The ‘Kisaan’ Protest: A Turning Point for India’s Democracy

Depiction of Kisaan
A kisaan in his khet, or field. Source: Yahoo Images.

You may have heard or seen news about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India right now. This protest was sparked by three bills that were adopted by the Indian government in September 2020. These three bills primarily place the livelihood of these farmers from the state of Punjab at the mercy of corporations. The privatization of the agricultural economy will surely benefit the Indian government, but the farmers will suffer greatly since corporations will purchase their crops at a much lower rate, leading to generational debt which has already led to farmer suicide in India. To prevent the exploitation of their livelihood, the kisaans (“farmers”) have set out on a protest, the highlight of which has been their march from Punjab to Delhi, India’s capital. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not reciprocated the farmers’ concerns with any form of sympathy. Rather, senior leaders of the Indian government have called the protestors “anti-nationalist” and “goons.” Such a reaction from the government is not unusual for the Sikh farmers who have been the target of persecution by the Indian government multiple times in the past.

Historical Context

In the 1970s and 1980s, Punjabi Sikhs held similar views in regards to the Indian government’s support for agriculture, an industry which has always been essential to the Indian economy and still is with 60% of the Indian population reliant upon farming for its sustenance. Unfortunately, the Indian government reacted the same way it is in 2021 – by labeling the protestors anti-nationalist. Additionally, the government launched a series of egregious human rights abuses consisting of attacks on the Punjabi population in the 1980s, attacking the Golden Temple of Amritsar in June of 1984, launching a state-sponsored pogrom in November of 1984, and extra-judicial killings in the following decade. What is worse is that the Indian government has never acknowledged nor apologized for these events, giving the people of Punjab a reason to have grievances towards the government.

But the state of Punjab is not the only population that has been the prey of India’s ongoing human rights abuses. The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India coincides with the ascension of Narendra Modi to the role of Prime Minister; Modi himself took part in genocidal violence in 2002 while presiding over Gujrat’s anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state. Though the current protests are pogroms, the Indian government has acted in an undemocratic manner with its press censorship, journalist detention , and violent crackdowns on the non-violent protestors.

Protest
Protestors took over the Indian capital of Delhi, demanding their rights. Source: Yahoo Images.

What do the farmers want?

Farmer unions and their representatives have asked that the three farm acts passed by Parliament be repealed; they will not settle for anything less. The government proposed an 18 month delay of the laws to give the farmers time to adjust, which was also rejected. Between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, eleven inconclusive rounds of talks have taken place between the government and union representatives. The farmers even suggested overthrowing the government on February 3, 2021 if the laws are not repealed.

The reasoning for the farmers’ escalating anger is two-fold: one, the human rights abuses the Indian government is inflicting on the non-violent protestors, including tear gas; and two, the failure of the Indian government and leaders to cooperate with the unions. To peacefully protest a set of acts is well within the rights of a people belonging to a democratic nation, but it is not the right of the government to respond to peace with violence and neglect the concerns being voiced by its people. That is not what a democracy is.

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

Farmers Protests

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

Source: Rihanna (Twitter)

What led us here?

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

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

What do the farmers want?

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

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

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

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

What’s going on now

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

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

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

How can you help?     

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

Saudi Arabia Human Rights Violations: Freedom of Religion and Speech

I recently wrote a blog post commending Saudi Arabia on advancements made with women’s rights. However, to follow up, I think it is important to note what Saudi Arabia still gets wrong in terms of human rights. While there are many ongoing human rights violations, the following discourse will focus specifically on the oppression of religious minorities, namely Shia Muslims, and the lack of freedom of speech. I am writing this post not to join the voices that criticize for the sake of criticizing, but rather because I think it is important for Muslims to be vocal about their expectations for countries that claim to be representing Islam.

An image showing Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting the bombing of one of their mosques.
Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia protesting after one of their mosques has been attacked. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Shia Muslims

Shia Muslims are a minority sect in Islam, making up around 10 percent of all Muslims. Because of this, they are often subject to oppression and discrimination by Sunni Muslims. Despite the fact that harmful rhetoric against Shia Muslims exists in most, if not all, Sunni-majority countries, it is especially disturbing in Saudi Arabia considering that the hatred and intolerance towards Shia Muslims has become institutionalized. For example, the Saudi Arabian government has allowed officials and religious scholars to belittle Shia Muslims and their beliefs. This is not only concerning because of the harmful language used, but also because these officials and scholars have influence over both the government and the general public, and thus play significant roles in shaping policy and public opinion. One government official known for spreading hateful rhetoric about Shia Muslims was Former Grand Mufti Abdel Aziz bin Baz, who was quoted saying, “The Shia are Muslims and our brothers? Whoever says this is ignorant, ignorant about rejectionists for their evil is great.” This is one example of many, but it illustrates the hateful rhetoric that Shia Muslims are often victims of.

The institutionalization of hatred against Shia Muslims is most clear in the Saudi Arabian justice and education systems. The justice system is highly discriminatory against Shia Muslims, namely in the criminalization of their religious practices and beliefs. Further, the government has made it illegal to build Shia mosques outside of Shia-majority cities. The education system is perhaps the worst of all, though, because it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination against Shia Muslims by indoctrinating young Saudi children with anti-Shia sentiments. For example, textbooks used in elementary and middle schools stigmatize Shia beliefs and practices and go as far as to claim that Shia Muslims are disbelievers, suggesting that Shia should not be considered Muslims. While criticizing their beliefs and practices is problematic in and of itself, saying that Shia are not Muslims is impermissible, both ethically and religiously, and only serves to cause further hatred and intolerance.

An image showing a protest sign advocating for the release of an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist.
A protest sign advocating for both freedom of speech and the release of Israa al-Ghomgham, an imprisoned female Saudi Arabian activist. Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Commons.

Freedom of Speech

The most blatant example of a human rights violation against the people of Saudi Arabia is the lack of freedom of speech, which has especially detrimental ramifications for individuals advocating for human rights. For example, in 2018, several women’s rights activists were arrested and charged with treason solely for their work in activism. This came at the same time that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had lifted the ban on women driving, and ironically, many of the women who were arrested had been advocating for women’s right to drive. Thus, while lifting the ban was a positive move forward, the imprisonment of these women makes the intentions behind Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s decision to lift the ban confusing; it is difficult to deduce whether Prince Mohammed bin Salman is truly concerned with women’s rights, or if this was a step taken to make Saudi Arabia appear that it is being reformed and moving towards modernization. His intentions can be further called into question considering the extent to which these women’s rights have been violated; not only were these women arrested and detained, but it is known that they were also electrically shocked and whipped during interrogations, which amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. To this day, some of these women are still imprisoned, unlikely to be released without international intervention. However, it is important to note that this was not an isolated event. While Saudi Arabia has always used arrests and detentions to deal with dissidents, the number of detentions significantly increased after Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017; over 60 individuals identified as dissidents have been arrested and held.

Muslims around the world strongly oppose Islamophobia and the oppression of Muslims, which is a great thing. However, Muslims tend to be silent about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, which is troubling. While many Muslims do call out these violations, many others either turn a blind eye, or even worse, find justifications for these violations. However, this is a double standard; if Muslims around the world truly care about their own rights, it follows that they must care about the rights of all of those who are oppressed, especially when Muslim majority countries are responsible for causing this oppression.

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.

Who’s Afraid of BDS?

A photo of the Wailing Wall and al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem.
The wailing wall and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Source: Tina Kempin Reuter

On 15 August 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a travel ban on two US Congresswomen, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.  His decision was a surprising reversal from a mere month ago, when both PM Netanyahu and Israeli’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, confirmed that Reps. Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”  While the final catalyst for this reversal is credited to the machinations of US President Donald Trump, the primary cause for the travel ban, according to PM Netanyahu, is Reps. Tlaib’s and Omar’s support for the transnational Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a concerted effort to compel the State of Israel to revolutionize how it works with Palestinians within and around Israel’s borders.  This post aims to unpack the historical and cultural context of the BDS Movement, analyze the fault lines within the BDS Movement, and suggest ways for BDS to mend these divides while sharpening its effectiveness in advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.

Originating the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) Movement

From 31 August to 7 September 2001, the United Nations held the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR, also called the Durban Conference, as it was held in Durban, South Africa), billed as “providing an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.”  Within this anti-racist, anti-apartheid ethos, world leaders sought to locate and eradicate large-scale structures bolstering racist ideology and marginalizing populations based off racial and ethnic identity.  Almost all states at the WCAR were in total agreement that Zionism, the political movement to establish and protect a wholly-Jewish nation, was indeed racist.  Many actors arguing against the ideology of Zionism claimed that, although the Jewish people have the right to create their own state, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people (Palestinians) rendered the current form of Zionism a racist ideology.  It was at the Durban Conference that BDS finds its intellectual roots, as many Middle East / North African states (specifically, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen) agreed to utterly isolate Israel (economically, intellectually, culturally, politically) until Israel revolutionized its relationship with indigenous Palestinians.  Of course, calls for isolationism, itself a remnant of how the world treated South African during its apartheid practices, were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks against the US a mere four days after the Durban Conference ended.  It was also at the Durban Conference that the “Red-Green” alliance was formed between radical leftist and Islamist groups, collectively impugning Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians.

The intellectual seeds of BDS were planted, and two years later, the world would see the harvest.  On 8 December 2003, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli-built wall surrounding East Jerusalem, seeking to ascertain if the wall constituted a breach of international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).  The ICJ (relying on oral and written testimony from over 50 UN Member States, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union – amongst others) declared the wall bisecting Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements (displacing indigenous Palestinians) indeed violated international humanitarian law.  The ICJ concluded their opinion, stating Israel should (a) cease construction on the wall and dismantle structures within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, (b) respect the right of the Palestinian people’s right to Self Determination (read this article for more information), and (c) pay reparations for costs incurred to the Palestinian people; furthermore, the ICJ contended that all State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should ensure Israel complies with this advisory opinion.  While the advisory opinion alone was relatively toothless on the international stage (as, again, the US and Israel refused to comply with these stipulations), the ICJ’s decision kickstarted the eventual BDS movement two years later.

On 9 July 2005, over 150 Palestinian Civil Society Organizations (representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel) signed an open letter to global civil society actors declaring their intent to boycott Israeli products, divesting business activities from working with Israel, and sanctioning groups continuing to aid the Israeli State.  The letter argues, in light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the ICJ’s recommendation, settlements extending into East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (see this article for a map of Palestine land loss since 1946) triggered the need for a transnational, nonviolent movement aimed at compelling the State of Israel to abide by the ICJ’s recommendation.  The letter, echoing the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1960s – 1990s, contends that all persons of conscience (including Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish faith worldwide) have a moral obligation to pressure those in power (e.g., business leaders, political decision-makers, and other persons of high influence) to forcefully condemn Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinian populations.  The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement of the State of Israel are as follows:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Per the BDS official website, the Movement boasts several consequences of its ongoing efforts, including:

  • A 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014
  • Israeli weapon manfacturers complaining of an export crisis due to “less desire for Israeli=made products”.
  • Refusals from major artists (such as Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Faithless, Lauryn Hill, Brian, Eno, and Elvis Costello).
  • A formal recognition from the State of Israel that the BDS Movement presents a strategic threat to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Since its publication, the BDS movement has largely gained the most traction on college campuses (long understood to be a bastion of political activism).  Simultaneously, the BDS Movement has been associated with radical anti-Zionism, bordering on anti-Semitism.  This association has been the fodder of many political and civil society leaders and has crippled the efficacy of Palestinian Rights activists.

 

Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti
Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti. Source: Yazeed Kamaldien, Creative Commons

 

Critiques of BDS

Critiques of the BDS Movement fall into three broad categories: (1) issues surrounding its founder and leader, Omar Barghouti; (2) BDS’s opposition to the internationally-accepted Two-State Solution; and (3) accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and subsequent promotion of violence.

Founder of the BDS Movement and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, Omar Barghouti, quotes Richard Falk (former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation on of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied) early in his text, stating:

The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty… If ever the ethos of “a responsibility to protect”, recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of “humanitarian intervention” is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. (p. 36)

Falk levels a thoughtful critique of both Israel’s and the international community’s abdication of protecting the human rights of Palestinian individuals.  These critiques, shared by many in the global community, fall on deaf ears, for Barghouti has, in many respects, poisoned the well from which BDS-activists guzzle.  Barghouti has been viably accused of tax evasion (to the tune of 700 000 USD), vociferously argued against a potential two-state solution, lambasted Palestinian academic and cultural leaders from debating with their Israeli counterparts, and has been accused of espousing views suggesting the ‘human rights of Palestinians are more equal than the human rights of Israelis’.

Beyond the problematization of BDS’s Founder, other cultural and political forces call into question the endgame of the BDS Movement.  Former US Ambassador to Israel (2011 – 2017), Daniel B. Shapiro, recently argued in The Atlantic the BDS Movement “advocates the end of Israel, rather than the establishment of two states, and assigns as responsibility for the conflict, in all its historical complexity, to Israel alone”.  Other critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League (an international Jewish NGO) has formally classified the BDS Movement as antisemitic.  Australian politicians have noted pro-BDS protests feature acts of violence; British academics voted against Israeli boycotts, noting these boycotts constrict peaceful dialogue between Israeli intellectual leaders and the rest of the world; and American politicians note that BDS can empower antisemitism and undermine the lives and livelihoods of young Israeli scientists. Furthermore, symbolic of many global academics’ ambivalence towards the BDS Movement, philosopher Judith Butler suggests a third path: collaborating with intellectual and cultural Israelis without accepting funding from the Israeli State.  This move, Butler suggests, sidesteps the thorny issue of discrimination on the basis of nationality (e.g., refusing to work with Israeli academics simply wholly due to their Israeli citizenship) while still eschewing affiliation with the Israeli government.

Considering the complexity of the BDS Movement, with its goal of unshackling indigenous Palestinians and its questionable methods and leadership, I now pose the question: what lessons can transformational solidarity movements teach BDS, allowing it to deftly address its many criticisms and simultaneously bolster its efficacy to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians? 

 

A man holds a rainbow Pride protest sign with phrases including “End Israeli occupation”, “Queers for a free Palestine”, and “Fight against: racism, Islamophobia, homo/transphobia, antisemitism, apartheid”
“Queers for Palestine” by Magdalena, Creative Commons

Embracing Complexity within Transformational Solidarity Movements

Dr. Anne Garland Mahler, in her text From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity, alludes to an ideal form of solidarity movements; this form is defined by qualities such as transnationalism (e.g., a widening of solidarity membership to include sympathizers of many, seemingly incongruous nationalisms – such as Palestinian and Israeli), transracial (e.g., not only including diversity ethnicities, such as Jewish and Arab, but an antiracist alignment of said ethnicities), anti-neoliberal (e.g., rejecting the ‘built-in’ nature of inequalities along dimensions related to socioeconomic status, level of education, political access, and health), and horizontalist (e.g., eschewing rigid hierarchies of authority within an organization).  While her original analysis centers around the Tricontinental Solidarity Movement, a Cuban-borne political movement attempting to interlock methods and goals of liberation found within Asian, African, and Latin American peoples, leaders of the BDS Movement would do well to heed her call.

The BDS Movement, at base, aims to transform the lives of Palestinians – the endgame is to reduce violence, promote negative and positive peace, and provide the conditions within life that allow an individual and a people the resources and structures required to build harmony, enjoy prosperity, promote health, and protect equity.  Transformational movements fixate not only on the immediate tragedies of war and conflict, but they additionally fixate on the long-term situations giving rise to sustainable peace.  Mahler correctly locates a critical juncture within this equation – transformational movements must ally themselves with other, perhaps seemingly disparate, movements also aspiring for liberation.  This relational space of ally-ship is precisely where the BDS Movement should aim to stride.  These allies (and partners in transformational struggles) may include prominent Arab-Jewish transracial and Israeli-Palestinian transnational organizations.  These potential allies also include Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (facilitating intentional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian groups), the Children of Abraham (emphasizing the spiritual and religious dimensions required of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes), the Alliance of Middle East Peace (a political lobbying coalition proposing legislation promoting peace in the MENA region), and Peace Oil (an for-profit company promoting economic interdependency between Arabs and Israelis).  Alliances between BDS and these organizations may increase accountability for ‘bad actors’ within the BDS Movement, demonstrate cooperation between Arab and Israelis (rather than domination or antagonism), and sidestep the maligned efforts of ‘spoilers’ within peacebuilding processes.

From a peace and human rights perspective, the BDS Movement should aspire to be one of solidarity – meaning its membership, supporters, and leaders coalesce their methods of transformation within three domains: (1) electoral democracy, (2) opposition, and (3) dialogue.  Specifically, global sympathizers of the BDS Movement should consider continuously voting for candidates and measures ultimately empowering peacebuilding between Israel and Palestine, utilizing nonviolent methods of protesting anti-peace individuals and organizations (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are obvious examples here – what is missing is a clear focus on the definitive spoilers of peace) and finally, engaging in good-faith, long-term dialogue within their own ranks and between the BDS Movement and other allies and potential adversaries.

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. 

Marching Ardor

by Mary Johnson- Butterworth

When someone close to me questioned the importance of my marching with White Birminghamians For Black Lives, I wrote this poem as a response.  I proudly carry a sign, “White Silence Breeds Injustice,” every Friday from 4:30-6:30 at Kelly Ingram Park.  Everyone is welcome.

a group photo of White Birminghamians for Black Lives
White Birminghamians for Black Lives. Source: White Birminghamians for Black Lives Facebook Page. Used with permission

“WHITE SILENCE BREEDS INJUSTICE,”

Words I hold in my hands

For those whose hands are shackled

Or too full with work

And growing healthy babies.

Can our voices speak as theirs

Or do we dilute their words?

 

Can I ally with Dreamers,

Insulated by my birthright?

Can I represent the poor

With no balance on my Visa?

Can I fight for women’s rights

And parent three white males?

 

What makes a marcher relevant?

What deems a march impactful?

Pussy hats and Trump attacks

And “Free Melania” placards?

If I echo, “Me Too,” and state,

“No Hate, No Fear,”

Are these the stuff of change?

 

If we few insist on marching,

Does our weekly selfie morph

Into a media laughingstock?

Distractors, subtractors from the core?

Interlopers, intruders on could-be passion?

Transformative, informative,

Or just subnormative?

 

Can we convey, “Black Lives Matter”

As a smattering of whites?

Are we a joke gone viral

In our efforts to protest

For those we cannot protect?

Can we sense Black pain

Enough to hail its power

Over all Americans?

 

When two or three are gathered

In the name of Social Justice,

Do we frustrate the huddled masses

Or does good emanate from the act?

“Yes,” I say ground is gained

By our meager footsteps.

Our rallying imprimatur leaves

Permanence in its wake,

For white silence breeds injustice.

 

Mary Johnson-Butterworth, age 69, has been a social justice activist most of her adult life.  She has facilitated social justice workshops for middle and high school students throughout the Birmingham area and beyond with the YWCA of Central Alabama, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the National Coalition Building Institute, and YouthServe.  Mary has also been on staff at a residential YWCA diversity camp, Anytown Alabama, for 22 years and has facilitated trainings for corporate entities, Leadership Birmingham, and Project Corporate Leadership.  She has recently discovered the power of poetry to transform her own life and the lives of impacted listeners.

A Peculiar Request: The Right to Life

the beginning of the March for Our Lives. A group of girls holding signs of some of the victims of gun violence
photo by Ajanet Rountree

Paducah, Kentucky.

This is the first school shooting I remember. All these years later, I still remember what I thought once I saw the photos: “How did this happen? Surely this is a random tragedy that will never happen again.” The writing of this blog comes just over five weeks on the memory side of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida and on the same day as the Great Mills High School shooting in southern Maryland. The shooting at Heath High School is a distance memory, eclipsed by Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, and Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Many conversations and references, in recent weeks, center on the complicated nature of the gun control debate in the United States (US) due to the Parkland shooting and uncharacteristic demands of the teenage survivors. This blog does not directly address those conversations or references. There are many sides to the issue and other blog writers this week gave voice to some of those issues. Therefore, this blog explores the peculiar request of the teenage survivors, which is, seemingly lost among the defense of the Second Amendment.

The right to life.

It seems peculiar that children are demanding adults to protect their lives, to look out for their best interest, specifically when many in the US pride themselves on their pro-life stance. They champion every bill, legislative act, or protest which positions them as the protector of the “rights of the unborn”. As protectors of the unborn, they label women who choose to have abortions and the medical practitioners who perform the abortions as murderers. Some pro-life advocates stand outside Planned Parenthood centers, shouting vile, hurtful words and phrases at patrons and workers. They object to numerous women’s rights issues. All this occurs because of their belief in protecting the innocent, unborn baby who deserves the right to live.

Where are the pro-life advocates joining the protests initiated by the Parkland students who are demanding the protection of their right to life? These children lost their innocence when their classmate murdered their friends and teachers in hallways and classrooms on Valentine’s Day. Many pro-life advocates are standing on the sidelines, protecting their Second Amendment constitutional right to bear arms. Yet, at what point did adults abdicate their responsibility to protect the lives of children to protect their rights to own weapons? Does the “pro-life” label still apply when there is a willful and complicit allegiance to a hobby and lobbying group than to children?

Perhaps a reclassification needs to occur wherein we label pro-birth rather than pro-life.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts, “A child means every human being below the age of eighteen years… [and] in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” When the best interest of the child is the primary consideration, how has the brutal transformation of schools and universities continued? It seems implausible that for the last 20 years, parents across the US have sent their children to school with hopes and dreams for the future, only to have to bury their 5-18-year-old days later. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) reports “children are learning there is no safe place in America.”

a picture of a sign that reads "Human rights not guns: Right to Life"
photo by Ajanet Rountree
When No Place is Safe and Those Who Can/Should Help, Don’t

The US is the ONLY member of the United Nations to not ratified the CRC.

The cliché ‘no parent should have to bury their child’ seems redundant considering needless tragedies of gun violence. Its redundancy comes from the very real reality that pictures and videos from schools, universities, and playgrounds, as well as the rhetorical thoughts and prayers of government officials has yielded minimal results. Unlike natural disasters like tornados and earthquakes, controlling the impacts of gun violence is possible as evidenced in Australia, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Therefore, it is the normalization of violence in the US which continually isolates us from the rest of the world. Data reveals the hypocrisy of the ill-spoken narrative that children are the future of this country. CDF reveals

  • Children are forced to witness tragic mass shootings that occur with regularity in public spaces including schools, churches, concert venues, community centers, nightclubs and movie theaters.
  • Since 1963, the number of children and teens killed with guns on American soil was more than three times higher than the number of U.S. soldiers killed by hostiles in wars abroad. Nearly 180,000 children and teens died from guns in the U.S. between 1963 and 2015.

With less than 5% of the global population, American civilians own 310 million guns (35-50%) of the global civilian gun-ownership, whereas the US military and law enforcement possess nearly 4 million. The US spends considerably more on defense than on early childhood and education, than every other country with smaller federal budgets.

Children are not a priority in the US.

 Who’s doing the shooting?

Brown et al. analyzed two cases, identified four characteristics, and concluded “school violence is a somewhat distinct form of aggression that should not be viewed through standard lens.” The typical mass shooter is a white male who exacts revenge on those he deems dishonored him in some way. Research identifies this cultural phenomenon as “culture of honor”. In a culture of honor, people favor the death penalty, more tolerant of expressions of aggression as a response to threats/insults, and conflate a high degree of connection with status or reputation. This culture fuels the overall feeling of slight through a lack of interpersonal conflict resolution skills. The culture of honor creates a cultural standard wherein brutality becomes the recommended response to a perceived affront to one’s dignity or reputation; thus, a misguided sense of justice.

This misguided sense of justice positions whites as unapologetic for the behavior of shooters. Mingus and Zopf studied four mass shootings: two with white shooters (Columbine High School and Northern Illinois) and two with non-white shooters (VA Tech and Fort Hood). Using “Racial Formations” by Omi and Winant as a key text on racial projections, Mingus and Zopf assert, “The historical significance of race is important in understanding the way in which race affects any interpretation of shooting rampages.” They find that white privilege allows for the addition of race as a factor when identifying the “abhorrent behavior of non-whites” and the subtraction of race when redirecting “focus away from whites as a distinct population by pathologizing their aberrant behavior”. They conclude that non-whites groups often advocate for themselves as a means of not facing retaliation, even offering an apology in the VA Tech tragedy, whereas being white means never having to say you are sorry.

a picture of a boy holding a sign which reads "books not bullets" during the March for Our Lives
photo taken with permission by Ajanet Rountree
“If they’re old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot”

Reports occur daily of the ‘perceived threat of children’ when confronted by white people who feel a threat to their power or status. These reports extend beyond the scope of school shootings, and the requests to “stop killing us” commenced long before the Parkland shooting. The #NeverAgain movement includes the voices of the seemingly voiceless by including students from Chicago, Newtown, and 11-year-old Naomi Walder of Alexandria, VA. Walder, who highlights the deaths of Black girls forgotten by the media, organized her classmates during the National Walkout Day.

Political satirist and late-show comedy host Trevor Noah challenged the notion leveled by Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson after last week’s student walkout campaign. During a segment, Carlson questioned the validity of students making demands of lawmakers regarding guns by stating, “They’re not citizens; they’re children.” What’s interesting is that children are too young to make demands for gun control but not to find themselves in adult prison or forced into child marriage. Noah responded brilliantly stating, “…if kids are old enough to be shot, they’re old enough to have an opinion about being shot.” When processing the numbers provided by the CDF, it is time someone said something.

  • 7,768 children and teens were killed in the US to gun violence during 2013-2015
  • 113 children under five (5) died from guns in 2016, compared to 65 law enforcement officers killed by guns in the line of duty. Guns were used in criminal acts to kill 62 law enforcement officers while three (3) were killed in gun accidents.
  • In 2016, 43% of gun deaths were among Black children and teens, although they made up only 14% of all children and teens.
  • 1,335 Black children and teens were killed by guns in 2016, one every 6 hours and 34 minutes.
  • The gun death rate for Black children and teens was nearly 4x that of White children and teens and more than 8x that of Asian and Pacific Islander children and teens.
  • Most gun deaths among Black children and teens were by homicide. Most deaths by White children and teens were by suicide.
  • Guns are more often used to cause harm than in self-protection. A gun in the home makes the likelihood of homicide 3x higher, suicide 3-5x higher, and accidental death 4x higher. For each time a gun in the home injures or kills in self-defense, there are 11 completed and attempted gun suicides, seven criminal assaults and homicides with a gun, and four unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.
  • More than half of youth who committed suicide with a gun obtained the gun from their home, usually a parent’s gun.

Given the fact adults consistently prove children are not a priority in this country, children have made an opportunity to make themselves a priority.

a picture of sign with names of some of the victims of gun violence
photo by Ajanet Rountree

Today, millions of children and adults domestically and internationally, participated in the #NeverAgain movement by joining the March for Our Lives protest. The campaign is not to initiate a disarmament; however, it is to reinstate the ban on assault rifles like AR-15 used in several mass shootings, including Las Vegas and Orlando. Additional demands include an expansion of background checks and a rise of the minimum age to purchase. At the core of the demands and the purpose of the protest lies a peculiar request for the most important human right: the right to live.

A right to a life without fear and terror.

A right to a life where adults apologize for hurting, neglecting, and not prioritizing children who are reliant upon them.

A right to a life without the trauma of relieving the horrors of running to save myself.

A right to a life that does not include witnessing my friends and teachers die before my eyes.

A right to a life by enjoying the full scope of childhood and adolescence which includes mistakes that should not end life because of a perceived threat

A right to a life because adults believe that I and my future are worth fighting for… just as they do for the unborn.

March for Our Lives is a pro-life movement.

The Importance of Art in Human Rights

How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.

“The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin. June 30, 1917

The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.

“All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, March 9, 1969

The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.

“The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerrilla Girls, 26 Feb 2016

The Guerilla Girls are feminist activist group comprised of more than 55 artists. They describe themselves by saying: “We wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. We undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.” This group of activist artists started in 1985 and, by the early-21st century, have expanded their awareness into the media world, namely the film industry. “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” brings awareness to the racism and sexism in the film industry by portraying a white male holding his genitals with text boxes demonstrating the percentage of people of color that have won Oscars in the past 86 years. The Guerilla Girls displayed this billboard in Hollywood a few months leading up to 2016 Oscars, noting, “the people we want to reach will see it…There is so much positive press around the Oscars – the gowns, the stars – that we decided it was time for another point of view.

“Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman

Molly Gochman’s “Red Sand Project” is a worldwide instillation that takes a hands-on approach of bringing awareness to human trafficking. This project encourages all communities to pour red sand into cracks on sidewalks to recognize the overlooked populations (refugees, immigrants, girls, and others) that are at risk of slavery and exploitation. “These interventions remind us that we can’t merely walk over the most marginalized people in our communities — those who fall through the metaphoric cracks”, explains Molly Gochman. This informative, and largely interactive, work of art takes simple, yet powerful, gestures and to bring worldwide awareness through photography and social media. It is an ongoing project, raising action for those who are overlooked and vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, 2011

In 2011, various outbursts of popular protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, causing a revolutionary wave called the Arab Spring. Staring from Tunisia and later spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, people were rising against their oppressive leaders. As the protests grew larger they were met with violent responses from authorities. One of the striking things that came out of this short period was the growth in street art, graffiti, and calligraphy. “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, located in Cairo, Egypt, is a great example of protest of oppression. This graffiti is part of an instillation called “Thousand Times No” which Shehab explains, “represents a rejection of both the conformity and the repression that often stifle the Arabic speaking region and Islamic cultures.” The text above the Blue Bra is saying “no stripping the people” and the sole of the military boot reads “long live a peaceful revolution”, calling the incident of a veiled girl who was stripped and beaten by police on December 18, 2011, and happened to be wearing a blue bra. In another location, Sheab installed a calligraphic graffiti which is an Arabic translation of Pablo Neruda’s quote, “you may crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring”.

“America” by Touba Alipour, 2017

Touba Alipour’s “America” is a mixed media artwork, curated by gallery director and artist Indria Cesarine, placed in The Untitled Space gallery’s “ONE YEAR OF RESISTANCE” exhibition in January 2017, shortly after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. This exhibition, which included over 80 artists, addressed and protested policies that challenged human rights in our society such as immigration rights, health care, reproductive rights, climate change, transgender rights, white supremacy, gender equality, gun control, sexual harassment and many others. Among these artists, Touba Alipour addressed the travel bans placed by Trump which prevented people from six Muslim countries to enter the United States. “Being from Iran, it definitely affected me in different ways”, mentions Alipour, “I’ve seen families being torn apart, and they had green cards, they were living here, they just went to travel, and when they came back they were told they can no longer enter the country”.

Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.