The Death Penalty: Violation of the Right to Life

picture of death penalty protest
Source: Maryland GovPics, Creative Commons.

The most fundamental human right is the right to life as recognized in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The denial of the right to life, through the practice of capital punishment, is internationally condemned with nearly two-thirds of countries worldwide banning the death penalty in law or in practice. The United States is a notable outlier as the only member of the G8, one of three members of the G20, and the only Western country to still practice capital punishment. This is deeply problematic for several reasons: the practice does not deter or reduce crime, disproportionately targets poor and disabled minorities, and results in the sentencing of innocent people approximately 4.1% of the time.

The local rate of death penalty cases is alarming. According to Harvard Law’s Fair Punishment Project, 16 counties of the total 3,142 in the nation were listed as outliers, including Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama. The study states that Jefferson County “sent more criminal defendants to death row between 2010 and 2015 than almost every other county in the nation.” As one of thirty-one states to still have the death penalty, Alabama is the only one that allows sentencing to capital punishment with a non-unanimous vote. Additionally, Alabama is the only state allowing judges to override a jury’s conclusion to recommend life without parole. Kent Faulk reports defendants in all five Jefferson County death penalty cases are black, received non-unanimous verdicts—two of which were overturned by a judge, and one third of the defendants had “intellectual disability, severe mental illness, or brain damage.”

No Justice without Life
Source: World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Creative Commons.

Racial discrimination is a continuing problem in America’s criminal justice system, and results in the state-sponsored deaths of minorities. Recent studies have found that courts are more likely to sentence a defendant to death if they murder a white person over any other race. A study in North Carolina found that the likelihood of obtaining the death sentence increased by nearly four times if the victim was white. In Louisiana, the odds of being sentenced to death for the murder of a white victim is 97% higher than for the murder of a black victim. Additionally, a Connecticut study found that minorities who kill whites are given the death penalty at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. Some of this discrimination may be a consequence of the racial empathy gap—the finding that people automatically assume that African-Americans feel less pain than whites.

Anthony Ray Hinton was sentenced to Alabama’s death row, recently found innocent, and freed from after nearly thirty years. Hinton, released in 2015, gave his testimony of deep racial injustice of Alabama’s criminal justice system: “[The lieutenant] said, ‘I don’t care whether you did it or you don’t… but you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why? … You got a white man. They say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely. All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.’” When new evidence found Hinton innocent, he was released without any compensation, assistance program, or even a bus ticket. This, perhaps, is a more egregious wrong than the decades-long imprisonment itself. Exonerated prisoners find themselves in a changed world with no shelter, no job, and often no family. Former prisoners require mental, physical, and emotional help to successfully adjust to the world outside prison, but never receive it. In a country that declares itself to be a global leader of human rights, violations like these are unacceptable.

a picture of sad jailed prisoners
Jailed prisoners. Source: Ancho, Creative Commons.

American values list freedom, individualism, and equality– yet we simultaneously deny the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and security of person to hundreds of criminal defendants per year. International human rights treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Kyoto Protocol, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) remain unsigned by the United States, despite claims of upholding and honoring them. The US is the only member state of the United Nations other than Somalia that has not ratified the UNCRC, and one of only seven who have not ratified CEDAW. So far, only eighteen US states and the District of Colombia have abolished the death penalty; that number can only increase with action and engagement by citizens. Amnesty International states, “The death penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights.”

This week, the Alabama House of Representative will vote on a bill to prohibit judicial override of jury recommendations against the death sentence. This power of judicial override, prohibited in all capital murder cases except in Alabama, has occurred 112 times– 101 of which gave a death sentence. If you feel strongly about this bill, contact your representatives using this link.

 

Additional Resources:

Bryan Stevenson – Just Mercy and Equal Justice Initiative

Michelle Alexander

Ava DuVernay

Angela Davis

National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Southern Poverty Law Center

The Claims of Our Common Cause

a portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004671911/.

Today is the last day of Black History Month… and what a month it has been. This blog is a nod to Frederick Douglass, who received a mention during a meeting earlier this month.  

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818. In 1848, ten years after his escape to freedom, he penned a letter to his white owner, Thomas Auld, who historians believe to be his father, regarding the reality that the determination to run away arose in him at six years old. In the letter, he vividly describes the moment in which he “attempted to solve the mystery, Why am I a slave?”

“… I was puzzled with this question, till one night, while sitting in the kitchen, I heard some old slaves talking of their parents having been stolen from Africa by white men, and were sold here as slave. The whole mystery was solved at one… From that time, I resolved that I would some day run away. The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons. What you are, I am. You are a man, so am I. God created both, and made us separate beings. I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend on me, or mine to depend upon yours… In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living…”

Historian Eric Foner writes that although Douglass was a slave, Lucretia Auld–wife of Thomas–taught him to read and write until he forbade her, in accordance with Maryland law at the time. Douglass secretly continued his education with the help of some white children. In the South, the peculiar institution of slavery received elaborate justification from Christians willing to employ and misrepresent the scriptures in order to continue the dehumanizing treatment of African and American blacks, created by God, under the guise of inferiority and barbarianism. De Bow’s Review, published in 1850, states “…a very large part in the United States believe that holding slaves is morally wrong; this party founds its belief upon precepts taught in the Bible, and takes that book as the standard of morality and religion. We, also, look to the same book as out guide in the same matters; yet, we think it right to hold slaves—do hold them and have held and used them from childhood. We find, then, that both the Old and New Testament speak of slavery—that they do not condemn the relation, but, on the contrary, expressly allow it or create it… It cannot, then, be wrong.”

Wolfgang Mieder points out that when his education was taken from him as a child, Douglass “very consciously chose” to study and memorize material that would become useful as an adult. As a statesman, his mastery of the English language and his knowledge of the scriptures became a method of rebuke, persuasion, and a declaration of reversal of fortune. For Douglass, the biblical references provided an added authority and wisdom as morality and religion were one in the same. Mieder summarizes Douglass’ speeches and writings as an identifiable narrative, fought against slavery and injustice through the raising of a powerful voice that argued for the “strength of morality, equality, and democracy.”

Frederick Douglass observed a disconnection between the words of the Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and the treatment of blacks as a byproduct of slavery. He believed that from a political and personal standpoint, under natural law, every person possesses the same rights as another, and owed the honoring of those rights by another under God. Nicholas Buccola concludes that Douglass’ personal experience as a slave in the South then a free man in the North, shaped his worldview and belief that the promise of liberty has to belong to all or it belongs to none. He states that individualism negates the feeling of and the need for empathy, making it difficult to persuade another about the plight of someone who is not and never considered a neighbor. In other words, the sense of brotherhood is made obsolete because of individualism.

According to Leslie Friedman Goldsmith, Douglass “put his hopes in the press and pulpit for the moral education of America” while believing social reform would take place in politics as those in government became more concerned with the establishment of justice and the advancement of common good, rather than “the greedy quest for the material fruits of public office.” Douglass’ advocacy, as a member of a minority group, grew from a place of mutual understanding that the lack of moral responsibility finds correction in the adaption of moral obligation. Therefore, he focused on the role of the individual as a perpetuator of injustice or protector of human rights. By appealing to the empathic core—the soul–of an individual, Douglass hoped for a synergistic catalyst towards the eradication of slavery, and the humanization of blacks, whether free of enslaved, in America. As a result, under President Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the abolishment of slavery and involuntary servitude of the 13th amendment brought about a possible future for blacks in America.

Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes," mural by William Edouard Scott,
Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,” mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress, Public Domain. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010641714/

Civil equality was a fundamental platform for Frederick Douglass as he championed for the women’s rights, abolition of slavery, and the right to vote. Despite the victories of 1863, the true freedom of blacks remained his primary mission. Douglass demanded the extinction of racial prejudice and the false belief that the African lineage of black Americans disqualified them from the same rights as white Americans. Daniel Kilbride states that Douglass’ stance on Africa during his lifetime is similar to Countee Cullen’s questioning poem, Heritage during the Harlem Renaissance. He concludes that Frederick Douglass “treasured the values and institutions of the USA and insisted that the free enjoyment of them was a birthright of Americans of African descent.” It is imperative to understand that Douglass did not deny his ancestry; he accepted the discourse as irrelevant given the fact he was born in America.

During the late 1840s, the women’s movement was on the rise due to persistence of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, among others. When Stanton formulated and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, Frederick Douglass was on the platform as a main speaker. More specifically, he was the only male and person of color in support of women rights to equality, including the right to vote. Douglass summarized the convention in an 1848 North Star editorial article: “Many who have at least made the discovery that the Negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. While it is impossible for us to go into this subject… Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex’”. Benjamin Quarles narrates the delicate interplay of Douglass’ personal friendship and political partnership with the women’s movement. Quarles notes the Reconstruction Era as the turning point in Douglass’ partnership with the women’s movement, as the question of what group deserved the right to vote first: blacks or women. “To women the vote is desirable; to the black, it is vital”, he pronounced. For Douglass, blacks as a people before women as a gender. He lamented in 1883, “for no where, outside of the United states, is a man denied civil rights on account of his color.” The recognition of blacks though the casting of votes was an “urgent necessity” post-Emancipation Proclamation.

Relevance for 2017

Frederick Douglass died in1895, yet his life, words, and legacy are still relevant for today. Earlier this month, Donald Trump mentioned Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” Interestingly enough: if Douglass were alive, the recognition could come in both positive and negative forms as he questioned and challenged slavery, prison reform, women’s rights, and all lives matter. The employment of the Scriptures as a justification for the present value and identity crisis taking place in America, given the values forfeiture of liberty and justice for all, in exchange for individualism, isolation, and rhetoric would undergird his critique.

First, human trafficking, in the form of sex and labor, is a new form of an old method. Kevin Bales suggests slavery failed to disappear in the 1860s because trade of people, through means of exploitation, has increased with modernization and globalization. He elucidates the subject of disposable people by informing that human trafficking is not a long-term cost investment due to high supply and high demands. The benefits of “ownership” have waned while the profits from slave trade dramatically increases because whether it is sex in Thailand or Brazil, tomatoes in Florida or chocolate from Ivory Coast, or the FIFA World Cup stadium in Qatar, slave laborers will be exploited in order to ensure the needs of consumer are met. Second, America has the highest incarceration population in the world. According to Bryan Stevenson, there is something missing from the judicial system, specifically in our treatment of the condemned, incarcerated, and those judged unfairly. The American prison system, as means to dehumanize human beings, particularly black Americans in 13th by Ava DuVernay and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, systemically removes human rights and destroys families. Former President Barack Obama implemented some justice reform, resulting in the commutation of thousands of non-violent offenders. Third, Frederick Douglass would be an advocate for HeForShe. As a feminist, Douglass would question why men have consumed the decision making power about women, from pay to maternity leave and healthcare rights, without consulting them, or at the very least, having them present when signing laws about their personhood. Finally, America’s treatment of her citizens—the marginalized because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or identity, and ability—the blatant denial of human rights while championing all lives matter and pro-life. The plight of marginalized Americans remains trapped under the thumb of the majority, whereas the words of Douglass’ The Claims of Our Common Cause apply:

“…A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white country-men do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. It will not be surprising that we are so misunderstood and misused when the motives for misrepresenting us and for degrading us are duly considered.”

In 1853, our common cause stood as a pronouncement, emphasizing the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the marginalized, specifically blacks. Today, our common cause stands as a banner to those in power and opposed to change because of prejudice. The banner signifies the past while embracing the fullness offered in those presently dismissed–doctors, farmers, merchants, teachers, ministers, lawyers, editors, etc.–American citizens who, through unity and belief in the foundational values of this country, fought and fight against every perpetuation of injustice “with pride and hope”.

 

 

Additional resources:

Louise Shelly

Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter

Rhonda Callaway & Julie Harrleson-Stephens

Bryan Stevenson

Jeff Guo

The Right to Food: A Government Responsibility

a picture of a fresh fruit stand
Fruit. Source: Glenn Dettwiler, Creative Commons.

Good nutrition plays a vital role in a person’s health, ranging from growth and development to mental health. The consumption of healthier foods significantly reduces the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, the immune system improves and delays the aging process. In the United States, good nutrition is expensive nutrition; a luxury many low-income families abandon. Essential expenses– rent, utilities, clothing, and health are priority for many families with limited disposable, therefore, forgoing the nutritious food option.

Income disparities contribute to poor nutrition. Higher income families can select healthier foods because their higher income provides access to places that provide healthy options, whereas, lower income families due to city planning and a lack of urban development, receive pre-packaged, canned, and fast food. Healthy foods can be pricey and the additional sales tax is regressive towards lower income families. The local and state government has a duty to their inhabitants to provide access to nutritious food and proper education regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle while economically conscious about the impacts of high sales tax on foods.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) describes the right to an adequate standard of living. A key tenet, accounted for, is the right to food. This is accomplished when every person “has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or the means for its procurement” according to the Icelandic Human Rights Center. The right to food is an essential birthright; a denial means a violation of other rights.

Dr. Mariana Chilton and Dr. Donald Rose assert the right to food–adequate, nutritional food–adheres to three intrinsic policies: the need to respect, protect, and the fulfillment of human rights. To respect human rights, food must be accessible. In some regions in the United States for example, nutritional food is out of reach yet available are fast food restaurants providing cheap, less sustainable food. The protection human rights means others cannot impede the accessibility of food. According to the UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, there is enough food produced in the world to feed its entire population. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the access to food, whether it be poverty or famine, discrimination, or lack of transportation. In order to ensure human rights as related to adequate standard of living, the creation of an enabling environment that provides for and allows for the procurement adequate food becomes the mandate of government officials.

a map of Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation
Visual Representation of Taxes in Each State. Source: Tax Foundation

Adequate food refers to healthy, nutritious food that our body needs to survive. Consuming nutritious food leads to numerous health benefits including, but not limited to, maintaining a healthy weight, allowing organ systems to function optimally, and promoting sleep. For the most part, the good quality foods are on the high-priced side, which leads people to avoid it. A documentary, Food, Inc., highlights the America’s corporate controlled food industry. A segment in the documentary shows a family of four, low-income, and their struggle in deciding between a burger from a fast food restaurant or broccoli from the supermarket. “Sometimes you look at a vegetable and say, ‘okay, we can get two hamburgers over here for the same amount of price’”. This ultimatum is difficult for families. They do not have a substantial amount of money to spend; however, the purchase the unhealthy foods means the purchase unsaturated fats and cholesterol that can increase the risk of diseases. The growing children are not receiving proper nourishment needed to supply their brain and body with energy or their bones with calcium, which is violation of a basic human right. The United States government can help low-income families receive nutritious food by adjusting the tax policies. Some states, Pennsylvania for example, have high sales tax of 6% and it caps the localities ability to impose local sales tax up to 2%. This, however, offsets the high sales tax by exempting uncooked nutritious groceries, clothes, and prescription drugs. A state like Alabama is at the opposite end as it has a low sales tax of 4% and allows localities to tax up to 7% more thus driving up to sales tax to one of the highest in the United States. In addition, Alabama does not exempt clothes, groceries, and prescription which leads the lower income family to spend a majority of their income of purchasing food.

The United States, internationally, opposed the notion of food as a human right. In 1996, the World Food Summit, sponsored by the United Nations, affirmed the “right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food.” While other sovereign nations signed agreeing with that statement, the United States refused to, insisting that hunger could lead to “international obligation or domestic legal entitlement”. In 2002, during another World Food Summit, the United States, again, opposed that food is a human right. According to Pol and Schuftan, the United States understands the right to access to food to connote the prospect to secure food, not a “guaranteed entitlement” and the “adequate standard of living is a goal or aspiration to be realized progressively”. Furthermore, the United States, Canada, and other European countries “have consistently and openly not been sympathetic” to the right to food as a provision of the state.

a picture entitled The Colour before the storm... Nyhavn, copenhagen
The Colour before the storm… Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Source: Joe Hunt, Creative Commons.

In contrast, Denmark agreed that there is a right to food. The Danish government recognized that if an individual or a community had deficient access to nutritious food and health that they are “kept in poverty and exclusion”. The country also understands that the usage of technology and scientific knowledge can increase the knowledge of nutrition and how it can benefit it citizens. Meik Wiking reports that although Denmark taxes heavily, almost 45% of the average citizen’s income, citizens believe there is an overall investment in their quality of life. The taxes collected from Danes provide several welfare programs. For example, student’s tuition and health care are free, a reduction of stress of lower income families in Denmark significantly. In the United States, a low-income family fret over school, health care, and housing so much so that they neglect to take care of the nutritional food aspect. Not surprising in some states in America, food is not tax exempt. Denmark’s citizens contentedly pay for taxes because they are safe financially.

Overall, lower income families often struggle because of limited financial means. With the added burden of the sales tax on groceries, eating right becomes difficult. The lack of nutrition leads to poorer performance in daily activities which puts a hindrance on growth and development. States like Alabama and Mississippi have allowed for higher income families to be comfortable regarding property taxes but allowed for the lower income families to be susceptible to paying more for nutritional food than they can afford. The state has a duty to their people, all people, for a sustainable, healthy, living standard.

 

 

 

 

A Tie that Binds and Shapes Us

a picture of 16th Street Baptist Church from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The 16th Street Baptist Church across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Source: Beth Bryan, Creative Commons.

Barack Obama, in one of his last acts as president, signed a proclamation that designated the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a national monument. For those unaware, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul United Methodist Church, portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  These locations are “hallowed grounds” for Birmingham because they serve as the epicenter American Civil Rights Movement.  We speak of the history regarding these locations. Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as the site of a horrific bombing that claimed the lives of four black girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair. However, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was also—and still continues to serve as–a social center and lecture hall for education and social awareness; a headquarters for activism; and a platform for heralded visitors as it did in the past, for leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently, Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch who spoke her final message as a public servant.  The Colored Masonic Temple, which beyond its beautiful architecture, sat as the centerpiece for lively Black owned businesses and a booming downtown social life.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the movement’s top leaders strategized in room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which also became known as the “war room”. Additionally, in this room, Dr. King made the decision to submit himself to being jailed—resulting in a “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. To this day, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” serves as the most important written document of the civil rights era because of its tangible reproduced accounts in the fight for freedom and King’s response to the broad criticisms he has received from around the country. As you can imagine, I can write at considerable length about the historical facts and pieces of information I have picked up from the Birmingham Civil Rights District. However, the focus of this post is to address why this national monument is important.

The National Monument is a Mile Marker for Racial and Social Progress

What a society and its citizens choose to remember and create moments for, communicates a great deal about where their beliefs lie. At the same time, there is essential learning in understanding what a society chooses to forget. That said, I think that it is critical for each generation to understand the struggles and sacrifices many have endured to achieve equal rights because that cultural memory plays a role in the shaping of our collective identity. To this degree, we must accept the ugly truth that racism is embedded within our society and remnants of its power still resides within today’s social structure. In order for us to move forward in the solving of social problems, we must embrace this part of our history and understand how the intersections of race, class, privilege, gender, and so forth influences current issues. If not, then the politics of denial will continue to  define teachings of American Civil Rights Movement into a one month a year curriculum composed of mainstream heroes that is not taught widely enough or comprehensively addressed at various school levels. Through the national monument, we as global citizens are pushed to think critically about our past. We are challenged to ask ourselves how can we move forward in the fight for equality and equity locally and globally.  As important, we are reminded that the fight is not over.

This National Monument Preserves a “Balanced Realness” of African-American Culture

There is more to African-American culture than the mainstream depictions which tend to populate and reinforce negative stereotypes through mainstream media. The story of black people in Birmingham is one which highlights how individuals are able to rise from second class citizenship to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome multiple challenges serves as a critical element of our American lineage. Through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we are afforded the opportunity to hear those stories; learn of all the heroes and their sacrifices; and to speak with some of those “living griots” who volunteer to share their own knowledge and experiences with the public. And, it is just not in the very people. As previously stated, this national monument is hallowed grounds because the location itself is a symbolic repository of African-American culture that has often been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, and left to stand as unidentified culture markers in major cities.

The National Monument Reinforces the Hope of Our Collective Community

The Birmingham Civil Rights District is not just Black history; it is American history. In a society that continues to diversify and splinter, it is crucial for us to be reminded that we are still one community. Together, we share a common heritage and history of hope and resilience through tough times. To me, the beauty of the civil rights movement is that when you reflect, there are continuous instances where multiple ethnic and cultural groups have decided to unite in the face of oppression. Today, we are facing with some unique challenges. There are segments of our population who are not only oppressed, but seeking refuge and allies to stand with them. As we look for answers, our national monument stands as a constant reminder that we are the change that we wish to see, and all we have to do is come together.  In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

In closing, the national monument is more than just a series of historical buildings and educational centers containing a collection of objects and documents. It is a powerful reminder of Birmingham’s culture and its impact on the larger American story. I am confident that as the fight for equality, equity and inclusion continues, we will find a way to find opportunity in the midst of life’s challenges because that is what we do. In the words of John Henrik Clarke, “What we have done before, we can do again.”

Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham – a Recap

a picture of the panelists
StandAsOne Panelists. Source: Tyler Goodwin.

On February 16th, Stand As One Alabama partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Institute for Human Rights, and several other organizations to put on an event titled: Empowering Marginalized Voices in Birmingham. The event was held on UAB’s campus, and was live-streamed throughout the world. You can see the event in its entirety here.

“This is to fight hate, tyranny, and fear mongering principles….this is the way forward,”

– speaker Ashfaq Taufique proudly announced as he opened the event.

The event featured nine panelists from marginalized communities: Jillisa Milton, representing the Birmingham Chapter of Black Lives Matter; Angel Aldana, representing the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice; Halah Zein-Sabatto, representing the Birmingham Islamic Society; Dan Kessler, representing Disability Rights and Resources; Isabel Rubio, representing the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama; Lauren Jacobs, the Youth Outreach Chair of the Magic City Acceptance Center, a center devoted to the LGBTQ+ youth of Birmingham; Tai Hicks, president of the National Organization of Women; Rabbi Barry Left, from Temple Beth-El; Reverend Angie Right, of Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The discussion began with the premiere of a film produced by McKenzie Greer, a UAB film student and intern for the Institute for Human Rights, showcasing the struggles of fellow UAB students who are a part of marginalized communities. The emotional video gave a small bit of insight into the pain that those featured in the film have felt and still feel today. Watch the video by Greer here:

[vimeo 204448381 w=640 h=360]
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/204448381″>Stand As One Alabama by Kenzie Greer</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/mediastudies”>UAB Media Studies</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

“I feel hurt and angry. Hurt by a country that I consider my home, that I now have to prove my loyalty to. Angry that I have to constantly prove my normalcy to other people to prove I am not dangerous.”

“I was scared to get off the bus each morning, and thankful to get back on in the afternoon.”

“Being a part of a marginalized community is a full-time job.”

“She’s pregnant? That’s what she gets for having sex. She must’ve been stupid about it.”

“You have to be the best at whatever you decide to do, because people will automatically think of you as incompetent and unqualified, simply because you’re black.”

“She felt blatantly racially profiled, and that he thought she was a maid.”

“Just because someone is slower at learning and retaining does not mean they are stupid.”

Emotions filled the room as the production came to a close. Prior to the event, the panelists were asked to answer three questions as part of the discussion:

What are the challenges that you and your organization face?

What have you done to adjust those challenges?

How do you see the future if we do stand as one?

“It would be impossible to talk about the challenges we face in four minutes,” Milton said. She further discussed how “We have to challenge our allies all the time,” meaning members of the Black Lives Matter movement must go through greater lengths to rally their allies who do not identify as Black, as it does not affect them. She mentioned how it was difficult to obtain a sense of unity with their allies for this reason. “We are skeptical about other people’s support of our movement as a whole (we don’t typically see the same passion as shown with other movements), but continue to challenge others to address the barriers and to step outside of their comfort zones.”

As Aldana spoke, he described that the Hispanics almost seemed invisible. “With the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice, we would like to work with our allies, so that we can identify ourselves as allies…as an Immigrant, and as a Mexican citizen of Birmingham, we want to protect and defend our identity just as you do.”

Zein-Sabatto proclaimed, “it comes down to systematic hate…Islamophobia is actually a billion-dollar industry…there are people who are assimilating xenophobia.” She explained how she told her family overseas how much she enjoyed America, and how that it is no longer the “rainbows and roses” that she once thought. “We must reclaim our narrative,” she said, reflecting on how one member of the Muslim community is asked by society to represent the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, losing their individuality. “You will find us with our headscarves and beards in the grocery store, on the streets, as your neighbors, doctors, colleagues, students, and teachers.” Moving forward, she explained that she has hope. “History repeats itself, and it is just repeating itself with another group.”

“If we look over the past hundred years, we see oppression and segregation against people with disabilities,” Kessler began, “while we have seen gains since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we still have a long way to go…we still hear such language as ‘cripple’, ‘special’, ‘wheelchair bound’, and ‘handicapped’.” He gave us insight on the challenges the community faces in the workplace: “Unemployment of anyone with disabilities is the highest of any marginalized group in the nation.” Kessler then brought to light the issue of segregation in the education system against those with disabilities, and how there are bills in motion trying to limit their education rights. He also spoke of how the turmoil of the disabled community does not end after their schooling in grade school, he told of the institutional bias in the long-term care services. “Have you ever tried to use Uber?” he asked, as he then put perspective into what is like to be disabled and unable to receive the same services as those who are not, “try being disabled and having an Uber driver have to turn you away because they are ill-equipped.”

Rubio began her answer with a powerful statement: “Discrimination is legalized toward immigrants.” She spoke of the laws against immigrants at the state and federal levels. “Immigration laws are currently weighted to favor immigrants from northern Europe, therefore tacitly enforcing an ideology of white supremacy in the US.” Speaking more on the bias against immigrants, she told us how there are places in Alabama where immigrants cannot get water services. The Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama helped to register 1,000 voters this past year, and for that reason among others, Rubio says, “The future is hopeful. There is something going on and we have to do something about it…we can’t stand for where we are now.”

Jacobs, whose organization works specifically with the LGBTQ+ youth at the Magic City Acceptance Center, enlightened us on how the LGBTQ+ youth faces challenges such as being unable to find friendly and competent educators and healthcare providers, and lacking family support. She also educated us on the statistics surrounding the community: “Three in four trans students are not allowed to use the bathroom in Alabama; four in five are not identified properly…The average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years…Trans students are targeted by peers, family, and teachers.” She implored that we must be the ones who say something if we see something, and that “Standing as one would be a commitment to staying in struggle with each other.”

“Whenever you do anything in your life, your gender is a factor.” Hicks said, as she explained the issues that women face in today’s society. She and her organization, Greater Birmingham National Organization for Women, have been working to achieve social justice for women and other minority groups as well in Birmingham. She spoke on how people think that women in the US have it good compared to other countries, and that they should all just “shut up.” Reflecting back on the marches that happened earlier this year, and earlier in the century, “They have no idea how long we have been fighting,” she said. “You should have the right to raise a child, and feel safe that a government official is not going to gun them down.”

Left began saying , “Speaking on a panel like this to a group of people like this was not something I thought I would be doing in Birmingham.” To relate to the different ethnicities, identities and religions in the room, he said, “The same people who hate Blacks, Mexicans, and Muslims, often hate Jews.” He spoke of how a family recently withdrew their child from his religious school at the Temple Beth-El, in fear of being attacked. “People don’t feel safe anymore.” He gave his history on how he was once evacuated from Iran 38 years ago, saying he felt a connection to refugees. “Many communities feel under attack; anyone who isn’t a straight, white, heterosexual, Christian male, and even they feel threatened by losing their dominance.” He ended on a note to rally the communities in the room: “We are much stronger as one community instead of several separate communities.”

a picture of two people touching hands in unity
Unity. Source: Phillip Taylor, Creative Commons.

After the panelists gave their written answers, the audience was given the opportunity to ask them their own questions.

  • What are the next steps for someone who wants to stand with you?
    • Think before you post. There is a lot of fake information out there.
    • Build a personal relationship with someone in another marginalized community. Your efforts will go farther when you have a connection.
    • If you see something, say something.
    • Contact your elected officials.
    • Plan for accessibility at each event (contact Disability Rights and Resources to figure out how to accommodate).
    • Support immigrant businesses.
    • Fund the resistance.
    • Educate yourself on human rights. Find out where to go when your rights are violated.

Here are some ways to get involved with the organizations represented at this event:

  • If you identify as Black, connect with the Black Lives Matter Chapter of Birmingham on Facebook, or email birminghamblm@gmail.com. If you would like to get involved with Black Lives Matter, but do not identify as Black, SURJE (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meets every month at Beloved Community Church, and you can also connect with them on Facebook.
  • The Birmingham Islamic Society is having an open house on February 26th from 2 – 5 at the Hoover Islamic Center. All religions are welcome. You can also email them by going to the “Contact us” page on their website: bisweb.org
  • You can contact the ACIJ by going to their website: acij.net, or connect with them on Facebook.
  • You can contact the Disabilities Rights and Resources by going to their website: drradvocates.org
  • The Magic City Acceptance Center holds Drop-In Hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30pm to 7pm. You can also visit their website: magiccityacceptancecenter.org
  • You can connect with the National Organization for Women on their website: org/chapter/greater-birmingham-now/ or on their Facebook.
  • The Temple Beth-El’s website is: templebeth-el.net/
  • To join the Stand As One text alert for when any Human Rights Issue is threatened at your local or national level, text “STANDASONE” to 313131

Women’s March: An Evolution in Global Solidarity

picture of Washington, DC Women's March 2017
DC Women’s March. Source: Liz Lemon, Creative Commons.

On January 21, 2017, over five million people marched–on all seven continents–in solidarity for women’s issues. In Washington D.C, one million marchers made their voices heard, nearly three times the size of the crowd at the inauguration, according to crowd scientists. The Birmingham, Alabama march numbered nearly five thousand, to the surprise of organizers who expected closer to several hundred. The official Women’s March website states the platform and approach is committed to equality, diversity, and inclusion. While initially, the Trump administration may have been the fuel for this rise, the movement presently signifies an international protest against the growing threat of a dishonest narrative about women’s rights and unjust treatment of them.

The sheer numbers of attendees at the march inspired and infused hope into the hearts of many deeply opposed to the injustices within the context of women’s rights. Critics of the march seem to misinterpret the intentions of marchers by claiming that the cause was American-centric, thus ignoring the subjugation of women globally. There is some validity to this, in that, the focus of many marchers remained centered in American political issues, and often excluded some key actors from the discussion like transgender people. However, many critics used these potentially valid grounds to deny the existence of oppression in America. Blogger Stephanie Dolce, after listing a series of wrongs against women in other countries, writes, “So when women get together in America and whine they don’t have equal rights and march in their clean clothes, after eating a hearty breakfast, it’s like a vacation away that they have paid for to get there.” This critical narrative reveals the false impression that many Americans have about women’s rights, the nature of protests, and the human right to participate in protest.

picture of girl holding signs at Birmingham Alabama Women's march 2017
Women’s March in Birmingham, AL January 2017. Source: Ajanet Rountree.

Dolce mentioned the issues of rape, limited education access, gender violence, and denial of bodily autonomy through legislation, infanticide, and female genital mutilation (FGM). She then suggests that American women do not experience these acts of violence and oppression. To believe that these issues are absent in America is to remain blinded by privilege. Dolce’s argument, supported and shared many times across social media, is rooted in privilege—a privilege that often undermines the nature of exploitation and oppression of another because distance rather than proximity and a lack of knowledge discredit the acknowledgement of an experience.

Marchers in cities around the world reflected the microcosm of the global civic society. It is highly unlikely that Dolce, who is vocally critical of the march, attended a protest based on her blog writing. Conversely, I have been an advocate for human rights for years and decided to experience the Birmingham march firsthand. I found myself deeply moved by the variety of issues and identities represented; therefore, I can bear witness to a crowd of people marching for a diverse set of causes, each inherently political but not as a political reaction. Protest signs held high regarding immigration, environmental issues, racism, disability rights, and more, dotted the landscape of Kelly Ingram Park. The diversity of the city was visible in the composition of marchers and their causes. The harsh, judgmental “anti-Trump” rhetoric is an insult to social justice, as this march and subsequent protests, are not about him or any one person.

The highly divisive stage in American politics provides a vehicle of change through shock and outrage; fortunately, the movement is not limited to the American arena. This activism is not a backlash to the election or simply a march about women’s issues. This is not, as some may see it, a petty protest against the shift in ideology represented in our new president. This is the beginning of a global movement to protect rights presently impacted by global structural violence targeted towards women specifically, and humanity generally.

picture of Women's March in London 2017
Women’s March London. Source: Garry Knight, Creative Commons

The Women’s March website has listed steps to transform the vigorous energy seen on January 21 into a long-term international movement. Given the millions of marchers who came out, it is hard to imagine that the momentum and awareness for women’s rights will simply fade away. The evolution of the movement is already underway. They currently have two “global action steps” listed and a third still developing. First, communicate concerns for women’s rights by contacting representatives, using postcards or letters with a picture of the march. Second, organize local “next up huddles” which are intended to foster support and community. The goal is that each area brainstorm a “set of actions and strategies our group will pursue in the coming weeks and months”, mobilizing the community through grassroots activism and people power.  The grassroots approach, fueled by people power, is essential because it empowers leadership and change from the bottom-up rather than top-down. People power initiates the quicker and more effective change across nations.

With an enormous base of supporters and power of grassroots change, it is clear that the spirit behind the Women’s March is thriving and quickly evolving into a transnational platform.

 

The Arc of History Bends towards Justice

Inside of Sixteenth Baptist Church
Inside of Sixteen Street Baptist Church. Source: Nicholas R. Sherwood.

On Sunday, January 15, 2017–the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr–Ajanet Rountree and I filed into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, a day before the nation officially recognized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The historic location held a special church service commemorating King and his contemporaries, reinforcing the role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, and honoring the career service of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Arriving a full hour before the service was slated to begin I was met with hundreds of congregants on the church’s steps. There was an air of energized reverence, among the mostly black audience, gathering to hear one of their own speak of her successes. I overheard bellowing laughs, old friends recognizing and greeting each other in the open air of Birmingham, parents importing their children “BE QUIET DURING THE SERVICE”, and the slow but steady knocking of feet slowly climbing the front steps of the church. An unapologetic rainbow of cloth, sequins, and even feathers peacocked in front of me. Here, I recognized, is an old and dignified community in their church best. With red dresses, gold sashes, purple bowties, green bowler hats, pink lapels, Birmingham decided to greet Loretta Lynch et al. with the glorious visage only a Southern, black church can offer. A greeter handed me a church pamphlet as I entered. He seemed annoyed with security constraints but overall pleased with the turn out. Up a tight winding stairwell we climbed, halfway up I had a fleeting thought, “Is this the stairwell where the bomb was detonated?” With our seats aggressively claimed, we settled in for a two-hour event.

Loretta Lynch was born on May 21, 1959 when much of the Southern United States lacked equal rights and protections for persons of color. At that time, black female lawyers were simply nonexistent. In her first appointment, she served under President Clinton as US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which led to her first leadership role under President Obama, as US Attorney for the Eastern District for New York. In between her presidential appointments, she was special counsel for the prosecutor for the UN International Criminal Tribunal. Her work as a prosecutor with specialties in witness tampering and public official corruption, garnered her successful influence on the national and international level. Working on the case of Rwandan genocide, with her assistance, this was the first case the UNICT successfully tried and delivered a verdict to individuals culpable in genocide.

As Attorney General, Lynch continued her impressive established human rights record. Before her appointment to Attorney General, one of Lynch’s most famous cases involved the prosecution of NYC police officers on behalf of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Louima was violently sodomized by the officers while in custody, and her involvement in this case began a focus of hers on the unfair imprisonment and maltreatment of men of color on behalf of police officers. Another case involved an undercover sting operation neutralizing a terrorist act by a Bangladeshi radical jihadist. The planned act would have detonated a 1000-pound bomb outside of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. She combated racism during her career while defending American freedom and security. During King’s time, these two ideals would have seem incompatible.

The service was–in the spirit of many evangelical black churches–participatory.  “Amen!”, “praise the Lord”, “that’s right!”, and sometimes the affirmative “mhmm” punctured the speaker at hand. The church choir belted. The congregation did our best to keep up. Everyone completely focused on what was happening ‘onstage’. Actors from UAB’s theatre department performed a piece on the struggle for civil rights– weaving testimony, narrative, song, and history–during the service. Ministers preached and politicians charmed as we patiently waited for Loretta to take the stage… our leading lady I’m sure, waited patiently too.

I hope she enjoyed the pomp and circumstance in honor of her, in honor of a black woman leading the Justice Department, and in honor of the resilient and honorable fight for equality for which Birmingham has long contributed. The red carpet was a visceral color in this holy sanctuary; red is the color passion, power, blood, and love. If the room and all its inhabitants on that warm January afternoon had an aura, it was surely red.

Her father was a Baptist minister and, it was apparent to me at least, she has maintained a sacrosanct comfort inside a church’s walls. Early in her remarks, she quoted Exodus: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’, followed by “generations of men and women have found the Lord in 16th Street Baptist Church”. She continued by paying homage to King and his contemporaries. Both King and Lynch, certainly, were and are advocates for human rights.

Justice and human rights are intrinsically linked; one cannot protect rights without the legal mechanisms in place to defend them.

Both the power of the people (Dr. King’s specialty) and the power of the law (Lynch’s) must create a unity. Lynch’s speech reflected this unity. As Lynch’s remarks moved from King and Birmingham, and their involvement in the history of American Civil Rights, her discourse changed. This event was billed as a special service commemorating King while honoring Lynch. The past, and all its demons, was locked away in memory. Today, the congregation found out, the first black, female Attorney General was able to reconcile some of the atrocities that may have sat unchallenged in King’s time.

picture of Loretta Lynch, Former US Attorney General.
Loretta Lynch, Former US Attorney General. Source: Nicholas R. Sherwood

Lynch, in her final speech as Attorney General, swiveled her address from the past to the present. It was at this moment, the crowd hushed. “I know that we are in difficult days now. Many fear that King’s dream – and all that has flowed from it – is at risk like never before.” Her demeanor changed. Speaking of King, a human and civil rights luminary, provided a strength to her words. Indeed, this was prototypical King: a black, Baptist, southern church. How many of his addresses were delivered in such similar circumstances? Lynch seemed to sense the connection. As she spoke of the present, the congregation could sense how concerned she was for the present state of affairs in America. Attention was now assuredly and willfully fixed on Lynch and her words. Her voice, before this point reflecting a pastor’s cadence of lulls and jubilation, now quietened and hardened. She was no longer a guest minister who worked for the federal government. She was now a soon-to-be private citizen giving her critique and naming her personal fears.

As a prosecutor, what would she have feared? Injustice, I would argue. Her reputation as fierce suggests she had few fears in office and in practice. She understands justice and its many forms. She was unrelenting towards oppressors, terrorists, and corruption. However, Lynch was also just, often calling for lenience in cases of nonviolent crimes, especially drug related crimes, opting to provide second chances at a free life rather than jail indeterminately. She spoke for the victims too, with a special interest in police brutality and discrimination cases. The first black woman to serve as Attorney General, and one raised in the American South at that, Lynch understood racial animus. She knows too well how hard one must knock on a cracked glass ceiling before it comes crashing down.

Turning her speech from the past to the present, Lynch acknowledged the present political climate, which terrifies many minority groups in the United States. Her assumed replacement, Jeff Sessions, is from Alabama- another southerner taking over the Justice Department. Sessions has been criticized of blatant racism, as has his boss, now President Donald Trump. The juxtaposition weighed heavily in 16th Street Baptist Church. The first black female Attorney General will likely be succeeded by an accused-racist; the first black President replaced by an accused racist. However, Lynch litigated, the lesson to be gleaned from Dr. King is, and always should be, the persistent utility of hope.

Hope and hard work, she argued, will influence lawmakers and laymen alike.

Again, “amens!” and “yes ma’am!” rang LOUDLY in the congregation. There was fear, yes. However, Lynch bore witness to the fear and offered her testimony to rise from it. The congregation, taking their cue from her, found their voice once more and responded to her lines of power. Her best crafted line, in my opinion, acknowledged darkness and offered an existential purpose for it:

“And if it does come to pass that we do enter a period of darkness, let us remember – that is when dreams are best made.”

King’s Dream– she reminded us–arose like a phoenix from the ashes, galvanizing the struggle for civil rights in America.  It is generational dream;  a living one.  “And when our time comes, we shall pass the dream on to those who are already raising their hand and those to come.  So that the arc of the moral universe continues straight and true – continues towards justice.”

Her remarks ending, she thanked us. She returned to her seat and the entire church sang the anthem, “We Shall Overcome”. Like President Obama, her final speech was a plea for hard, hard work. She channeled both King and Obama at times; mixing King’s optimism with Obama’s realism. This balance of past and present, of hope and pragmatism, characterized her speech. Her illustrious public career, now ended, could be characterized in similar terms. She understands the power of mercy and granted hope to defendants who she deemed reparable. Lynch also recognized and publicly testified the threats to justice: discrimination, harassment, and corruption.

Now that her tenure has ended, I imagine Lynch feels comfort in being a public citizen who enjoys a church service, like the ones her father ministered while she was growing up. In 1963, at 16th Street Baptist Church, four girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair– were murdered by white supremacists. Fifty-four years later, the first black, female US Attorney General gave her farewell address in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. History was reconciled but never forgotten at 16th Street Baptist Church.

The Post-Election World: Emotional Responses an to Unexpected Win

Subway post-it notes. Source: Cait Stewart, Creative Commons.
Subway post-it notes. Source: Cait Stewart, Creative Commons.

Responses to the shocking election have been varied. The backlash has been deeply emotional and carried out in both online and public arenas. All over the country and world, people have responded to the results of the election with intense fear and shock. Some, of course, were elated by their own party’s win, but most have some concerns about the controversial figure’s rise to power. As the first President-Elect with no military or political experience, the world has hung in suspense to see if his actions will change due to his new position.  The post-election period has been filled with stress and grief; those who found online activism to be no longer useful, have taken to public outlets: protests, works of art, and wearing certain items in public to send a message.

The safety pin trend is one of the most widespread and also widely criticized. In case you’ve seen people wearing safety pins on their lapels and not understood, here’s the premise: You attached a safety pin to your shirt to show that you are a “safe” person to talk to; you are an ally to marginalized peoples and are showing your support of their rights in the wake of the present uncertainty. However well-intentioned this may be, these same marginalized populations that this movement was intended to support are critical of it. Critics of the safety pin movement say that showing allyship should not be limited to safety pins. Valeriya Safronova of the New York Times says, “Some Twitter users voiced criticisms of the safety-pin trend, calling it “slacktivism,” a word that blends “slacker” and “activism.” They expressed concern that wearing something doesn’t equate to action.” It still is a valid effort and perhaps gives hope that there are still people who are passionately pro-human rights when the country seems to have voted in opposition of those values.

Put a Pin In It. Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons.
Put a Pin In It. Source: Mike Licht, Creative Commons.

Matthew Chavez’s art installation in New York City subway tunnels has been well-received. Chavez started writing Post-It notes with reactions to the election, and was soon joined by thousands of others. The notes range from angry to hopeful, but all give some sense of relief to those who feel too overwhelmed to engage in other forms of political conversation. The project is called “Subway Installation” and is mindful of the station’s workers, removing all notes from the walls before the day is over. Such a visible reminder of emotional  sentiment gives some relief to those who felt disregarded by the election’s results.

Protests have been the most controversial of these outlets. According to Washington Post, more than 225 people have been arrested nationally during these protests, most of which have taken place on college campuses. Riot gear and tactics have been deployed nationwide, including tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets. Conservatives have criticized these riots ceaselessly and call for their end. The nation will likely experience various forms of protests over the next four years, as this election was a particularly nasty and hard-hitting one. Unlike most elections in our nation’s history, the divide on the issues is so that many minorities believe their rights, liberties, and wellbeing is at stake. As the President-Elect has continually dialed back on his previously controversial opinions (such as his declaration to jail Hillary Clinton), the nation may find more relief than expected.

SPEAK OUT Rally at Inner Harbor in Baltimore MD on Thursday night, 10 November 2016. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.
SPEAK OUT Rally at Inner Harbor in Baltimore MD on Thursday night, 10 November 2016. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.

 

 

 

Mexico’s Interrogation Secrets Revealed

Barbwire fence. Source: Edmund Garman, Creative Commons
Barbwire fence. Source: Edmund Garman, Creative Commons

Cruel and unusual punishment is a human rights issue we don’t hear enough about. It is illegal according to our US Constitution and the Eighth Amendment and a grave human rights violation according to international treaties and documents. For example, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”  The Convention on the Protection of against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman Treatment or Punishment describes what actions constitute to be labeled as torture, the government and law enforcement’s responsibility to prohibit the use of torture or inhuman treatment through training and a concern for law and order, and the rights a person has if they were to be tortured by the state.

Imagine that you are being detained and questioned because it is believed that you may be involved in illegal drug activity. Your questioning consists of electro-shock, beatings, rape, and other forms of sexual assault. Would you consider that cruel and unusual punishment? Most would think so. Sadly, it is not unusual in many countries around the world. Mexico is only one case study.

Amnesty International reports that the government of Mexico is currently committing  torturous acts on women who have been accused of participating in illegal drug activity or organized crime. There are at least one hundred women who have come forward and spoken about their experienced abuse by law enforcement at every level: local, state, and federal- including the Army and Navy.  Each of these women have reported experiencing some kind of torture whether that be psychological abuse, sexual abuse, or both (usually both). It was reported that seventy-two women were “sexually abused during or hours after their arrest.” Thirty-three of those women stated that they were raped.

Mexican woman selling crafts. Source: Frank_am_Main, Creative Commons
Mexican woman selling crafts. Source: Frank_am_Main, Creative Commons

In 2013, Mónica was 26 when she was “gang raped by six municipal police officers, received electro-shock to her genitals, was suffocated with a plastic bag, was dragged across the floor by her hair, and had her head plunged into a bucket of water in the city of Torreón, where she also witnessed the torturous death of her husband.” She watched as her husband was being  tortured by “beatings with metal studded whips and the skin on his legs being peeled off with a knife…” When the couple and Mónica’s brother were being transported to the Attorney General’s office, she watched her husband take his last breath of life. She was later flown to Mexico City and taken to the Deputy Attorney General on Organized Crime. Mónica told Amnesty International that she was forced to “sign a confession stating that she was a part of a drug cartel,” notwithstanding the fact that it is a non-admissible confession in court if torture was involved according to Mexican law.

Torture and harsh interrogation tactics are common practice in Mexico’s investigations of drug-related organized crime.

Why did she receive such despicable treatment? I think the police of Mexico are trying to send the message that they are actively pursuing the drug trafficking problem the country faces. They are using women like Mónica who are of lower socioeconomic status because they are perceived as the “weakest link in the trafficking chain and are seen as ‘easy targets’ to arrest.” These women also are more susceptible to not being able to pay for even a halfway decent defense attorney. This means that not only are they vulnerable to arrest, but also vulnerable to police brutality.  This isn’t the first time Mexico has been “caught in the act” of committing illegal arrests and mistreating those who are arrested. In fact, Amnesty International reported that since 1991 there have been thousands of complaints associated with the ill-treatment and torture of those who have been arrested, yet only fifteen of these cases resulted in federal criminal convictions, including the case of General Manuel de Jesus Moreno Aviña.

Back in 2008, the Mexican Army took on an immense responsibility to put a stop to organized crime and drug cartel activity. General Aviña was accused of torturing and murdering José Heriberto Rojas Lemus. Lemus “was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.” The court sentence read that it’s possible Lemus died from multiple cardiac arrests due to the shocks, yet the military doctor was ordered to write on the death certificate that Lemus overdosed. Another case involves a video that has surfaced of a woman being tortured by a female federal officer and two army soldiers through suffocation. The Department of Defense has stated that “these events occurred on February 4, 2015 in Ajuchitan, a small mountain town in southern Guerrero state.” The Mexican army has announced that the two soldiers involved are currently in a military prison awaiting trial, but there has been no word on whether the federal officer will face charges or not. What is different about these cases is that since they involved military personnel, the military justice system took control. As Raul Benitez, a security specialist and political science professor, explains it, “the military justice system tends to be very strict in such cases, because (the soldiers in the video) are casting the institution in a bad light.” Civilian prosecutors aren’t so swift in taking these cases on.

Source: Zachary Perlinski, Creative Commons
Source: Zachary Perlinski, Creative Commons

So, if cases of torture like these were investigated, why are a significant majority of them not? The torture case that occurred in Ajuchitan in 2015 is considered “special” because it was easy to investigate due to the fact that all the evidence needed is in a video rather than just simply accusations of torture coming from prisoners. Torture and harsh interrogations are prevalent in Mexico’s investigations. Mexico has signed and ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and  supported other human rights documents dealing with torture and arbitrary arrest and is thus in violation of these international human rights treaties. The reports are out from Amnesty International, as well as other human rights organizations, but reports are the only way thus far that Mexico can be held accountable globally. So my question is: what do we do now?

Mexico is breaking its obligations under international law by illegally detaining and torturing people. 

Mexico wants to give the appearance that they are in compliance with international law as they pursue and prosecute organized crime/ drug cartel activity that has plagued the country for years. However, when reports and videos surface that show exactly who they are harassing, arresting, detaining, and torturing Mexico was hard pressed to justify its actions. In my opinion, they don’t want to go after the real gangs and drug lords because money talks. Corruption is widespread –  in fact, drug cartels paid around $100 million A MONTH to police officers nationwide to turn their heads they other way. Part of the problem is the very low pay of police officers (just over 20 percent earns less than 1,000 pesos ($79) a month, while 60.9 percent earns no more than 4,000 pesos ($317) monthly. To fulfill its obligations towards the U.S. and expectations by the international community, Mexican authorities often target women and men of lower economic status who don’t have the funds to pay bribes to law enforcement officials or the network to be kept out of jail. This begins the cycle of violence described above, which will be very hard to break as long as corruption within Mexico’s federal, state, and local governments continues.  Fundamental reform of Mexico’s militarized police force, law enforcement, and the judicial system as well changes on socio-economic policy are needed to end unrest and diminish the power of organized crime and drug cartels.