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.

Iran and the Conflict Over Human Rights

An Iranian propaganda poster in Tehran.
Teheren_US_Embassy_propaganda_statue_of_liberty. Source: Phillip Maiwald, Creative Commons

Throughout his work, the Iranian poet and academic Hasan Honarmandi vividly illustrated the predominant Iranian view of the West in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In his poem The West is Fast Asleep, Honarmandi claimed “[f]rom the land of glitter all happiness has left / Chains abound, but of faith it is bereft / Naught but numbers fill the Western brain / For joy without anxiety you’ll search in vain / […] No longer has the West a message to convey.” Yet in his own life, the poet failed to take heed of his own message, succumbing to the mind-numbing alienation and atomization he associated with Western modernity. After moving to Paris to continue his studies, Honarmandi, “who never married and lived in a small apartment”, “committed suicide by ingesting sleeping pills and drinking cognac,” forever doomed to slumber in the West.

With the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport on the first of February 1979, Iranians believed they successfully defeated the symptoms of modernity to which Honarmandi surrendered. Although many rose up against the monarchical regime of the Shah in protest of its “corruption, repression, despotism, and the plight of the disenfranchised,” the vast majority of the millions of ordinary Iranians from every walk of life that greeted Khomeini upon his return rose up in opposition to the same concepts of modernity condemned by Honarmandi:

The grassroots of society […] opposed the Shah’s Westernization programs, which contrasted sharply with Islamic values. […] Ayatollah Khomeini highlighted the cultural decadence and spectacularly mobilized the masses by a reinterpretation of Shi’a theology fused with anti-Americanism.

As the Shah fled from country to country after the collapse of his regime, Khomeini victoriously proclaimed the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which would exist in a “permanent state of revolutionary fervor” deemed necessary to ward off “cultural imperialism and […] ‘ethnocide’ at the hands of their Western adversaries.” Khomeini ultimately received his wish, although presumably not in the manner in which he originally intended. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran continually suffers from protests, such as those in 1999, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, and now in 2017-2018. In all of these instances, the Iranian government employed physical force – ranging from rubber bullets and water cannons to armed militias and counter-protestors – against its domestic detractors, often resulting in deaths and always drawing swift condemnation from its Western peers. However, where the West observes a government violating its citizens’ human rights, the Iranian leadership and its supporters genuinely believe “some Western countries intended to impose on other societies their own social ethical decline, to which they themselves confess, within the attractive package of human rights.”

Ultimately, the differing perspectives of the Islamic Republic and the West demonstrate a crucial question facing the human rights community: Are human rights, in fact, universal? Or, do they differ based on history, culture, and other factors?

Iranian women protest against the Shah.
Iranian_Revolution_Women. Source: Khabar, Public Domain

“No longer has the West a message to convey”

At its very essence, the Western conception of human rights contends such rights apply to all humans, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, or creed. But what if a society rejects core aspects of this conception? If a large enough segment of the human population expresses opposition to many of these rights, can the Western conception of human rights legitimately be referred to as “human” rights? Indeed, at its core, the ongoing conflict between the United States and Iran represents a struggle between two, often-contradictory, worldviews.

In the years prior to 1979, the West – in the eyes of many Iranians – sought to impose its worldview on Iran through the Shah, who, for all intents and purposes, served as a Western puppet. Their White Revolution promoted the abolition of the veil, suffrage for women, Western-style judicial and education systems, and neoliberal economic reforms, among other supposed hallmarks of modernity. As noted by Ali Mirsepassi, this resulted in:

ideas of “home,” or being and belonging, [having] very strong resonance in Iran during the rapid modernization program imposed dictatorially by the Shah, and greatly helped to shape the “nativist” philosophy of the revolution in terms of both a “spiritual” sensibility and a defense of “local” culture against universalism grounded in a […] “return” to a “pure source” of being or “authentic” identity.

From the very beginning, therefore, the Islamic Revolution represented a categorical rejection of Western values by the people of Iran. Although the majority of the revolution occurred relatively peacefully, protestors regularly assaulted symbols of Western culture, such as alcohol stores and movie theaters. This opposition to Western modernity continues in the Islamic Republic to the current day, according to Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Shahir Shahidsaless, who observe:

Within Iran, there is a debate […] on how to address the issue of human rights. There are some who adamantly believe that the West seeks to impose their own version of human rights at the expense of Islamic values. Proponents of this view are reluctant to accommodate a Western interpretation of human rights and will not succumb to pressure – specifically on issues such as hijab (the wearing of a scarf or veil) and corporal punishment. Another school of thought recognizes the innate differences between Islamic and Western values. […] The focus is on seeking to understand and accommodate such cultural variety.

On one hand, the conservative viewpoint, espoused by figures such as Supreme Leader Khamenei, essentially subscribes to the clash of civilizations theory, contending culturally and ethnically distinct civilizations (i.e. the West, Asia, the Middle East, and so on) will naturally conflict with one another as globalization brings these civilizations into greater contact with one another during the twenty-first century. This political faction, known as the Principalists, view Western Modernity and Islam in terms of an irreconcilable dichotomy – one can possess their “variant and traditional familial, tribal, ethnic, religious, and national identities/attachments” or one can possess “the tediously monotonous materialism of the present age.”

On the other, the moderate viewpoint, as championed by current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, believes in a world organized along the idea that societies and cultures should remain separate, but ultimately equal, based on qualities such as mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs. However, unlike the conservative school of thought, the Reformists do not perceive the necessity of conflict between cultures – instead, they stress emphasizing commonalities in order to minimize conflict between Islamic and non-Islamic societies.

Despite their nominal opposition to one another, these Iranian schools agree on a crucial point – both reject the universal conception of human rights as “the Trojan horse of the powerful West.” Indeed, “every political faction in Iran, including moderates,” believes that the West employs human rights, economic sanctions, and other elements of its soft power “either to change the nezam’s identity and impose Western values, or to completely topple it and replace it with a puppet state.”

A rally supportive of the Iranian regime.
Qom_rallies_2018. Source: Mohammad Ali Marizad, Creative Commons

“The West which itself is helpless now, in a torture test”

While the Islam of the Iranian Revolution seeks to “export the revolution” throughout the Middle East, Western liberalism seeks to force its values – including its particular conception of human rights – on the rest of the world. Countries must possess liberal democracy – the choices of the voters, without which democracy does not exist, do not matter if they choose illiberal democracy. The constant attempts to undermine the Islamic Republic illustrate this fact, as does Western support for the military coup against President Morsi of Egypt and European Union threats to sanction Poland over its judicial reforms. Countries must accept the Western conception of human rights or potentially risk a politically motivated, “humanitarian” intervention.

Both Western liberalism and the Islamic Republic – despite their apparent antagonism – exhibit a similar drive towards universalizing their values; however, they also possess drastically different conceptions of values and the world. Different values necessarily result in different conceptions of human rights, especially when “both sides also claim to be champions of universal values, justice, equality, and dignity.”

Ultimately, these arguments weaken the underlying assumption that human rights are universal. Critics of this viewpoint suggest the universality of human rights emerges from the various international documents that codify such rights. Yet this ignores the fact that Westerners – specifically, the Western liberal political elite – overwhelmingly participated in the drafting of these documents. Furthermore, the conception of these documents served an explicitly political purpose – buttressing the post-war, liberal world order as conceived by President Roosevelt and American planners. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights played a direct role in crafting the appearance of universality for the Western conception of human rights.

Throughout history, political systems and values developed slowly – city-by-city, region-by-region, and nation-by-nation– over the course of several thousand years. The true radicalism of the modern, Western-conceived human rights regime lies in its attempt to ignore this fact, imposing its rules on the entirety of the globe in barely seven decades. Seeing as many countries only recently received independence from the last Western attempt to impose its values on the world, it should not surprise that many possess little appetite for this latest iteration of Western universalism.

The solution lies in what Guillaume Faye refers to as the “Autarky of Great Spaces” and Samuel Huntington denoted as “civilizations.” Rather than jumping directly from the nation to the globe, this solution calls for the implementation of human rights regimes at the level of civilizational blocs (i.e., Europe, Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, etc.) as an intermediate step. As observable in the Western culture wars and the Iranian-Saudi proxy wars throughout the Middle East, even within civilizations – “defined by common objective elements, such as a language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” – there exist significant divides; therefore, the attempt to engineer a universal, human rights philosophy without intermediary steps towards practical implementation and the negotiation of wide cultural differences represents putting the cart significantly before the horse.

The term “autarky” refers to the idea that “only those things that cannot be produced domestically [by a country] are imported.” Although Faye, as well as most others, employs it in a purely economic sense, autarky also makes sense in terms of values and culture. Different civilizations possess similar core values, yet differ on the implementation and applicability of these values– hence, the clash of civilizations over these values as globalization increases contact between them. Ultimately, these should serve as the basis for the human rights regime of each civilization or Great Space.

For the conflict between the West and Iran, such a human rights philosophy promises to reduce conflict for various reasons:

1) This regime acknowledges human diversity, both in opinion and in culture. Thus, both the West and Iran receive independence in crafting their own, culturally relevant human rights systems.

2) The principles of mutual respect and non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs – often specifically demanded by Iran and other non-Western nations – serve as key components. Emphasizing these principles also addresses non-Western concerns regarding the selectivity the West displays in terms of its use and endorsement of humanitarian intervention.

Only once the intra-civilizational divides on values and human rights reach a sufficient conclusion can inter-civilizational divides hope to receive adequate attention and a truly universal human rights regime formulated. Ultimately, the implementation of this human rights regime could serve as a veritable Peace of Westphalia for human rights.

Venezuela: On the Brink of Collapse

a picture of a man walking in front of a burning car during a Venezuelan protest
Venezuela riot San Cristobal protest. Source: ビッグアップジャパン, Creative Commons.

Venezuela is not free. The Freedom in the World 2017 Profile rates their overall freedom status as Not Free with an aggregate score of 30/100. The most recent anti-government protests have persisted for eight weeks with a rising death toll of at least 60 as of Monday 29 May, as the far too often and routine clashes between protesters and police continue. Violence has heightened in recent days as the opposition marches for its four key demands:

  1. removal of the Supreme Court justices who issued the ruling on March 29th;
  2. general elections in 2017 (rather than 2018);
  3. creation of a “humanitarian channel” to allow the import of medication to counter severe shortages; and
  4. release of all the “political prisoners”

Both the government and opposition accuse each other of sending armed groups to sow violence during demonstrations. President Maduro has even gone as far as to accuse the opposition of terrorism. Food and medicine shortages plague the citizens of Venezuela as they struggle to fight for their own freedom and basic human rights. Many sources say the country is on the brink of collapse.

Consistent political tension has existed in the country since the death of former leader of the United Socialist Party (PSUV) Hugo Chaves in 2013, when President Nicolas Maduro came to power. The election left the country split into Chavistas (followers of the socialist policies of the late President Chaves) and those who wish to see an end to the PSUV’s 18 years in power. Opposition members claim the PSUV has eroded Venezuela’s democratic institutions and mismanaged its economy. In turn, Chavistas point the finger at the opposition for being elitists, who exploit poor Venezuelans for personal financial gain. Additionally, Chavistas allege that opposition leaders are in the pay of the United States, with whom Venezuela has had strained relations in recent years.

In early 2014, Venezuelan government began to respond to anti-government protests with brutal force. Security forces used excessive force against unarmed protesters and bystanders. These forces tolerated and even, at times, collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that violently assaulted protesters. Those detained and held incommunicado on military bases for at least 48 hours before appearing before a judge. In some cases, detainees were subject to severe beating, electric shocks or burns, and forced to squat or kneel for hours.

Maduro, in July 2015, deployed over 80,000 members of security forces in “Operation People’s Liberation” (OLP) to confront “rising security concerns”. Following raids in low-income and immigrant communities by both police and military forces resulted in public accusations of abuse, including extrajudicial killings, mass arbitrary detentions, maltreatment of detainees, forced evictions, the destruction of homes, and arbitrary deportations. The following February, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz announced that 245 people had been killed in OLP raids during 2015 in “incidents in which ‘members of various security forces participated’”. Government cited that “those killed died during ‘confrontations’ with armed criminals,” despite witness accounts in at least 20 cases that do not include any sort of confrontation.

a Venezeulan policeman at a protest
Policemen from the Bolivarian National Police watching protesters in Maracaibo. Source: Global Panorama, Creative Commons.

Human Rights Watch World Report on Venezuela (HRW) reveals tensions have only increased as arbitrary prosecution of political opponents has become more frequent and forceful. Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, is serving a 13-year sentence in military prison for his alleged role in inciting violence during a demonstration in Caracas in February 2014, despite the lack of any credible evidence linking him to a crime. Several others arrested arbitrarily in connection to anti-government protests in 2014, remain detained or under house arrest while awaiting trial. The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) detained dozens of individuals in 2016, citing they were planning, fomenting, or participating in violent anti-government actions, although many were, in fact, peaceful protests. Many detainees claim they were tortured or abused in custody. Detainees also report they were unable to speak with their families or attorneys for hours and/or days after their detaining. In many cases, much like Lopez’s, prosecutors failed to produces any plausible evidence associating charged persons with the crimes of which they were accused. Courts consider the possession of political materials, including pamphlets calling for the release of political prisoners, credible evidence in some cases.

HRW suggests Venezuela’s national distress heightened as “severe shortages of medicines and medical supplies make it extremely difficult for Venezuelans to obtain essential medical care. In August 2016, a network of medical residents from public hospitals countrywide reported severe shortages of medicines in 76% of surveyed hospitals as compared to 67% the year before. Researchers found that infant and maternal mortality rates in 2016 were significantly higher than in previous years. Severe food shortages have made it extraordinarily problematic for many people to obtain adequate nutrition. Civil society groups and two Venezuelan universities conducted a survey in 2015 in which “87 percent of interviewees nationwide—most from low-income households—said they had difficulty purchasing food” and “[t]welve percent were eating two or fewer meals a day”.

The UN Human Rights Council scrutinized Venezuela’s human rights record in November 2016. Numerous states “urged Venezuela to cooperate with UN special procedures by addressing arbitrary detention, lack of judicial independence, and shortages of medicine and food; releasing persons detained for political reasons; respecting freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly; and ensuring that human rights defenders can conduct their work without reprisals”. Unfortunately, Venezuela has actively voted against the scrutiny of human rights violations as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and has opposed resolutions associated with human rights abuses in North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and Iran.

a picture of a Venezuelan protester
Venezuelan protest. Source: ビッグアップジャパン, Creative Commons.

The Venezuelan government has downplayed the severity of the country’s current state of crisis. Efforts to alleviate shortages have not been successful and have limited efforts to obtain available international humanitarian assistance. Measures taken by the Venezuelan government to restrict international funding of non-governmental organizations, along with unsubstantiated accusations by government officials and supporters that human rights defenders are seeking to undermine Venezuelan democracy, creates a hostile environment that restricts civil society groups from effectively promoting human rights. In early 2016, Maduro issued “a presidential decree that—in addition to declaring a ‘state of exception’ and granting himself the power to suspend rights—instructed the Foreign Affairs Ministry to suspend all agreements providing foreign funding to individuals or organizations when ‘it is presumed’ that such agreements ‘are used for political purposes or to destabilize the Republic’” (Venezuela, 2017). Maduro received two extensions to the state of exception – in September and in November.

A surprise announcement by the Venezuelan Supreme Court on March 29, 2017 was a key catalyst in sparking the current anti-government protest. The announcement disclosed that the Court would take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly–a ruling the opposition claimed would undermine the country’s separation of powers and push Venezuela one-step closer to a one-man, dictatorial rule under Maduro. The Court argued that the National Assembly had disregarded previous Court rulings and was therefore in contempt. Three days later, the Court reversed its ruling. This reversal, unfortunately, did not bring any relief to the overwhelming distrust of the Court by opposition members.

In early May 2017, discussion of creating a new constitution began as Maduro sought to make a move following the earlier days of the prolonged protest. The president has taken steps, including signing a document establishing the terms for electing the member of a “constituent assembly”, tasked with the drafting of a new constitution.

Citizens of Venezuela persist in their efforts to demand access to basic human rights and civil liberties. Doctors rallied in the ongoing protest to address their own frustration with the current crisis. Over a thousand health care workers and opposition sympathizers marched towards the health ministry in Caracas. Police fired tear gas to drive them back, in scenes all too familiar after weeks of unrest. One protester, a 50-year old surgeon, says, “One is always afraid to come out, but we will carry on doing it until there is a change”. Despite a belief that the opposition party is plotting a coup against him, President Maduro has called for a “march for peace”. Venezuelans and the world await his plans to bring peace to fruition.

 

 

Works Cited

Freedom in the World 2017: Venezuela Profile. (2017). Retrieved May 2017, from Freedom House:https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/venezuela (2017). Venezuela. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch.

Venezuela Crisis: What is Behind the Turmoil. (2017, May 4). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36319877

Venezuela Leader Launches Constitution Overhaul. (2017, May 23). Retrieved May 2017, from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-leader-launches-constitution-overhaul-363182

Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally bt Health Care Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved from TRT World: http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416

Venezuela Protests Continue with Rally by HealthCare Workers. (2017, May 22). Retrieved May 2017,from TRT World:                                                                                        http://www.trtworld.com/americas/venezuela-protests-continue-with-rally-by-health-care-workers-362416