The Right to Vote And The 2022 Midterms

Though the right to vote was codified as a fundamental human right in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century, voting has been a cornerstone of American democracy since the nation’s founding in 1776 (though it took a while to realize this right for everyone).  In order to call itself a representative democracy, the United States must represent its citizens through laws and elected officials, which is executed through free and fair elections with equal access to participating in the voting process. In this article, we will be covering the importance of ensuring voter accessibility, some upcoming voter issues from a human rights standpoint, and, of course, how your vote matters! 

Please scroll to the end of this article for information on voter registration, aid in accessing the polls, remote voting options, and how to find your local candidates and docket items.

Source: Steve Rainwater via Flickr

What are Midterms?

Midterm elections are held in the middle of Presidential terms. In midterm elections, eligible citizens vote for the House and Senate candidates that, if elected, shape national laws and policies. The 2022 midterm elections take place this year on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, and will have a major impact on citizens’ rights on both the state and national level. These elections determine which political party will hold the majority in the houses of Congress for the next two years, which can affect everything from the federal budget to national and international policy. Check the current midterms forecast here to see how the House, Senate, and your state elections are predicted to go.

Source: Joe Brusky via Flickr

Each Vote Matters

The most common response I receive when asking why my peers choose not to vote is the thought that, “one vote cannot make a difference”. History disagrees. The 2020 presidential election saw a record voter turnout, with nearly two thirds of all eligible voters (158.4 million people) showing up to the polls. However, midterm elections historically have 10-20% lower voter turnout than presidential elections. For example, the 2018 midterm elections only saw 113 million votes, which is roughly 53% of the eligible voter population; and that was still the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in four decades with a historic average of roughly 40%. That means the elected officials who vote on crucial national policies like minimum wage, education, housing and healthcare are only representative of less than half of Americas eligible voters.

In addition, following the Supreme Court’s decision of Dobbs vs Jackson in June 2022, we have seen a large change in voter demographics as historically conservative states like Kansas, Ohio and Alaska observe spikes in young, female voters and Democrat registrations. On September 13, 2022, Democrat Mary Peltola was sworn in as the first Alaskan Native to be elected as an Alaskan representative in Congress. States that have been dependably Republican for decades are now facing a new population of politically active citizens flocking to all forms of civil engagement in order to change their states, for the present and the future. 

The Voter Issues

As we get closer to the midterm elections, it is important that we recognize both the dangers and the potential solutions that could be determined by the vote this upcoming November. Below you will find some of the largest human rights realms that will be affected by the outcome of the midterms.

Voter Issue: Abortion Rights

In the wake of Dobbs v Jackson, the right to elective abortions has become a prioritized and contentious voting issue for the 2022 midterms. Currently, 26 states are likely, planning to, or have already restricted access to elective abortions following Dobbs. The Pew Charitable Trusts used recent data to create the map below:

Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts

For the first time in five decades, local and state representatives will now determine whether women and people who can get pregnant in your state will have access to what was considered a nationally protected right under Roe v Wade. Beyond the simple matter of legal access, those elected to your state governments have the ability to further restrict or protect the right to abortion in your state. On the national level, those elected to Congress this November will be voting on policies like the Women’s Health Protection Act; a piece of federal legislature that would protect abortion access nationwide. 

While we are still two months away from elections, there are many signals that abortion will be one of the largest voter issues this election season. The very demographic of voter registrations has shifted following the Dobbs decision in June, with a rise in female, young, and Democrat voter registrations nationwide. In Kansas, a state with a long history of voting red (56% of Kansas voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2020), an anti-abortion referendum was struck down by 59% of votes. This is the first time since Dobbs was decided that restrictive abortion legislation was struck down by voters. It was also a clear display of voter participation shifting the partisan norm as a deeply conservative state was met at the polls by voters, impassioned with protecting reproductive rights.

Source: “Vote Earth Tree” by Earth Hour Global is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Voter Issue: Climate Change

The United Nations passed a resolution in July of 2022 that declares a clean, healthy environment is a universal human right. In addition, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act plans to tackle both economic and environmental issues by majorly investing in clean energy production and creating jobs in the industry. Unsurprisingly, the Pew Research Center found that energy policy and climate change are two predominant issues voters will consider when casting their votes in November.

Source: Valeriya via Getty Images/iStockphoto

Voter Issue: Healthcare

The right to health is an inclusive right, defined by the United Nations as encompassing accessibility, quality, and availability amongst other qualities. While the aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act plans to lower drug costs for Medicare recipients, America still stands alone as the only developed nation in the world that does not have Universal Healthcare.

With chronic, severe or uncommon conditions, constant full-time employment may be the only way to gain affordable insurance that provides access to vital drugs and treatments. Insulin and Epi-Pens are two life-saving essential drugs that American citizens experience being denied access to because they cannot afford out of pocket costs. A simple ambulance ride can cost upwards of $1,200, an amount many Americans could not pay without incurring debt. With bankruptcy and extreme medical woes being legitimate fears for American citizens without health insurance, it is easy to see why 60% of voters say that healthcare policy is very important to their vote in the midterm elections.

Source: Victoria Pickering via Flickr

Voter Accessibility And Suppression

Voter suppression, whether passive or active, is a real issue in 2022. It is crucial that we recognize the ways in which voter accessibility is inhibited, especially in the discussion of voter turnout and how that affects who is truly represented in the US Government. Lack of accessibility and excessive voter registration requirements are detrimental to our voter turnout, and contribute to feelings of helplessness and voter apathy.

One of the largest inhibitors of active voters is pure accessibility. The US Justice Department states that, “Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments… ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. The ADA’s provisions apply to all aspects of voting”. While some cite mail-in voting as a solution to physically inaccessible polling locations, the DOJ continues to specify that, “Any alternative method of voting must offer voters with disabilities an equally effective opportunity to cast their votes in person,” meaning that simply offering a mail-in vote option is not just insufficient; it is illegal. Despite this, the American Bar Association has found that “persons with disabilities made up one-sixth of eligible voters in the 2016 election, yet only 40 percent of polling places were accessible.” Both persons with disabilities and the older population are greatly impacted by this lack of accessibility.

While accessibility at physical voting locations is a major issue, the voter process begins with voter registration; a procedure that can be incredibly inhibiting. Voter ID requirements are one of the primary obstructions across the board when citizens attempt to register to vote. Burdensome voter identification restrictions are explained as necessary security measures, but their policy outcome is that citizens who are eligible to vote are unable to due to the expensive and time-consuming process necessary to obtain government IDs. While the average percent of eligible voters who lack a government-issued photo ID is roughly 11% per the Brennan Center’s research, that amount is significantly higher amongst minority groups, low-income people (15%), young voters 18-24 (18%) and old voters 64 or above (18%). The highest category though is African-American citizens, who reported a staggering 25% of voting-age citizens without eligible IDs. In a nation with a history of civil rights abuses, institutional racism and voter suppression, modern voter ID laws must be re-evaluated in order to uphold the integrity of the electoral system in America.

Additional voter restriction issues include lack of public transportation to polling sites, deceptive practices, racial and partisan gerrymandering, employers not providing time off, long lines, prolific jailed, previously jailed and ex-felon disenfranchisement.  A representative democracy must represent its people, and to do that its people must be able to vote.

Resources:

  • Please click HERE to register to vote. If you are interested in absentee or mail in voting options, please check out this page where you can speak to an agent if you have any additional questions!
  • VoteRiders is an amazing nonprofit that helps voters to obtain their necessary documentations, and can help provide rides to the DMV to obtain photo IDs and rides to the polls through their volunteer service! Their organization will also cover any fees necessary in the ID process, so please check them out if their resources would be helpful to you or if you are interested in volunteering with them! You can also reach their help line at 888-338-8743
  • Rock the Vote provides helpful information on voting in your state, walks you through the registration process and provides helpful reminders for upcoming voter deadlines!
  • To learn more about voter suppression or to join the fight against voter ID restrictions and voter suppression nationwide, please check out the ACLU and the Brennan Center today!
  • Find the forecast for your State’s midterm election results here

 

Barren- Food Deserts and Hunger in America

What Is a Food Desert?

Source: Mike Mozart via Flikr

Currently in America, the neighborhood you were born in can affect your future income, education level, and your ability to consistently access nutritional food. The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) defines food deserts as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance”. The USDA has defined two types of food deserts: one that exists in both rural areas more than 10 miles from the nearest store and the second which exists in urban environments, where citizens face daily obstacles in obtaining healthy food due to lack of availability or resources. But, the average conversation about food deserts surrounds zones within American cities where citizens, hindered by lack of access to transportation and restricted budgets, are unable to obtain nutritional food. Food deserts play a critical role in food insecurity in the United States, and they are typically visible in urban areas where the residents are already living in extreme economic hardship. 

The Institute of Human Rights at UAB has recently published an article about food deserts in our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama that you can read here– but for readers in other parts of America, I want you to do an exercise with me. Think about your nearest big city, or an urban area you are familiar with. This can be in New York City, Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, or whichever metropolis best applies to you. Visualize the roads you drive, the areas both wealthy and impoverished. Now, think of the few streets within that city where there are almost no Walmarts, Targets, Krogers or Publix chains. In this stretch, there are tons of fast food restaurants, cash bond and payday loan businesses, laundromats and gas stations. There is an abundance of drive throughs and minimarts, but you could drive for a few minutes before you find a grocery store. Can you see that part of your city in your head now? THAT, dear reader, is your local food desert. 

Note: The USDA compiled census and other data into an interactive map called the Food Environment Atlas, which allows any user to view rates of food insecurity, diet quality, and food prices in your area or any neighborhood you are curious about. If you struggle to think of a food desert near you, or want to learn about what areas are impacted by food insecurity, I recommend you try out the Food Environment Atlas here.

Source: DcJohn Via Flickr

The Cause:

Food Deserts have typically been attributed to socioeconomic status. One of the main characteristics that defines a food desert is lack of accessibility, which means people living in a certain region have limited resources, be it money, time or transportation to access nutritional, fresh food. Food deserts are most common in low socio-economic  areas, where residents are unlikely to own a car or have one that is not always working. Americans living here typically live paycheck-to-paycheck, and require both accessibility and affordability to make ends meet throughout the month. It is currently estimated that one in six Americans still experience food insecurity, and that roughly 19 million people are affected by food deserts or limited access to supermarkets in America. Recent studies by the United States Department of Agriculture confirm the connection between race and food deserts, stating in 2019 that “rates of food insecurity were substantially higher than the national average for single-parent households, and for Black and Hispanic households”. 

The conversation surrounding food deserts has shifted to include race in recent years. Originally, the term food desert was coined to represent the socioeconomic disparities that cause some Americans to face food insecurity. Now, organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) are pushing to recoin the term as food apartheid to accurately represent the way food insecurity affects those of minority race in America. The NRDC explains the term shift, saying that, 

“Many groups are now using the term “food apartheid” to correctly highlight the how racist policies shaped these areas and led to limited access to healthy food. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they too are created by racially discriminatory policies. Using the term “apartheid” focuses our examination on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas”. 

Essentially, it is vital that we recognize how a historical and current racial inequalities act as a cause of both the food deserts and the zones of poverty they’re found in. The historically black areas of segregated cities were underfunded and underdeveloped, plagued by lack of opportunity and equal access, and in some areas across the United States an economic shadow of that segregation still remains.

Source: Gilbert Mercier via Flickr

Their Effect and Why It Matters:

America has incredibly high rates of obesity and nutrition-based health issues in comparison to other developed countries. While there are decades of research connecting poverty and race to higher rates of nutrition-based disease and other health issues in America, science is now beginning to track the specific effects of food deserts on obesity and chronic illness. A corner store or a pocket-sized version of big supermarket chains like a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but if you take the time to walk inside you’ll see the fresh produce section is either neglected or nonexistent. These smaller stores have less room for inventory, their foods are less likely to be fresh produce due to the requirements to keep them fresh, and these foods are often packaged and processed. That means those who depend on these stores are limited to fast food, packaged goods, or other processed and low quality options that can contribute to malnutrition, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and more.

In addition to the effects of food deserts on health, the prices per unit are almost always more expensive than their suburban, chain-grocery counterparts. A person who can afford a Costco membership will almost always spend less on the same food products as a family living paycheck to paycheck or utilizing EBT for groceries. A 1997 USDA study found that “geographic location was the single most important contribution to higher nationwide average prices faced by low-income households”, and that smaller stores charged more per item than supermarkets nationwide. Food scarcity and cost disparities disproportionately affect minorities and those already living in financial insecurity, and each city has a part to play in ending this national crisis of inequality.

Source: Sue Thompson via Flickr

Join the movement to end food insecurity in the US:

Ultimately, the end to food desertification requires an effort between elected officials and businesses to make nutritious food affordable and accessible for all people. If you recognized a food desert near you in the imaginative exercise we did earlier, that could be the perfect topic to address with your local lawmakers through emails, calls or petitioning. If you prefer other types of action, there are countless ways to work as individuals to help your community in the meantime. Getting involved in the fight against food insecurity can be as hands-on and involved as you want, from donating non-perishable foods and needed items to local organizations, shelters or food kitchens to establishing a community garden, or everything in between. There are plenty of ways to make a difference at whatever level of involvement works best for you, and I’ve linked some of my favorites below!

A Few Ways to Get Involved:

  • Click HERE to find your elected officials on the state and local level and how to contact them about the food deserts affecting their voters. You can use your voice to push for changes that directly impact your community in a positive way.
  • Feeding America is a charity that uses your donations to help the 1 in 8 Americans experiencing hunger now. This link takes you straight to their front page, which features a zip code locator for the closest food bank to you!
  • Organize or contribute to a local food drive. Many public schools and local businesses run food drives for charities throughout the year, and Rotary International has an awesome guide available for starting your own community food drive HERE. Sharing surplus food is an excellent way to help others while reducing waste as well!
  • Use this link to find food pantries near you to donate, volunteer, and get involved in your state’s fight against food insecurity.
  • Find what works for you. Try searching for more ways to get involved that are tailored to your area and preferences…every contribution helps!

Bans on Youth Transgender Affirming Care

When it comes to children, parents almost always have full control over the healthcare received and how its administered. With the exception of some Jehovah’s Witness’s cases, abortion cases, and court-tied decisions, parent’s typically have the final say so when it comes to the healthcare treatment that a child may take on. While at times this level of parental jurisdiction can prove problematic, when there is a discrepancy between what a child wants and what the parents want, this jurisdiction in the case of those aiming to help their children receive gender-affirming care is becoming more difficult.

Older children smile and hug while wearing the Pride flag.
Children smile and hug while wearing the Pride flag. Source: Yahoo Images

Gender-Affirming Care & Gender Dsyphoria

According to the Trevor Project, more than half of trans and non-binary youth consider suicide annually. This striking statistic appears to be remedied by the the reception of gender-affirming care. Gender-affirming care is defined by the World Health Organization as care that “support[s] and affirm[s] an individual’s gender identity” when it conflicts with the gender identity assigned at birth. For those below the age of 18, this care rarely involves the use of surgery. Instead, puberty blockers, which delay the onset of puberty, and hormone therapy, which helps induce physical characteristics that align with their gender identity, are used to help minors work against gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is explained by the American Psychology Association to be “psychological distress” rooted in a discrepancy between gender assignment and gender identity. This condition is associated with high rates of mental health conditions and suicide. As such, the reception of gender-affirming care by children has the potential to address gender dysphoria and lead to better health outcomes for trans and non-binary children.

Preventing access to this life-saving care can have dangerous effects, but that’s exactly what proposed and brainstormed bills in several states have the potential to do. The rationale behind such bills varies with voices from Texas likening gender-affirming care to child abuse and with other states claiming that children aren’t ready to make such important decisions regarding their bodies. The interesting part in these bills is where the penalty falls. Both providers and parents are at the mercy of state employees and educators if they seek to either perform or connect the child with gender-affirming care. The irony is that in most cases, parents are needed to consent to medical care and that providers are encouraged to align with parental wishes. Parents have to consent to their children receiving vaccines. If a parent or guardian decides to go against the standards for recommended care, then the pediatrician must oblige. In the case of standards around gender-affirming care, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Medical Colleges has made clear that there are criteria to determining whether a child should receive care and that gender-affirming care is the standard of care if these criteria are met.

White board with the words "Hello my pronouns are" followd by two open underlined areas with a slash where two pronouns can fit. The letters are in a variety of birght colors along a rainbow gradient.
Sign where people can fill in their pronouns. Source: Unsplash

Exploring a Right to Healthcare

In this sense, a denial of a child’s access to arguably life-saving and parentally sanctioned treatment goes against a right to health care. Alabama Rep. Neil Rafferty, the singular openly gay member of the Alabama Legislature, spoke to the matter before his state’s bill was ratified. “Y’all sit there and campaign on family being the foundation of our nation … but what this bill is doing is totally undermining that. It’s totally undermining family rights, health rights and access to health care.”

While healthcare as a right remains uncodified in the US, the United States has signed on to multiple international agreements, most recognizably the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, and is held to international suspicion and disfavor should it move towards legislation that hinders a human right and targets minorities. Whether this international judgement holds sway over the United States politically and legislatively is one thing, but for a country viewed to be a global hegemony, a stand against what can be perceived as a violation of fundamental human rights and protections for children is jarring.

Additionally, some bills, like Alabama’s, have enfolded restrictions and impositions on on trans children. For example, under an extension of the bill, students in Alabama must use the restrooms that align with the gender assigned at birth making education an uncomfortable environment for trans children.

Child with a shirt that says "Love who you are." The child has their hands on their hips akin to a superhero pose and has eye makeup on.
Child posing with a t-shirt and position expressing self-love. Source: Unsplash

As such, an attack on healthcare can operate as an entryway into further impositions on trans rights that have been long hard fought and won for years.

 

Though there’s no telling what the future holds for trans children, there are still ways to support them.

1. Donate to LGBTQ+ affirming spaces and support networks like The Trevor Project.

2. Write letters to your state representatives relaying your support of LGBTQ+ children and their ability to have access to quality, life-saving healthcare and urging their reconsideration of a politician’s support for legislation that may prevent said access.

3. Check in with people in your life who may be affected by such a decision.

 

A Look at Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

The Exhibit

Girl in front of Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts  (AEIVA) has welcomed a new exhibit, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. The exhibit explores the United States’ criminal justice system, mass incarceration, discrimination and the very concept of justice with works from more than 70 different artists. Many of the pieces on display come from artists who are or were incarcerated, who used art as an essential outlet and form of expression within prison. Nonincarcerated artists are also featured, influenced by the damages of mass incarceration within their families and neighborhoods. The entire exhibit creates a critique of mass incarceration from a human right’s perspective, representing the voices of incarcerated persons that are typically silenced or ignored. “Marking Time” boasts three galleries of moving pieces that speak to the gravity and scale at which the human rights violations within our punitive justice system disenfranchise impoverished and minority communities throughout the United States, and features data and interviews that discuss ways these glaring problems should be addressed and combatted. 

“Marking Time” was organized by curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, who has spent a decade researching the importance and development of visual arts and creative practices for incarcerated persons. Dr. Fleetwood deliberately removed any mention of charges or reasons for conviction for the incarcerated artists featured in the exhibit, forcing viewers to remove a layer of prejudice or thought regarding whether or not the artist is inherently a “good” or “bad” person, or deserving of their incarceration. As I progressed through the galleries of “Marking Time ”, one of the first things I noticed was exactly that; how I continuously perceived the artworks as being the creations of a fellow artist, not a criminal or prisoner. This intentional shift in perception creates an environment of thoughtfulness, analysis and depth that may not have been achieved otherwise, and makes the exhibit an excellent ignition for thought, conversation and activism.

When analyzing the works themselves, I was surprised to see how many were masterfully created from hair gel, sheets, uniforms, newspapers and contraband items when traditional art supplies were not accessible. Incarcerated artists are often limited in the tools they have to create art from, but countless works within “Marking Time” reveal the true resilience of an artist’s spirit, and how artistic expression can prevail above the smothering limitations of prison.

The Pieces 

As this exhibit has been analyzed and discussed through its many travels from MoMA to AEIVA, I wanted to highlight a few of the pieces and discuss their particular significance to the conversation of human rights within the United States punitive justice system and mass incarceration.

Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration by Mark Loughney

Hundreds of sketched portraits decorating a wall.
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Series of graphite and ink drawings on paper. 725 pieces total. Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

Loughney’s series, Pyrrhic Defeat, is named for a theory within criminal justice studies that explores how a failing criminal justice system that discriminates in its criminalization of certain groups substantially benefits certain elites. Mark Loughney has created over 750 portraits of his incarcerated peers in order to mark the passage of time within his own sentence, as well as provide fellow inmates with a positive alternative to the dehumanization caused by mugshots and prison IDs. His pieces provide the individuals with a level of personalization, dignity, and respect that is often forgotten and ignored within the prison system. Loughney spends 20 minutes on each sketch, and has to carve a creative, open atmosphere for each session out of the typical chaos and disruptions within a prison environment.

Untitled by Gilberto Rivera

Three mixed media paintings depicting the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Gilberto Rivera, Untitled, 2020. Newspaper, caulk, silicone, spray paint, acrylic, and markers on canvas and recycled canvas. L: 48 ½ x 60 in C: 59 ¾ x 51 ⅜ in R: 48 ¼ x 60 in, Overall: 60 x 156 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist. Source: Original Photo

 

This Triptych by Gilberto Rivera places a spotlight on how mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted vulnerable communities throughout the artists’ hometown of New York. Rivera was a graffiti artist prior to his incarceration, and this piece truly reveals the artist’s emotions and style in a brilliant display of keywords, colors and figures. Rivera’s triptych incorporates newspaper clippings that highlight his disgust for how minority and immigrant essential workers were neglected as well as the fear incarcerated people experienced throughout the public health crisis. Prisoners across the globe were put into lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the result of this is an experience extremely similar to that of solitary confinement; a punitive mechanism proven to have extreme mental and physical health consequences. Despite these sweeping lockdowns, extreme overcrowding lead prisons to host the majority of the largest single-site outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Despite these major outbreaks and casualties, prisoners fell to the bottom of priority lists for treatment and aid when medical equipment and essential items faced shortages. Rivera’s piece displays frustration and criticism of these issues that have hardly received the mainstream coverage they deserve.

Ellapsium: master & Helm by Jared Owens

Three painted panels with painted blueprints of a slave ship and federal prison overlapping.
Jared Owens, Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016. Mixed media on birch panels. Each: 48 x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood. Source: Original Photo

With Ellapsium, Jared Owens addresses the racism of the criminal justice system as well as hierarchies and power struggles within Fairton, the correctional institution where Owens was imprisoned.  This complex work features symbolism as a form of rebellion and disapproval, and bears an immediately recognizable resemblance to the infamous map of the Brookes Slave Ship from 1788 that displays how slaves were forced to live through their passage to America. This intentionally chosen symbol represents the violence, dehumanization, and other atrocities that slaves faced in early American history. The second and less known image present in this work is a blueprint of the Fairton prison; Owens’ combining of the two blatantly compares the horrors of the historical institution of slavery to the atrocities and discrimination committed by the United States’ current carceral state. Owens also utilizes color symbolically throughout his piece, and all of the colors used correlate to the artist’s daily life within a federal institution. The green of the institutional walls represents restriction and being subdued, blue represents the uniforms worn by prison guards, and brown represents the uniforms of those imprisoned. Orange, the most used color within the piece, was used within Fairfield to indicate areas that were off limits and unavailable to incarcerated persons, so Owens deliberately used that color for the boundary between the blueprint of the slave ship, of Fairfield, and the world outside of the two. 

Owens is open about how his pursuit of art posed a legitimate threat to him within the Fairfield facility. Being caught with planks of wood to paint on or stretch canvas could have resulted in solitary confinement, extension of his sentence, or complete confiscation of personal possessions and art supplies. While these overwhelming restrictions greatly limited Owens while he was in prison, he has chosen to use his experience to create, raise awareness, and call for change- like so many artists featured alongside him in “Marking Time”.

Peace, Love, Harmony by Susan Lee-Chun

A rack of uniform orange detention hoodies, with patterns on the interior lining.
Susan Lee-Chun, Peace, Love, Harmony, 2007. Cotton fabric and dye. 36 x 60 x 18 in. Courtesy of artist. Source: Original Photo

Women on the Rise! (WOTR) was a feminist art project founded by Dr. Jillian Hernandez to provide girls in juvenile detention facilities with a platform for self-expression and dialogue. Inspired by her participation in this project, Susan Lee-Chun worked with a group of girls in juvenile detention to explore the politics of fashion, and asked her participants to “Think about who you are, what words, images or symbols define you or your beliefs. Use them to create a fabric design”. The resulting hoodies on display conform to detention center uniforms on their exterior, and on the inside feature patterns with rainbows, checkers, and the word “Love”. Upon completion of this project, Lee-Chun attempted to give the girls she worked with the resulting hoodies of their creation; and was denied that request. None of the girls involved were allowed to wear the hoodies. In public defiance, Lee-Chun’s hoodies now hang among the many artworks of “Marking Time”, criticizing a system that would prioritize conformity and uniform over the individuality, creativity and expression of a child. 

How To See “Marking Time”

If you would like to see “Marking Time” and any of the artworks or artists featured above first hand, the exhibit is free and available to the public until December 11. Reserve your free ticket to view the exhibition here. Spaces per time slot are limited to 10 for a one-hour long visit. If you cannot make your time slot for any reason, please cancel the booking or call 205-975-6436. If you have any issues with booking your ticket or would like to reserve a group tour, contact AEIVA at aeiva@uab.edu. 

Visitors must wear a mask at all times inside the AEIVA building and keep socially distanced. Free and metered parking is available along the streets surrounding AEIVA. Safety is UAB’s priority. The pandemic is a fluid situation that UAB is monitoring, in consultation with infectious disease and public health experts; events will be subject to change based on the latest COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

All upcoming “Marking Time” programs are designed as hybrid events, with both in-person and virtual components. AEIVA is prepared to move any of the events entirely virtual at a moment’s notice. Visit AEIVA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for the latest updated information.

Our Lost Indigenous Women

A protest, with placards displaying the faces and information of missing women
Source: Obert Madondo Via: Flikr/cc

The Problem

Indigenous women face overwhelming rates of violent crime, more than twice the amount of their non-Indigenous counterparts in the United States and 3.5 times in Canada. A 2016 study published by the National Institute of Justice revealed that approximately 84.3% of American Indigenous women have experienced violence against them in their lifetime and 56% of these women would become victims of sexual violence as well. In Canada, only 53% of Indigenous women’s homicides have been solved; drastically less than Canada’s national solve rate of 84%. That statistic becomes even more damning when we take into account that Indigenous females only make up 4% of Canada’s population, yet account for nearly one quarter of all homicide victims in Canada. For decades, Indigenous leaders, tribal governments and human rights organizations alike have called for national reviews in both Canada and the United States into the treatment of cases regarding Indigenous women. A publication from the US Department of Justice states that Indigenous female victims in the United States are far more likely to need services that aid survivors of such violence, but are the least likely group to have access to these services. The majority of Native American women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and more than a third will be unable to access necessary services after the event due to drastic disparities in access to healthcare and treatment by law enforcement. With each new set of data we have re-confirmed the existence of a plight sweeping through native communities, robbing women within them of their security, safety, and visibility. 

Marchers holding a banner that says "No more stolen sisters"
Source: Yahoo Images

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW)

In recent years, social media pushes have been made to raise attention for what is now known as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”, a simple catchphrase encompassing decades of neglect from all channels that is now spearheading a movement for justice. This hashtag and social media campaign generates hundreds of thousands of interactions and impressions on social media every day, and brings attention to the individual stories of missing indigenous women or families of women lost to homicides that are still unsolved. However, indigenous women rarely get the national media attention that white women experience when they go missing; and when every minute and resource makes an empirical difference in the likelihood of that woman being found alive. A prior article from the Institute of Human Rights speaks specifically about the recent Gabby Petito case, and the disproportionate response of the American public for missing white women in comparison to women of color and indigenous women here. These drastically different responses only amplify the vulnerability of indigenous women.

It is horrific to think about a situation in which no one will come looking for you if you go missing. That nightmare has become an internalized reality in so many indigenous communities, where young women are being raised with impressive levels of advocacy for their missing sisters, but are witnessing first hand how much of a struggle that advocacy is. Social media is beginning to catch up to decades of research that has been waiting for a time like now, where the general public may be ready to listen and push for change. The Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has tirelessly collected data on unsolved homicides in the United States to apply pressure on law enforcement in communities with disproportionately high unsolved homicide rates, and put a spotlight on communities that fail to report important information to federal databases. The Indigenous community is heavily reflected in both of those categories.

A broken chain of command and lack of communication is often cited for why so few of these reported cases are ever investigated, as local, state and federal law enforcement agencies struggle to find a balance of working with native land and sovereign tribes through the reporting process. Many violent crimes against indigenous women occur on sovereign native land, however, 96% of the perpetrators are non-indigenous. This causes major confusion as tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-indigenous persons, and most standard law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on native land. This complicated mess of jurisdiction and authority confuses law enforcement, tribal governments, and victims alike. 

Unfortunately, law enforcement has repeatedly made glaring errors that are impossible to ignore; tribal organizations have found that the United States National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016, but the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database shows that only 116 of those 5,712 cases were never logged. Essentially, this information means that only 2% of all cases of missing indigenous women were properly reported. This cannot be ignored; many families, friends and loved ones are left wondering why our government has forgotten and neglected their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters. While the answer may not always be clear, movements like #MMIW are bringing this conversation to the forefront of politics and media. In order to provide justice for these women, we must demand increased preventative and investigative efforts to protect these women when they need it the most.

An infographic displaying data on missing indigenous women
Source: Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG VIA: Yahoo Images

Truths of Targeting

The vast majority of homicides of indigenous females go unsolved for years, and even the solved cases display how this systemic neglect has been repeatedly exploited. As determined by the FBI, “vulnerability” is a key factor in a killer’s process of victim selection; a category most indigenous women have been forced into by countless factors beyond their control. Prolific serial killers like Robert Pickton (Canada) and Robert Hansen (United States) specifically targeted indigenous women and sex workers during their killing sprees, and doing so allowed them to murder dozens of women completely undetected by law enforcement for decades. More than half of Pickton’s victims were thought to be aboriginal women, though many were never identified, and Hansen’s victims were often young indigenous women who had turned to survival sex work out of financial desperation. While describing research confirming how killers have manipulated vulnerabilities to their benefit, Co-director of MAP and criminologist Michael Arntfield determined that “Serial killers prey on marginalized populations, and indigenous women make up a disproportionate number in the victim pool”.

Sign stating "You are not forgotten" at a march for missing indigenous women
Source: Pressbooks Open Library Via: Yahoo Images

How to Help

There are many exceptional campaigns, research organizations and nonprofits to get involved that are currently on the forefront of the fight to end violence against indigenous women. If you wish to learn more about the topic, you can explore other Institute of Human Rights articles promoting Indigenous rights here, or click here to find an excellent resource sheet with educational sources and ways to get involved with MMIW. There are countless petitions for reform in both the US and Canada as well; this petition calls for the passing of Savanna’s Act, which will require the Department of Justice to update their missing persons database to better help identify missing and murdered Indigenous women and prevent further discrepancies in reported cases. This petition is a plea to the US Senate, calling for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to be re-authorized and receive greater funding as VAWA increases abilities for tribal nations to prosecute non-native offenders as well as providing resources for responses from law enforcement on all levels when cases of violent crimes or missing women are reported. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women offers ways to donate, volunteer, attend community training, and other incredible opportunities to get involved in the movement. The Sovereign Bodies Institute utilizes donations to collect culturally-informed research on gender and sexual violence against indigenous peoples.

The only way to protect these women is to take drastic steps towards change. We can no longer ignore, deny or neglect the truths of everything both systemic and societal that has consistently failed the indigenous community, and the women within it. Please research, donate, volunteer, and find a way to become an advocate for the missing and murdered. We can have no more stolen sisters.

The U.S. Migration Crisis

Visual depiction of article contents
This image, depicting a U.S. Border Patrol Agent on horseback capturing two Haitian migrants, went viral on Twitter in September 2021. The backlash caused heightened calls for immigration reform in the United States. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

On October 10, 2021, seventeen migrants fleeing from Cuba were apprehended after coming ashore near Key West, Florida. Arriving on a “chug”, or small, rustic boat that is common for those fleeing Caribbean nation-states, the migrants were given breakfast by police. Despite this small gesture of kindness, the migrants will most likely end up being deported back to Cuba.

As reported by the Miami Herald, in the fiscal year of 2021, the United States Coast Guard arrested 838 Cuban migrants, a staggering number considering that only 49 were detained  in 2021. This recent uptick in Cuban migration reverses a downward trend that was seen after President Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 2017, which had allowed most migrants who made it to American soil to stay in the nation. The policy had first been introduced in 1995, and it’s reversal was an attempt to “normalize” diplomatic relationships with Cuba. Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, over one million Cubans have uprooted their lives to come to the United States.

But perhaps even more alarming to those watching over the rights of undocumented persons is the plight of over 30,000 Haitian migrants who were expelled back to Haiti by Texas immigration authorities in record time in September 2021. Twitter exploded when a photo of U.S. border control agents on horseback chasing Haitian migrants was posted, highlighting the inhumane treatment many fleeing refugees face when making the dangerous journey to the United States. Immigration, an issue that has been a hot-button topic in the United States for decades now, has once again come into the collective conscience of domestic issues in the United States. Reform, now perhaps more than ever, is the call of all Americans, regardless of political alignment.

The Causes of Haitian Migration to the United States 

To understand the migration crisis that is currently occurring at the southern border of the United States, it is paramount to explore the issues that are causing people to make a life-threatening journey of thousands of miles for the wish of a better future.

Haiti has experienced both natural disaster and political instability this year. On July 7, 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home in Pourt-a-Prince, leaving the county in a vacuum of political unrest. And barely one month later, the already unstable state was rocked by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, killing over 2,300 people and injuring over 12,000. 77% of those affected were already experiencing poverty.

Haiti has also been unable to recover from the 2010 earthquake, with over 300,000 people still living in unofficial housing or displacement camps. The cholera epidemic that was introduced by United Nations peacekeeping forces in the aftermath of the earthquake has infected over 800,000 people and claimed the lives of over 10,000. Haiti continues to hover in the bottom 10% of nations on the Human Development Index, with 2020’s report seeing Haiti at #170 out of 189 nations tracked by the system, the lowest of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

The promise of economic opportunity for Haitians, who are expected to earn $1,709 dollars per capita as Gross National Income, is enough to draw many away from Haiti. But as climate change continues to make tropical storms more numerous and severe in the Caribbean, we are not only seeing economic and political refugees flee to the United States, climate refugees have already begun to flee the immense poverty and misery present in Haiti and other Caribbean island nations. Climate refugees, This multitude of push factors have led hundreds of thousands to flee to the United States on the often unobtainable promise of a better life in a new country.

Attempts to Reform Immigration in the United States 

Shows
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in the late 19th century. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

The immigration debate in the United States has existed for almost as long as our nation itself. While immigrants from nations such as Ireland and Italy faced harsh discrimination throughout the 19th century, immigration remained relatively open and free. After the Supreme Court declared immigration regulation a federal responsibility in 1875, immigration controls were put in place quickly, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 beginning over a century of isolationist, anti-immigration political rhetoric and policy that lasts to this day.

After current President Joe Biden declared that the current United States immigration policy was a “moral failing”, human rights activists were excited for changes that would allow asylum-seekers and refugees an easier path to shelter. Biden also promised to “tackle the root causes of irregular migration”, sending a message that human rights abuses causing the crisis we are seeing out of Haiti and other Central American countries may finally be dealt with, raising the standard of living throughout these states and limiting the need for refugees to uproot their livelihoods to come to America.

Despite the hope for immigration reform on all sides of the American political spectrum, misinformation and fear have brought the possibility of positive change to a grinding halt. The most popular plan as of now is to introduce a path to citizenship for those who came to the United States before 2010. While this is amazing progress, it does not address the modern immigration crisis we have seen occur in the 2010’s into this new decade. It also would not provide amnesty for any Haitian refugees or asylum seekers who came to America in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

There has been positive progress towards providing refuge from international crisis. The United States has seen a massive decrease in immigration arrests in fiscal year 2021. With the lowest numbers reported in a decade, the level of arrests in 2021 was 4.5x less than it was in 2011. Despite this progress in policy enforcement, actual changes in policy that tackle the systemic causes of mass migration from Central America and allow asylum seekers to more easily enter the United States would truly alleviate the migration crisis at our southern border.

The Keystone XL Pipeline and America’s History of Indigenous Suppression

A fake pipeline with the words "stop the xl pipeline" protesting the pipeline
Stop the XL Pipeline. Source: tarsandaction, Creative Commons.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline Project. The pipeline, which had severe environmental and human rights implications, has been on a long road towards failure. This pipeline was proposed in 2008 and has been referred to as either the Keystone XL pipeline or KXL. In 2015, the Obama administration vetoed the pipeline due to its potential threats to the climate, drinking water, public health, and ecosystems of the local communities. In 2017, the Trump administration reversed Obama’s veto, signing an executive order to advance the Keystone pipeline as well as a similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline despite the many valid arguments made against the two pipelines. President Trump also issued a cross-border permit to the pipeline developer, a permit that had been long sought after for the developers. Since the approval, the Trump administration has been sued twice by environmental organizations and lost each time.

The Keystone XL pipeline was proposed by the energy infrastructure company TC Energy. It was proposed to be an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System, which has been in operation since 2010. The goal was to transport 830,000 barrels of crude, tar sand oil to refineries on the American Gulf Coast each day. Tar sands lie beneath the northern Alberta boreal forest. They contain a form of petroleum called bitumen, a relatively sludgy substance that can be turned into fuel. Because of the highly corrosive and acidic nature of the tar sands oil, there contains a higher likelihood that the pipeline will leak. A study set between the years 2007 and 2010 found that pipelines carrying tar sands oil spilled three times more per mile than pipelines carrying conventional crude oil. The southern portion of the pipeline, from Oklahoma to Texas, has already been completed. This portion of the pipeline is called the Gulf Coast Pipeline. The climate impact of a complete and fully operational Keystone XL would be drastic. It would increase mining by accelerating the production and transportation of crude oil. It has also been determined that tar sands oil emits 17 percent more carbon than other forms of crude oil. In 2017, the US State Department released a study which proved that carbon emissions could be between 5 and 20 percent higher than the original 17 percent estimation. This means an extra 178.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas would be emitted annually, a similar impact to 38.5 million cars.

A few protestors with flags in front of the Washington Monument
Keystone XL protestors. Source: Victoria Pickering, Creative Commons.

President Biden’s executive order was a landmark achievement and a sigh of relief for indigenous and environmental activists alike. Indigenous leaders are encouraging him to go even further and cancel more controversial fossil fuel projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline. Several indigenous leaders, including Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Dine nations and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Dakota nation, have seen Biden’s executive order as a sign of the administration keeping its campaign promise to work against climate change and work with indigenous communities. Many indigenous populations have fought for over a decade to defend their water and land rights against fossil fuel companies. Goldtooth called Biden’s decision a “vindication” of the hard work and struggle many indigenous communities have put forth in protest of the pipeline. Pipelines like the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines as well as other fossil fuel projects actively pollute native land and water resources as well as consistently contribute to global warming due to their high greenhouse gas emissions.

A similar crude oil project, the Dakota Access Pipeline has received media attention in previous years due to the police and state reactions to the protests over its creation. This pipeline transports 470,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, over 1,172 miles. The pipeline continually threatens the sanctity of indigenous sacred lands and the purity and safety of the local water supply. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe has been one of the most vocal groups in working to oppose the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There did occur a series of protests for many months, in opposition of the creation of the pipeline. The protests were primarily peaceful, with camps and prayer circles set up on the land where construction was to take place. However, despite youth and elderly leaders being in the front during the inevitable standoffs with police, Mace, tasers, and rubber bullets were used against the protestors.

A group of young protestors holding a red banner reading "indigenous justice is climate justice."
Indigenous Justice. Source: John Englart, Creative Commons.

The briefest look at American and Canadian history clearly shows that the pipeline situations are most certainly not the first instance of the government refusing to respect the lands, waters, and even peoples of indigenous groups. Until 2016, Canada officially objected to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Canada is considered one of the most water-rich countries in the world and yet many indigenous communities continue to be provided with inadequate access to safe drinking water which provides a large public health concern for these communities. The Canadian federal government refused to provide child and family services funding for indigenous children living on reserves, a purposeful discrimination tactic against indigenous communities. It has been determined that the pervasive violence against indigenous women amounts to genocide.

In the United States, there live over 5.2 million indigenous peoples and among them, 573 federally recognized tribes, numerous unrecognized nations, and many communities scattered across the North American continent, displaced by a long history of western oppression and forced assimilation. Between the years of 1778 and 1871 alone, the United States government has signed over 370 treaties with different indigenous nations, nearly all of which promised peace, defined land boundaries, and protection of land, water, and hunting rights. Based on the current status of indigenous peoples within the United States, it is evident that these treaties and those that followed were either never fulfilled or were manipulated to provide leverage for the United States government. President Biden’s executive order ending the construction of the Keystone XL is a very hopeful step forward, however it needs to serve as a pushing off point for the administration to continue furthering both environmental and indigenous rights.

Oil: The World’s Black Gold?

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

What is Petroleum?

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

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

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

Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry

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

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

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

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

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

Oil in the World

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

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

Oil and Human Rights in the United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

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

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

Definitions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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