have heightened the tension and awareness against minorities as well has the Uyghur separatist movement. To some extent, it can be argued that around the time the United States began its War on Terror in the Middle East, China spontaneously changed its rhetoric to labeling Uyghurs as “terrorists” in light of these attacks. The Uyghur separatist movement has been fighting for independence and has been protesting since the rise of the Beijing communist rule, and during this movement many lives have been lost. The Chinese government claims that this movement and the protests have led to bombings and politically calculated assassinations that have killed 162 people. Due to the separatist movement and the lives lost, the Chinese government is placing Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in hopes of “re-educating them,” when really their methods have been identified as causes of cultural genocide. Almost two dozen countries are in tandem with concerns raised by an independent United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination concerning credible reports of mass detention; efforts to restrict cultural and religious practices; mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uyghurs; and other human rights violations and abuses.

An approximate number of suspected “re-education” centers in China located in the Xinjiang province. Source: Brewminate.com

Disney’s Mulan

While many nations and corporations have identified the Uyghur crisis and have taken actions to bring it to light, Disney, one of the biggest corporations who has repeatedly prided itself on diversity, inclusivity, and decency, has somehow overlooked the genocide that is happening in China right now. Nine minutes into the credits of the film Mulan, Disney thanked the publicity department of the CPC Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region committee which is exactly where the Uyghur genocide is currently taking place and where Muslims are being blatantly persecuted. In addition to that, the film’s lead Lui Yifei tweeted in support of the Hong Kong police who has been using police brutality to suppress the pro-democracy protestors. An internationally recognized company recently opened the Shanghai Disneyland Park and did so seamlessly without any government problems or much restriction, so how did this big company overlook the whitewashing of the ongoing Uyghur genocide?

What can I do?

Visit Uyghur Human Rights Project

Protest Beijing Olympics as “a key pressure point”

Educate yourself and the people you surround with on Islamophobia and its repercussions

Shelby County v. Holder: The Voting Rights Act in Peril

Supreme Court of the United States of America
“Supreme Court” by Mark Fischer. Source: Creative Commons

One of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act deemed state and federal tactics designed to restrict African Americans from exercising their right to vote unconstitutional. This made voter suppression efforts such as poll taxes and literacy tests illegal and required states and jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression and discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before implementing any changes to voting laws or election practices. In 2013, citizens of Shelby County, Alabama, sued Attorney General Eric Holder, citing that sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act were no longer necessary because discrimination in voting was no longer a problem. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. This decision has the power to single-handedly unhinge the electoral process in America.

1965 Voting Rights Act

Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, minority voters were victims of vicious voter suppression tactics, and many lost their lives in the pursuit of an elusive constitutional right. These tactics included unaffordable poll taxes, frivolous literacy tests and harassment. Poll taxes financially penalized non-voters for every year they went unregistered to vote since the 1890s, a time when people of African descent were not legally allowed to vote. Literacy tests were designed to deter minority voters, many of whom were illiterate due to oppression and lack of educational opportunities. Women such as Amelia Boyton Robinson and Annie Lee Cooper attempted to register multiple times in the City of Selma, Alabama. These women and others were met with hostile opposition and fierce resistance from the state. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforced the 15th amendment of the United States Constitution and prohibited discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests. It also empowered the federal government to take an active role in the oversight of voter registration and electoral processes in states that have a documented history of voter suppression and intimidation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 explicitly prohibited the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia from making changes to voting procedure without the approval of the federal government.  Following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, voter registration increased drastically amongst minorities throughout the United States, especially in the South.

Shelby County v. Holder

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States of America made a monumental decision that has and will continue to have residual effects on the electoral process moving forward. Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S 529 (2013)directly challenged the legality of Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 implemented a coverage formula that determined which voting districts were required to receive governmental pre-clearance. Pre-clearance is a term used to describe the role of the federal government in the voting process. Jurisdictions that were required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to receive pre-clearance from the federal government were restricted from making any changes to voting laws without the pre-approval of the federal government. Prior to the pre-clearance clause, states that have long histories of voter suppression were allowed to make legal changes to the voting process with no opposition. The Supreme Court ruled that segments of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional and should no longer be implemented. The court ruled the restrictions placed on particular states years prior are no longer relevant and are now in violation of the state’s constitutional right to regulate elections. Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the opinion of the court, “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”  The court had the opportunity to reinforce The Voting Rights Act and instead decided to relegate the responsibility of protecting voting rights to Congress. This ruling greatly weakened the Voting Rights Act as a whole. Now, states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia are free to make changes to voting laws that are not explicitly covered under other sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Shelby County, Alabama successfully argued that states with a blatant history of racism and oppression were no longer in need of governmental oversight because “that was a long time ago” and these discriminatory practices had been discontinued. Following the Shelby County v. Holder decision of 2013, the state of Alabama began regressing advancements made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Alabama passed a “voter ID law, closed polling places in predominately Black counties, and purged hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls.”

The Future of Voting

The true ramifications of Shelby County v. Holder are yet to be seen, but there have been slight and monumental changes to the election process thus far. Alabama now requires a valid photo ID, polling stations are closing for no apparent reason, and voting lines are unusually long. Voting remains elusive for minorities, and the United States still does not have free and fair elections. For example, the most recent gubernatorial election in the state of Georgia displayed instances of blatant voter suppression. Brian Kemp was serving as the Secretary of State for the state of Georgia while he was actively campaigning against Stacey Abrams for Governor. Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election was riddled with complaints filed by voters that citied instances of voter suppression at and around the polls. The most prominent complaint was that in 2017 then Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office removed 560,000 Georgia voters from the state voter registration logs. Many of the voters that were purged from Georgia’s registration logs in 2017 were not made aware of this until they attempted to vote in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Prior to the decision rendered in Shelby County v. Holder, Brian Kemp would have been required by law to obtain pre-clearance from the federal government before purging these voters from Georgia’s voter registration logs. Without the protections of the federal government, state governments are free to alter the voting process with no consciences. The 2017 voter purge in Georgia is one of the more well-known instances of state exploitation of the Shelby County v. Holder decision in the name of voter suppression.

With a Heavy Heart

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg fought tirelessly for the protections of civil rights in America. A formidable champion of voting rights, she believed it is Court’s duty above all else to protect the right to vote and to protect the election process.Justice Ginsberg’s most notable dissent was in the Shelby County v. Holder decision. Justice Ginsberg’s stated in her dissent, Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet. Justice Ginsberg’s dissent in the Shelby County v. Holder decision can and will be citied in future legal documentation that directly challenges the decision rendered in Shelby County v. Holder. Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent is indicative of the life that she lived. Justice Ginsberg was a champion of civil rights and she made a monumental impact.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
“Ruth Bader Ginsberg” by The Aspen Institute. Source: Creative Commons

Call to Action

Voting is a fundamental right that should be guaranteed to all human beings of voting age. It is imperative that we understand the price of not voting and understand the importance of being politically aware and conscience of the decisions being made on our behalf without our knowledge. November 3, 2020 is quickly approaching and the need to vote is as important now as it has always been. The best way to amend the injustices made by the Supreme Court and elected officials is to elect individuals that will fight for justice and make voting easier for all citizens. The goal is to guarantee free and fair elections and to have an electoral system that prioritizes everyone equally and refuses to benefit from the marginalization of valuable perspectives and unique experiences.

House Democrats advocating for the restoration of Section 5 of The Voting Rights Act
“#RestoreTheVote” by House Democrats. Source: Creative Commons

The Most Disrespected: What does no Justice for Breonna Taylor say about the Treatment of Black Women in America?

Used to show Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a worldwide movement in the late spring of 2020. Here is an image captured of a protest in Amsterdam. (SOURCE: Creative Commons)

On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.

        The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.

              The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).

Black Women Deserve Dignity

As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.

All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.

Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.

 

Women at a protest -shows POC women activists
Women of color have led and organized many of the thousands of protests that have taken place world wide. Shown here are a group of women protesting for Black Lives Matter. (SOURCE : Creative Commons)

Where Do We Go from Here?

For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.

For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.

Rest in power, Breonna.