The Excessive Nature of Overconsumption in American Culture

by Lexie Woolums

One of the things that dominate American society is what I like to call the “epitome of excess.”

We live in a capitalistic culture that thrives on consumers’ dissatisfaction. Our society’s culture defines American success as getting promoted to a position high enough that one can make enough money to purchase a big house in the suburbs, add a few cars, and have an annual family vacation.

Influencers on social media have added to this growing consumption. People have access to information via “Get Ready With Me” vlogs on TikTok, which feature various (expensive) products to desire based on trends that go in and out of style in just a few short months. This cultural desire to keep up with trends causes a constantly growing urge to have more. Nearly everything is capitalized on, giving us a concept initially coined by Herbert A. Simon in the 1960s known as the attention economy. Digital creators earn money based on views and engagement from their followers. People online regularly discuss strategies to “trick the algorithm” to further capitalize on this economy where time is one of the most valuable things someone can “give,” similar to how we have traditionally viewed money and, later, information. The phrase “time is money” comes to mind, but not in the same way that my grandparents would understand it.

Beyond seeking to maximize the number of seconds a viewer will stay on the video before swiping, this culture has other effects. It pushes for overconsumption. It has become common to see content creators post videos of six dresses they ordered while asking their followers to “help them choose which one to wear” to the event they have coming up. When I was in high school, everyone wanted the Hydro flask. Today, it is the Stanley Cup. As I wrote this article, I was notified that the newest cup fascination is an Owala.

A girl taking a picture of a folded piece of pizza with her phone
Figure 1- Source: Yahoo Images; Taking photos and videos to put on social media is easier than ever.

It has even become ordinary for content creators to try and capture views by “de-influencing” whatever the sought-after object is at the time. Spoiler alert: this is generally just pointing to a different brand of metal cup on Amazon that is better and cheaper than the almighty Stanley cup (and, coincidentally, listed in the person’s Amazon storefront, where they earn a commission on every purchase made).

This is just influencing—a system that attempts to capitalize on the attention that follows dissent.  The concept is not new, but it has changed how people earn money.

People run entire side hustles by making videos showcasing “Five Products You Need from Amazon,” with aesthetic videos of acrylic containers or trendy dresses.

It is normal to hear people joke about “doomscrolling” for hours online, highlighting the over-encompassing nature of modern social media and its role in our everyday lives. The pervasive nature of this beast has become an accepted fact of life, so we do not always think about questioning it. It takes a degree of separation before one might stop and think, what is the cost of this lifestyle? We do not generally stop to consider how the Amazon package made it to our house in two days. We rarely ask who made the trendy cup we found at Walmart or the skirt we found at American Eagle.

We rarely ask any questions about the actual cost of what we consume.

Customers entering and exiting an escalator to enter Zara fashion store.
Figure 2- Source: Yahoo Images; Zara is a well-known fast fashion brand.

As a culture, we are so far disconnected from the places and communities that create the products we use that many Americans would struggle to imagine what life would be like if we did not have access to these things. As a culture, we love a bargain, especially when we get to tell someone else about the three-dollar T-shirt we found at Target. What a steal!

It is a culture of mass consumption, and no one is immune to it. From a nicer car to a bigger house to a new water bottle or wardrobe (even when you do not use most of what you have), the desire to have more continues, especially within fashion.

Overconsumption has more negative effects than I can effectively capture in one blog post. It exists in all aspects of life across all sectors of commerce. Based on personal experience as a woman living in the world, fast fashion is one of the most pervasive issues that could be addressed more effectively if more people stopped to question before they purchased.

For this reason, I am honing in on fashion today, but by no means is that to imply that fashion is the sole or most important issue of our insatiable, overconsuming culture.

 

History

To contextualize the history of fashion consumption, it is important to mention how the fashion industry has shifted its production model over time.

Historically, most clothing purchased in the United States was produced within the country, created by garment workers during the Industrial Revolution. While I will not delve into much of the history here, my colleague, Kala Bhattar, wrote a phenomenal blog that delves further into the history of fashion. I highly encourage people to check that out if they are interested.

A black and white photo that shows a large textile machine with a child standing in the foreground and an older person standing blurred in the background
Figure 3- Source: Yahoo Images; A child working on a textile machine in the industrial era

For the purpose of this blog, the critical thing to note is that this system of domestic production and consumption is no longer standard (and is actually pretty rare) and that most large fashion companies have shifted production into different countries in the Global South, so they can take advantage of the cheaper labor.

 

Pollution

According to the United Nations, the fashion industry is the second largest polluting industry in the world, sitting right behind big oil. As of 2019, H&M was known for having $4.1 billion worth of unsold clothes. Some of the unsold clothing is used to fuel a power plant in Sweden. Still, H&M (and many other brands) still produce a high quantity of textile waste that never gets used, and in many places, it gets sent straight to landfills. People consume 400% more clothing today than twenty years ago. This excessive consumption tends to contribute to human rights inequities like gender inequality since most garment workers are women. It also contributes to the climate crisis due to the manufacturing of chemicals and landfilled textile waste.

The entire business model of fast fashion companies exists based on the idea that consumers will buy things, wear them a few times, and then toss them out and buy more to try and keep up with cycling trends. This model relies on (and intends for) the products to only be used a few times before being thrown out.

With our current consumption habits, the best-case scenario is that an item will be purchased and worn a few times before being discarded. That is a pretty pitiful best-case scenario.

A landfill with dirt to the right and general waste to the left. A large tractor can be seen in the background.
Figure 4- Source: Yahoo Images; Fast fashion is often landfilled after only a few wears

 

Varying Disparities

Fast fashion’s impact on human rights depends on the location, which widely varies. In the United States, the textile waste predominantly goes to landfills. A 2007 North Carolina study showed how solid waste landfills are disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods. In the world abroad, it is known that fast fashion companies like Zara and Forever 21 capitalize on the cheaper labor in the Global South, resulting in what many have called “modern slavery.”

Extensive human rights violations are associated with fast fashion, from child labor to exposure to toxic chemicals to dangerous working conditions. For instance, in a 2022 undercover investigation, it was discovered that Shein employees work 18-hour days with one day off per month and make as little as 4 cents per garment.

I am keeping this section brief not because these problems are not important but to discuss potential solutions because the ultimate truth is that many people already know about these issues, and we need action.

 

Affordability

I would be remiss without mentioning the most significant barrier to purchasing slow fashion, and that is affordability.

Since we live in a culture that encourages overconsumption, some may scoff at spending more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans. We are used to the cheap stuff and accustomed to buying something to use it for a few times before pawning it off at the thrift store or throwing it in the trash can.

Sustainable brands are notoriously expensive by modern standards, and not everyone can afford those brands because they are the exception rather than the rule. In the past, clothing has been made to last for generations, so it was expected that consumers would pay higher prices upon the new purchase.

I want to be clear here that in no way am I trying to overromanticize the past systems of the fashion industry. I would highly doubt that some Americans today seek to abolish the minimum wage or have children working in our factories again. With that being said, we have lost the skills, knowledge, and willpower to make our purchases last in a way that respects the resources and labor it took to make the piece.

 

Conclusion and Solutions

In terms of solutions, there are some things that we can do to spark change within the fashion industry. These actions exist on two primary fronts: purchasing and—let me emphasize this one here—NOT purchasing.

Regarding true ethics and sustainability, relying on companies to make ethical decisions is not the best strategy since many of them are dishonest about their products’ true social and environmental sustainability. This includes many brands that some would consider to be “sustainable.” Fashion companies are notorious for greenwashing their products, making them appear a better option, even when most of their clothing is not produced ethically or sustainably.

Due to this, consumers should focus on reducing their consumption overall rather than buying when possible.

The best way to minimize the impact on people and the planet manipulated by the fashion industry is to stop buying from those brands. If you need something new and want to buy it, I encourage you to return to your closet and shop from there (because you probably do not need anything). This might sound crazy, but most of us have more than we need, and we must recognize that and act accordingly.

Another solution is to borrow something from a friend or family member. Thrifting or buying secondhand can also be good options to minimize your impact.

All of these examples mentioned fall under the front of not purchasing. If a shirt has holes, learn to mend it to be re-worn. If you want to wear something new to an event, ask a friend to borrow something or try to style something in a new way. Use what you have, and you will be forced to be more creative.

Two women talking to each other. They are standing between two clothing rails on the street at a secondhand clothing sale.
Figure 5- Source: Yahoo Images; People shopping at a clothing swap

It can also be helpful to consider the washing instructions for specific items. Many articles of clothing would last significantly longer if they were hang-dried or hand-washed.

When these options have been exhausted, and you must purchase something new, be selective. As a consumer, making conscious choices when purchasing new clothing dramatically helps. Suppose you cannot picture yourself wearing something often, or you know the item does not go with anything you have. In that case, it is probably a good idea to refrain from purchasing it.

If you cannot afford to spend a lot of money on clothes, fast fashion is going to be the obvious choice, so it is best to focus on making a mindful purchase with an item you will wear for a long time. Beyond that, the best thing is to take care of your clothes as best as possible to maximize the use you can get out of them.

If you love a staple piece from a sustainable brand, try to save up to invest in it—I guarantee you that it will probably last for years. I recommend this website to check on brands you are interested in—it rates brands based on environmental impact, labor conditions, and animal welfare.

 

Final Thoughts

We all experience the desire to have more, and that is not always a bad thing. Still, our culture has a lot of work to do regarding setting realistic expectations about the number of things we think we need.

For better or worse, I am an optimist at heart, and I am confident we can do better.

Capital Punishment and the Right to Life

A black and white picture of a prison cot with five belts used to strap down inmates in order to give them a lethal injection.
While it may seem like a common practice throughout the world, only about 28% of countries still maintain the death penalty in both law and practice. Source: Yahoo! Images

 

Stay tuned for my next article, where I will explore how the process of the death penalty, as well as the methods used to end the lives of inmates, may bring up additional human rights concerns. That article will be posted in the upcoming weeks. 

October 10th is the World Day Against the Death Penalty. 

It was my eighth birthday. I had gotten home from school and after eating my snack, I sat down on the couch. My birthday is in January and my mom hadn’t gotten around to packing up the expensive nativity scene from my grandmother that was set out on the sofa table behind my head. I got bored with my show, as eight-year-olds do, so I turned around and started playing with the porcelain figurines. To me, they were no more than stiff, less fun Barbies. Little did I know all it took was one little high-five between Joseph and the wise man with the frankincense before *CRACK* Joseph lost a hand. 

I still remember my mother’s face when I told her what happened. This nativity scene from her mother-in-law meant so much to her and she was feeling so many emotions. I knew that I deserved to be punished in some way for my mistake. I sat in time out for a while, I got a “stern talking-to” when my dad got home, and I didn’t see my favorite (real) Barbie for weeks.

My eight-year-old, future-philosophy-student self couldn’t help but question why all of this was happening to me. It was my birthday; my parents were supposed to be nice to me that day, but I still got in trouble. I knew that I should’ve been more careful with the figurine, but I also knew that what I did was an accident. I knew as soon as it broke that I had caused a problem, but I almost immediately learned from it: this material is weaker than Barbie material so I would need to use gentler hands when holding it. But I still couldn’t figure out why my parents were doing this. As I grow up, this concern still follows me. What motivates society to punish people who break the law? How could our system of punishment improve to allow people to learn from their mistakes and to still participate in society?

A drawing of a man in an orange jumpsuit with his head down standing behind metal bars. One of the bars makes the shape of a noose around his head.
Minorities, especially racial minorities, make up a disproportionate percentage of prisoners on death row. Source: Yahoo! Images

Theories of Punishment

Retribution 

The Retribution Theory of punishment holds that people who harm others deserve to be harmed and that the justice system should give them what they deserve. I like to call this the revenge theory or the “eye for an eye” theory. The arguments for this theory are, in my opinion, not very strong. Sure, it seems intuitive that when somebody wrongs us we want to wrong them back, but what good does that do? And should we really set up an entire justice system based on retribution when that only causes more harm to people, despite if they “deserve it?”

Deterrence

The Deterrence Theory of punishment holds that societies should punish moral failings in a way that when people hear about the punishment for a certain crime, it deters them from committing it. For example, people may not use drugs because they are afraid of what would happen if they got caught. If we want people to stop doing drugs, according to deterrence theory, we should inflict harsher punishments for those caught with drugs. The main critique of this theory is that it does not deter people from doing the thing, it only deters people from getting caught doing the thing, thus driving the whole crime farther and farther underground. 

Restoration

The Restoration, Humanitarian, or Utilitarian theory of punishment is based on the idea that after a harm occurs, we should avoid any further harm coming to anybody involved. This may entail rehabilitating people with addictions to live addiction free or mandating driving school and road safety courses for negligent drivers. This doesn’t just apply to low-level crimes though. This may mean a prison system similar to Norway’s, where even the most violent criminals are kept in a remote community where their rights and privileges are upheld. The average sentence is around 8 months, and after they’ve had time to reflect on their actions, they are allowed to return to society as usual. Click here to learn about what went into the design of one of Norway’s most famously humane prisons.  This theory is often criticized as being “soft on crime,” saying that if we don’t make going to prison incredibly unpleasant, criminals will not have any reason not to re-offend. 

A wooden electric chair against a dirty wall in the background.
The youngest person to be executed by electric chair in the 20th century was 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. His conviction was later vacated as an unfair trial. Source: Yahoo! Images

Pragmatically, when we are deciding which theory of punishment to ascribe to, we are balancing the weight of the government’s function that motivates law enforcement with the human rights of everybody involved in the crime. 

So what is the government function of capital punishment and does it outweigh the most fundamental human right, one’s right to one’s own life?

Government Function

It is widely agreed upon that the government’s most fundamental function is to protect the rights of people in its jurisdiction. This includes mediating conflicts in which a person impedes on another’s rights. In these terms, the crime of theft is when a perpetrator impedes on the victim’s right to own property. In this case, the government then has an obligation to interfere in some way to bring justice to the victim. Most of the time, this interference will constitute the government temporarily impeding on the rights of the perpetrator themselves. This may mean keeping them in jail until their trial, imposing a fine on them, or even sentencing them to prison time. 

Human Rights

The right to life is inarguably the most fundamental natural human right that exists. All humans have a fundamental right to live their bodies’ natural lifespan through to its end. It can even be argued that humans have the right to the best healthcare available to extend their lifespan as long as possible. Without the right to life, no other human rights of any kind can be realized. This is why the most widely recognized phrase about human rights lists life as the first. 

As the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and from that, they derive inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

To take someone’s life is to take away that person’s most fundamental, widely-recognized human right.

Balancing Both

Does the governmental function of societal safety ever justify taking away the perpetrator’s number one human right? Especially when, given that life in prison is an alternative option, societal safety is not even at risk by keeping these people alive. Many people will argue that keeping them in prison requires too many resources whereas the death penalty is a quick and easy way to save resources for the rest of society. Not only does this completely dehumanize people who have committed crimes, but it also switches the governmental interest from public safety to the much less compelling governmental interest of distributing resources. The interest in these resources is not compelling enough to justify the deprivation of someone’s life. Even if you think it is okay to impede on a perpetrator’s rights to prevent them from causing more harm to society, it is unclear that the deprivation of life would achieve this goal when life in prison is an alternative. 

The sun shines behind a wooden gallows with two nooses hanging down.
Three states still allow hanging as a possible execution method. Source: Yahoo! Images

According to the Retribution theory, people who took another life deserve to be killed solely on the “eye-for-an-eye” principle. But something doesn’t sit right when we try to defend this principle without dehumanizing people convicted of crimes. As a society, is it a good thing that we think a certain group of people deserves to die, even if their qualification into that group was voluntary?

According to the Deterrence theory, the death penalty may actually be an effective deterrence for prospective criminals. If they knew that committing this crime may literally mean the end of their lives, they may not commit the crime. However, it is unclear that the deterrence factor of life in prison, essentially ending people’s lives as they know it, is so much less effective than the deterrence factor of the death penalty that it justifies taking lives. 

According to the Restoration theory, capital punishment stands no chance. This theory is based on the hope of rehabilitation for criminals, even if that means they are only ever restored insofar as to live a meaningful life in prison. This theory is considered to be the most humane approach to punishment, and as far as research can tell, the one compatible with the lowest recidivism (re-offending) rates. 

El Salvador Being Counter-Productive

When it comes to political corruption, the first countries that come to your mind are probably prominent ones that you have heard about in the news such as North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq, and countless many others. This article will concentrate on a smaller country that is having a more profound impact on the human rights of its citizens: El Salvador. It will be done by analyzing the leadership of its president, Nayib Bukele, and how he transformed the political and social landscape of Central America by going head-to-head with gangs and crime. His actions, rather than lowering crime in his country, have only exacerbated the crisis. While many Western citizens believe that taking the fight directly to the front is justified and right, it actually does not remedy the cause of the violence: a lack of socioeconomic stability and development.

 

The Problem

El Salvador is the tiniest country in Central America, but it was nicknamed the “murder capital” of the Western hemisphere because of the severely high homicide statistics in the world, excluding war zones. Gangs run rampant and have a staggering amount of control over the population as they facilitate the transfer of drugs and materials from the black market. For years, the previous government administrations ineffectively attempted to damper these issues, but they were unable to, which led to the rise of Nayib Bukele.

 

Who is Nayib Bukele?

With his rise to power as President of El Salvador in 2019, Nayib Bukele became the face of a new era of political aspirations for the people of his country. However, despite the pressures that came with him being the youngest governmental leader in Latin America at age forty-one, he faced the more daunting task of creating a government that would do away with the corrupt administrations prior to his own. By creating a political party under the name, “Nuevas Ideas”, with its English translation being “New Ideas,” while previously serving as the mayor of San Salvador, he advocated for change against the political establishment. He initially relied on the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (F.M.L.N.), a major political party that rose to power after the war between the guerrilla and government forces. The organization returned the favor years later by helping him win the office of mayor of San Salvador. However, it was his ability to form an independent party for his presidential campaign that caught the attention of the public. By becoming a political outsider, Bukele corruptly used this publicity and power of being the unheard-of candidate, and later incumbent president, to crack down on the gangs and rise in crime that have dominated the streets and consequently, which had a negative influence on the standard of living for all Salvadorans because the manner in which he did so was morally and legally wrong.

 

So far

On June 1, while speaking to celebrate the beginning of his fourth year as president, he renewed his promise to construct a prison that would contain criminals and gangs. This prison, later named the Center for Confining Terrorism, was built with the idea of housing over forty thousand inmates together. Bukele, in order to present a strong front against gangs, temporarily removed constitutional rights within the country, enabling those even under suspicion for being a criminal or being a part of a gang to be arrested without any form of trial or due process. Policies that control and get rid of crime are necessary and should be implemented to the fullest extent that they can, but this course of action is not representative of a democracy but rather a dictatorship. By referencing himself as “the coolest dictator in the world,” he is recklessly enforcing a vision of control that directly disobeys the constitution of his country. Furthermore, Bukele has allowed tens of thousands of armed military personnel to roam the streets of various cities, which he then justified because it worked in one city. These measures, along with multiple drone flybys over cities and sudden detainments of any citizen, strip Salvadorans of their basic human right to live without fear of being wrongfully imprisoned. A government that rules with fear is one that does not properly rule at all because the purpose of government is to provide hope and help to people in ways that others cannot.

Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images; The unnecessary torture of prisoners being for the public to witness and hopefully enact action.


Ending it once and for all?

Image 2 – Source: AmnestyUSA; An image of citizens taking to the streets to demonstrate how pressing of a matter it is.

Going forward, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has provided solutions for how to better solve issues with crime and gangs in El Salvador. They directly addressed various contributors to human rights violations, such as the Bukele administration, legislative body members, the attorney general, and other government officials. The most compelling course of action given to the Bukele administration was to confront why someone would want to join a gang, which would consist of resolving the economic and educational disparities that deprive citizens of having the chance to maintain a prosperous lifestyle. Putting people behind bars is seldom the answer to reducing crime because it does not address the issue at its core. For the legislative body, the HRW recommends that they immediately terminate the state of emergency that has allowed President Bukele to enforce soldiers in the streets and imprison any person with suspicion of being in a gang. Applying this course of action will be a challenge for the legislators because of their unicameral body that has typically leaned towards supporting Bukele.

Final Say

Image 3 – Source: AmnestyUSA; An image of family that represents plenty of other families that could be experiencing similar  hours.

The human rights violations that have exponentially grown in El Salvador are because of the discourse and leadership of President Nayib Bukele and his advocators. They believe that they are effectively getting rid of gangs and other forms of crime in their country, but the manner in which they are doing so has caused them to have a destructive aftermath on citizens who want no part in this war. Furthermore, the deterioration of conditions in prisons that are already housing an increasing number of inmates demands the attention of people from around the world as these atrocities deserve to be seen and heard so that its enablers are held accountable.

 

 

The Separation Between Human and Nature

A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America

A Native American elder wearing a traditional headdress made of beads and feathers.
Much Indigenous cultural and epistemological wisdom is passed down by their Elders. Source: Yahoo! Images

I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change. 

As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar. 

Concrete Jungles

How do you provide for yourself and your family? 

Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?

A bright orange monarch butterfly sitting flat with wings open on a yellow flower.
The monarch butterfly has recently become endangered because of deforestation and climate change affecting their migration patterns. Source: Wellfield Botanical Gardens

Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492. 

Symbiotic Humanity

Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence. 

A drawing of three pilgrims meeting three Native Americans in front of the Mayflower.
Squanto (right of center) was a member of the Samoset tribe, known for being friendly to the European colonizers, teaching them language, agriculture, and traditions. Source: Yahoo! Images

Property and Greed

When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out. 

One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity. 

Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.

A huge wildfire burns in front of a dark sky and behind a row of trees in Quebec.
This wildfire season has been the worst Quebec has ever seen. Indigenous people, while only 5% of Canada’s population, make up 42% of wildfire evacuees. Source: Global News. Click here to read more about the personal effects that these wildfires have caused Indigenous families and communities.

A Culture of Climate Apathy

Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it. 

We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology. 

 

Diwrnod Gyda’r Urdd (A Day with the Urdd)

Image shows the Urdd delegation and the IHR team posing with a flag of Wales.
The Urdd and the IHR. Source: Institute for Human Rights.

by Sumaira Quraishi

On September 15th, 2023, the Institute for Human Rights (IHR) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and the Urdd, a Welsh youth organization, spent an afternoon together exploring human rights initiatives in Birmingham and the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the IHR, made opening remarks welcoming the Urdd delegation to UAB and facilitated introductions between the Urdd and members of the IHR team. Dr. Reuter then spoke on how the IHR is raising awareness of and advocating for human rights by making safe spaces to have open dialogues and hosting human rights advocacy conferences. Ms. Siân Lewis, Chief Executive of the Urdd, explained that the Urdd is the largest youth organization in the world and has been active for over 100 years. The Urdd’s primary objective is spreading a peace and goodwill message, with the focus this year being on anti-racism. The Urdd also aims to share the Welsh language and culture with others while learning about other languages and cultures around the world. The Urdd distinguishes itself in its anti-racism efforts through its “Galw Nhw Allan” (“Call Them Out”) motto, which encapsulates the Urdd’s desire to take substantive action against racism. In a video shown at the event, student leaders from the Urdd are shown describing the need to dismantle systemic racism through education to show the beauty and unity people’s differences bring to our communities. 

Two members of IHR led the group in a privilege walk, an activity that involves asking participants to line up side-by-side with their eyes closed and take a step forward if they agree with certain statements, or take a step back if they agree with others. Examples of the statements read included “Take a step back if someone in your immediate family is addicted to alcohol or drugs,” “Take a step forward if you see people with your skin color in your local government,” and “Take a step back if you have ever had to skip a meal or multiple meals due to your financial situation.” At the end of the exercise, every person of color from the group was at the back of the room, and every non-person of color from the group was in the middle or front of the room. This exercise was done to highlight the various advantages and obstacles faced by people around the world and fostered a great discussion about diversity and inclusion amongst the IHR and the Urdd. 

At the beginning of the meeting, members of the IHR handed out pieces of numbered paper to everyone in the meeting room. People with even numbers received a leaf to pin to their chest and people with odd numbers received a ribbon. After the privilege walk, everyone was asked to find a seat at tables decorated with pumpkins if they drew an odd number or tables decorated with scarecrows if they drew an even number. A short video on Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was shown where Ms. Elliott divided her class by eye color and favored blue-eyed children one day, and brown-eyed children the next, giving each favored group more praise and privileges over the other group. The class soon adopted hateful and derogatory views of the out-group, bullying members of the unfavored group which was distinguished by brown collars tied around their necks. To simulate this experiment, two members of the IHR went around telling people with leaves pinned to their chests to get second helpings of lunch and engaging members of that group in conversation. Contrastly, the two IHR members ignored people with ribbons pinned to their chests and neglected to mention that those with ribbons could go and get second helpings of the food being served. The experiment was revealed after lunch was finished, to the surprise of the room which had no idea the simulation was being carried out. A short discussion followed on how discrimination affects people in real life and the unique challenges faced by people daily due to discrimination. 

A tour of the IHR office space followed lunch and the Urdd delegation kindly presented IHR with a flag of Wales, a Cardiff University dragon plush, and Cardiff University silk scarves. Thank you to the Urdd for the thoughtful gifts!

The final event of the day was a screening of Four Little Girls directed by Spike Lee and a Q&A session with Michele Forman, Director of the Media Studies Program at UAB, who helped with the production of Four Little Girls. The film follows the events of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, and includes interviews with the families of the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. In the Q&A session after the showing, Ms. Forman described how every aspect of the film needed to answer the question “How does it help us understand what happened to the girls that day?”. A particularly impactful statement from Ms. Forman when asked what the rationale for using post-mortem photographs of the four children killed in the bombing in the film was that the destruction and exploitation of the Black body are used too much in media, but it was needed in the film to show that we will not move on from this tragedy and will not forget “what racism comes to bear on the Black body.” Thank you to Michele Forman for facilitating an insightful discussion of the film and the Civil Rights Movement!

Image shows black and white photographs of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
Victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Source: Yahoo Images.

The IHR is grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with the Urdd and looks forward to future collaborations! 

Watch the full Peace and Goodwill message video here

Understand the Impact of Poverty on Kenyan Society: Unveiling the Struggles Faced by Vulnerable Communities

By Grace Ndanu

An image of Diani Beach in Kenya to showcase some of the natural beauty of the nation
Diani Beach, Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

Poverty is a deeply rooted issue that affects countless individuals and communities around the world. In Kenya, it is no different. Despite its natural beauty and richness, Kenya faces significant challenges when it comes to poverty, particularly among vulnerable communities.

The high living standards brought by the new government of Kenya make the poverty issue more pressing. Everything is doubled. Tax is doubled, food is doubled, oil is doubled, women’s products price is now double the initial price.

An image of a Masai market in Kenya
Masai Market in Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

One issue arising from poverty is limited access to basic necessities such as food, clean water, and health care. According to a United Nations Development Program report, approximately 36% of Kenyans live below the national poverty line. This means that millions of people struggle to afford even one meal a day, leading to malnutrition and adverse health conditions. Additionally, a lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities further intensifies the spread of diseases, resulting in a higher mortality rate.

An image of Kenyans sorting through the food assistance provided by the United Nations World Food Program.
The UN World Food Program (WFP) assists many Kenyans who face food insecurity. Source: Yahoo Images

Another consequence of poverty is the limited educational opportunities available to children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Before the current government, a normal student at the university level was paying approximately 38 thousand Kenyan Shilling per year. Today the student pays 122 thousand Kenyan Shillings per year. Many families cannot afford to send their children to school due to financial constraints, resulting in a significant number of young individuals being deprived of basic education. The lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty, as individuals without the necessary skills and knowledge struggle to find stable employment opportunities.

The impact of poverty is also evident in the housing conditions experienced by vulnerable communities in Kenya. Slums and informal settlements are common in urban areas, where individuals live in makeshift shelters with little to no access to basic amenities. Unsanitary living conditions in these areas increase health risks and disease vulnerability.

An image of a student in Kenya with school materials. Paying for school in Kenya has become increasingly expensive.
A Student with school materials. Nyeri Primary School, Nyeri County, Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

These challenges are not insurmountable, however. It’s important to note that while these issues persist, there are numerous organizations, both local and international working alongside the government of Kenya to tackle these issues and improve the overall well-being of the Kenyan people. Efforts such as community-based programs, microfinance initiatives, and educational campaigns have shown promising results in uplifting vulnerable communities and breaking the cycle of poverty.

To bring about lasting change, it is crucial for individuals, governments, and organizations to come together and address the root causes of poverty in Kenya. This includes investing in sustainable agriculture practices, promoting entrepreneurship and job creation, improving access to quality education, and providing support for health care and social welfare systems.

An image of the Parliament of Kenya.
Parliament of Kenya; Source: Yahoo Images

In conclusion, poverty remains a critical issue in Kenyan society, affecting vulnerable communities in various aspects of their lives. By understanding the impact of poverty and actively working towards its eradication, we can create a brighter future for all Kenyans.

Food Insecurity: Ecuador and the Global Poor

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

Facts and figures of food insecurity in Ecuador 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factors behind food insecurity in Ecuador and beyond 

Environmental Racism 

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

Victoria Peña-Parr defines environmental racism as,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

Ukraine War

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

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

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

Hunger and the human right to food 

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Fighting Food Insecurity 

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

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

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

 

A Short Book List of Contemporary Black Authors

*Cover Image Photo credits to Sharon Drummond*

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

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

N.K. Jemisin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibram X. Kendi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saeed Jones

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Dennis-Benn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Jones, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

Angie Thomas

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

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

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

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

Michelle Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derrick Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Rosa

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

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

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

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

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

Isabel Wilkerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

 

Environmental Rights = Human Rights: Air As a Human Right

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

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

The Right to Clean Air and the Consequences of Air Pollution

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

Layers of the Atmosphere 

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

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

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

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

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

Greenhouse gases, air pollution, and global warming

An infographic explaining the treehouse effect
Source: Yahoo Images

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

Sources of Air Pollution and Their Health Impacts

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

Anthropogenic (caused by humans) Source

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Approach to Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Image Photo credits to Chad Davis. 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Autopsy revelations and public record reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protests of destruction over Cop City construction 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The creation of labels and narratives impacts on social justice movements 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing dynamics of protests: Resisting assaults on social justice attempts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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