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.

Coronavirus and Religion

Source: M. Rehan, Creative Commons

As the Covid-19 pandemic is taking the whole world by a storm of chaos and confusion, it is directly affecting various aspects of people’s lives. People around the world are trying to get used to this new normal and cope up with the challenges and changes in daily life caused by this global crisis. Since we are facing an outbreak like none other, it has directly affected and changed how we live, work, communicate, and carry out our daily lives. Religion is a very important part of most people’s lives and affects their everyday routine as well as physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual beings. The freedom to have, follow, and practice a religion is a fundamental human right, and I will explore how the novel coronavirus crisis is impacting and interfering with the religious rights of people.

Since the pandemic has affected most places in the world, religious institutions and houses of worship are no exception. Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have been closed for all kinds of gatherings due to the social distancing protocols set through by the CDC as a response to Covid-19. In these unprecedented times, billions of people are resorting to religion as a first resort for comfort and solace. When all else looks unsettling, people of faith are turning closer to religion and spiritual observance throughout the world. But the pandemic has also interfered with traditional ways of practicing religion through the closure of the places of worship and withdrawal of gatherings of this sort. As a Muslim myself, I would like to share my observation and experience of the influence of this pandemic on the religious experiences of Muslims around the world.

Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world with more than 1.9 billion followers, thus a significant population of the world is facing challenges in exercising their religious rights and rituals. During the initial phase of the outbreak, the first immediate effect on Muslims was the cancellation of the Friday communal prayer. People were ordered to pray in their homes in order to avoid close contact with each other. This congregational prayer is of great significance to Muslims as they come together in mosques to listen to the weekly sermon, pray together, and fulfill this obligatory ritual. Therefore, its dismissal was a big deal for the Muslim communities worldwide and also led to conflicts in some areas. For example, worshippers in Pakistan clashed with police personnel trying to enforce the lockdown at the time of the prayer. Similarly, some mosques in Bangladesh continued to operate despite government restrictions and a massive prayer gathering with tens of thousands of devotees was held without permission from the authorities. The pictures of the event were shared on social media, where it was greatly criticized and sparked an outcry from people in favor of the lockdown. People in Indonesia were divided over Friday prayers and coronavirus fears, resulting in some praying at home and others gathered in mosques. Religious leaders in the U.S. also faced a dilemma in making the best decision for their followers, facing disagreements on whether or not to cancel Friday prayers. In the second week of March, Muslim organizations including the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the Islamic Society of North America gave a joint statement suspending Friday prayers and recommending necessary precautions to the Muslim community.

Protecting human life is one of the fundamental objectives of Islamic Shari’ah. This concept takes precedence over all other objectives of Islamic faith as life represents the foundation of our existence. Therefore, at times, preservation of human life and human rights is far more significant than the continuity of even essential practices of devotion.

People are finding alternate ways to keep practicing religion while also practicing social distancing. Online platforms are being widely used to share information, resources, and ways to get closer to religion as well as interact with other people of faith for support. To lift up the spirits of the Muslim community amid this pandemic, the call to prayer, Adhan, was chanted from loudspeakers in the heart of Europe in early April. Nearly 100 mosques in Germany and the Netherlands rang out with the sound of Adhan as a gesture of support for Muslims. A lot of mosques in Muslims countries have added a line at the end of every call to prayer, asking people to pray at home.

Adhan recited from mosques to fight against COVID-19 in Germany. Source: Yeni Safak, Creative Commons

Islam’s holiest site in Mecca, known as the Kaaba, which is always packed with tens of thousands of pilgrims year-round, was emptied due to Covid-19 concerns earlier this March. Muslims around the world were shocked, shuddered, and deeply saddened to see the holy place deserted for the first time in millennia. The images of the empty Kaaba inside Mecca’s Grand Mosque were extensively spread over social media as Muslims showed their concern and disappointment on this unprecedented yet imperative move. Every year, nearly 2.5 million pilgrims visit the holy sites of Mecca and Medina for a week-long ritual known as Hajj; one of the five pillars of Islam and obligatory for every able-bodied Muslim once in their lifetime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia stopped Umrah, a non-mandatory pilgrimage, in late February due to the pandemic. As the unfavorable situation still persists, the cancellation of Hajj, which starts in late July, is also being considered. This is one of the largest human gatherings in the world, and its potential cancellation will affect millions of people and businesses around the world.

The holy Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Before and after Covid-19. Source: Creative Commons

The Islamic month of Ramadan started a few days ago and it is one of the most important, sacred, and celebrated time of the year for Muslims. It is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, charitable giving to the less fortunate, spiritual renewal, praying and reading the Quran, abstaining from worldly pleasures to reconnect with the self and with God, and coming together as a community to celebrate. Muslims around the world are having a Ramadan like no other this year. The mosques are empty, the daily nightly prayer Tarawih is canceled, people are observing the holy month by praying in their homes and sharing meals with immediate families instead of large community feasts. People are trying to find alternate ways to have the Ramadan experience by holding virtual Iftar meetups, online sermons and halaqa sessions, and donating through online platforms amidst these social-distancing times. On one hand, lockdown in Ramadan has also allowed people to spiritually indulge themselves without worldly distractions like work and school and to modify their daily schedules accordingly. It has given some relief to those who are fasting to catch up on lost sleep from late night prayers and waking up in the middle of the night for the pre-fast meal suhoor. On the other hand, the cancellation of open Iftars organized by mosques and charitable organizations that allowed sharing a meal for everybody has taken a toll on the less fortunate who rely on these meals during Ramadan. Since the world is already facing an economic crisis and a lot of people are in an uncertain situation financially, this time of festive observance is becoming harder for those who are unable to provide for their families and take part in all the celebrations. Since the month of Ramadan teaches empathy and encourages acts of compassion and generosity, Muslims around the world are stepping up to help their brothers and sisters in this time of need. The act of fasting teaches patience, self-discipline, sacrifice, and empathy and these virtues are more important than ever for all of us to practice in these difficult times.

The end of Ramadan is commemorated with a celebration called Eid, which is also referred to as a gift for those who fasted the whole month. For us, the day of Eid is marked by wearing new clothes, going to the communal Eid prayer in the morning, celebrating with the community, and sharing meals and presents with family and friends afterwards. This year, it is expected to have a similar fate as Ramadan if the state of emergency continues, resulting in all the festivities being called off.

Muslims praying in a mosque. Source: Shaeekh Shuvro, Creative Commons

Coronavirus has also changed how funeral services and burials are carried out across the world. Islam has specific guidelines and rituals to perform for the deceased including washing/bathing the dead body, putting it into a coffin, and offering the collective prayer before a procession of friends and family takes the body for burial. According to the CDC guidelines, gatherings are not supposed to exceed 10 people and the body of the infected person should not be touched. Muslim scholars in the US have proposed alternative ways to carry out these procedures such as limiting the handling of the body to the specific staff of the graveyard or funeral home with the use of proper personal protective equipment (PPE). They have also suggested doing tayammum instead of bathing the dead body, which is characterized by wiping the face and hands of the deceased after touching a sandy surface. Additionally, family and friends are not allowed to be physically present during the burial or the prayer. Attendance at funerals is considered a collective obligation that must be carried out by a sufficient number of people, but changes are being made to ensure the safety of everyone. My mother’s uncle passed away from coronavirus last week in Boston, Massachusetts and his family was not allowed to see him at all. Instead, the funeral was live streamed and the prayer was held in the presence of only four people, one of them being the imam who led the prayer.

It is important to note that not only is this Covid-19 situation affecting religious experiences, but some of these rituals have also contributed to the spread of the virus. For example, a gathering of 16,000 worshippers at a Malaysian mosque became the largest known viral vector of the pandemic in Southeast Asia, spreading the coronavirus to half a dozen countries. Similarly, the pilgrimage of Shia sect Muslims to the holy cities of Iran led to the spread of the virus through Central and South Asia. The pilgrims reportedly caught the virus in the holy city of Qom, which was the epicenter of covid-19 in Iran and caused it to spread in their home countries upon return. Even though Pakistan shares its border with China, the novel coronavirus was introduced into the country through pilgrims returning from Iran. Similar cases have been seen around the world where coronavirus infections have been linked to religious gatherings, such as church services in South Korea and North Carolina, Jewish Purim celebrations, and Muslim prayer gatherings.

To conclude, religion is both a source of solace as well as a possibility of risk during a pandemic. People of faith around the world are struggling to keep a balance between religious practices and safety precautions. It is in the best interest of everyone to follow the social distancing guidelines whenever possible and find peace in their own beliefs, whatever they may be.

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.

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Why Are Chilean Civilians Protesting?

Chile is a Spanish-speaking country located to the west of Argentina in South America. Its ribbon-like shape allows it to be a part of many different climates, from the Atacama Desert to the North to the snowy Alpine climate to the South. According to the BBC Country Profile, Chile’s population amounts to about 17.9 million people, with 6.7 million people living in Santiago, its capital city.

An image of the map of Chile.
Top 10 Hardest Working Countries of the World. Source: Workspirited, Creative Commons

Chile is a free country. The Freedom in the World 2019 Profile rates Chile as Free with a score of 94 out of 100. According to the report, Chile’s Freedom Rating, Political Rights, and Civil Liberties are rated as most free due to its growing civil rights efforts that emerged after its transition to a democracy in 1990. So, why are there high-scale protests currently spanning the country? High costs and economic inequality are largely to blame.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Chile’s income inequality is ranked 3rd in the world, only behind Costa Rica and South Africa (for reference, the United States is ranked sixth).

These statistics explain why the youth in Chile are currently protesting rising transport fares. In early October, “the government announced that the metro rush hour prices would rise by 30 pesos ($0.04).” These slight rises to the metro fare were met with backlash from many school children, who responded by jumping over metro turnstiles or even destroying them while chanting the phrase “Evade, and not pay, is another way of fighting.” These protests even spread to supermarkets and petrol stations where fires raged the streets during the night. It was due to these protests that the president, Sabastian Piñera, decided to declare a state of emergency while also issuing curfews in select locations. Last used after the 2010 earthquake, the state of emergency suspends free movement and assembly with the main purpose of maintaining public order. With this employed, “the military is [tasked] to guard the streets, with generals appointed in every region where the state of emergency is valid.” Piñera claimed that Chile was “at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits” while characterized these events as a problem concerning rebels rather than the government. Although it may seem that calling a state of emergency may be justified, since these unorganized protests involved setting fire to many metro stations, attacking Chile’s largest private electricity company, and throwing stones at the police, it did not bode well for Chile’s president whose policies have allowed him to appeal to businesses and investors while staying disconnected from the Chilean people.

A stack of gold round coins, stacked like an exponential graph
Gold Round Coins. Source: Pexels, Creative Commons

Economic inequality has been a major problem in many societies around the world with about “80 [of the] richest people on the planet now own[ing] as much as the bottom half of the world’s population” today. This problem has been so profound that even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared income inequality as a central challenge of this century. And, as seen in Chile, outrage over these policies have spurred many to protest the subsequent injustices and push it as a central issue in political discourse.

Inequality, especially in terms of income and wealth, has significant influence on human rights. Without access to money or a stable income, many are restricted in access to healthcare, education, food, and other commodities and services that every person should be able to access. The lack of access to these goods violates the 25th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states “Everyone has the 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.” Due to the ubiquity of poverty worldwide, this demonstrates that much of the world still has a long way to go until universal human rights are achieved. Inequality also distances the poor from proper services, such as some form of education, proper shelter, and access to water, which creates conflict between disadvantaged and affluent communities. By denying these universal human rights, countries are willing to perpetuate (extreme) inequality, which restricts access to fundamental needs that ensure equitable and sustainable living conditions.

According to an article posted by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, focus on economic inequality remains silent despite its major ramifications on the lives of people across the world. The article questions why the human rights community is relatively silent on an issue that challenges what human rights stands for in the first place and how the community can advance policies such as fiscal reforms, wage protections and social protection floors. While it is true these reforms and actions may help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, some of the larger scale benefits these programs can fund are financial literacy and incentives for self-governance.

A Chilean Flag
Chile | Democracy Now! Source: Democracy Now, Creative Commons

Looking at Chile specifically, the “richest 1 percent of the population earns 33 percent of the nation’s wealth.” This comes with the fact that 50% of laborers earn less than 400,000 pesos a month (about $550). Although Chile is recognized as a stable, peaceful, and wealthy country, those international impressions stand on very weak pillars, especially when looking at economic inequality across the board. These protests have also been peaceful, with many involving more than 5 percent of Chile’s population. According to Stephanie Diaz, a sports teacher living in a working-class neighborhood in Santiago, in an interview with Vox, “This protest is not about 30 pesos, but 30 years. It’s 30 years since the return to democracy, but we have preserved a constitution made under the dictatorship.” Chile’s 1980 constitution, which preceded a military dictatorship, made goods and materials, even those considered as public goods, privatized. As a result, this raised the value and cost to produce and distribute such resources. Furthermore, privatization has influenced Chile to have the highest university tuitions in the world which has, alone, indebted approximately 4.5 million people in the workforce.

According to Vox, Chile’s president’s approval rating had dipped below 14 percent, a historic number when looking at the amount of people who are livid and fighting peacefully for change. Such disapproval comes as Chile plays host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November, where President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping will be visiting to negotiate a trade deal, and the UN Climate Change Conference occurring in December. A solution proposed by Shivani Ekkanath in an opinion piece of the Borgen Magazine lays along the lines of cracking down on bureaucracy, fixing the misallocation of funds, ending corruption, etc. in order to lift the economic burden of poverty and other kinks in the economic system.

Based on what has occurred in Chile thus far, it appears the rise in metro prices by 30 pesos was simply the tip of the iceberg. Growing economic inequality combined with more business-friendly practices has caused more workers and everyday Chileans to suffer and be unable to work toward a promising future for themselves and their families. And, as seen when with economic inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor simply brings into light how it is both a cause and a consequence of violations of human rights such as access to care, education, and housing. Current protests like these help us understand that even countries regarded as stable are not always what they seem unless one looks at the lives of everyday people. Thus, we must focus on social and economic stability by employing a human rights perspective through the view of the common Chilean rather than a perspective at a state-wide level. Chile is an excellent example of people fighting for fairness in society peacefully, where progressive fiscal reforms should be utilized and promoted, rather than solely looking to appeal businesses.

Kashmir Crisis: How the World is Reacting

A child peeking out of torn plastic from a window
Source: Kashmir Global, Creative Commons

The Kashmir region in South Asia, once known as the “Heaven on Earth”, has been under dispute since 1948. Recently, human rights abuses have escalated as a result of the Indian government stripping the autonomy of Kashmiris through the removal of Article 370. For more than two months people have been detained in their homes under a curfew with limited access to the outside world. The responses to this crisis have been mixed, and this post unpacks some of the different reactions around the world.

Experts appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council expressed their concerns over the government-imposed curfew, communication shutdown, use of force by troops, movement restrictions, and the arrest of political leaders and human rights defenders in the region. They reminded the Indian authorities that the restrictions imposed by them were against the “fundamental norms of necessity and proportionality” and violated Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ensures the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The communication blackout and restrictions on peaceful gatherings were deemed inconsistent with their basic rights. Additionally, the use of live ammunition on unarmed protestors could violate the right to life and is permissible “only as last resort and to protect life” according to the experts. The situation was referred to as a “collective punishment” for civilians without the pretext of any breach and the Indian government was urged to lift the brutal curfew as reported by the Council.

One of the most notable instances where the Kashmir issue was brought up was the 74th session of United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City last month. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Turkish President Tayyab Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan were the ones to raise the Kashmir issue on the world stage. PM Khan exceeded his allowed time to speak for Kashmir and urged the UN to take action. He demanded that India lift the inhumane curfew and reminded the world and the UN of their responsibility to take action against the ongoing violence against innocent civilians. He also warned that

“When a nuclear-armed country fights to the end, it will have consequences far beyond the borders. It will have consequences for the world. That’s not a threat, it’s a fair worry. Where are we headed? I’ve come here because this is a test for the United Nations. You guaranteed the right to determination of the people of Kashmir. You have a responsibility.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided any mention of the atrocities and his government’s actions in Kashmir during his speech while thousands of people protested outside the UNGA. The protestors included a wide range of South Asian organizations and carried banners opposing the “military occupation” of Kashmir and “disenfranchisement of seven million Kashmiris”. They chanted slogans demanding Azaadi meaning “freedom” for the victims. In addition to the people of South Asian descent, the protest also included concerned North Americans and organizations like Black Lives Matter, Jewish Voice for Peace NYC, Hindus for Human Rights, India Civil Watch, and the Indian American Muslim Council.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-Gmmn_a25Q

Amnesty International also launched a Let Kashmir Speak petition asking the Indian govt to put humanity first and let the people of Kashmir speak by lifting the communications blackout. Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General of Amnesty International said that “The people of Jammu and Kashmir should not be treated as pawns in a political crisis, and the international community must come together to call for their human rights to be respected.” Amnesty also tweeted that “the unilateral decision by Government of India to revoke Jammu & Kashmir’s special status without consulting J&K stakeholders, amidst a clampdown on civil liberties & communications blackout is likely to increase the risk of further human rights violations & inflame tensions.”

While responses by the UN and international organizations have remained limited, people have continued to mobilize to bring attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Recently Times Square in New York City, one of the busiest pedestrian intersections in the world, highlighted the Kashmir issue by slogans saying, “Restore Human Rights”, “Stand with Kashmir”, and “Free Kashmir” at the end of September. Reports suggest that it was sponsored by the collective effort of the Pakistani community in the United States.

Times Square on September 25th, 2019. Source: Twitter/Government of Pakistan

Grassroots mobilization is also occurring within Birmingham locally, among residents of Kashmiri origin and those having families in the blocked territory. They conducted an awareness and fundraiser dinner in partnership with the Birmingham Islamic society this Sunday to explain the crisis in Kashmir and to collect funds to lobby against the Indian government’s violence. The description of the event stated that

“The ongoing crisis in Kashmir has barely received any media coverage although it’s currently one of the worst massacres in the world. Not only is the Indian Government responsible for over 100,000 Kashmiri people murdered and over 10,000 Kashmiri women raped, but they have implemented a blackout on all of Kashmir preventing people from using internet and phones to contact the outside world. This event will provide you with more awareness as well as collect any funds, if you can, to lobby.”

At UAB, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) is raising money for the Kashmir cause at their annual Fastathon. According to the organization, “This year, the MSA is raising money for the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir. For every pledge to fast, people in the community will donate money for the cause. Kashmir valley, Jammu and Kashmir is an ‘open air prison’. As soon as this lockdown ends, there will be an immense and immediate humanitarian need. Pledge to fast for a day and help us feed, provide medical supplies, and raise awareness for the Kashmiri refugees”. They have also been conducting bake sales to raise funds for Kashmir relief in the past few weeks outside the Mervyn H. Sterne library.

People around the world have been showing their support for Kashmiris according to their own resources and levels of influence. Unfortunately, the situation has not been improved and millions of people are still being held hostage in their homes and neighborhoods. World authorities, powers, and humanitarian organizations need to take action against these human rights violations and project their voice to a larger, global audience in order to mobilize relief efforts. The world needs to recognize the gravity of the crisis and its consequences to take immediate and appropriate action.

Hashtags and Human Rights

A picture of nine hands each with different words on them. On the red, Freedom. On the second red, Trust. On the orange, Justice. On the limeish green, Love. On the green, Rule of Law. On the sky blue, Peace. On the darker blue, Prosperity. On the pink, Dignity. On the purple, Equality.
PSHRC – Punjab State Human Rights Commission. Source: Punjab State Human Rights Commission, Creative Commons

Throughout the history of humankind, the way in which people transmit news has evolved exponentially, from the word of mouth in the olden days to a simple click, swipe, and 240 characters. It connects you and I to events happening around the world, from concerts to social movements concerning human rights. But, to what extent does the hashtag, only a recent medium for communication, bring people together around a common goal or movement?

The hashtag originated in 2007 by Chris Messina as a way “to provide extra information about a tweet, like where you are or what event you’re referring to.” Later that October, during the San Diego wildfires, Messina simply created the hashtag “#sandiegofire” and included it with tweets, allowing others to engage with the conversation and gain an awareness of current events.

In terms of human rights, the hashtag has also been influential in bringing people together under a common cause, be it international crises, sexual harassment, or even just helping organizations raise money to cure diseases. Hashtag activism, as this is called, “is the act of fighting for or supporting a cause that people are advocating through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other networking websites.” It allows people to “like” a post and “share” a post to another friend, thus spreading awareness about the issue at large.

Where and How has the hashtag been influential?

As you might recall in 2014, many people around the world took part in the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, where participants would dump a bucket or a container of ice water on their heads. This challenge went so viral that a “reported one in six” British people took part. It also went so far as involving celebrities like Lady Gaga, which demonstrated its far reach and effectiveness. Despite many calling this challenge a form of slacktivism, (where one would simply like the post and involve very little commitment), the ALS Association raised over $115 million USD. Due to this striking number, the Association was able to fund a scientific breakthrough that discovered a new gene that contributed to the disease.

An image of a woman reacting to a splash of water from the top of her head. Basically a standard reaction from when someone does the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Free Stock Photo of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Then in 2017, the #MeToo movement sprung from the shadows, calling out sexual predators and forcing the removal of many high-profile celebrities, namely Harvey Weinstein. It went way beyond Turkana Burke, the founder of the MeToo movement from more than a decade ago, expected. It was through the use of social media that made #MeToo movement as large as it is today. As of 2018, the hashtag was used “more than 19 million times on Twitter from the date of [Alyssa] Milano’s initial tweet.” This effect, known as the Harvey Weinstein Effect, knocked many of the United States’ ‘top dogs’ from the limelight, revealing what could be behind the facade of power, wealth, and control that they hold. From Weinstein to George H.W. Bush to even U.S. Senate Candidate for Alabama Roy Moore, their reactions varied as much as the amount of people accused. Weinstein was ultimately fired, H.W. Bush apologized for his actions, and Moore denied the accusations. Through increased awareness and the ability to connect to virtually everywhere, women and men began to tell their stories and call attention to the actions of sexual predators.

An image of six people holding up a sign that spells out #METOO.
Pink Letters Forming the Word #MeToo. Source: Rawpixel, Creative Commons

Both the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the MeToo Movement allude to key human rights concerns, with ALS involving the life of a person through a disease and MeToo involving sexual harassment charges and claims. By eliminating the one thing that threatened the life or sanctity of a person (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), a push towards human rights became realized. This demonstrates how hashtags are effective at promoting human rights issues among the general public, allowing these concerns to be confronted and resolved.

But where has the hashtag been limited in practice?

In April 2014, “276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the remote northeast Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram.” Soon after this event, #BringBackOurGirls shot up to the trending page of Twitter, and was shared more than four millions times, making it one of Africa’s most popular online campaigns. Alongside massive support from the public also came backing from famous individuals such as Kim Kardashian, Michelle Obama, and many others. Even though this campaign helped bring to light the domestic conflict that “claimed at least 20,000 lives,” it only resulted in limited support and is, arguably, an indicator of ‘slacktivism’. With a majority of support coming from Twitter users residing in the United States, Nigerian politics dismissed this outrage as some sort of partisan opposition against the Nigerian president of the time. As Ufuoma Akpojivi (media researcher from South Africa) said, “There is a misconception that embracing social media or using new media technologies will bring about the needed change.” Even with the global outrage at the kidnapping of teenagers, not much action took place because of partisanship and US disconnection with Nigerian citizens.

An image of former First Lady Michelle Obama holding up a sign saying #BringBackOurGirls.
MJ-UPBEAT Bring Back Our Girls! Source: mj-upbeat.com, Creative Commons

Following, in 2018, hashtags such as #NeverAgain, #MarchForOurLives, and #DouglasStrong emerged as a response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, where teen personalities and activists Emma Gonzáles, David Hogg, and others began campaigning against the accessibility of guns. Such a movement gained considerable support, with over 3.3 million tweets including the #MarchForOurLives hashtag and over 11.5 million posts related to the March itself. Through the use of social media, the movement was born; however, one of the key things that March For Our Lives disregards is the bureaucratic system that the government embodies. Even though activists want rapid and sweeping changes to the system, Kiran Pandey notes how “there is only the trenchant continuation of political grandstanding, only this time it’s been filtered through the mouths of America’s youth.” Even with such declarations facing our bureaucratic system, alienating people with diverse viewpoints have made the movement weak and ineffective. It does not help when many people, including our friends and family own a gun. By attacking these owners and not focusing on saving lives, this movement has been, and will arguably be, stagnant until bipartisanship is emphasized and utilized.

An image of three kids surrounding a sign that says No Guns No Violence.
WR Nonviolence — Nonviolence makes the world a better place. Source: Waterloo Region Nonviolence, Creative Commons

Though both #BringBackOurGirls and #MarchForOurLives caused widespread protests and promoted awareness about the key issues of the time, it failed to generate support due to its limited field. In #BringBackOurGirls, many of the mentions came from U.S. Twitter users. Because the conflict was and is taking place in Nigeria, many of these tweets and protests have little to no say in the matter of forcing Boko Haram to return the kidnapped Nigerian girls. In the case of #MarchForOurLives, the movement failed to gain traction simply because of its push to call out those in support of having guns and the NRA caused the issue of safety and security of the person to become a partisan issue. Both issues are key human rights issues, however, they fail to capitalize on actual support and exclude those who have diverse views on the issue at hand.

How exactly could someone make a hashtag go viral?

Well, according to ReThink Media, an organization that works to build “the communications capacity of nonprofit think tanks, experts, and advocacy groups,” building a hashtag campaign for social impact includes three key areas to manage a hashtag campaign:

  1. Having a List of Your Supporters
    • Having influencers and connectors can help in a great way. By using a specific hashtag to a broad fanbase or following, having those influencers can help jump-start a movement and gain awareness rapidly about key issues of the time.
  2. Using the Right Terms at the Right Time
    • “Take too long to decide and the news cycle might pass you by.” By using terms that appeal to everyone and using them during critical news-worthy moments, it is easy to be able to attract everyone quickly. For example, if there was some type of crisis going on in the United States, having a relevant hashtag that appeals to everyone could allow more people to support that movement. Using terms that solely appeal to a political side may only be limited in scope.
  3. Have Supplemental Support Once the Hashtag Gets Posted
    • By using certain graphics or memes, combined with the regular posting of the hashtag overtime, during mid-day, more people could potentially get involved and push the movement towards social impact. It also allows people to gain awareness and spread that message to more people in their following.

Overall, hashtags can be effective when incorporating supplemental supporters and a non-partisan central focus. By supporting the movement through influencers and spreading awareness, such a movement could gain traction and provide real-time results, such as the removal of sexual predators from positions of power and gaining funding in order to cure a disease. However, a hashtag’s reliability is solely dependent on the users that spread it. Thus, social media can help people gain a social consciousness and support pivotal human rights issues when they matter most to those affected.

The Sheer Violation of Human Rights in Kashmir

Devastated Kashmiri girls crying while holding on to fence
Kashmiri girls crying for justice. Source: Kashmir Global, Creative Commons

This Sunday September 29, a protest and awareness gathering was conducted at Linn Park by the Birmingham Islamic Society to advocate for the rights of Kashmiris. The attendees dressed in red to show their support for the victims who vocalized their concerns and shared their stories. Some local Birmingham families have not been able to get in touch with their family members back home for almost two months now. All forms of telecommunication have been blocked in the region, cutting them off from the rest of the world.

The Kashmir region in South Asia, once known as the “Heaven on Earth” due to its naturally beautiful valleys and landscapes, has been a disputed territory since the partition of India and Pakistan under the British rule in 1947. The countries have been at war three times on the conflict of claiming the region and rule it in parts. The UN’s Security Council Resolution of January 20, 1948 proposed a commission of three UN representatives to be selected by India, Pakistan, and Kashmir to mediate the situation, but the delay in the formation and implementation of the commission caused situations to change, and it ultimately failed to reach a conclusion or to devise a practical solution to the crisis. Control of the region has been disputed since then.

On August 5th earlier this year, the Indian government revoked the special status of the Indian-occupied region of Kashmir under Article 370 of its constitution. The only Muslim majority region of the country had the right to its own constitution and autonomy to make internal decisions under the article due to its special status, and annulling it has stripped them of these rights. Additionally, nearly 10,000 armed troops were sent to the area to impose a curfew in the region, evacuate tourists, shut off internet and other communication, and imprison their leaders.

As of October 1st, it has been 58 days since the lockdown of the territory. About eight million residents have been held hostages in their homes at gunpoint. The general public is not allowed to leave their homes and carry out their businesses, the schools and workplaces are closed, people are confined in their homes and neighborhoods, and the region is completely blacked out from the rest of the world. People with families and friends in the region are worried about their safety and are unable to contact them. The area has been flooded with armed troops and there is an overall sense of terror in the environment. This is a sheer violation of human rights being carried out for about two months now, but the world is silent.

The press has been trying to get into the disputed region to directly hear the views of victims. In video-recorded interviews, victims allege the Indian Army of subjecting them to extreme physical torture and mental persecution. Abid Khan, a 26-year-old Kashmiri, claims to have been grabbed by soldiers from his home in Hirpora and taken to a military camp where he was assaulted. His detailed account of the incident includes extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of four soldiers. Others reported being hung upside down, beaten with bamboo sticks, being electrocuted, and forced to drink large amounts of noxious liquid.

The Human Rights Watch has expressed its concern through issuing articles like “India: Basic Freedoms at Risk in Kashmir”, “India Needs to Step Back in Kashmir”, and “India Wants to Avoid International Intervention, But Needs to Address Human Rights in Kashmir” following the lockdown. Malala Yousufzai, the youngest Nobel peace prize winner, expressed her concern against the Kashmir curfew and communication blackout with the following tweets:

In the last week, I’ve spent time speaking with people living and working in #Kashmir – journalists, human rights lawyers and students. I wanted to hear directly from girls living in Kashmir right now. It took a lot of work from a lot of people to get their stories because of the communications blackout. Kashmiris are cut off from the world and unable to make their voices heard. Here is what three girls told me, in their own words: “The best way to describe the situation in Kashmir right now is absolute silence. We have no way of finding out what’s happening to us. All we could hear is the steps of troops outside our windows. It was really scary.” “I feel purposeless and depressed because I can’t go to school. I missed my exams on August 12 and I feel my future is insecure now. I want to be a writer and grow to be an independent, successful Kashmiri woman. But it seems to be getting more difficult as this continues.” “People speaking out for us adds to our hope. I am longing for the day when Kashmir will be free of the misery we’ve been going through for decades.” I am deeply concerned about reports of 4,000 people, including children, arbitrarily arrested & jailed, about students who haven’t been able to attend school for more than 40 days, about girls who are afraid to leave their homes. I am asking leaders, at #UNGA and beyond, to work towards peace in Kashmir, listen to Kashmiri voices and help children go safely back to school.

Nothing practical has been done to date by international organizations for peace and human rights. The victims are uncertain of their future, their lives are at the discretion of others, and their basic rights to freedom and mobility have been restricted through the use of force. They are unable to counteract because resistance is met with direct violence. The New York Times reported that when the Kashmiris attempted a peaceful protest in the streets of Srinagar after a few days of the lockdown, the Indian forces opened fire on them to scatter the crowd and cease them from further resistance, injuring at least seven people.

Kashmir has been a disputed and terror-imposed region for decades, but recent advancements by the Indian government have escalated the situation by making it “a living hell of anger and fear”. The world needs to understand that both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed countries and the continued escalation of tension and confrontations may lead to a deadly nuclear war. The innocent residents of the region have sacrificed countless lives in the battle between the two countries. For decades, they have been suffering the consequences of British colonialism and their inefficiency during the Indo-Pak partition. When will their fight for freedom come to an end? When will the bloodshed and sacrifices of their loved ones bear fruit? When will they be able to enjoy normal lives and basic human rights? How many more lives will it take to make Kashmir a piece of heaven again? The answers are yet to be found.

The solution to the situation is complicated yet straightforward. It is their land and their lives. The only ones to decide their fate should be them, without any force or threat. This right was given to them by the UN, but unfortunately has not been implemented yet. A fair referendum by UN intervention can make it clear whether Kashmir wants to be a part of Pakistan, India, or a free state. But first, the abuse of human rights should be ceased by the world to normalize the lives of its residents.

We need to bring the attention of world leaders and organizations to the human rights crisis in Kashmir so they can intervene in the increasingly critical situation before it’s too late. To play our part in the fight against human rights abuse and bring attention to the Kashmir issue, we can show our support by raising our voice on different forums, especially social media using hashtags like #freekashmir, #standwithkashmir, and #endkashmirviolence.

Digital Citizenship: The Good, The Bad, & The Role of the Internet

Picture of hand in a web of technological devices
Communication Internet, by Pixabay, Creative Commons

In the early history of democracies, political voting was inherently simple: it was the communication of approval or disapproval of policies, platforms, and so on. Dissention was normal, but the partisan politics we are familiar with today were almost nonexistent. Issues that one politician had with another’s proposal were addressed in a direct, timely manner. In terms of the general public, everyone was essentially getting the same information via the same means – the printed press. This meant everyone was getting the same information at the same time; there may have been differences in interpretations, but everyone was reading the same headline as their neighbor. Today, we have thousands of media vying for our attention on many topics, especially politics. Whether from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, or Fox News, we are bombarded with information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

So, how did we abruptly shift from getting news from the same medium to getting news from every angle? The answer is simple: The Internet. The Internet completely transformed how we receive and access all media of information, including political information; politicians can directly speak to voters who then participate in the political arena without leaving their home. Technological advancements in communication play an important role in influencing electoral behavior, easing the accessibility of political information. The Internet makes it easier to find out a candidate’s platform, what they want to work for, and their history. By using the internet in this way, people are engaging in what is now known as “digital citizenship.” A “digital citizen” is one who engages in democratic affairs in conventional ways by using an unconventional medium such as their laptop or smartphone.

The media’s role in elections and politics has grown exponentially since the 1960s. Prior to television, presidential candidates relied on the radio, think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and other interpersonal means to communicate with voters: caucuses, party conventions, town halls, and so on. As technology progressed and television became widely accessible, reliance on interpersonal connections diminished and reliance upon the media grew. Power transitioned from party leaders and bosses to the candidates – as they were able to take control of their campaign, so long as their actions were worthy enough to make headlines. This transfer of power once benefitted only the candidates; however, now the power resides with the media: for they decide what suits their audiences, and who America sees.

This transfer of power greatly impacts our political processes. When politicians are their own bosses, they are able to disregard societal “norms” and use populist rhetoric to enhance their performance in the political realm. Kellener asserts President Trump is the “master of media spectacle”; using populism to make headlines and instill fear into voters more susceptible to fear- and anger-based messaging, he was able to “use the disturbing underside of American politics to mobilize his supporters”.

Picture of various social media icons
Online Internet Icon, Pixaby, Creative Commons

The Good

ISTE.org layers the ‘digital’ components onto the definition of a conventional good citizen:

A good citizen… A good digital citizen…
Advocates for equal human rights for all Advocates for equal digital rights for all
Treats others with respect Seeks to understand all perspectives

Does not steal or damage others’ property

Respects digital privacy, intellectual property, and other rights of people online
Communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy Communicates and acts with empathy for others’ humanity via digital channels
Speaks honestly and does not repeat unsubstantiated rumors Applies critical thinking to all online sources, including fake news or advertisements
Works to make the world a better place Leverages technology to advocate for and advance social causes
Protects self and others from harm Is mindful of physical, emotional, and mental health while using digital tools
Teams up with others on community projects Leverages digital tools to collaborate with others
Projects a positive self-image Understands the permanence of the digital world and proactively manages digital identity

All of the characteristics of a “good digital citizen” may be applied to participating in democracy via the Internet. If everyone had access to the internet, more people would be able to register to vote as well as discussing and engaging in the political arena. If we seek to understand more perspectives, we could combat the political “bubbles” that we either choose to live in or are placed into by Facebook filtering your newsfeed depending on your online habits. If we used technology to advocate for social causes such as voter disenfranchisement, we could get more people engaged with our democracy.

Being a “good” digital citizen transcends holding personal values – it includes the pursuit of equality for all. We are lucky enough to live in a country where digital citizenship is accessible for most, but we are doing no justice by those who cannot access it by not utilizing this new form of citizenship.

 

The Bad

The era of digital citizenship is a result of the rapid spread in access to the Internet. If you have access to the Internet in America, you have the opportunity to register to vote (given that you meet the proper requirements set by your state), to research political platforms and to engage with others to discuss politics. Political participation (not exclusive to voting) has increased – people are engaging more in more discussions on every form of media; however, these discussions may not always be beneficial or productive. Kurst says, due to our emotionally charged atmosphere in the US, it is very easy (and very typical) for conversations surrounding politics escalate to attacks on opposing values. It is easy to rely strictly on what you are told from your favorite news source or directly from a politician and regurgitate the rhetoric, but it is vital to our unity as a society to fact check your information, and respectfully listen to the “other side.”

In today’s political climate, virtually everything is politicized – including our social media. We live in our “red bubbles” or “blue bubbles” and disassociate from anyone who may be on the other side. Thompson argues this is normal; we seek homogeneity in our marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. However, when it comes to politics and the Internet, we are allowed to pretend like those without similar interests do not exist. When we ostracize a group of people and those people feel as though they are not being represented, we see members of the Republican party proclaiming they are the “silent majority,” which was a galvanizing force behind their voter turnout in 2016. By devaluing another side’s beliefs, we are dehumanizing those who hold them. This causes anger, frustration, and retaliation – all of which that may take place in the digital or physical realms. We cannot abandon our fellow Americans simply because we disagree; we have to realize the differences we have are much less than the commonalities we share.

The polarization of the two parties in America today discredits many media outlets. 47% of conservatives said they get their news exclusively from Fox News; while liberals get theirs from a more diverse set of news. Conservatives and liberals alike see anything that does not reflect their values as “biased”, in fact, members of society gravitate to information that reaffirms their beliefs and intentionally avoid information that contradicts said beliefs, according to Drs. Rouhana and Bar-Tal. This creates a biased interpretation of the news – information that is consistent with already-held beliefs are interpreted as fact and support for whichever side of the argument the reader/viewer ascribes to. As a result, Americans question the validity of news sources that contradict that of their personal beliefs. The crossroads of political polarization and declining trust in our media outlets is where fake news exists. Truth has become a relative term and is often manipulated by an ideology, not fact.

How can we fix the political polarization tearing at the social fabric of American society? Establishing trust “across the aisle” seems like a hopeless cause in today’s America. When asked how to “pop” the political bubbles we live in, Gerson claims, “[the] cause is not hopeless, because the power of words to shape the human spirit is undeniable. These can be words that belittle, diminish and deceive. Or they can ring down the ages about human dignity. They can also allow us, for a moment, to enter the experiences of others and widen, just a bit, the aperture of our understanding. On the success of this calling much else depends.”  The solution to diminishing this polarization is to listen – listen and realize the other person you are disagreeing with possess the same humanity you do, and this humanity should be respected.

@ symbol with American symbols
News Internet, by Max Pixel, Creative Commons

Digital Citizenship and Human Rights

Marginalized populations have always struggled to get their voices heard. Without active engagement in democracy, minorities struggle to achieve full citizenship. The Internet and digital citizenship have worked together to diminish this obstacle faced by minorities. Social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and even the Arab Spring began and spread with the assistance of the Internet. Digital citizenship is linked to creating online communities to which people who struggle “fitting in” with their physical environment can find a home.

Using the Internet, citizens are easily mobilized on issues that concern them, whether domestic or international. They are able to pressure politicians to take actions against human rights violations and assist organizations doing field work where an injustice is present. For example, we are able to donate financially to the organizations making an effort to abolish the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community currently taking place in Chechnya, Russia. By being aware of it and all the other injustices taking place, we are able to assist in the resistance and make a difference in a way we could not have 10 years ago thanks to the Internet.

There are those who choose to not engage in politics in any shape or form, and there are those who use the Internet exclusively for political reasons. Wherever you fall within that spectrum, it is easy to agree that the polarization we have in America today is an issue that needs proper attention. It starts at the individual level: listening to what others who are different have to say, diversifying your news sources, and being open to disagreement. We must break out of our “bubbles” and not allow the influence of the Internet to shape our values for us.

Gerrymandering’s Effects on Democracy

by Pam Zuber

The Gerry-Mander political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale
The Gerry-Mander: political cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale. Source: Wikicommons.

The Gerry-Mander is a name for a creature that appeared in editorial cartoons in 1812 and 1813. Given how gerrymandering has shaped and can shape politics in the United States, calling a Gerry-Mander a monster is no mere exaggeration. Gerrymandering takes its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. In 1812, legislators in Massachusetts’s Democratic-Republican Party redrew the map of a senatorial district to concentrate voters of its party in certain geographic areas. The same map dispersed voters of the rival political party, the Federalists, to separate districts.

Governor Gerry signed this map into law in 1812. This map drew the wrath of the opposing Federalists and spawned the cartoon that criticized the redistricting. The practice and the cartoon gave us a term for politically based redistricting that political bodies still use. We continue to use the term because the practice continues to this day. Politicians still reshape voting districts to suit their political purposes, much as they did in Gerry’s day.

Why Does Gerrymandering Violate Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution?

Creating electoral districts that skew political party representation contradicts democratic principles and human rights. Gerrymandering provides the illusion of democracy but actually denies it. The process still perpetuates voting districts. People in these districts have the ability to vote and usually have their choice of candidates. But, which candidates can they support? People in one district who traditionally vote for one party might not be able to fully support the candidates they would have seen if their districts were more traditionally configured. The voters might have choices, but false choices.

These false choices can undermine their lives. For example, voters might want to vote for candidates who support government-sponsored health insurance, but find that gerrymandering is affecting their choices. Their choices and their voices might be muffled because their votes do not count as much as they could have counted when combined with additional votes for the same candidates and causes. Their votes might not count since they are dispersed among other districts and not concentrated like the votes of other parties in gerrymandered districts.

Redistricting appears to be unconstitutional. It denies basic rights granted by the U.S. Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Shifting geographic precincts to highlight or downplay specific candidates appears to abridge the right to vote, a direct violation of the Constitution.

Do People Gerrymander Today?

Yes. Politicians of both parties continue to create electoral districts that blatantly benefit their political parties. A federal court declared in August 2018 that the state of North Carolina’s map of Congressional districts favored Republicans. The court declared that the map “constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment, and Article I of the Constitution.” The next month, the same federal judges ruled that although this map did feature gerrymandering, there would not be enough time to change the map in time for the elections planned for November 2018. North Carolina would not be able to not use this map after these elections, so North Carolina will need to use a new Congressional map for elections in 2020.

Gerrymandering has occurred in other regions of the country. In 2016, the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin Legislature drew electoral maps that favored Republican Party candidates in the state in 2012 and 2014. The case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in June, 2018, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, stating that the bodies bringing the case lacked the legal standing to do so. It sent the case back to lower federal courts. This meant that Wisconsin would use the same maps in November 2018 elections.

A number of political insiders expect that voters throughout the United States will use their votes in the November 2018 elections as a way to protest U.S. president Donald Trump and his fellow members of the Republican Party. But, if gerrymandered maps remain in place, they could skew results from the state. They could prevent candidates from certain parties from receiving the majority of votes in their districts and winning their elections.

Gerrymandering harms political parties as well. Both parties engage in such blatant practices for obvious purposes. Such practices tarnish the reputations of the parties as well as the democratic process. The electorate might view such tactics as political dirty tricks, which could discourage voters from supporting political parties, candidates, elections, and causes.

The U.S. Supreme Court addressed the topic of gerrymandering in Maryland in 2018 by not hearing cases about redistricting in that U.S. state. Maryland legislators redrew this map in 2010. Just two years later, a Democratic Party candidate beat a longtime Republican incumbent in a race for a U.S. Congressional seat in Maryland, leading to charges that the state’s Democratic Party redrew Congressional maps to give itself advantages that led to such electoral victories.

a voting district map from 2011
Carroll County Voting District 2011. Source: J. Albert Bowden II, Creative Commons.

How Can Gerrymandering Affect Politics?

It is clear, then, that parties do redraw maps and create new electoral districts. It appears that they do this to try to produce political advantages. But, does this redistricting really create such results? In the case of Maryland, it appears that redistricting has made a significant difference. In 2012, Democratic Party candidate John Mulaney beat Republican Congressional representative Roscoe G. Bartlett. At the time of his defeat, Bartlett had served eleven terms (twenty-two years) in the U.S. Congress. Bartlett blamed redistricting on his loss. “We had the most gerrymandered district in the country.” This is significant in a number of ways. Mulaney was a new challenger while his opponent was an entrenched, longtime incumbent. It is often difficult for challengers to beat politicians who have been in office a long time. Incumbent politicians have

  • Name recognition
  • War chests of money to help fund their campaigns
  • Fellow established politicians who are colleagues who can campaign and vouch for them
  • Reputations and accomplishments from their administrations that they can cite in campaigns

Election campaigns are expensive and time-consuming. They require money, connections, and clout. Working in established offices can help people accomplish all three. How hard is it to unseat an established candidate? According to economics reporter John W. Schoen, in 2012, the year of Maryland’s Bartlett/Mulaney race, 90 percent of the people serving in the U.S. Congress kept their seats. This means that Mulaney was one of the minority of 10 percent of challengers who unseated a Congressional representative. His redrawn district could have helped him overcome such long odds.

Are People Fighting Gerrymandering?

Ending gerrymandering restores people’s votes, which helps restore their voices. Groups and individuals hope they can help people restore their voices. Since gerrymandering is about voting rights, it is only fitting that some groups are using electoral means to fight the practice. A Michigan-based group called Voters Not Politicians wants to end gerrymandering in the state. It appears that opposing groups want gerrymandering to continue.

In 2017, Voters Not Politicians collected thousands of signatures on petitions that supported ballot initiatives against gerrymandering in Michigan. The organization needed to collect 315,654 signatures from August to December 2017. In a possible sign of widespread support for anti-gerrymandering efforts, almost 450,000 people signed the petitions. A number of experts say this proposal is sorely needed in the state. For example, a June 24, 2018 headline in the Detroit Free Press noted that “Michigan is an extreme example of gerrymandering.”

Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers approved the ballot proposal. But, organizations such as Save Michigan’s Constitution opposed this ballot proposal as overly broad and took their opposition to the Michigan Supreme Court. The court rejected this opposition, paving the way for the proposal to be on the ballot for state elections in November 2018. The Michigan proposal calls for shifting responsibility for drawing electoral maps from the Michigan Legislature to an independent commission that includes independent private citizens who are not affiliated with political parties.

This proposal aims to take redistricting responsibilities from political parties and giving them to (ideally) nonpartisan private citizens. To implement such goals on a practical level, the proposal suggests:

  • Creating a thirteen-member restricting board. The board would consist of five members who are not affiliated with a political party or are independent, four Republicans, and four Democrats.
  • Choosing the redistricting board members randomly among people who apply for the positions.

The balanced composition of this group would provide equal representation from major parties. It would allow significant input from people who do not affiliate with any party. It would help ensure that one party’s politics does not take precedence over another’s. It would promote inclusiveness and democratic fairness. But, will party politics shape the outcome of this election and the future of the anti-gerrymandering proposal? After all, voters in districts that are already gerrymandered will encounter this ballot proposal. The gerrymandered districts in Michigan largely favor Republicans after the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature redrew electoral maps in 2011 and Republican governor Rick Snyder approved them.

Republicans who want things to remain the way they are would likely vote against the ballot proposal. Gerrymandering, thus, would perpetuate political divisions by working to defeat proposals that fight gerrymandering and political partisanship. It may sound like clichés, but that’s why voting is important and why every vote counts. People might not vote because they assume that certain proposals may pass or that certain candidates may win with or without their votes. But, if they and others don’t vote, they don’t contribute ANY votes to the election. The status quo continues because nothing changes.

But, if enough people vote, their candidates and proposals may win. Even if they don’t win, the large number of votes will illustrate the popularity of these candidates and proposals. The large number of votes can encourage others to take notice, to support such people and causes, and maybe even to run for political offices themselves. Citizens can also use the courts to fight gerrymandering. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear recent cases on gerrymandering. It didn’t issue definitive rulings on it. While it’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will hear further cases on gerrymandering in the near future, it has not issued a final word on the topic. This means that it might hear other gerrymandering cases in the future, especially after the U.S. Census of 2020 might contribute to further political redistricting.

According to Erick Trickey in Politico, it is more likely that individual U.S. states will tackle gerrymandering: “[I]f gerrymandering’s opponents want better, fairer maps, they’ll have to demand them, state by state.” This is happening across the country. In addition to the Michigan Voters Not Politicians initiative, Better Boundaries (Utah) and Clean Missouri are groups demanding an end to gerrymandering. Colorado voters will vote on an anti-gerrymandering proposal in November 2018, while Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved their state legislature’s anti-gerrymandering proposals earlier in 2018.

In a strange way, then, gerrymandering unintentionally encourages the sort of political engagement it’s trying to squelch. Who knew that the Gerrymander could be both a monster and an ally?

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about a wide variety of topics, including politics, addiction, and gender.