The Most Disrespected: What does no Justice for Breonna Taylor say about the Treatment of Black Women in America?

Used to show Black Lives Matter protest
Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, became a worldwide movement in the late spring of 2020. Here is an image captured of a protest in Amsterdam. (SOURCE: Creative Commons)

On May 22, 1962, Civil Rights Leader Malcom X spoke in front of a crowd of Black Americans in Los Angeles. Malcolm X was a fiery and passionate orator, and his words have become an inspiration for a new generation of social justice advocates and human rights workers (Yahoo!). On that fateful day, Malcolm X said something that I believe is more poignant now than ever before.

The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.

        The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman.

              The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Breonna Taylor was a twenty-six-year-old EMT from Louisville, Kentucky. In March of 2020, three officers from the Louisville Police Department botched a raid on her apartment. After Taylor’s boyfriend responded to the no-knock warrant with a defensive shot, the officers shot more than thirty rounds into the unit, killing Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her bed (The New Yorker). Protests broke out across the nation over the spring and summer following the death of Breonna Taylor. The pressure from the nationwide protests did lead to the adoption of Breonna’s Law by the Louisville Metro Council, outlawing the use of no-knock warrants (Stanford Law School). For many protestors, this was one step forward in achieving the types of reform that would help prevent senseless violence from occurring in police-citizen interactions. The protestors held their breath across the nation as Kentucky’s attorney general Daniel Cameron delivered the verdict on a grand jury’s indictment of the three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.

September 23, 2020: An Outpouring of Anger and Grief

On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Attorney General Daniel Cameron delivered the decision of the grand jury. No indictments would be made specifically related to Breonna Taylor’s death. Officer Brett Hankison of the Louisville Police Department was indicted for “wanton endangerment” because of his firing his weapon without any clear target, leading to reckless damage to neighboring apartments in the complex (New York Times). Just minutes after the indictment was read, the news became the number one trend on Twitter. Protestors and activists grieved that justice was never served for the death of a young medical worker. Protests broke out across the nation once again. Celebrities and politicians shared their outrage for how the case was handled by the grand jury and the attorney general. A viral image of a protest sign that read “A cop shot a Black woman and was only charged for the shots missed” was shared by international pop star Rihanna, and the post has garnered over 400,000 likes (Twitter).

Black Women Deserve Dignity

As a junior in college studying anthropology and political science, I was deeply disturbed by the senseless deaths of Black Americans at the hands of unnecessary police violence, and spent a large part of my summer protesting with and researching the Black Lives Matter movement. At the very core of the movement is an idea that I have found to also be the core of human rights work and advocacy – the concept of human dignity. According to The Center of Bioethics and Human Dignity, human dignity can be defined as “the recognition that human beings possess a special value intrinsic to their humanity and as such are worthy of respect simply because they are human beings” (CBHD). This concept has been extremely influential in shaping the human rights movement and the way our current political and justice systems work in theory. The concept of human dignity was used by Enlightenment thinkers to quantify the idea of “inalienable rights”, an idea that was essential to the foundation of the United States.

All human beings inherently deserve dignity. This is the basis for our legal systems, our ideas about morality, and the way we conduct ourselves day to day. For the vibrant activist community in the United States, it’s clear that Breonna was deprived of her dignity, and is one of many Black women who face institutional violence day to day.

Even activists had trouble keeping the news of Breonna Taylor from turning into entertainment. According to Mashable, Breonna Taylor’s death had much of its significance taken away as social media users on Twitter “repeated the phrase in hopes of spreading awareness and gaining visibility”, but ultimately “Taylor’s death became an insensitive meme” as “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” turned into a way for content creators to gain relevance and attention, similarly to “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was a buzz phrase earlier in the year (Mashable). This type of faux-activism did nothing to bring Breonna Taylor justice, and instead reminded countless black activists of the violence people of color face in America on a day to day basis. Twitter user @daniellecanyell said it perhaps better than anyone else, writing on June 23 that “breonna taylor’s death being commodified into a meme is really enough to tell me that y’all do not actually value the personhood of black women” (Mashable). The commercialization of the suffering of Black women and people of color in general is a clear symptom of the denial of human dignity that Black women face.

 

Women at a protest -shows POC women activists
Women of color have led and organized many of the thousands of protests that have taken place world wide. Shown here are a group of women protesting for Black Lives Matter. (SOURCE : Creative Commons)

Where Do We Go from Here?

For Breonna Taylor, the truth may still come out. On September 28, 2020, news broke that an anonymous member of the grand jury involved in Breonna Taylor’s case was suing for the release of the secret footage of the proceedings, and Kentucky’s attorney general agreed (AL.com). Uncovering the truth about this case will not bring Breonna Taylor back, but it may provide healing for her family and allow her to rest in more dignity and peace than she was given alive.

For many activists nationwide, the grand jury’s decision reignited passion in fighting the systemic injustice Black people face in America. The response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others was labelled by the Harvard Carr Center as perhaps “the largest movement in US history” (Harvard). Research done by the Crowd Sourcing Consortium revealed in July that anywhere from fifteen million and twenty-six million Americans have participated in protests nationwide (Harvard). This number has absolutely increased in the months that have followed, as protests picked up again after the grand jury’s decision was read on September 23. The Black Lives Matter movement is a movement that will define Generation Z, and it’s push for positive reforms in our institutions will be heard, even if it is a long and uphill battle.

Rest in power, Breonna.

 

 

 

 

 

High School Student Perspectives on the Duel Pandemics Facing Our Country

A picture of Breakthrough students and instructors making silly faces
Source: Breakthrough Birmingham

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to talk to Breakthrough Birmingham students about human rights. Breakthrough Birmingham is an affiliate of the Breakthrough Collaborative, an educational program in which college students from across the U.S. teach high school students in traditionally underrepresented communities in an effort to reverse educational inequity and help students achieve post-secondary success. This summer, Breakthrough went fully virtual, and although this had its challenges, I was amazed at how successfully the leadership pivoted and stayed committed to providing quality education for the students. During our time together, the students and I talked about what human rights are and different examples of human rights violations, particularly those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-Black police brutality and injustice. As part of our class, I invited students to write for the IHR blog, to reflect on how the duel pandemics of Covid and racial injustice are impacting their lives and what they hope to see happen in the future. While the conversation rages over how to resolve these crises, the voices of our nation’s young people are often lost in the noise. But they are certainly an important part of this conversation, as they will inherit the world that we leave them and be left with either a huge mess to clean up or a legacy of progress to carry forward. I wanted to share two essays from Breakthrough students Jeremy and Charles. 

Jeremy*

One day I was in school learning like normal, then bam! The world suddenly changed. I am going to be talking about Covid-19, aka coronavirus. It is very important to talk about this because people are dying daily and more and more families are suffering from the recovery of their losses. It is impacting how stores handle things and how we make money. Personally, I am uncomfortable with this situation going on, and I do not like it at all. It is really bad for me and everyone else on this planet. It is boring having to stay inside my home for an extended amount of time. When Covid first arrived I was actually excited that I was able to stay home. After a while though it started getting really boring, now I want to go back to school to see my friends.

I have mixed emotions about this. Like I said earlier staying home was great! I was all happy and joyful that I was able to stay home and sleep in as much as I wanted. Now I am just waiting until I can escape and go to school like normal!

In the world today, there are a lot of changes I want to happen. First of all, there is a lot going on while in quarantine. All the violence, Kanye West running for president, the “Karens,” aka the people who refuse to wear masks because of their president’s orders, and the other stuff that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. I think there are a lot of ways we can make this change. For example, the Black Lives Matter protests are attempting to make positive change.

The schools are already helping us students make that change, by sending quizzes on if we should go back to school, rotate days, or just do virtual learning. I think I could have my family go out more to make the experience more normal.

After all this mess going on I would like to just say this, don’t worry! I know a lot is going on right now, and it is just messy all around, but we will get through this! It will definitely be over soon, but it will still feel like it is lasting forever. If you know what I mean. Staying positive during this pandemic is key. I always like to stay as positive as possible. Just like any other person, I have experienced things that shouldn’t be happening on a daily basis! On the bright side, this whole situation does make me feel thankful and alive because I am able to spend more quality time with my family.

The pandemic has made me feel like I can handle that anything comes my way. This is not always the case though. Everyone in the world may feel strong, prepared, ready, but who can tell us what’s coming? This really tells us how anything can happen with just a snap of the finger! From sunny skies to dark clouds and thunder. From daily life to Covid-19.

A photo of Jeremy, the author, holding a peace sign above his head
“Jeremy” Source: the author

*Jeremy will be attending Ramsey High School, and his favorite subject is science. His hobbies include walking his dog, riding his bike, building houses online, and conducting science experiments. He aspires to be an architect, and when asked what inspires him, he notes, “New construction inspires me.”

Charles**

Many people are affected by anti-Black police brutality. Many people are killed due to this, particularly, George Floyd’s death, which was recently in the spotlight. Anti-Black police brutality does not just stop there. Celebrities, such as Jay Pharaoh, have faced police brutality because of the color of their skin. This topic is important because this is an ongoing problem that needs to be stopped. I understand what it is like to have friends and family who are police officers, but we still need to hold them accountable.

I feel distraught every time that I think about police brutality. I have to face the thought of being a victim of police brutality. It makes it harder now because everywhere I go I’m scared that I might be beaten by the police. It does not get any easier. Now the thought of driving is becoming a reality, and that idea fills me with fear. My mom for instance constantly talks about how to approach an officer if I were ever stopped. This is a thing that most African American parents talk about or should talk about with their kids.This is important to me because I cannot predict if I will or will not be one of those victims of police brutality.

My experience with this topic is hearing about people being beaten by the cops.  Also, I have recently seen these things in the media. I’ve had experiences in which I, personally, was scared to call the police because I thought I would be the next victim of police brutality. I never had an encounter in which I was beaten by the police, but seeing events like this occur on the news and social media platforms impacts how I see the police force in the United States.

I know that no matter how many protests we assemble, the act of police brutality will never end. As human beings, sometimes we have to make compromises. I think we can solve this problem by making sure police officers swear to not brutalize innocent people based on race. This should be a part of the oath they swear by, and there should be punishments for not complying with this oath. According to a New York Times article, in 2019, 59% of Police-reported uses of force in Minneapolis were used on African Americans. This statistic shows that African Americans are most likely to face police brutality. A DoSomething.org article shows that in New York City in 2018, 88% of police stops involved Black and Latinx people. The article also states that 70% of those who were stopped were completely innocent. I do think that police officers should be held culpable for their actions. These statistics are examples of African Americans being more likely to face police brutality or harassment.

I think that instead of being more accepting of different races and cultures white Americans are being more hateful towards minorities, especially Black people.  The ongoing anti-Black police brutality has made me grow more furious each and every day. Systemic racism and politicians lead white people to misinterpret the reality of life as Black people in America. White Americans should use their privilege to educate themselves and use their voices to advocate with Black people instead of using their voices for ignorance. Rather than learning new Tik Tok dances or trying to go viral, people should utilize their voice and the endless resources available to educate themselves and their followers on the history and present state of our nation.

A head shot of Charles, the author
“Charles” Source: the author

** Charles will be attending Ramsey High School, and he likes all of his classes, especially science. His hobbies include reading and poetry. He aspires to be an entrepreneur, and when asked what inspires him, he mentions his parents and “knowing he can put his all and mind into anything he wants to achieve.”

Republic At Risk: COVID-19 in India

While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.

As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.

A National Lockdown

In late-March, the Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown that lasted two months. Inconveniently, the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants were given less than a 4-hour notice of this initial 3-week lockdown. The effects of this tall order were apparent on day one since so many people throughout the country live on a daily wage or in extreme poverty. As food supply chains became compromised and manufacturing facilities closed, the country’s unemployment rate reached a 30-year low. All the while, facilities such as schools and train coaches have been converted into quarantine centers. These attempts have seemingly delayed the inevitable spike of COVID-19 cases. However, it is speculated that the low number of confirmed cases is the result of low testing rates.

This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.

Policing the Police

While the recent murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, India has been confronting its own relationship with police violence. In June, two Tamil Nadu shopkeepers, J Jayaraj and his son Bennicks Immanuel, were arrested for keeping their business open past permitted hours during the national lockdown. They were then tortured while in police custody and died days later in the hospital. Due to this event garnering considerable attention and protesting, six police officers have since been arrested for their deaths. Also, Tamil Nadu police officers with questionable track records will now undergo behavioral correction workshops. However, this incident is no anomaly. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nine Indians die in judicial or police custody every day. In comparison, official government crime data claims 70 people were killed in Indian police custody in 2018. This striking differential in reported custodial deaths suggests India’s law enforcement entities lack accountability and are riddled with corruption.

Much like the United States, India has a history tainted with police violence that disproportionately affects minority groups, namely people from the lowest Dalit caste, indigenous groups, and Muslims. With no choice but to work during the national lockdown, many of India’s poorest citizens were beaten by police. Videos of these violent acts surfaced across social media. In opposition, there have been over 300 reported incidents of attacks on police officers alone in Maharashtra. These recent events highlight the need for the Indian government to pass anti-torture legislation that curbs police violence. By ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Indian government can help remove the colonial vestiges of power and punishment that have plagued the country for generations.

Migrant Displacement

The sudden announcement of a national lockdown had tremendous repercussions for the tens of thousands of daily-wage migrants throughout India. Overnight, businesses closed and transportation systems suspended throughout the country, placing many migrant workers in precarious economic conditions. Men, women, and children hunkered down in urban centers across the country as they waited for their workplaces to reopen but to no avail. In response, India’s major cities experienced an exodus of migrant workers attempting to return to their home states on foot, many living hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As thousands trekked home, many died due to dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and traffic accidents. Reports of pregnant women delivering, and subsequently carrying, their children in these horrific conditions have also surfaced.

A recent Supreme Court order has urged the well-being of India’s 100 million internal migrant workers affected by the hardships of COVID-19 by requiring the government to register, feed, shelter, and transport them until they return home. However, these efforts are seemingly inadequate because most internal migrant workers have not qualified for these “relief packages”, while those who have qualified are experiencing limited coordination between state governments. All the while, India has ended its national lockdown and many migrant workers are trying to return to their places of employment. Some employers are sponsoring the return of their lost workers, while some must find their own means to return. As such, some states have sought local help to accommodate the loss of migrant workers which places many Indians in even greater economic uncertainty.

Migrant workers walking on the shoulder of a highway during the nighttime.
The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). Source: Paramvir Singh Bhogal, Creative Commons.

Pathologizing Islam

COVID-19 in India has contributed to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric that suggests this religious minority group is purposely spreading the virus.  The rumors began after Tablighi Jammat, a Muslim missionary group, held a congregation outside of India and, soon after, many members tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi. Videos on WhatsApp and various television channels have proliferated this misinformation to the Indian public alongside the usage of phrases such as “corona jihad” and “corona terrorism”. To make matters worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which is notorious for its Hindu nationalist sentiments, has begun incorporating Tablighi Jamaat-related statistics to its daily COVID-19 briefings. Such rhetoric has influenced a slew of Islamophobic acts such as prohibiting neighborhood entry, restricting sales by street vendors, and even violent attacks.

These recent events fuel an existing fire that posits Muslims as reproducing at a pace to outnumber Hindus and compromising “Mother India”. However, recent efforts between Muslim Indians and allies has been quick to respond to this COVID-19 misinformation because they have been protesting India’s new citizenship law that offers amnesty to various non-Muslim immigrants and a nationwide citizen count that necessitates proof of documentation dating several years back. The BJP has made it apparent that Muslims are not welcome in India and weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of its Islamophobic campaign. As such, these efforts corner Muslim Indians into political and economic insecurities that pressure apartheid at a time when unity is paramount.

Masked medical professionals walking with a crowd in the background.
coronavirus-india-rep-image-hyd. Source: Anant Singh, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in India

As displayed, India has an array of prevalent human rights issues that have compounded since the arrival of COVID-19. Among the efforts that could protect Indians from these concerns are labor protections, health care reform, civil rights for minority groups, food security, and income equality. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propagated a narrative of self-reliance that undermines these systemic inequalities. Service provision has highlighted these discrepancies because resources are scarce, and those with power and privilege are placed to the front of the line. In addition, many Indians cannot abide to the recommended sanitation and social distancing measures due to living in poor, dense settlements in the heap summer when water sources are limited.

Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.

Taking It To The Streets

by Peter Verbeek, Ph.D.
Associate Professor,
Program Director MA Program Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights

Large crowd of individuals with masks on march in the streets holding signs that say Black Lives Matter
Source: Yahoo Images

On March 9, 2020, the IHR published my blog entitled ‘A Time to Recognize and Safeguard The Rights That Connect Us.’ On that date, there were 717 reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US and 26 reported deaths. Today, about 3 months later, on June 6, 2020, while I am finishing writing this new blog, there are 1.94 million reported cases of the corona-virus infection in the US, with 111 thousand reported deaths. These numbers take one’s breath away; they invite retreating into a state of silence – to a state of being ‘comfortably numb’ (3), and to leave it all to others, whomever they might be, to deal with this shocking reality. But I cannot afford to become a passive bystander to this, no-one can. Not when so many scientists and practitioners are speaking up and calling for action on the urgent human rights aspects of the pandemic, not when so many health-care workers are putting their own health and well-being on the line for the care and comfort of COVID-19 patients, and not when so many of those most affected by and at risk for COVID-19 are out in the streets protesting against the human rights violations of police brutality and murder, and for the equal justice to which they have an inherent right and that is so long overdue.
On March 6, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, M.D, urged policy makers and governments “to take great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically” while devising and implementing measures to curtail the virus outbreak. She also wrote that “human dignity and rights need to be front and center in that effort, not an afterthought,” and added that “COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus.”

Here in the US, the “COVID-19 test of our society” that Bachelet referred to, once again highlights the glaring inequalities and deep-rooted racism that continues to severely harm and disadvantage people of color, in particular African-Americans, and that in all its ugliness diminishes life for us all. In a statement released on June 3, 2020, Bachelet commented that “structural racism and police violence are of course found across the world,” and that “the anger we have seen in the US, erupting as COVID-19 exposes glaring inequalities in society, shows why far-reaching reforms and inclusive dialogue are needed there to break the cycle of impunity for unlawful killings by police and racial bias in policing.” She added “in addition, there must be a profound examination of a wide range of issues, including socio-economic factors and deep-seated discrimination. To move forward, communities must be able to participate in shaping decisions that affect them and be able to air their grievances.”

What role does science have to play in bringing about solutions for what plagues our society? What can scientists do to make things better? Taking my cues from conservation science and from my own work in the behavioral science of peace I propose two things: (a) taking our science to the streets-metaphorically, and (b) taking a holistic and comprehensive approach to the crises that we face. My inspiration for the former comes from an article that was released this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), which documents the mass extinction and biodiversity loss caused by human activity and how it threatens our mere survival. It is one of the most urgent calls for “humanizing conservation” that I have come across in the last 10+ plus years.

I’ll let the authors, Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Peter H. Raven, speak for themselves:

“In view of the current extinction crisis and the lack of widespread actions to halt it, it is very important that scientists should metaphorically take to the streets (my italics). We have, for example, started a new global initiative we called “Stop Extinctions,” to address and publicize the extent of the extinction crisis and its impacts on the loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being, aspects still rather ignored by most people. There is time, but the window of opportunity is almost closed. We must save what we can, or lose the opportunity to do so forever. There is no doubt, for example, that there will be more pandemics if we continue destroying habitats and trading wildlife for human consumption as food and traditional medicines. It is something that humanity cannot permit, as it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilization. What is at stake is the fate of humanity and most living species. Future generations deserve better from us.”

The major crises of the present time, the corona-virus pandemic, systemic racism, and the ecocide of climate change, mass extinctions and biodiversity loss are not disjointed separate crises, but, rather, interlinked existential crises that are impacting the entire world population. Attempts to solve one of them without considering the others are folly and doomed to failure. Attempts to solve one of them in one part of the world without considering the rest of the world are equally foolish and doomed to failure. What this implies for policy is that “we the people” need political leadership and governance informed by the science that shows how and why these crises are interlinked and why they constitute existential crises.

This also implies that across natural and social disciplines scientists need to develop and publicly share comprehensive solutions in ways that both clearly inform and can drive policy. I think that the times of coasting through a scientific career from tenure track to tenure on strictly basic research with no immediate applied value for society are over. Every science career should involve interlinked basic and applied work, and tenure and promotion reviews as well as grant reviews should be updated so as to properly assess achievements in each of these interlinked domains. The crises facing us are too formidable not to enlist all available good minds in both properly delineating the relevant component parts of the crises that we face as well as developing solutions to them.

Person holds up sign that reads "Science is Real"
Photo: Liz Lemon; Source: Flickr

While I have confidence in science in the part it can and must play in dealing with the crises that we face, my confidence in politics and governance here in the US in its present form is at an all-time low. In my opinion, the kind of informed and enlightened leadership that draws on science to map out the immense problems that we face to find the appropriate solutions, is, with few notable exceptions, missing in action here in the US, whether we look for it to the left or right of the political spectrum or right down the center aisle. As a consequence, the global leadership that is needed to guide international partnership efforts to combat global crises, leadership for which the US as the main democratic superpower is uniquely qualified, is equally lacking at present. Global partnerships developed and spearheaded by the US and built on mutual trust and respect that accomplished so much good for so many in the past, from defeating fascism and bringing down the iron curtain to establishing a universal human rights framework and systems to deal with global health responses, are, to put it bluntly, pretty much in shambles right now. Looking in solely on the status quo of the political side of things here in the US and their global effects, the future for humankind appears to look grim, indeed.

In his Gettysburg Address President Lincoln, exhorted Americans to resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. I think that President Lincoln’s call to preserve the essence of what and who we are as a nation has rarely been more urgent than now. I also think that the thousands of lawful nonviolent protesters that are out in the streets right now, are heeding President Lincoln’s call for action magnificently, showing America’s inherent greatness in doing so. I am deeply moved when I see the people most affected by the corona-virus pandemic and most at risk, risking their well-being by taking their rightful call for justice and equity, so long overdue, to the streets. I say to you, your lives matter tremendously, to all of us, and to the future of this country! And I say to you, take it beyond the streets! Run for office and practice to become the informed and enlightened leaders and policy makers that we so desperately need right now! I have my vote and science at the ready to share with you!

And to return to the call by the eminent conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues, yes, we must take our scientific knowledge “to the street,” as scientific knowledge is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. We must step down from our ivory towers and speak up publicly and clearly about what the facts tell us and what we see as solutions to the crises that we face. Yes, we need those peer reviewed publications to keep our work valid and meaningful, but we should work with our institutions and granting agencies to provide free access to these journal articles to all. The existence of large for-profit publishing houses dominating the journal article universe becomes untenable in the face of the role that science has to play in combating the existential crises that threaten us all.

We must overcome any distrust and tribalism that hampers collaboration between natural and social science. We need good minds in both major areas of science to work together on the interrelated crises of the corona-virus pandemic and ecocide. For those of us working in the behavioral science of peace we must call a spade a spade when it comes to human rights violations right here at home. Attacks on human dignity, whichever form they may take, and irrespective of where they take place, or who commits them, from teargassing lawful and peaceful demonstrators during a respiratory disease pandemic to publicly insulting and disparaging individuals and groups holding a different opinion than one’s own, are attacks on human dignity and thus constitute human rights violations and should be properly labelled as such (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, see Articles 1,3,5,12,19,20).

Three pairs of hands painted blue and green to represent the earth
Source: Yahoo Images

As peace scientists, we must also speak up about the solid evidence that our biological inheritance includes a capacity for peace through our ability for empathy and for taking the perspective of others, and through our natural preference for reciprocity and justice (1). We can point anyone who has any doubts about the content validity of our comparative findings to the international news feed showing peaceful demonstrations from Asia to Europe to Africa and the Middle East in solidarity with the protests against police brutality and murder and systemic racism that are going on throughout much of the US. Politicians of all stripes should be made aware of the fact that people in vastly different cultures across the globe all demonstrate a shared disposition to not take kindly to injustice. And we can point anyone who expresses doubts in how science and government can effectively work together to deal with crises as monumental as the corona virus pandemic to New Zealand, where the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that the country has officially eradicated COVID-19 and will return to normal after the last-known infected person recovered.

News reports show that many of the protesters who have taken their grievances to the streets of America following the murder of George Floyd are young. As US scientists let’s take to the streets – at least metaphorically – to offer our support and to help make a difference toward a just society and a sustainable future for all – in sum, toward a sustainable peace. As Paul Ehrlich and his colleagues propose, “future generations deserve better from us.”

(1) Verbeek, P. (2018). Natural peace. In P. Verbeek & B.A. Peters (Eds.), Peace ethology. Behavioral processes and systems of peace. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Publishers

Policing Our Imagination

a Black Lives Matter sign
Ferguson Solidarity Washington Ethical Society. Source: Johnny Silvercloud, Creative Commons

On Thanksgiving evening, while many of us were still enjoying or recovering from a day of family and feasting, Emantic Bradford Senior – who is currently battling cancer – was waiting for his son EJ to come help him with his chemo medicine. “He was my best friend,” Senior says, “and my nurse. He treated me like I was his kid.” As EJ got ready to leave his father’s house that night, Senior, as he always did, asked his son if he needed any money. EJ was on his way to join eager Black Friday shoppers at the Galleria in Hoover. Late that night, Senior’s stepson woke him up. “You talked to EJ?” he asked. “Not since he left the house,” Senior responded, rousing himself. He showed Senior his phone, opened to a video posted on Facebook depicting a chaotic scene at the Galleria, shoppers running and screaming in panic. At this point, the Hoover Police Department had released a statement that there had been an altercation at the shopping mall around 10:00 PM and that police had shot and killed the instigator as he fled the scene. We’re “very, very proud” of the response of our officers, the statement said, for “engaging the subject and taking out the threat.” It was 12:30 AM. Emantic Bradford Junior – EJ – had been dead for two and a half hours at this point, but this would not be confirmed to the family until the next morning. Seeing the social media reports, Senior immediately called the Hoover PD to ask if the police had killed his son. “We’ll call you back in 10 minutes,” they told him. Ten minutes went by, no phone call. Senior called back. Again, “Someone will have to call you back.” This went on for a while until Senior finally demanded to know if that was his son – lying lifeless and uncovered on the cold, white floor – in the photos on Facebook. “I’m sorry, sir, I can’t give you any information at this time. You’ll have to call the county.” In frustration and terror, Senior calls the county police – he is put on hold, transferred, put on hold again, until finally a man gets on the line and confirms that yes, EJ is dead. Several hours go by, and the Hoover PD releases another statement: we got the wrong guy. 

EJ had been shot and killed by a police officer who wrongfully assumed that he was the person instigating violence at the mall that night. In the precious hours between the police department applauding the officer’s “heroic” actions for stopping a violent crime and admitting that EJ “very likely wasn’t the shooter,” EJ’s image was misconstrued and misrepresented in the news and on social media – at first, to fit the profile of a killer, and later, as someone who made some bad choices that resulted in his untimely death. There was a desperation to prove that this situation was different, that it was an isolated incident, and that it did not serve as an example of police brutality against people of color. A narrative about EJ’s life and the circumstances of his death was planted, one that justified the officer’s actions and placed the blame on EJ himself. And this is where we end up:

EJ had a gun.

Right…and Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Eric Garner was hustling cigarettes. How could we know that Tamir Rice was holding a plastic toy and not a real gun? And maybe the most egregious justification of all: Michael Brown “looked like a demon.” There is always some way to extract the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers from the systemic problem of police brutality. There is always something we can point to and say well, this had nothing to do with skin color and everything to do with…fill-in-the-blank. 

But let’s be clear: EJ wasn’t shot because he was carrying a gun (which he was licensed to own and trained to use). EJ was not perceived as a “good guy with a gun.” EJ didn’t brandish a weapon in the sense of acting threateningly with it. He didn’t have to – he was the weapon. And the words of Claudia Rankine ring in our ears:

“Because white men can’t

Police their imagination

Black men are dying”

The unnamed officer didn’t regard EJ as a person in that moment but as a black man with a gun, which in his imagination and under Alabama law, justified three shots to the back, ending EJ’s life. But we can’t help but wonder – to appropriate Matthew McConaughey’s powerful line in A Time to Kill – what would have happened if EJ were white. Even mass shooters – who are nearly always white – are often apprehended by police officers without being harmed. When they do die, it’s usually because they take their own lives. For example, after he opened fire on unsuspecting worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, police chased Dylan Roof through two states before they caught him and took him to Burger King to get something to eat. Travis Reinking had a history of mental illness, had threatened violence multiple times, his many firearms had been confiscated – and then returned – before he walked into a Waffle House and shot four people. “He just didn’t seem like a violent person,” one coworker said of Reinking, joining with others who insisted that he was “intelligent and polite.” Reinking fled the scene, and officers chased him into the woods before he was apprehended unharmed. At a movie theater in Aurora, police mistook James Eagen Holmes for a fellow officer because of “the tactical clothing he was wearing.” In other words, he looked like them. But one look at EJ Bradford, and that was it. A black man holding a gun, standing near the victim…bang, bang, bang.  

I imagine that police officer didn’t walk into that shopping mall that night intending to kill a black man. The nature of the situation forced him to make a snap judgement, and according to the official report, it took about three seconds to assess the situation, identify EJ as the target, and take him out. And it wasn’t until his family started demanding answers that they even questioned whether or not they had gotten the right guy. Ultimately, it was concluded that the officer “reasonably exercised his official powers, duties, or functions” when he fired those shots. And in a legal sense, it’s hard to argue with that. But we need some context here – there is a larger problem that must be addressed.

a cardboard sign that reads "We're not anti-police, we're anti-police brutality"
We’re Not Anti-Police, We’re Anti-Police Brutality. Source: Jagz Mario, Creative Commons

The lives of black people in the United States have been and continue to be conditioned and defined by violence – structural, institutionalized, everyday violence and brutal retaliation by the state and other groups against their demands to be seen and heard and regarded as human. Black bodies are weaponized in the popular imagination, associated with crime and danger, and the full participation of black people in society is subjugated by a collective consciousness that centralizes whiteness and systematically excludes people of color. The truth is that compared to white people, people of color are disproportionately killed by police officers in the United States. This is not because all white police officers are explicitly racist but because of where we hold space for black bodies in our broader cultural ethos. What gives police brutality its life force is the same thing that makes it harder for black people to buy houses, get into college and acquire health insurance. This refined yet insidious form of racism resides deep in our collective consciousness, and it engenders the unspoken but deeply felt sentiment that non-whites are threatening and dangerous, that we need the state to protect us from them. 

And where does this come from? When slavery ended, the South (and eventually the rest of the country) adopted slightly more palatable systems of subjugation and discrimination against the newly freed citizenship. The preservation of the white male patriarchy depended on one thing – fear. As long as white people continued to be terrified of black people, white supremacy reigned unimpeded. Over time, laws ensuring civil rights and protections for people of color were slowly updated and selectively enforced. To be sure, these were victories. Progress, however, is not a zero-sum game. As overt ideals and expressions of racism were put asunder on paper, they didn’t go away. Instead, they burrowed down deep inside of our subconscious. On the surface, we developed new ways of explaining the unequal distribution of resources and power and opportunity without ever outwardly implicating skin pigmentation. We relegated black people to conditions of poverty, denied all but a few access to the middle class, and then blamed those left behind for bringing about their own woes. We associated violence in black communities not with poverty and lack of access but with blackness itself. We moved black bodies from the plantation to the prison system, once again denying them their freedom, but this time blaming them for it. Not all of them, of course, but enough to sustain the image and the fear.

Shop owners at the Galleria will tell you that there is a “black” side and a “white” side of the mall. Where do you think the police presence was concentrated that night? When it comes to spaces occupied by black bodies, the police force tends to emphasize the “force” over the policing. And yet…“You just don’t bring guns into a crowded mall,” the Hoover mayor admonished in his statement about the wrongful killing. How ironic. Okay, Mr. Mayor, tell that to the NRA. Better yet, if that’s such an obvious unspoken rule, try to make it a law in Alabama and see how far you get. At the very least, say what you mean: if you’re black, don’t carry a gun into a shopping mall. Because for people of color, certain constitutional rights must be qualified.

This is refined racism: when white people hear of the wrongful killing of a black man by police officers, we latch on to some element of the story that distracts us from the color of the victim’s skin and emphasizes some other factor that explains the officers’ actions. Rather than trying to understand what it means to be a black person in this country, to confront our own implicit biases and to acknowledge our complicity in upholding a racist social order, we look for something, anything, to assure ourselves that this was an isolated and unavoidable incident (at least on the part of the officer). In doing so, we sustain the devaluation of black bodies and black minds and justify the power of the state to marginalize people of color, to treat them as an inconvenience and to perceive them as a threat that needs to be neutralized by whatever means necessary. In situations like this, that is where our minds naturally go. We make our excuses, we qualify our apologies, we blame the victim. The story gets whitewashed. And just like that, Trayvon’s death, Philando Castille’s death, EJ’s death are their own faults.

So how do we change this reality? It is going to take more than providing courses to police officers on racial sensitivity and limiting the use of force. If we truly want to live in a world where the state treats people of all skin tones equally, white people must police their imaginations. We must actively work to decentralize whiteness, aggressively refute the narrative that people of color pose a threat to our society, and unequivocally demand that they be protected rather than forcibly policed. The political justice system won’t change until our collective consciousness changes, until we break ourselves of false equivalencies and false associations around blackness, until we recognize what the enduring legacy of slavery and centuries of subjugation and oppression have done to individuals and families and communities, until we give the black man a chance to be the good guy. We are all stakeholders in this process; if we’re going to move forward as a society, we have to do it together.

The Galleria reopened at six o’clock the next morning, as scheduled, because consumer capitalism can’t be bothered by the death of a black man. The Christmas shopping season went ahead full stride, while Emantic Bradford Senior was left to mourn the death of his son, to contend with his disease alone, to wallow in the pain of never again getting to hear his son call him ‘daddy.’ After two months of investigation, the Attorney General of Alabama ruled that the nameless officer who shot and killed EJ was “justified” in doing so. Under Alabama law, no crime was committed. But EJ’s mama, April Pipkins, leaves us with an important question: “If this happened to your child, would you still call it justice?”

The answer is no, you would call it murder. 

Book Review: Invisible No More – Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color

This book review was originally published in the Vulcan Historical Review, Fall 2018.  

Andrea J. Ritchie is a lawyer and activist. She writes Invisible No More “as an act of love, of mourning, of honoring, of commemoration, of liberation, as a contribution to our shared struggles, wrestling with the meanings of Blackness, privilege, solidarity, and co-struggling; of ‘survivor’ and ‘ally’” (5) for and from the community of which she is a member (11). The goal of Invisible No More is to establish recognition of the police brutality against women of color (us). She accomplishes this in several ways throughout this book. First, this book brings personal stories to the center and into focus by identifying the differences and commonalities among women of color. Second, it explores the various forms of police violence, as well as how race, gender, sexual orientation and ability to influence the action/expression of police violence. Third, it identifies patterns and paradigms within the controlling narratives which are rooted in colonialism, slavery, and structural violence. Lastly, it invites a discourse on aspects of the mass incarceration system previously invisible, including profiling and police brutality against women of color.

The book’s layout consists of eight chapters (2-9) that highlight various areas and interactions of police with women of color. Each chapter concludes with a resistance subsection wherein details of individual and collective resistance to the policing of gender takes a variety of forms at the local and national level (139). Ritchie bookends chapters 2-9 with chapter one, “Enduring Legacies” and chapter ten, “Resistance.” Within the pages, Ritchie questions the societal demand upon police for prevention of and response to violence while also challenging their contribution to the violence. Additionally, she ponders, “what would it mean to build structures and strategies beyond police that will produce genuine safety for women of color, especially in hostile terrain.” (18) She suggests that placing Black women and women of color at the center of the conversation shifts demands, analysis, and approaches (17).

Chapter 1 outlines the historical record of violence against women of color, inclusive of Indigenous women, by highlighting a portion of the controlling narratives. Colonization brought about the desecration and extermination of Indigenous identity and humanity. Sexual violence was a primary weapon. Ritchie introduces the concept of “the myth of absence” as a collective reductionist method. Employing the myth of absence allows for the normalization of invisibility under the guise of colonial establishment. This myth applies to both land and sea.

Masters of the enslaved utilized motherhood as an instrument of punishment under the oppressiveness of slavery. There was no shadow of law, so Black women became property, and with this new “label” came the disassociation their gendered status. This disassociation with womanhood dislodged the perception of femininity as well. “This system of constructed categorizations of Black women’s behavior and possibilities for existence persist to this present day… such narratives [mammy, Jezebel, subservience, tolerant, pain intolerant] inform police perceptions of what conduct is appropriate and permissible toward Black women.” (35)

The government positions immigrant women as a “control apparatus… for the regulation of sexual norms, identities and behaviors.” (37) This control functions as both a mode of discipline and a measurement of their suitability to contribute to the overall national identity (38). Stereotyped and prejudged, immigrants and queer/trans women extend beyond the normalized border standard of hetero, cis, white, etc. In other words, non-white women—whether with attitude, dress, and sexuality, size and skin tone—represent a deviation from the norm. To correct the “deviation,” a pattern of law enforcement arises to “structure and reinforce…perceptions” (41).

Chapters 2-9 describes the patterns of law enforcement applied to women of color. A summarization to the roots of the enforcement patterns comes from Arizona State University professor, Ersula Ore: “This entire thing has been about your lack of respect for me.” (58) The chapters expose how police, with impunity, make gender (for cis and/or queer/trans women) a sociopolitical site (139) of human rights abuses and violations as they view the bodies of girls and women of color as threats in public and private spaces (145). The gendered degradation and disposability of Black women (51-2) and the deep devaluation of motherhood and life for women of color (170) are merely two identifiable threads in the fabric of sexual violence within the police system (105).

Chapters 3 and 4 confirm that police brutality against women of color, includes minors and persons with disabilities. There is no escape from the profane overreaction of those “who make the rules up as they go along and often enforce them in deeply racialized ways” (75). In chapter 3, Ritchie builds upon the works of Monique W. Morris and bell hooks. They agree that schools—sites for the profound regulation and punishment of Black femininity– institute zero-tolerance policies and exact an “oppositional gaze” applicable disproportionally to girls of color, who are disrupting the peace or engaging in disorderly conduct by “having the audacity to demand to be treated with dignity” (73-8). Morris introduces age compression as a weapon in the arsenal that schools and law enforcement use against girls of color. Age compression is the inability to see children of color as children, because of this, they are handled and treated like adults of color (78). In chapter 4, with each incident involving police and women with a disability or mental health disorder, the women are either injured or killed. Thus, in both instances, the failure to respond appropriately due to the misapplication of stereotypes escalates but does not resolve situations.

Chapter 10 provides an extended culmination of the resistance subsections introduced in chapters 2-9. This chapter seeks to outline critical ways community activists and organizers, alongside survivors and the families of the victims, are turning violations into victories by piercing the bubble of silence. Ritchie repeats the underlying question of “what would freedom from fear look like for girls and women of color” while reminding the reader of the need to continually speak truth to power. Resistance, like violence, exists within the sociopolitical site of the body (139). Resistance draws those subjected to the margins by anti-police violence and feminist movements, back in and towards the center with the understanding that police are necessary for social order (205-7). However, the perpetuation of violence and the invisibility of that occurs during and after, can no longer remain in the shadows (206). Resistance reinstitutes the tradition of truth-telling through the reclaiming of bodies and humanity.

Two key strengths of this book are the inclusion of Ritchie’s personal experience and investment, and her purposeful build upon the works of Angela Y. Davis, Danielle McGuire, Beth Richie, Monique Morris, bell hooks, etc. By incorporating the works of other female activists/scholars who posit and bring a different angle to this issue, this book makes a significant contribution to recovering the missing female narrative within the mass incarceration canon and the US gender relations discourse. This is a huge plus for this book as “women of color” includes every non-white category and encompasses the fluidity of the gender/sexuality spectrum. Ritchie does not shy away from her critique of the embedded racial and gender bias within the American social system. Her frankness adds a crucial element to discussions on interracial relations and intra-racial relations.

Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color is an off the beaten path collection of domestic violence and terror stories against humans being of color. It is difficult to read which, frankly, deserves a trigger warning. By reading this book, one begins to understand both the complexity and the root of Kaepernick’s protest, the demands of justice for women like Sandra Bland, Chikesia Clemons, and Deborah Danner, and the mindfulness of young girls like Naomi Wadler. It is a stark reminder that there is a notably, significant difference in the treatment of whites and non-whites by law enforcement, and if you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.