Violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia

In the northernmost part of Ethiopia, there is a region composed of an ethnic minority called the Tigrayans that oppose increasing the power of the central government. This region has 7 million ethnic Tigrayans, which is 7% of Ethiopia’s population, and they have a significant influence on national affairs. The conflict between the government of Ethiopia and Tigray has been growing since the current Prime Minister took power in 2018. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wants to unify the country by increasing the power of the federal government and taking power away from autonomous regions like Tigray. 

Prior to Abiy taking office, the regional government called Tigray People’s Liberation Front had a lot more authority. TPLF had been in power for more than three decades until they were forced to step down by protestors. President Abiy created a political party that united several ethnic minorities to form the Prosperity Party. TPLF decided to not become a part of this party and remain in control of the Tigray region. After this decision was made, key Tigray leaders were taken out of power due to accusations of corruption. The Ethiopian government also delayed elections in 2020, which the leaders of Tigray opposed. In resistance to Abiy’s government trying to take away their autonomous power, Tigray held regional elections in September 2020. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the left in Tshwane, South Africa
GovernmentZA

In response to the regional elections, the federal government declared them illegitimate and cut funding to the region in October. Ethnic tensions in Ethiopia have been a problem since the military junta overthrew the centuries-old monarchy in 1974. The TPLF and another political party representing the Oromo people pushed against the junta because they perceived the takeover as a domination of the Amhara people and language. Since then, violence has occurred as tensions rise between different ethnic groups. In July 2020, accusations of ethnic cleansing against Oromo youth were made when groups targeted Amhara and Gurage people in the Oromia region. Most ethnic groups in Ethiopia have faced violence from other groups or exclusion by the central government depending on which political party was in power.

The situation in Tigray escalated to violence in November 2020, when TPLF laid siege to a key Ethiopian military base at Sero. In response to the attack by mortar and tanks, the Ethiopian government launched an offensive against the Tigray region. By the end of November, the federal government’s forces had retaken Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray. In the aftermath of the conflict, accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans have been made against the government of Ethiopia and their Eritrean allies. The most notable figure to bring this light has been the leader of the Tigray region, Debretsion Gebremichael. In an interview in February, Gebremichael called for an independent probe into the alleged killings, rapes, and torture. 

A protest in Addis Ababa against the TLPF when they were in power in 2014
Gadaa.com

The US State Department has released credible reports and accounts that support claims of ethnic cleansing and other human rights abuses. Reports include indiscriminate shelling on civilians by the Ethiopian government and looting by soldiers after Tigrayans fled the area. The abuse allegations are not limited to the government of Ethiopia. Eyewitnesses report that Eritrean soldiers fired on a crowd of Tigrayans leaving Maryam Dengelat church in Dengelat, a village in the east of the Tigray region. CNN also spoke to doctors that are reporting sexual violence used as a weapon against women in the area.

The conflict has led to tens of thousands of Tigrayans fleeing as refugees into neighboring Sudan. Thousands are believed to have been killed, though numbers are only estimates since human rights organizations are unable to get into the area due to fighting. One Ethiopian official said around 2.2 million people have fled their homes. In the past few weeks, journalists have finally been able to get into the region to release witness accounts and situation reports. In recent decades, Ethiopia has been a close ally of the United States and a stable presence in the Horn of Africa. Analysts worry that the recent human rights abuses and conflict may upset this status and make Ethiopia a source of instability.

People from the Trigray region of Ethiopia
Rod Waddington

Reports of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Tigray are just the most recent reports of violence against minorities in Ethiopia. The linguistic and religious makeup of the country makes it one of the most diverse in the region. Minority Rights Group International keeps a world directory based on census data, and Ethiopia consists of over 90 distinct ethnic groups that speak 80 different languages. The country is 43.5% Orthodox Christian and 33.9% Muslim, with the remainder following Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and traditional religions. The largest ethnic groups include the Oromo at 34.9% of the population, Amhara at 27.9%, and Tigray at 7.3%. The unique makeup of groups with different beliefs creates a difficult terrain for the government in power to navigate and future cooperation against violence is necessary to end the hate against minority groups.

The Rise in Anti-Asian Violence – An Event Recap

No More Hate
“No More Hate.” Source: Creative Commons

On Wednesday, March 31, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Dr. Peter Verbeek, Associate Professor in Anthropology and peace behavior scholar, to the Social Justice Café. Dr. Verbeek facilitated a discussion entitled “The Rise in Anti-Asian Violence.”

Dr. Verbeek began by recounting several of the vicious attacks leveled against Asian-Americans in recent weeks. Apparently stemming from the hateful rhetoric and blame-casting around the origins of the pandemic, the nature of the attacks on Asian-Americans listed by Dr. Verbeek included various forms of physical and verbal assault, discrimination, and homicide. After hearing of the horrid assaults that have been perpetrated against Asian-Americans there was an uncomfortable pause in conversation as participants digested the magnitude of the reality and the necessity of standing in solidarity against anti-Asian violence. Looking back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Preamble, which reads “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” Dr. Verbeek explained how these attacks constitute a violation of the basic human rights of persons of Asian-descent. He reminded participants that “peace is an ongoing process” and that while pursuing peace, we will constantly face challenges and uncomfortable situations.

Dr. Verbeek then began discussing the mass murder that occurred in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, 2021. At this point, participants began to share their personal experiences with discrimination and racism. This particular part of the conversation was guided by participants of Asian descent that were extremely candid while sharing their experiences. Many of the stories shared during this segment were heartbreaking and utterly disturbing. One participant expressed how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated their level of discomfort and fear of being in public spaces. The participant was more afraid of being attacked while being in a grocery store than they were of contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus. The participant also stated they have greatly altered the manner in which they travel in public by wearing heavy clothing, hats, and sunglasses in an attempt to be less noticeable. Hearing the firsthand experiences, fears, and obstacles faced by men and women of Asian descent was a somber but important lesson for all.

In discussing how to support the Asian-American community during this time, Dr. Verbeek commend the actions of UAB faculty, specifically citing Dr. Kecia M. Thomas’ call for unity and understanding following the mass murder in Atlanta. One participant questioned the power in mass statements calling for unity and how we, as a community, can conceptualize the idea of peace and unity and apply those principles. Dr. Verbeek acknowledged that anti-Asian hate and violence in the United States stems from the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The hatred and violence experienced by Asian people in the United States is not new and will continue to evolve. Dr. Verbeek found statements of solidarity to be valuable and a necessary tool used to introduce new audiences to the ancient history of white supremacy and oppression of minority communities in the United States.

Stop Asian Hate Protest Sign
Stop Asian Hate Protest Sign. Source: Shutterstock

While discussing mobilization and peaceful activism, a participant asked for advice on how they can better communicate and motivate those in their sphere of influence to become active and speak out against anti-Asian violence and discrimination. The participant’s request for advice was answered by a fellow participant. The advice included the tips to “first be gentle with yourself” then “be gentle with others” meaning, when engaging with others their level of understanding and outrage may not match yours, and this is ok. Be patient and understand that when introducing people to new ideas and concepts the gestation period will vary and to always be gentle with self-criticism. In conclusion, a participant offered a final call to action for all participants to continue to “educate, help organize, and raise awareness” and to continue to advocate for the protection of human rights domestically and globally.

Thank you, Dr. Verbeek and thank you everyone who participated in this eye-opening discussion. The Institute for Human Rights at UAB’s next event, “Pursuing Justice with Love and Power: A conversation with Brittany Packnett Cunningham,” will take place April 6, 2021 at 4:00PM (CT). Please join us and bring a friend!

To see more upcoming events hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.

Uncovering Hate: Revealing Not-So-Secret Hate Symbols

swastika flag
Swastika flag at a neo-Nazi rally in Massachusetts, USA. Source: Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons.

Hate symbols are hiding in plain sight. They are used to send messages, intimidate, and represent alt-right, white supremacist groups. Pretty much everyone around the world is able to recognize the swastika as a symbol of oppression and hate. However, hate groups have recognized how the swastika withdraws an immediate response of disgust and criticism from society. Therefore, hate groups have evolved to utilize symbols that perpetuate a very similar type of racism and hate as the swastika but are subtler and not as recognizable. Because of this, hate groups have been able to mobilize, protest, and distinguish their members from others without fear of retribution aimed at their symbols. This article serves as a baseline explanation of popular hate symbols within hate groups with the goal to make these symbols more recognizable and therefore less powerful.

People who utilize hate symbols in modern times work to ensure their ideologies are recognizable to likeminded people but not recognizable to the point that they might be criticized. Most of the time, neo-Nazis have three reasons to use a hate symbol: 1. They want to openly announce their support of the group/ideology 2. They want to intimidate or 3. They intend the symbols to be messages to other neo-Nazis. An example of secret messages would be the use of the number “1488.” 14 refers to the 14 words of a slogan utilized by white supremacists and 88 refers to “Heil Hitler” with H being the 8th letter in the alphabet. A popular way of hiding this message in social media posts, pieces of clothing, or on posters is to represent it on a pair of dice.

sonnenrad pendant
The Sonnenrad. Source: ADL, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/sonnenrad

The sonnenrad, or black sun, has long been a symbol of the neo-Nazi movement. While the symbol originates from an ancient Norse representation of the sun, more modern context shows us how the sonnenrad was a symbol of Hitler’s SS and after the fall of the Nazis in Germany, a symbol of the remaining Nazi supporters. Many hate symbols, including the swastika, have been appropriated from ancient cultural symbols in order to encourage dangerous racist narratives. The head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, had a sonnenrad mosaic installed in the floor of the SS headquarters and included the SS’s insignia within the sonnenrad to represent the “Aryan race” the Nazis were intent on creating. Contemporary neo-Nazis have revived the symbol. While the swastika is known around the world as a hate symbol and is illegal in certain countries, the sonnenrad is not so well known despite the similar hateful connotations it represents. A manifesto created by Brenton Tarrant displayed the sonnenrad prominently on the cover. In March of 2019, Tarrant massacred 51 members of two Christchurch mosques. The sonnenrad has become alarmingly disseminated, with the symbol being used in memes and social media posts in support of alt-right leaders around the world.

The combination of the colors red, white, and black is another example of a neo-Nazi symbol. These colors were originally the colors of the German Empire that fell after World War I. Hitler deliberately used these colors when creating the Nazi flag, using propaganda and the colors to try and draw Germans into the Nazi agenda by connecting the imperialism of the German Empire and the Nazi regime. Hitler himself stated that the red represents the “social idea of the movement,” the white represents the movement’s roots in nationalism, and the black is for the swastika, or “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.” Since Hitler, neo-Nazi groups have revived the hateful symbolic meaning of the colors, strategically placing them to show allegiance to white nationalist ideologies.

Here is a short list of other common hate symbols:

  • A white nationalist group named the Detroit Right Wings claimed and altered the logo of the Detroit Red Wings. The altered logo contains a Nazi SS symbol, the sonnenrad, and prints it on shields and t-shirts.
three triangles intertwined to form the valknot
The Valknot. Source: ADL https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/valknot
  • The valknot, or “knot of slain,” is an ancient Norse symbol used to represent the underworld. This symbol has also been appropriated by white supremacists. These groups use the valknot to demonstrate a connection to ancient Nordic culture and in some cases to represent their willingness to die in battle for Odin, a Norse god.
  • The kekistan is an almost exact replica of the Nazi war flag, with the Kekistan logo replacing the Nazi swastika and the color green replacing the large swath of red originally found on the flag. It is the national flag of a fictional place, used to show allegiance to the alt-right and many of Hitler’s ideologies.
The "ok" hand symbol with the three left fingers representing white and the index and thumb representing power.
White Power hand gesture. Source: ADL, https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/okay-hand-gesture
  • The “OK” hand gesture was once an innocent gesture used in general society as a gesture to mean “okay,” incorporated in American Sign Language, and utilized in Hindu and Buddhism as a symbol of “inner perfection.” However, starting in 2017, the symbol started being used to represent white power. It is flashed in social media posts and videos, most infamously used by Brenton Tarrant. Tarrant flashed the symbol in a courtroom in 2019 after being arrested for murdering 50 people at mosques in New Zealand.
  • Vanguard America, a prominent white nationalist group, uses the phrase “blood and soil” as an alt-right nationalistic slogan. In this context the definition is not far removed from the Nazi definition, just more directed towards the United States instead of Germany. The soil refers to “american soil” with blood referring to “white blood.” The phrase attempts to draw hereditary connections between the land of the United States and white people, completing negating the fact that many indigenous peoples lived and survived on the land of the United States for centuries before white people dared to grace the land with their presence.
An iron cross with a swastika in the middle
The Nazi Iron Cross. Source: ADL https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/iron-cross
  • The Iron Cross was a German military medal that has centuries of history. However, the Nazi regime claimed the medal and utilized it, placing a swastika within the metal of the cross, thereby making it a Nazi symbol. After World War II, the Iron Cross was primarily discontinued, however white supremacists, alt-right groups, and neo-Nazis have continued to use the Iron Cross as a symbol for their racist beliefs.

The Nationalist Socialist Movement (NSM) is one of the largest neo-Nazi organizations in the United States. The group is not shy about their respect and support for Adolf Hitler and will go so far as to wear Nazi uniforms with swastika armbands to protests. This group has roots in the American Nazi Party, founded in 1959. The NSM chose the Othala Rune as the new sign of alt-right white supremacy. The Othala Rune was originally an ancient symbol rooted in ancient Germanic cultures. It was appropriated by the Nazi movement in Germany to represent the “pure Aryan race.” It was chosen by the NSM after they felt the swastika was too recognizable and wanted something “more mainstream” to take on a very similar meaning as the swastika.

On January 6th 2021, the United States saw an attempted coup occur as supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed and raided the Capitol Building. Many of the symbols discussed above were prevalent on t-shirts, hats, and even skin. The QAnon supporter Jake Angeli, whose picture has been widely circulated since the event, had a variety of alt-right hate tattoos, including the Valknot. The neo-Nazi symbols themselves were enough to stem the rumors that anti-facist groups like ANTIFA were responsible for the attempted coup. However, outside of scholarly news articles, there was not much discussion about the symbols seen on flags, clothes, and skin on January 6th. In the case of modern hate symbols, their relative secretiveness gives them power. It is important to be able to recognize these symbols to keep marginalized groups safe and to hold people accountable who may support the meanings behind these symbols. For more information on the symbols outlined above and others, visit the ADL Hate Symbols Database. 

The Increase of Hate Crimes in the United States

No hate sign at a rally
No to hate. Source: Tim Pierce. Creative Commons.

It is undeniable that hate crimes directed towards Asian Americans have been increasing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. An organization created to respond to racism against Asians, Stop Asian American Pacific Islander Hate, has received thousands of reports of hate crimes across the United States just throughout the duration of the pandemic in 2020. This is a very large increase from previous years. Racist rhetoric surrounding the pandemic including terms like “China virus” and “kung flu” is a significant reason why these forms of hate crimes are increasing at such a rate in the United States. Many of the attacks are targeting elderly Asian Americans. In San Francisco, an elderly Thai man was attacked and later died from the injuries he sustained. In New York, one man had his faced slashed with a box cutter, a woman was assaulted in the subway, and another woman also experienced assault on the subway. Hate crimes towards many groups have been increasing in the United States for the past few years, with COVID-19 and the Trump administration providing a lenient space for hate crimes and speech.

new york
New York during COVID-19. Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of New York. Creative Commons.

In 2020, the FBI released their annual hate crimes report for the previous year, 2019. This report showed that hate crimes rose by 3%, a number that may not seem that significant at first glance but breaks a record with the highest number of hate crimes in a year. Of the more than 7000 hate crimes reported, 51 were fatal, another record breaking number. 22 of the 51 killings motivated by hate towards another group came from a domestic terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, a mass shooting in a local Walmart targeting shoppers of Mexican descent.

The FBI defines hate crimes as “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” It is important to realize that while the FBI’s report is key for understanding the hate dynamics in our country, it is ultimately an undercount. Many hate crimes go undocumented and even more are not categorized as hate crimes. Over 15,000 law enforcement agencies participate in reporting hate crimes. In 2019, over 86% of these agencies did not report any hate crime. The FBI report clearly shows that deadly hate crimes are increasing, however less and less agencies are reporting their data.

The categorization of hate crimes is also a major issue. For example, for the 2019 report the FBI recorded only one attack against those of Hispanic origin despite the El Paso, Texas shooting being largely recognized as an extremely deadly attack against El Paso’s Hispanic population. The deaths that resulted from the shooting were listed as “anti-other race/ethnicity/ancestry.”

El Paso Texas post card
Greetings from El Paso, Texas. Source: Boston Public Library. Creative Commons.

The breakdown for hate crimes in 2018 is as follows:

  • Anti-Black: 2,426
  • Sexual orientation or gender identity: 1,445
  • Anti-white: 1,038
  • Anti-Jewish: 920
  • Anti-Hispanic: 671
  • Anti-Muslim: 236
  • Anti-Indigenous Peoples: 209

According to the National Institute of Justice, 60% of most hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech. Therefore, speech intended to hurt, degrade, disrespect, and discriminate against a group of people can not be punished by law. However, the language used can be used in court as evidence of a hate crime.

The Department of Homeland Security revealed in their Homeland Threat Assessment that the growing upward trend of hate crimes represent a larger threat from extremist right wing groups. The DHS report also acknowledged that the largest domestic terror threat in the United States is the threat posed by white supremacist groups. The record-breaking white supremacist attacks in 2019 created the most deadly year of domestic terrorism since 1995. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh committed a bombing in Oklahoma City, a person and act that many white supremacist leaders look up to. Violent attacks like the one in Oklahoma City and the more recent one in El Paso work to encourage more violence, causing harm to specific groups and bringing more white attention to the cause.

Conspiracy theories are a large part of white supremacy. One conspiracy theory, “The Great Replacement” claims that white people are being replaced and erased from Western countries in a plot created by Jews. This conspiracy theory was alluded to by the El Paso shooter who described a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and by the person who attacked a synagogue in California in 2019, leaving one person dead and three others injured. The rise in hate crimes coupled with the growing presence of hate groups is not a coincidence. Between 2017 and 2019 white supremacist groups grew in numbers by 55%.

white supremacy flag
White supremacy. Source: Robert Thivierge. Creative Commons.

The recent increase in hate crimes also coincides with rhetoric perpetuated by former President Trump and his supporters. The words, opinions, and discriminatory speech used by the former president has been clearly identified as motivating many hate oriented attacks. An analysis of the FBI report shows that loaded remarks made by Trump are followed by increases in hate crimes and increases in hate speech on online platforms, especially directed towards Hispanic and Jewish peoples. The rhetoric used by former President Trump regarding groups of people and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a lenient space that does not punish hate speech or hate crimes. Hate crimes have been increasing, showing how harmful stereotypes and racism can truly be. It is important to recognize how and why hate crimes have been increasing in order to better address them and keep communities safe.

COVID-19 vaccine disparity in Israel and Palestine

Since the middle of November, COVID-19 cases have hit record-highs for the pandemic across the world. Countries around the world are pushing to get healthcare workers and the general population vaccinated to ease the burden of increased cases on health systems, economies, and citizens. The logistics of obtaining and delivering the vaccine have proved a slow, arduous task in many countries across the world. 

However, Israel has reported success in rapidly vaccinating health care workers and the general population. At the end of December and early January, Israel reported that it had administered vaccines to around 17% of the population. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel has secured enough vaccines to have all Israeli citizens vaccinated by March 16th of this year. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared, “We will be the first country to emerge from the coronavirus. We will vaccinate all relevant populations and anyone who wants to can be vaccinated.” He went on to say that Israel will be a “model-nation” for how to exit the coronavirus.

A man walks down the street during the Bnei-Brak Coronavirus shutdown in Israel
Source: Amir Appel, Flickr

A significant portion of Israel’s borders is made up of 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Israelis within the defined borders of the state number at 8 million, making Palestineans comprise 39% of the population. Israel occupies the West Bank, meaning most of the territory is under the control of the Israeli government. Gaza Strip has been blockaded, and the Israeli government controls all resources entering and exiting the area. However, Israel has no plans to vaccinate any Palestinians even though they are inoculating residents living in Jewish settlements in occupied territory. They sight the Oslo Peace Accords from the 1990s, saying that Palestine is responsible for their own healthcare. So far, the only Palestinians that have received any vaccines are those living in East Jerusalem, since they have Israeli residency and access to Israeli healthcare. 

A view of the West Bank, Palestine
Source: archer10 (Dennis), Creative Commons

Within Israeli territory, Palestinians have carried the higher burden of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita. Of the people who get COVID-19 in Palestine, 1.1% will die from the disease. In Israel, this number is 0.7% due to better access to higher quality healthcare. Israel has begun to give vaccines to medics, nurses, and doctors working in the 6 Palestinian hospitals, but they were not available until the past few weeks. Vaccines are still unavailable to Palestinians with high-risk health conditions and those over 65, even though all Israelis over 40 are now eligible. 

A woman gets her first COVID-19 vaccine
Source: Joint Base San Antonio Public Affairs, Flickr

The human rights body of the United Nations has released a statement saying that it is Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to provide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. There has been a huge inequality in vaccine distribution between Israel and Palestine, and the people of Palestine need vaccinations like those in the occupying power of Palestine. 

UPDATE (March 29, 2021):  According to BBC News, in early March, Israel decided to start offering the vaccine to the some 130,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem or coming to work in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In other parts of the West Bank and in Gaza, the situation continues to be very bleak – infections are rising, new restrictions are being imposed, and vaccination efforts have been much slower to start. The Palestinian authorities have begun administering vaccines supplied under the international Covax vaccine-sharing scheme, which is intended to help poorer countries access supplies, and the UAE has donated 20,000 doses of the Russian-made vaccine to residents of Gaza. There is some argument over who is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians, with Israel pointing to the specification in the Oslo Accords stating that “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West bank and Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side, including the health insurance system.” On the other hand, the United Nations issued a statement saying that according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel (the occupying power) is “responsible for providing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.” In any case, now that the vaccine is in greater supply, Israel has begun including Palestinians with work permits in the vaccine rollout.

Policing-For-Profit

Police Officer Writes Ticket
Source: the conversation.com

There are three main components of the United States criminal justice system: law enforcement, courts, and corrections. The ways in which the justice system disadvantages poor people is evident in both the courts component, with our cash bail system, and the corrections component, with private prisons and free inmate labor. However, the law enforcement component plays a part in the economics of the justice system. The Institute for Justice in Arlington, Virginia describes policing for profit as the ways in which “state laws are written to encourage police agents to pursue profit instead of seeking the neutral administration of justice.” Police officers are allowed to commit asset forfeiture abuse, seizing (and ultimately keeping or selling) and property they allege is involved in a crime. Officers are also incentivized to increase fine revenue through traffic stops and other traffic ticket opportunities. The relationship between law enforcement, the courts, and municipalities is a codependent one. Often times, cities and towns rely on fines and fees to address shortfalls in their budgets. And much like many other processes in the criminal justice system, this one disproportionately affects people of color and punishes low-income people.

Small Towns and Excessive Fines

A report shows that small cities and towns across the country use fines to finance their governments. As economic development in small towns and rural communities continues to decline, fines are accounting for a considerable percentage of revenue. Common boosts in revenue come from traffic cameras, speeding traps, and parking tickets. Fines and Fees Justice Center co-director, Lisa Foster says this use of the judicial system as a means of income stems from “the inextricable ties between the police, the town and the court.”

An analysis by Governing, the largest to date, shows that fines account for more than 10 percent, and in some jurisdictions 20 percent, of funds in small governments across the U.S. Although, these cases are found throughout the country, they are concentrated in poorer areas. Regions of the country like the South have impoverished rural areas and a large number of independent municipal local courts. So, states like Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas have a sparse tax base in certain areas, but fines account for a high percentage of their revenues. Whereas revenue from fines in wealthier Northeastern states don’t exceed 10 percent.

Police officer traffic stop
Source: Flickr

Both fines and fees have increased over the years. The rise in fees is concerning though. Some states limit the amount that local governments can profit off of traffic tickets. States like North Carolina use money from fines to support public schools. Fees, imposed to offset operational expenses, on the other hand are less restricted. Fees for monthly parole meetings and drug tests are established locally and the money obtained if often used for aspects of the government other than the judicial system. Fees in Georgia are used to for a medical trust fund and an additional retirement fund for police officers.

Nonetheless, income from fines and fees is allocated in city budgets. Although Georgetown, LA has fewer than 500 residents, this 2019 financial statement showed fines made up nearly 92 percent of the village’s revenue. Ultimately, the dependence on fines and fees has become so routine, that as the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, Robert Scott says, “they [local agencies] don’t want to let it go.” There is no doubt that the dependency will continue. As the worsening global pandemic has caused a budget crisis, municipalities will look to fill budget gaps with fines and fees.

Coup d’état in Myanmar: a precarious situation for human rights

On the first of February, the military of Myanmar, also known as Burma, staged a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The armed forces had backed opposition candidates in the recent election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide. Since the coup, Suu Kyi has been arbitrarily detained, supposedly for possessing illegal walkie-talkies and violating a Natural Disaster law. Suu Kyi was previously detained for almost fifteen years between 1989 and 2010, although she continued to organize pro-democracy rallies while under house arrest. The military has stated that they are acting on the will of the people to form a “true and disciplined democracy” and that they will soon hold a “free and fair” election, after a one-year state of emergency.

The military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, is currently in control of the country. Hlaing has been an influential presence in Myanmar politics since before the country transitioned to democracy and has long garnered international criticism for his alleged role in military attacks on ethnic minorities. There is significant cause for concern that a government under Hlaing will impose repressive anti-democratic laws, and more Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist policies.

Min Aung Hlaing in military uniform
Min Aung Hlaing / Getty / Fair use.

Since the 1970s, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have suffered from large-scale and orchestrated persecution. Myanmar’s official position, including under the Suu Kyi administration, has been that Rohingyas are illegal immigrants and thus are denied citizenship. In 2016, the military, along with police in the Rakhine State in northwest Myanmar, violently cracked down on Rohingyas living in the region. For these actions, the Burmese military has been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide by United Nations agencies, the International Criminal Court, and others. The United Nations has presented evidence of major human rights violations and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions; mass rape; deportations; the burning of Rohingya villages, businesses, and schools; and infanticide. A study in 2018 estimated that between twenty-four and thirty-six thousand Rohingyas were killed, eighteen-thousand women and girls were sexually assaulted, and over one-hundred-sixteen thousand were injured (Habib, Jubb, Salahuddin,Rahman, & Pallard, 2018). The violence and deportations  caused an international refugee crisis which was the largest in Asia since the Vietnam War. The majority of refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia became the largest of its kind.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been immune to criticism for her inaction during the genocide, with many questioning her silence while the military carried out gruesome crimes. Suu Kyi also appeared before the International Criminal Court of Justice in 2019 to defend the Myanmar military against charges of genocide. Regardless, she is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who enjoys broad support from the people of Myanmar, and there seems to be very little legitimate justification for her removal from power. Protests in response to the coup have grown rapidly since early February, with the BBC calling them the largest in Myanmar since the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The United Nations Human Rights Council met in special session in mid-February to discuss the coup, recommending targeted sanctions against the leaders. Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif and Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews argued that action taken against the coup’s orchestrators would not hurt Myanmar’s already vulnerable population. They urged the United Nations to take action to replace Min Aung Hlaing and the rest of the military leadership in a broad restructuring that

Protestors in Yangon
Protestors in Yangon / Hkun Lat / Getty / Fair use.

would put the military under civilian control. There is an increasing sense of urgency from human rights bodies due to troubling information getting out of the country, despite repression of the media by the military junta. Reports have started to come to light of live ammunition and lethal force being used against protestors and several protestors have been killed.  In addition, over two-hundred government officials from Suu Kyi’s administration have been detained, with many being “disappeared” by plain-clothes police in the middle of the night. The UN has long been critical of the Myanmar military, with Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif recalling the Human Rights Council’s 2018 report which stated that the “[military] is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation.” The Burmese military has functioned for over twenty years with impunity, benefiting from virtually non-existent civilian oversight and disproportionate influence over the nation’s political and economic institutions.

On February 27, the military removed the nation’s UN Ambassador from his position.

Kyaw Moe Tun
Kyaw Moe Tun / Twitter.

Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had on the 26th denounced the coup as “not acceptable in this modern world” and asked for international intervention by “any means necessary” to end military control. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews called Moe Tun’s speech a “remarkable act of courage”. Ambassador Moe Tun’s unexpected speech reinvigorated the protestors on the ground, who have faced steadily more intense crackdowns from the government forces. “When we heard this, everyone was very happy, everyone saying that tonight we are going to sleep very happily and encouraged,” Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network said, “These are peaceful protesters, civilians. And they are standing up against a ruthless, brutal army. So you can see that without any international intervention or protection, this uprising is going to end very badly.”

International response to the coup has been varied. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it a “serious blow to democratic reforms”, while the United States and United Kingdom have sanctioned military officials. US Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement saying “the United States will continue to take firm action against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.” On the other hand, China blocked a UN Security Council memorandum criticizing the coup, and asked that the parties involved “resolve [their] differences”, while Myanmar’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have characterized the coup as an “internal matter”.

Additional References:

Habib, Mohshin; Jubb, Christine; Ahmad, Salahuddin; Rahman, Masudur; Pallard, Henri. 2018. Forced migration of Rohingya: the untold experience. Ontario International Development Agency, Canada. ISBN 9780986681516.

 

Farm to Table: The World’s Largest Protest in India

Farmers Protests

In November 2020, India saw the largest protest in world history with tens of thousands of farmers and more than 250 million people standing in solidarity. For the past six months, India’s farmers have been protesting and striking against three agricultural bills that were passed last September. Until recently, the government has refused to listen to the demands of farmers and agricultural unions, and instead met them with force and police brutality. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, tensions between the government and the protestors heightened. This led to peaceful protests turning violent when the farmers that were hosting a rally in India’s capital, Delhi, stormed the city’s Red Fort. Here they were met with police that were armed with tear gas, batons, and assault rifles; as a result of this violence approximately 300 police officers were injured, one protestor died, more than 200 protestors and eight journalists were detained. Violence on this day, subsequent suppression of the press by the government, and internet cuts and shutdowns in areas surrounding protests led to activists like Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris using their platforms to call global attention and aid to the situation.

Source: Rihanna (Twitter)

What led us here?

In September, India’s Parliament passed three agricultural bills that loosened the rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce with the support of Prime Minister Modi. Modi and the government claim that these pieces of legislation will benefit the farmers as they will have more control and freedom of trade over their produce; these laws allow online and interstate trading, enable farmers and buyers to enter exclusive contracts, and finally limit the government’s ability to regulate these products. The farmers, however, disagree. They argue that this deregulation will allow corporate buyers and private companies to drive down the prices and exploit the sellers due to increased competition in supply. This, compounded with the bill that involves the removal of government imposed minimum prices, is detrimental to the health and livelihood of the farmers and their families. India already suffers from record numbers of farmers suicides, and there is increased fear that these new bills further drive this suicide epidemic. The number of these deaths are thought to increase even more after these bills are passes and reach an all-time high.

Indian farmers protest in December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What do the farmers want?

The farmers are demanding a complete repeal of the three bills that were passed in fear of corporate exploitation. They say they were already struggling to make ends meets under the protection of the government, but now with an open market with minimal regulatory support, the farmers are afraid that they won’t be able to survive and will be in poverty (if they weren’t already). In turn, the government has failed to address these demands until recently, but now allude to possible compromises, albeit unsatisfactory attempts in the eyes of the farmers.

More recently, however, India’s Supreme Court has suspended these bills in early January, and has ordered a committee to look into the grievances of the farmers and the lack of negotiations on behalf of both the protestors and the government. Chief Justice Bobde released a statement saying, “These are matters of life and death. We are concerned with laws. We are concerned with lives and property of people affected by the agitation. We are trying to solve the problem in the best way. One of the powers we have is to suspend the legislation.”

Farmer unions addressed that they would not participate in any committee processes, as the committee members have previously shown bias to how the agricultural bills were pro-farmer (when they were not). The farmers said they continue with their protests and planned to hold a rally in Delhi on India’s Republic Day on January 26 unless the laws were repealed in the meantime. The Supreme Court’s decision is both a gift and a curse. One on hand, the Court has been widely favorable to Modi’s agenda and policies in the past so this decision is a setback to the Prime Minister, but on the other hand, this decision to suspend the law allows the government to wrestle its way out of negotiations with the farmers without appearing to do so.

Farmers joined in sit-in protests near the capital. 5 December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke. CC0 Public Domain.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What’s going on now

As of January 20, the government has said that they are willing to suspend the new legislation for up to 18 months to two years, but the farmers have rejected this as it does not meet their demands. The government requested the protesting farmers design a proposal regarding their objections and suggestions to the laws to bring to their next table of negotiations. What’s interesting is that the supporters of the agri-legislations claim that the farmers do not understand the laws which the farmers refute and claim that these laws do not support their labor suggesting the real issue is “over the rights and treatment of agricultural workers.”

Following the violence and brutality on Republic Day, internet shutdowns and cuts by the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as suppression of the press, individuals and protestors as they clash with the police has been rampant in areas surrounding Delhi. These blackouts should’ve been lifted by now, but protest organizers have said that in some areas the internet was still not working leading to concerns over democracy. While the Indian government argues that this shutdown is necessary to “for public safety” and to curb “the spread of misinformation,” people’s right to expression and communication is being actively and purposefully hindered. As a human rights crisis, the economy suffers, the press struggles to get the news out, children are not receiving the best resources at education their schools have to offer, and those who need emergency services are not getting it or the aid is greatly delayed.

India is the world’s most populous democracy, but it is also a world leader in internet shutdowns. This is not the first time this has happened. The Indian government imposed a blackout in Indian controlled Kashmir after the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019 as well as another shutdown in areas of New Delhi after protests regarding a controversial and discriminatory citizenship law against Muslims. As the world’s most populous democracy, it’s incredibly concerning to see the suppression of press freedom under the guise of public safety. With no further days set to talk about negotiations in light of recent events, there seems to be no end in sight for these protests. As the new farming season begins in March, farmers may choose to hold on to their demands as a show of strength and unity instead of going back home, and it might be the final domino needed to trigger systemic change in agricultural labor.

How can you help?     

  • Donate to Khalsa Aid and Sahaita.org
  • Until recently, media in the U.S. has been quiet regarding the protests. Educate and share information about the largest protest we’ve seen, as well as on agri-workers rights and treatment.

The Keystone XL Pipeline and America’s History of Indigenous Suppression

A fake pipeline with the words "stop the xl pipeline" protesting the pipeline
Stop the XL Pipeline. Source: tarsandaction, Creative Commons.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. The pipeline, which had severe environmental and human rights implications, has been on a long road towards failure. This pipeline was proposed in 2008 and has been referred to as either the Keystone XL pipeline or KXL. In 2015, the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline due to its potential threats to the climate, drinking water, public health, and ecosystems of the local communities. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama’s veto, signing an executive order to advance the Keystone pipeline as well as a similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the many valid arguments made against the two pipelines. President Trump also issued a cross-border permit to the pipeline developer, a permit that had been long sought after for the developers. Since the approval, the Trump administration has been sued twice by environmental organizations and lost each time.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by the energy infrastructure company TC Energy. It was proposed to be an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been in operation since 2010. The goal was to transport 830,000 barrels of crude, tar sand oil to refineries on the American Gulf Coast each day. Tar sands lie beneath the northern Alberta boreal forest. They contain a form of petroleum called bitumen, a relatively sludgy substance that can be turned into fuel. Because of the highly corrosive and acidic nature of the tar sands oil, there contains a higher likelihood that the pipeline will leak. A study set between the years 2007 and 2010 found that pipelines carrying tar sands oil spilled three times more per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. The southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been completed. This portion of the pipeline is called the Gulf Coast Pipeline. The climate impact of a complete and fully operational Keystone XL would be drastic. It would increase mining by accelerating the production and transportation of crude oil. It has also been determined that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other forms of crude oil. In 2017, the US State Department released a study which proved that carbon emissions could be between 5 and 20 percent higher than the original 17 percent estimation. This means an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be emitted annually, a similar impact to 38.5 million cars.

A few protestors with flags in front of the Washington Monument
Keystone XL protestors. Source: Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons.

President Biden’s executive order was a landmark achievement and a sigh of relief for indigenous and environmental activists alike. Indigenous leaders are encouraging him to go even further and cancel more controversial fossil fuel projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Several indigenous leaders, including Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine nations and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Dakota nation, have seen Biden’s executive order as a sign of the administration keeping its campaign promise to work against climate change and work with indigenous communities. Many indigenous populations have fought for over a decade to defend their water and land rights against fossil fuel companies. Goldtooth called Biden’s decision a “vindication” of the hard work and struggle many indigenous communities have put forth in protest of the pipeline. Pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines as well as other fossil fuel projects actively pollute native land and water resources as well as consistently contribute to global warming due to their high greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline has received media attention in previous years due to the police and state reactions to the protests over its creation. This pipeline transports 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, over 1,172 miles. The pipeline continually threatens the sanctity of indigenous sacred lands and the purity and safety of the local water supply. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been one of the most vocal groups in working to oppose the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There did occur a series of protests for many months, in opposition of the creation of the pipeline. The protests were primarily peaceful, with camps and prayer circles set up on the land where construction was to take place. However, despite youth and elderly leaders being in the front during the inevitable standoffs with police, Mace, tasers, and rubber bullets were used against the protestors.

A group of young protestors holding a red banner reading "indigenous justice is climate justice."
Indigenous Justice. Source: John Englart, Creative Commons.

The briefest look at American and Canadian history clearly shows that the pipeline situations are most certainly not the first instance of the government refusing to respect the lands, waters, and even peoples of indigenous groups. Until 2016, Canada officially objected to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is considered one of the most water-rich countries in the world and yet many indigenous communities continue to be provided with inadequate access to safe drinking water which provides a large public health concern for these communities. The Canadian federal government refused to provide child and family services funding for indigenous children living on reserves, a purposeful discrimination tactic against indigenous communities. It has been determined that the pervasive violence against indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In the United States, there live over 5.2 million indigenous peoples and among them, 573 federally recognized tribes, numerous unrecognized nations, and many communities scattered across the North American continent, displaced by a long history of western oppression and forced assimilation. Between the years of 1778 and 1871 alone, the United States government has signed over 370 treaties with different indigenous nations, nearly all of which promised peace, defined land boundaries, and protection of land, water, and hunting rights. Based on the current status of indigenous peoples within the United States, it is evident that these treaties and those that followed were either never fulfilled or were manipulated to provide leverage for the United States government. President Biden’s executive order ending the construction of the Keystone XL is a very hopeful step forward, however it needs to serve as a pushing off point for the administration to continue furthering both environmental and indigenous rights.

The Texas Social Worker’s Code

social work student listening to lecture
Social Work Students’ Accreditation Visit 3.26.13. Source: Southern Arkansas University, Creative Commons

Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe.  However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered.  A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.”  During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out.  They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code. 

This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.   

This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk.  There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do. 

The Human Rights Connection 

It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved.  Consider some of the jobs of social workers.  They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more.  In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former.  Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.   

Sign that reads "Social Workers change the world"
Source: Yahoo Images

One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce.  Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need.  Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and, All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” 

 The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations 

Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities).   According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics, The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human wellbeing and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.”  vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.” 

Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence.  It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need.  Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.   

The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.” 

There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct.  It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause.