The Death Penalty is Inhumane

One of the best things that my 12th grade high school teacher encouraged me to do was to read and watch Just Mercy, a book written by Bryan Stevenson and a film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Both the film and book allowed me to greater understand the importance of confronting injustice, while also standing up for those wrongly convicted.

An image with the words "Just Mercy" and "Bryan Stevenson"

In the United States, about 43% of all executions have involved people of color, 55% currently awaiting the death penalty, all while only accounting for 27% of the general population. When comparing defendants, one fact to note is that “as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.” According to the ACLU, “a system racial bias in the application of the death penalty exists at both the state and federal level.”

But what exactly is the death penalty? What are the different forms of capital punishment and arguments for and against them?

What exactly is capital punishment?

Britannica defines capital punishment as the “execution of an offender sentenced to death after conviction by a court of law of a criminal offense,” meaning that this type of punishment would be reserved for the most dangerous of criminals.

The death penalty has been present in societies for hundreds of centuries, dating all the way back to before the establishment of Hammurabi’s Code in 18th century BC. Hammurabi’s Code laid the foundation of the death penalty for 25 different crimes; placing emphasis on theft between two groups of people. Hammurabi’s Code also established punishment as equal to the crime committed, as known from historical references as “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” These types of punishments were often cruel and included crucifixion, burial alive, impalement, and others.

Notable forms of Capital Punishment throughout History and Today

The Guillotine

The Guillotine, one of the older methods of execution, was introduced in France in 1792. This device fixes the head between two logs with a heavily weighted knife suspended a couple of feet in the air. This method of execution was introduced to make the process of execution “by means of a machine,” making it “as painless as possible.”

Notable figures executed by means of the guillotine as King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette for crimes against the French people.An image of a guillotine, with the blade and a basket where the head is supposed to be kept.

Hanging

Carried out in countries in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, hanging is defined as suspending someone in the air as a form of execution. Death either occurs through decapitation or through strangulation, depending on the length of the rope compared to the weight of the prisoner.

Lethal Injection

Lethal Injection consists of an anesthetic alongside chemicals used to paralyze the prisoner and stop the heart. This form of punishment exists in China and Vietnam.

Surprisingly, the United States also uses the lethal injection, with the most recent execution taking place on September 24th, 2020. “Christopher Vialva was sentenced to death for the 1999 murders of Todd and Stacie Bagley.” Vialva’s execution was the 1,526th in the United States since 1976, 10th in the federal system, and the 1,346th person executed by means of lethal injection.

Although the injection is designed to kill ‘quickly’ and ‘smoothly,’ inexperience on the part of prison staff has flawed the execution process. One case in particular is that of Dennis McGuire. Reports show that after the injection was administered to Dennis McGuire, he gasped and convulsed for 10 minutes; much longer than the time that previous injections have taken to execute someone, before dying.

Electrocution

Execution by electrocution occurs when a prisoner is strapped to an electric char with a “metal skullcap-shaped electrode” attached to their scalp or forehead. Following these actions, the prisoner receives a jolt of electricity up to 2000 volts for up t o30 seconds, until the prisoner is dead.

Electrocution is a method of execution carried out in the United States, with the first electrocution taking place at Auburn Prison in New York against someone who was convicted of murdering “with an axe.”

Why the Continuation of the Death Penalty Creates a Gray Area

Today, “more than 70% of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment.” Countries today that still have the death penalty range from countries with large populations under authoritarian rule, with the United States being the outlier as the only democracy with it in place.

An image of the world map highlighting countries that have abolished and retained the death penalty as of 2006.
Death Penalty Laws Over The World 2006.

According to the Embassy of the United States of America, capital punishment still exists due to the inability of the federal government to dictate laws to the states. Although the United States has been one of the foremost leaders in reforming capital punishment, other countries have had an easier time in abolishing it by “national governments imposing top-down reform because they decided the death penalty was no longer necessary or legitimate.” And since the Constitution allocates criminal law to the states, only they can repeal their own capital punishment laws. The Supreme Court is the only national-level body capable of declaring capital punishment unconstitutional.

Around the world, many consider implementing the death penalty a violation of human rights, especially those that require states to recognize the right to life, as shown through Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Life is a Human Right.” Although intended to curb violent crimes and atrocities committed by criminals, the loss of life through the death penalty violates “the right of life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” which the death penalty unfortunately promotes.

Although many international organizations and countries have abolished the death penalty, like many countries of the Global North save the United States, a case can arise where the death penalty is justified, shown through Bangladesh’s approval of the death penalty for rape. With a viral video showing a group of men sexually assaulting a woman, Bangladesh’s cabinet quickly approved “to incorporate the death penalty for all of the four types of rape defined under Bangladeshi law.” Though detracting from the real problem, that rapists are normal people and not animals, the passage of the death penalty seems just, since there has been a violent outrage at the lack of enforcement on sexual violence in this part of the world.

Moral arguments for the death penalty put quite simply, is the concept of retribution, where the killing of one person justifies the death of the killer. However, opponents of this notion would counteract that point with the fact that issuing capital punishment detracts from the moral message it conveys, alongside the fact that it is fundamentally inhumane.

Despite these arguments, the inhumane action that is the death penalty cannot go unchecked. With the death of Dennis McGuire, for instance, these processes are not clean and fraught with mistakes leading to the disgusting and horrific death of inmates.

“The death penalty has no place in the 21st century” – António Guterres

Overall, the “death penalty is not a useful instrument for combating crime.” Abolishing the death penalty in the United States can allow other countries to ensure the right to life for all people, while also ensuring that the absolute worst of punishments cannot be enforced differently based on a person’s status, color, race, or underlying distinctions.

“The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” – Amnesty International

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.

“On the Pursuit of Equity” – An Event Recap

Ajanet Rountree
Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

On Tuesday, January 19, the Institute for Human Rights at UAB welcomed Ajanet Rountree, UAB Alumna and Ph.D. student at George Mason University, to our first Social Justice Café of the new year. As part of the King Week activities coordinated by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Ajanet hosted a discussion on “Dr. Kings Perception of Equity”, where she led participants in a conversation about several lesser-known but very important excerpts from Dr. King’s writings.

Dr. King is often misquoted and a large portion of his speeches and writings are excluded when discussing the rich complexity that exists within Dr. Kings work. Ajanet was meticulous in her selection of excerpts from Dr. Kings sermons, interviews, and literary works to be discussed during the Social Justice Café.

In response to Dr. King’s notion that  The real problem is that through our scientific genius weve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius weve failed to make of it a brotherhood.”Ajanet asked participants to evaluate how they define and establish brotherhood within their personal lives. During the initial discussion participants were also asked to think about the things they value and surprisingly, none of the participants seemed to list brotherhood as one of their primary values. Ajanet then directed participants back to the original quote and reiterated that Dr. King was a staunch advocate of brotherhood. He believed without brotherhood the American people will not be able to truly unify and heal.

Moving forward, Ajanet shifted the focus of the conversation to Dr. Kings views on freedom. Ajanet asked participants to articulate their definition of freedom and how those definitions fit within current American culture. At this point in the conversation, Ajanet introduced Dr. Kings interpretation of freedom in America and the reality that there exists two separate Americas. Dr. King said, This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.” While discussing the existence of two Americas, participants began to discuss the events that took place at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Ajanet concurred that the attack on the United States Capital was an exact dramatization of the existence of two Americas.

The lack of unity, understanding, and brotherhood that Dr. King warned about has caused a widening of a major subdivide within American culture. Ajanet used the words of Dr. King to express the importance of pushing legislation that protects the lives and rights of minority citizens. According to Dr. King, The law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.” Sadly, the presence of love for ones brother and safety often do not exist within the same space.

The final topic of dissection within the Social Justice Café was how the participants can engage in dismantling the asymmetry that exists within America. The discussion began with Ajanet displaying two questions: What will it take for whites to relinquish power?” and Is that an aspect of personal freedom and collective justice?” The conversation around the second question was interestingly skewed amongst the participants. Some felt the dismantling of American asymmetry is a personal responsibility of the individual and should not be addressed through the lens of collective justice. Ajanet concluded by offering some final sentiments, namely that when examining the thoughts of Dr. King, it is imperative that we understand that Dr. King fully supported the unification of the American people, and that Dr. King envisioned a harmonious society built with equity and justice.

Thank you Ajanet and thank you to everyone who participated in this stimulating discussion. The next Social Justice Cafe will take place on Tuesday, February 2 at 4:00PM (CT), and we will be discussing Biden’s human rights agenda. Please join us next time and bring a friend!

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

Poland’s Rise in Populism

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

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

The Close Relationship Between Religion and Government

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

 President Duda and the 2020 Elections

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

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

LGBTQ Free Zones

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

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

Access to Abortion

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

 What is the future of Poland?

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fires and COVID-19 Race Through Lesvos Migrant Camp

We are asking for the European community to help. Why are they not listening to us? Where are the human rights? We took refuge in the European Union but where are they? There are no toilets, no showers, no water. Nothing. Not any security or safety. We die here every day.”

Devastation in Moria

On the night of September 8th, 2020, fires raged through Europe’s largest migrant camp in Moria, Lesvos in Greece. It is home to more than 13,000 people which is 6x its capacity. Recently, Moria has caused deep political divisions and unrest in Europe over Mediterranean migration. Moria serves a direct transit point for hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge from Afghanistan and Syria with the European Union. After Europe started closing its borders and putting a quota on the number of immigrants 4 years ago, life in Moria began to be plagued by mental and physical health issues and desperation. What was originally a temporary camp, became the home of deplorable conditions for people who were running from another deplorable environment.

On the night of the fires, thousands of Moria residents were displaced and are currently being refused entry into Europe, being refused basic rights to shelter and safety, being refused access to proper shelter and sanitation, and being refused their human rights. Since fleeing the fires, the refugees have resorted to sleeping on fields and the sides of roads. Thousands of migrants are now demanding more permanent housing because their situation is so out of the norm and they just want to feel safe in one environment, but their cries for help are continuing to go unheard. The Greek government has taken positive steps to build a more permanent migrant camp, but this leaves little to no hope for refugees seeking a better life outside of Lesvos.

This picture shows the a part of the residential area of the Moria camp where proper housing is severely limited and lacking along with our necessities. Source: Marianna Karakoukali

While accounts of how the fires started are currently being investigated the Greek government is claiming to have identified the culprits. Rumors of how the fires started are illustrative of ethnic and political tensions on Lesvos. The refugee migrants are tired of their poor living circumstances and the local population is upset with lack of regional, national, and international support for managing the influx of migrants and refugees on the island. While a second civil rights movement is happening not only in the United States, but all around the world, racial and ethnic tensions are high. Many refugees feel the European Union is turning its back on them. The European Union is becoming less tolerant for migrants and refugees, when it had once promised to help.

So how is COVID-19 affecting Moria?

Earlier this year, Greece went into lockdown and put travel restrictions on tourists coming in and residents going out. At the beginning of September, there was a small outbreak among the residents at the Moria camp, and human rights advocates are concerned that the Greek government is using this outbreak as an opportunity to further constrain the lives and freedoms of the migrants. The Greek minister for migration; Mitarchi, released a statement saying that the outbreak suggests need for a more “closed and controlled” environment for the migrants. This is odd considering that Moria has experienced far fewer cases than the rest of Greece, but the restrictions placed over the lives in Moria were much higher in comparison. In the Spring, the United Nations was so overwhelmed and concerned with livelihood and the living conditions at Moria that they called to expedite the migration process and related paperwork. So along with the day to day living conditions at Moria, COVID-19 and readily available access to healthcare is making life harder for the migrants. The fires may have been set in retaliation against the newer COVID-19 restrictions by the migrants or they might’ve been set by the local residents who fear the spread of COVID from the camp.

What is going on now?

In the meantime, while the Greek government is talking to French and Italian national leaders, riot police have been deployed to both the site where fires have been set, and also to the new refugee camp that is being set up to shelter those abandoned in Moria. This new site is at Kara Tepe where local media has identified helicopters that have been transporting tents and other necessities for the residents. In the fires, refugee documentation and belongings have been lost and burned, so it is still being determined how accessible the new site at Kara Tepe will be. Many refugees are now saying that they will not go back to another refugee camp where proper living conditions are not guaranteed, but the Greek government is saying that it will “not be blackmailed.”

Refugees sleep on side of the road following the fires, while they await further government housing and instructions. Source: Tasnim News Agency

What can you do to help?

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

Known as black gold, petroleum has long been, a valuable resource that many of us benefit from during our daily lives. The petroleum industry’s products range from transportation to even the feedstocks that make the “plastics and synthetic materials that are in nearly everything we use.” Shockingly, the United States has consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, with about 46% of it used as motor gasoline. However, “there is an alarming record of human rights abuses by governments and corporations associated with fossil fuel operations,” ranging from relocation to even suppression of critics.

What is Petroleum?

An image of a pipe pouring some type of green substance, oil in particular, into a barrel.
Recirculated petroleum is pumped from the well by a replica steam engine. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Known officially as crude oil, petroleum is a fossil fuel that can be found underneath the Earth’s surface in areas known as reservoirs. Petroleum is mainly used for gasoline that fuels most cars in the world. Petroleum is also used as diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, and others.

However, petroleum is not just a fuel source. Many factories and production sites use petroleum in order to make “crayons, dishwashing liquids, deodorant, eyeglasses, tires, and ammonia.”

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

An image of an oil well, colored black, in the process of digging for oil. Located in Lufkin, Texas.
Pumpjack, Spindletop oil field. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

Through the growing and prosperous iron and steel industry, the 20th century became a period of “great change and rapid industrialization.” However, the birth of the railroad and new construction materials gave way to the petroleum industry offering an alternative source of fuel needed in everyday life.

In Texas, the discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for the creation of hundreds of oil companies, especially Texaco and Golf, and for the massive decrease in oil prices, from “$2 a barrel to 3 cents.” In 1901, the Hamill brothers, contracted to drill into the ground using a steam engine, came into contact with 160-million-year-old crude oil, shooting up in a geyser meters high. They had anticipated 50 barrels of oil being produced in a day, but more than 80,000 barrels were being produced each day, enriching the backers of the oil rig exponentially.

When talking about the history of oil, one must never forget one of the key figures in the industry, John D. Rockefeller. Through his experience in entrepreneurship and organization, he became a leading figure in the oil industry by creating the Standard Oil company, one of the “world’s greatest corporations.” Through a monopoly, his company integrated itself both horizontally and vertically by eliminating competition and making products cheaper and production more efficient.

The discovery of the Spindletop oil reserve allowed for competition against Standard Oil, through the rise of the Texas Company and the American Gasoline Company (Shell Company of California during the mid-1910s). However, because of Standard Oil’s attempts to “monopolize and restrain trade,” the Supreme Court decided to split up the company into 34 smaller companies.

Oil in the World

Reserves can be found all over the world, but there are countries that produce more oil simply due to the vast reserves found underneath the Earth’s surface. In the United States, the five largest oil producing states are Texas, Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. In the world, the top oil producing countries are Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Iran, and China. The need for oil in the United States surpasses the amount it can produce, generating the need to import oil from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria.

Looking closely at the top producers of oil in the world, you may notice that two countries in the top five are countries in the Middle East, each with their own host of problems regarding human rights. They range from Saudi Arabia’s supposed killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the killing of more than 6,500 Yemeni civilians as a result of numerous airstrikes against the Houthi rebels to Iran’s crackdown on peaceful protestors and the presence of Iran’s death penalty for most extreme offenses. Allegations of human rights abuses also extend to China as well, where Xi Jingping has removed term limits for the president and enabled the mistreatment of Muslims living in northwestern China. Many consider these human rights issues are due to something called the “Resource Curse,” where the abundance of natural resources in developing countries, like oil, usually lead to “economic instability, social conflict, and lasting environmental damage.”

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

If you read the news as much as I had a couple of years back, then you might recall a certain conflict occurring in North Dakota regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is designed to transport more than 500,000 barrels of crude oil everyday from North Dakota to Illinois. Proposed by Energy Transfer Partners in 2014 and completed in 2017, many interest groups protested the pipeline, ranging from environmental activists to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

An image of protesters holding up a banner with the words "STOP DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE" across it.
Dakota Access Pipeline protesters against Donald Trump

The pipeline currently travels under the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as a source of biodiversity in the environment. Part of the reason for the protests include the damage to the water supply that said pipeline could inflict if leaking occurs which is justifiable due to the more than 3,300 occurrences of leaks since 2010 at many pipelines in the United States.

An image of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline, with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe tribal location highlighted as well, showing where the pipeline would threaten those tribal areas.
Le Dakota Access Pipeline avec la réserve indienne de Standing Rock en orange. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

Reactions towards the protestors have also been extreme, as Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur, has reported. The North Dakota National Guard, law enforcement officials, and private security organizations have used extreme force, shown through the use of “rubber bullets, tear gas, mace, compression grenades, and bean-bag rounds.” These reactions have been in violation of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. Although some protests have become violent, Kiai suggests that “the response should remain strictly proportionate and should not impact those who protest peacefully.”

“The right to freedom of peaceful assembly is an individual right and it cannot be taken away indiscriminately or en masse due to the violent actions of a few.” — Maina Kiai

By also having part of their cultural homeland destroyed during the construction process, the company contracted for this project is violating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where Article 8 of the Declaration clearly states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” However, it is clear to note that U.S. support does not consider the Declaration as a “legally binding or a statement of current international law,” but instead a political or moral force.

Economic trends and forces have commanded the way in which our country has treated those who have been disenfranchised and harmed culturally. The creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline is merely an example of the effect that these economic interests can have on native populations, the environment, and the treatment of those peacefully protesting. Although the pipeline’s main intent is to provide a source of energy for the United States, the threat to harm a cultural tribal site can lead to the destruction of homes for many residents.

Juneteenth: Celebrating the Past, Fighting for a Better Future

Juneteenth in yellow, black, red and green with black power fist
Source: Yahoo Images

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

What is Juneteenth?

Celebrated on June 19th, Juneteenth commemorates the official end of slavery. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the U.S. government made little effort to enforce the executive order, allowing Texas and other Southern states to uphold the institution of slavery for two and a half years after it was declared illegal. It was not until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the news of freedom and the end of the Civil War reached the enslaved people there. Alternatively called “Freedom Day,” “Emancipation Day,” and “Cel-Liberation Day,” African Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the late 1800s.

History

In the decades following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Juneteenth celebrations grew in size and popularity. Some formerly enslaved men and women and their descendants made pilgrimages back to Galveston to celebrate the holiday. Early celebrations often included a ritual in which revelers tossed ragged garments that enslaved people would have been forced to wear into the river and adorned themselves in fancy clothes taken from their former plantations. In 1872, a group of African-Americans ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park as a place to hold the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The festivities typically involved fishing, barbecue, rodeos, baseball, and prayer services.

In the early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations declined, as White employers did not recognize the holiday and would not let Black people off work if the holiday fell during the work week. Educational text books for students marked the official end of slavery as January 1, 1863, without mentioning its continuance through the end of the war. American Independence Day was celebrated on July 4, and Juneteenth went largely under the radar. Celebrations were revived in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and cities across the country reinstated the festivities. Through the tireless efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator, Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Other states are following his lead. In fact, 45 states and the District of Columbia have either made Juneteenth a state holiday or an official day of observance; however, it is not yet a national holiday. This year, several corporations, including Target, Twitter, Nike, and the NFL have announced that June 19 will be a paid holiday for their employees.

Protest sign reads "End White Silence. Black Lives Matter"
Source: Creative Commons

The Struggle Continues

As we celebrate the official end of institutionalized slavery, it is important to remember that the struggle for true freedom and equality for African-Americans is far from over. As the country is waking up to the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, Juneteenth celebrations are expected to be particularly festive and well-attended this year. Following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and countless other victims of anti-Black violence, there is a renewed sense of urgency and activism around the Black Lives Matter movement. Massive protests are happening all over the country with hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality. In order to truly understand and participate in Juneteenth celebrations, it is important to remember the horrors of slavery, the extreme violence inflicted on Black people in the years following liberation, and how these legacies continue to plague our society. In anticipation of Juneteenth, the Equal Justice Initiative has released a new report – Reconstruction in America – describing the various ways in which White people and the State invented new forms of slavery, perpetuated anti-Black sentiment and justified violence and oppression. As Bryan Stevenson aptly reminds us, “Slavery did not end in 1865, it just evolved.” Today, Black Americans still do not enjoy the same freedoms and rights as White people, as they continue to experience lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration, and unequal justice disproportionately to their White counterparts.

While Juneteenth in years past has focused on celebrating the advances that Black people have made in the United States, this year is expected to center around a call to action. For White people who want to show their support, this includes showing up for the causes of anti-racism and equal justice, understanding the structural and institutional underpinnings of white supremacy and white superiority, exploring their own complicity in upholding a racist social order, and using their privilege and agency to take actionable steps to dismantle racism, both in their personal lives and on an policy level.

History is calling the future from the streets of protest.

What choice will we make?

What world will we create?

What will we be?

There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist”

– Ibram X. Kendi

To learn how to build an anti-racist world, watch Ibram X. Kendi’s inspiring TED talk.

 

Pigmented Pandemic: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19

Ubiquity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has drastically changed the way we behave in almost every corner of life. One silver lining drawn into these unprecedented times is that many people are more appreciative of their families, friends, and communities. However, the odds of being in a social network that knows someone who has been diagnosed or died from COVID-19 are greater if you are a racial/ethnic minority living in the U.S. As such, this blog focuses on COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on communities of color and how a human rights approach can help address racial/ethnic health disparities.

Racial/ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to reduced access of health services and the psychosocial stressors of discrimination which is why some argue that racism is a fundamental cause of health inequalities. These disparities are largely due to the disadvantaged economic and social conditions commonly experienced by many racial/ethnic minorities. Compared to Whites, racial/ethnic minorities are more likely reside in densely populated areas, live further from grocery stores and medical facilities, represent multi-generational homes, and be incarcerated. Additionally, racial/ethnic minorities disproportionately represent essential worker industries and have limited paid sick live. As a result, the living and working conditions for many racial/ethnic minorities put them at odds with threat of COVID-19.

Vestiges: Black American Health Disparities

Black Americans have disproportionate rates of COVID-19-related risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. As such, they are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 in many counties across the U.S. These disparities are even more alarming at the state-level. For example, in Georgia, 83% of all COVID-19 cases linked to a hospitalization were Black patients despite the community only representing a third of the state’s population. Also, in Michigan, Blacks represent 14% of the state’s population but 41% of the COVID-19 deaths. On a national level, Blacks (13% of the total population) represent 33% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations, while Whites (60% of the total population) represent 45% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Not only do Black Americans disproportionately live in many of the U.S.’s early COVID-19 hotspots (e.g., Detroit, New Orleans, and New York), they are also more likely than their White counterparts to experience poverty and have no health insurance. For centuries, the labor of Black Americans has been deemed “essential”, while the COVID-19 pandemic adds insult to injury. In the medical field, Blacks are less likely to be health professionals and more likely to represent personnel that cleans, provides food, or work in inventory. As such, Black essential workers who are not on the frontlines are more likely to acquire COVID-19 in the pernicious form of regularly contacting cardboard, clothing, or stainless steel. Thus, health disparities in the Black community demonstrate how the legacy of slavery and segregation thrive in the social and economic conditions of COVID-19.

Segmented: Latino American Health Disparities

Many Latinos in the U.S. have immigrant status and work in high-risk essential industries such as agriculture, food service, and health care. This largely explains why Latinos are up to three times more likely than Whites to be infected and hospitalized by COVID-19. These striking outcomes are compounded when considering that Latinos face other disproportionate hurdles such as inadequate communication resources and language barriers. Also, Latinos often socialize in “mixed status” immigrant networks which means those who are undocumented are not eligible for COVID-19 stimulus funding.

A recent Pew poll found that Latinos are almost 50% more likely than the average American to have been laid off or lost a job due to the pandemic. This is particularly salient to Latinos with a high school education or less and those ages 18-29. However, immigrant Latinos were less likely to lose their jobs but more likely to take a pay cut. As a result, the Latino experience during the COVID-19 pandemic is not only fraught with social and economic drawbacks, much like other communities of color, but complicated by the fact that their large immigrant population is ineligible for needed resources and often relied on in the essential workforce. These outcomes suggest the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 are uniquely challenging to Latinos, namely immigrants with limited access to resources that are often afforded to citizens.

Overlooked: Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Health Disparities

Often overlooked in the racial health disparities conversation are outcomes for Native Americans. Some state health departments (e.g., Texas) classify Native American COVID-19 statistics as “other” which ultimately dismisses the unique health profile of this underserved population. However, early statistics from Arizona and New Mexico suggest Native Americans represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths and cases, respectively. Reports from health authorities in Navajo Nation, which is comprised of areas in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, indicate this community’s confirmed COVID-19 prevalence rate is the highest in the country, although they have a test rate higher than most U.S. states.

In March, the Seattle Indian Health Board requested medical supplies from local health authorities but instead received body bags and toe tags. This callous response demonstrates that local authorities in Washington state have actively devalued the lives of Native Americans during these trying times. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota have responded to their state’s negligence by refusing to end COVID-19 highways checkpoints across tribal land. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier argues that the checkpoints are the best thing the tribe has to prevent the spread of COVID-19 because they are only equipped with an eight-bed facility for its 12,000 inhabitants. The nearest critical care facility is three hours away.

Also overlooked are COVID-19 outcomes among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Early reports from California, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington indicate that NHPI have higher rates of COVID-19 when compared to other ethnic groups. A precursor to these outcomes is that NHPI have some of the highest rates of chronic disease which puts this demographic at higher risk of COVID-19. Much like other racial/ethnic minority groups, NHPI are more likely to work in the essential workforce and live in multi-generational households. Thus, these conditions allow COVID-19 to proliferate among NHPI enclaves.

Person with a protective mask preparing food with a front door sign that reads "No Mask, No Entry".
Thank you essential workers! Source: spurekar, Creative Commons

Health and Human Rights

Health is argued to be a fundamental human right. Ways this can be achieved is through creating greater access to safe drinking water, functioning sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, and safe conditions in the workplace and schools. As such, health exists well outside the confines of the typical health care setting. However, the U.S. has yet to officially ratify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which ultimately prevents the government from being held accountable for the socioecological influences that generate health disparities across racial/ethnic minority groups.

These health disparities are not debatable and even acknowledged by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In response, national efforts, state-level policies, and public health programs have successfully reduced these disparities but have only made modest progress. Thus, comprehensive, systemic, and coordinated strategies must be implemented to achieve health equity. Although solving this daunting task cannot achieved by the U.S. government alone. It must also incorporate non-profit and philanthropic on-the-ground efforts already seeking this goal as well as greater public awareness about the impact social and economic policies have on racial/ethnic health disparities.

Despite these discrepancies, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, these unprecedented events bring greater light to issues such as poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and migration, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. As a result, the ubiquity of COVID-19 has gathered people from every corner of the justice community to declare that health is a human right, thus bringing us one step closer to true equity and inclusion.

Human Rights in Times of COVID-19: Public Safety vs. Individual Liberty

The flyer for the webinar with pictures of the three panelists

The tension between the authority of governments to impede on individual rights in times of public emergencies and the implications for human rights is a topic that has come into focus as the world reels from the impacts of COVID-19. On Thursday, May 21, the Institute for Human Rights hosted its first webinar on Human Rights in Times of Covid-19, which focused on how we navigate this tension between public safety and individual liberty. Our panelists included Dr. Kathryn Morgan, the Director of the African American Studies Program at UAB and an expert in civil rights, race, and criminal justice policy, Dr. Natasha Zaretsky, a Professor of History at UAB who focuses on contemporary U.S. culture and intersecting histories of women, gender, and families, and Dr. Robert Blanton, the Chair of Political Science and Public Administration at UAB who specializes in international human rights with a focus on human trafficking. We are grateful to our panelists for taking the time to share their expertise on this topic as we navigate this difficult time, and we’re grateful to the UAB/IHR community for your interest and engagement. If you missed the webinar and would like to watch it in its entirety you can find it here. Below is a recap of the event. 

Dr. Morgan focused on the implications of this tension for civil rights in the U.S., reminding us that governments do have the authority and the responsibility during a pandemic to impose restrictions on certain rights afforded by the Constitution in order to keep the most people safe. However, as we are seeing, this is not a cut and dry issue, and there is a lot of disagreement over how to keep people safe and keep the economy functioning. To this end, she mentioned three major concerns: one, what kind of restrictions will be put in place?, two, how long will this go on?, and three, how will these measures be enforced? She also mentioned the variable impact these restrictions and the virus itself will have on different sectors of the population, pointing out how this virus is disproportionately affecting black and brown people who are dying at much higher rates than white people. Dr. Morgan also expressed concern over how federal and state responses to the virus will impact people with disabilities, suggesting that times like this often exacerbate discrimination against these vulnerable populations. 

“When we look at service workers. When we look at people who are in essential positions that help to keep society running, even in a shutdown. Many of those people are from marginalized groups. They are exposed to conditions that really exacerbate the problems of exposure to the coronavirus.”

Dr. Zaretsky discussed the way that partisan division and hostility are shaping this conversation around individual liberties and public health, comparing it to the debate over vaccinations in the U.S. On the one hand, people want and need to work, but at the same time, we see that social distancing and work from home measures are effective in slowing the spread of the virus. And while this seems like a particularly loud and divisive situation, one that the Trump administration is actively inciting, Dr. Zaretsky reminded us that the media is proliferating the opinions at the polar ends of the spectrum, which likely do not represent the views of most Americans. While lockdown protestors are demanding that the economy be reopened so that they can get haircuts and pedicures, it doesn’t seem like they’re considering that this requires other people to risk exposure to the virus so that they can perform these services. What is important to remember is how interconnected we all are. However, in the absence of no comprehensive national plan to end the pandemic, the rampant spread of misinformation, and the politicization of masks and other safety measures, we are left with division and hostility rather than a sense of unity toward a common goal of resolving this crisis. 

“In the context of this pandemic, there is no such thing as individual liberty…it is bringing into view how profoundly interconnected we all are.”

Dr. Blanton spoke of how this tension is playing out on the global stage and how different nations are regarding their human rights commitments during this time. In balancing the human rights with the public good, international law provides a set of standards that calls for restrictions to be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory in nature. Of course restrictions on the freedom from things like arbitrary imprisonment or torture should never be lifted under any circumstances. However, Dr. Blanton mentioned what he called “coronavirus coups” happening in places like Hungary, where democratically-elected presidents are using the pandemic to suspend elections and appointment themselves rulers for an indefinite period of time. Other governments have used the pandemic to undermine civil society by using emergency powers to detain journalists and activists and health care workers who criticize the government. In moving forward, Dr. Blanton stressed that the “protection of human rights should not be viewed as an impediment to handling the crisis so much as an essential component of an effective response.”

“Several countries have used the pandemic as an excuse to undermine the rule of law or undermine democratic processes.” 

Community questions

We were pleased to have so much engagement from community members who sent in questions on Facebook for our panelists to address. Here are some of the questions and the responses: 

Would you say now is a good time for the U.S. to join the United Nations in guaranteeing health care and food as positive human rights? 

Dr. Blanton responded to this by saying that this crisis has brought into focus the mediocre job our country does in providing the positive rights, including health care. This has shown the weakness in our existing power structure in that the federal government is pushing to centralize power around the pandemic but at the same time is not able or is not willing to provide the goods and services that states need to combat the virus. He said the U.S. is unusual in its position on not identifying healthcare as a human right, though this is clearly something that needs to change.

Dr. Zaretsky also touched on how this crisis has exposed and exacerbated the pitfalls of the health care system, expressing a cautious optimism that this may serve as an impetus to reframe the healthcare debate in a way that makes forging comprehensive and long-term policy changes possible. Again, this is an example of how the extreme positions have been foregrounded and the wants and needs of the majority go unaccounted for. But there is no denying anymore that changes must be made going forward. 

What about labor rights? They are always tennis to non-existent in the U.S., but especially hard-hit right now as the U.S. and other countries like them slide further under the rug, risking worker safety while they’re at it as part of their coronavirus response. 

In addition to the weakness of our labor unions in the U.S., we fall behind other developed countries in terms of wage levels and working conditions. The crisis is bringing a lot of attention to that, but Dr. Blanton is not terribly optimistic that anything will come of it. The problem is that this requires hefty structural change, not just short-term attention. Dr. Zaretsky pointed out that there have been several labor uprisings during all this – at Amazon and Instacart for example – but these don’t get a whole lot of attention in the media. The focus is largely on militia groups storming the capitols, and the concerns of workers are getting lost in the shuffle. 

It’s easy to think of the two sides during this pandemic as people who resent not being able to shop or eat versus people who are afraid that they will die, but how do you draw the line between what different groups want and how do you decide which voices are listened to? How can a government make both sides feel that they’re being heard? Is there a way to defuse this resentment? 

A big part of this problem, according to Dr. Zaretsky, is that the Trump administration is ratcheting up this animosity by using divisive rhetoric rather than trying to rally people around a common cause. Trump is pitching this as a populist class struggle, and this narrative is dominating the media coverage. This is unfortunate because while there are differences in how Republicans and Democrats think this needs to be handled, the majority of Americans on both sides are in agreement about the need to take the virus seriously and are trying to do what they can to stop the spread. 

We are grateful to our panelists and to all the community members who joined us for the webinar. If you missed the event, you can check out the recording on our Facebook page. 

Art for Human Rights: The For Freedoms Congress

FFCon Header. Source: For Freedoms

As the crowd chanted the words “Reactionary? No, visionary” in synchronization, we could envision the power of community and our passion to create change. Our minds were synced in for a collective purpose and hearts full of warmth and unity. This was at the first For Freedoms Congress in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of March earlier this year. I had the incredible opportunity to attend and bring back home a plethora of inspiration, information, and ideas on using art as a tool for activism.

What is For Freedoms?

For Freedoms is an artist-run platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the U.S. inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century. Their belief is to use art as a vehicle for participation to deepen public discussions on civic issues through non-partisan programming throughout the country. Hank Willis Thomas, the cofounder of For Freedoms says that “The people who make up our country’s creative fabric have the collective influence to affect change. Right now, we have a lot of non-creative people shaping public policy, and a lot of creative individuals who haven’t or don’t know how to step up. For Freedoms exists as an access point to magnify, strengthen, and perpetuate the civic influence of creatives and institutions nationwide.”

About the Congress

The For Freedoms Congress gathered delegates from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to come together to share their mutual passion of using art as a tool for advocacy and activism. We were honored and proud to represent the Institute for Human Rights, UAB, and the state of Alabama at this nationwide platform. The Congress spanned over three days in the historic city of Los Angeles to celebrate its role as the birthplace and driver of many important artistic-led cultural movements over the decades. The use of remarkable locations such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japanese American National Museum, and the Hammer Museum added to the artistic aura of the conference and gave us an opportunity to explore these exciting places.

Over the course of the conference, we got to attend a number of artist-led planning sessions, creative workshops, art activations, and performances on topics ranging from refugee rights to gun violence, indigenous rights to gender equality, and the criminal injustice system to public art policies. In addition, featured townhalls were held on each of the four freedoms that sparked constructive dialogue between the participants.

The 50 State Photo. Source: Ural Garrett, FFCon

Culture, Art, and Advocacy

The foundation of all the discussions and sessions at the Congress lies on one fact: culture is a human right. Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” To make this right a reality, activists, advocates, and cultural institutions from around the country came together to share their ideas, foster collaboration, and to create a platform for civic engagement. They committed to keep playing their part in their respective communities to help make this right a reality for all through public action and commitment to the American values of equality, individualism, and pragmatism.

We need to make sure that cultural and social groups are able to express themselves and exercise their right to art in addition to other human rights. The right to art suggests that it should be accessible to everyone and is synonymous with free speech and self-expression. It goes back to having the freedom to speak up for one’s own self, to have representation, and to practice religion and cultural ways free from any fear or want.

Art is a powerful tool to bring communities together and it speaks to people, which is why it can be used in all kinds of fields to foster equity, inclusion, and justice in society. For example, an important aspect that is often overlooked is the importance of art education and its access in our education system. Art education fosters social development, provides a creative outlet, enhances academic performance and intellectual development, and promotes out-of-the-box thinking for students. Brett Cook, an interdisciplinary artist and educator, led a dialogue on community and collaboration to explain how arts-integrated pedagogy can cause healing and tell stories that reinvent representation. He used The Flower of Praxis as the basic model to foster socially engaged art practices with a focus on art education for collaborative outcomes. It starts with preparing the soil by reflecting on personal experiences and moves through the leaves of connecting with others, seeking new understandings, generating critical questions, and critical analysis to grow into the flower of informed action. The process keeps going by reflection influencing action and eventually generates activism and civic engagement.

The Flower of Praxis. Source: Rosa Gonzales, Creative Commons

Making the voices of people more audible by telling their stories through art and narrative can help create a new moral imagination on pressing issues and social injustices. Art can be used to express what human rights mean to a certain group of people. It gives people the right to their own ways and to tell their own stories. The session “Art Stories on Migration” made me realize the potential of art as a tool for advocacy and how it can be used to create a sense of belonging among disoriented populations. It can redefine identity and help answer pressing questions like who belongs to the economy? Who belongs to the healthcare system? Who belongs to the American identity? It can help communities take ownership and build representation in creative ways. The language of visuals activates the aesthetic perceptions of individuals and facilitates a deeper understanding of issues beyond the surface level. Making the stories of refugees and migrants visible through artistic media gives voice to their struggles and highlights their contributions. Responding to the question of suggesting creative activities or solutions in response to the issues of migration, one participant shared their video project in which immigrants re-read the Declaration of Independence to reflect on what those words mean to them, not just historically but also contemporarily. Another delegate suggested using inclusive language and terminology in museums and other public spaces, such as newcomers or people who migrated instead of refugees or immigrants, enslaved people rather than slaves, and First Americans instead of Native Americans. There are also various avenues for advocacy for non-profit organizations and public charities to lobby, advocate, and encourage participation in politics, elections, and other social movements.

One of my favorite sessions at the Congress was the “This is Not a Gun” workshop. It was based on using collective creative activism to highlight the stories of injustices inflicted on the American people at the hands of law and order. Since the year 2000, United States police have “mistaken” at least 38 distinct objects as guns during shootings of a majority of young black American men, none of whom were armed. The participants shaped these mistaken-as-gun objects in clay, giving presence to their form, the human rights violations, and racism prevalent in America today. While carving out these everyday objects like a flashlight, hairbrush, and sandwich, we paid tribute to the victims and had a meaningful conversation around accountability, equity, safety, and social justice in our country. It made us reflect on the racial profiling, police brutality, societal trauma, and the role we can play in addressing these issues by coming together to support our people and our communities.

Me shaping a flashlight out of clay at the workshop. Source: thisisnotagun.com, Creative Commons

The takeaway message from the Congress was that art has the potential to make a difference in the social discourse and to create change through public engagement. The For Freedoms Congress built a collective platform for artists around the nation to stimulate public action on pressing national issues. In the words of For Freedoms delegates,

We are a collective of artists, creatives, and cultural institutions. We believe citizenship is defined by participation, not ideology. We are anti-partisan. We use the power of the arts to drive civic engagement, spur public discourse, and inspire people to participate in our democracy.