Race, Justice and Elections in the US: Live Updates

In an election year marked by pandemic, massive unemployment, and widespread protest against entrenched racial inequality that has pervaded nearly every aspect of life in the United States, Human Rights Watch and partners provide insight and analysis to make sense of the human rights developments unfolding across the country.

People with Disabilities’ Voices Should be Heard in US Elections

Approximately 38.3 million people with disabilities, nearly the equivalent of the entire population of California, are eligible to vote in the upcoming United States elections. This includes 5.4 million Black and 4.1 million Latinx voters with disabilities. Yet the obstacles they face in voting may mean that their voices will not be heard.

A woman departs the Beethoven Elementary School after participating in early voting in Chicago, October 15, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws require polling places for US federal elections to be accessible to all voters. That includes physical accessibility, accessibility in communications, and reasonable modifications to accommodate individual requirements. Polling stations are also required to have an accessible system for casting ballots that ensures a private and independent vote. But many polling sites don’t meet these standards. A report on polling stations after the 2016 elections found that nearly 60 percent had at least one accessibility barrier, an improvement over 73 percent in 2008, but still far from where the country should be 30 years since the ADA’s passage.

The Covid-19 pandemic brings new difficulties. During spring primaries, election officials reduced the number of polling places, requiring people to travel further to reach them. Accessible public transportation remains limited. Long lines can impede the vote for those unable to wait outdoors or in line for long periods, and those who are at heightened risk for severe illness from Covid-19.


The Reality for Black Women at the Ballot Box

A century after the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granted women the right to vote, Black women are still fighting disenfranchisement and discrimination in the 2020 elections, where key human rights issues are at stake.

The ongoing fight for Black women’s right to vote took center stage on Wednesday in an Instagram Live conversation between Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, and Ashley Smith, an Alabama-based attorney and member of the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice (SRBWI).


Smith is a voting rights advocate working and residing in the Black Belt, a rural, predominantly African-American region of Alabama where poverty is widespread and people often suffer poor health outcomes. Smith noted that Black women in the Black Belt experience obstacles that make voting more difficult, including lack of access to transportation and the disproportionate devastation that Covid-19 has brought to Black communities.

Smith and Austin-Hillery noted that Alabama is also home to the case that led to the US Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Since that decision,” Austin-Hillery wrote in an op-ed for CNN.com, “numerous states have changed laws to require voters to show photo IDs, have purged their voter rolls, or have shortened or ended early voting. Court challenges in TexasNorth Carolina and other states have shown that these changes make it harder for black, Latino, poor and older communities to vote.”

But Black women remain a powerful voting block that persists despite efforts to suppress their full participation in democracy. Smith and Austin-Hillery discussed the long history of Black women fighting for the right to vote, and the leaders who inspire them in their own work – including civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who was arrested and suffered severe injuries from a beating in her battle for voting rights, and Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives and the first Black woman to vie to be a major party’s nominee for US president.

Smith and Austin-Hillery shared their faith in Black women to continue breaking boundaries and overcoming obstacles for generations to come.

“I think we are raising a generation that will be fearless,” Smith said. “They cannot be stopped. They will not be denied.”

Watch the full Instagram Live conversation > > >

As Election Day Approaches, Rights Groups Call on Officials to Protect Peaceful Assemblies

City and state officials in the United States should review their laws, policies, and practices ahead of the November 3, 2020 general elections to ensure that they protect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, five international human rights organizations said on October 20, in letters to over 3,500 mayors and city council members throughout the country, as well as to all governors.  

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International-USA, Physicians for Human Rights, and Human Rights First urged officials to prevent a repetition of recent abuses by law enforcement against overwhelmingly peaceful protests opposing systemic racism and police violence. In a separate letter to governors, also signed by Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), the organizations cautioned against the deployment to protests of forces without adequate training in crowd control, including from the National Guard.

“The United States holds itself out as a rights-respecting nation that others can look up to, but the police abuses against peaceful protesters this summer were nothing to be proud of,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “When law enforcement officers in the United States commit abuses, they not only violate the rights of people at home but also undermine the US government’s ability to promote respect for rights abroad.”

The organizations have documented that between May and September, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in dozens of locations across the country repeatedly interfered with the right of peaceful assembly, resorted to excessive use of force, and conducted mass arbitrary arrests in response to largely peaceful protests.

In 125 separate incidents in 40 states and the District of Columbia, between May 26 and June 5, Amnesty International-USA found police using excessive force against protesters, including beating protesters, misusing tear gas and pepper spray, and inappropriately and at times indiscriminately firing “less-lethal” projectiles against protesters.

“This summer, police in city after city committed widespread and egregious human rights violations against people protesting the unlawful killings of Black people,” said Bob Goodfellow, interim executive director of Amnesty International-USA. “Rather than being a necessary and proportionate response to any specific threat, the use of force became a matter of first resort for any form of resistance, or to enforce a hastily imposed curfew, to end an ongoing demonstration – or clear a park for a photo op. Real, systemic and lasting police reform and oversight is needed at all levels to ensure that people across the country feel safe to walk the streets and express their opinions freely and peacefully without facing a real threat of harm from the very officers that are supposed to protect them.”

At least 115 people suffered head and neck injuries when law enforcement officers shot them with kinetic impact projectiles, such as rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, during the first two months of the George Floyd protests, May 26 to July 27, according to a visual investigation by Physicians for Human Rights. The group also documented how the Portland Police Bureau and federal agents abused crowd-control weapons and obstructed medical care at the Portland protests, resulting in severe injuries and psychological trauma to both medics and protestors.

Read more here > > > 

Search Resumes for Victims of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre

A new excavation is underway in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the search resumes for victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in US history.

“Both areas of interests are in Oaklawn Cemetery in north Tulsa, where a search for remains of victims ended without success in July, and near the Greenwood District where the massacre happened,” the Associated Press reports.

The search, which is expected to last for the rest of the week, is happening as survivors of the massacre and a group of descendants continue with their lawsuit against the City of Tulsa for its role in the destruction of the once-thriving African enclave of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street.

In May, Human Rights Watch released a report revealing the racial disparities that have plagued the Tulsa Black Community following the massacre. In the report, researchers call on the City of Tulsa to provide reparations to massacre survivors and their descendants.

US: 10 Steps for Safe, Credible Elections


Local, state, and federal officials in the United States should follow 10 fundamental principles to promote safe and credible elections on November 3.

  1. Ensure that all eligible voters are able to exercise their right to vote by effectively communicating about voting procedures, making various voting options readily available and accessible, and adopting additional measures as needed.
  2. Ensure the right to vote without discrimination or discriminatory effects.
  3. Protect the right to health while voting and during election-related activities.
  4. Provide prompt review, appeal, and remedy for voting rights violations.
  5. Allow unfettered monitoring by impartial, non-partisan election observers.
  6. Keep the right to vote and the “will of the people” at the center of ballot counting.
  7. Prevent voter intimidation and violence by extremist and other groups before, during, and after the elections.
  8. Ensure access to accurate electoral information; act to prevent or mitigate rights abuses.
  9. Ensure the right of peaceful assembly.
  10. Minimize arrests and use of force in responding to protests.

For more see here



UN Warns Earth Could Become 'Uninhabitable Hell' Without Action from Leaders

The world has seen a "staggering rise" in the number of climate-related disasters over the past 20 years, and leaders from government and business haven't done enough to address it, the United Nations said this week. The UN warns that disasters could turn the planet into an "uninhabitable hell for millions of people" unless action is taken to curb the climate crisis. 

From the UN report:

In the short-term, disaster management agencies have succeeded in saving many lives through improved preparedness and the dedication of staff and volunteers. But the odds continue to be stacked against them in particular by industrial nations that are failing miserably on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels commensurate with the desired goal of keeping global warming at 1.5˚C as set out in the Paris Agreement.

At the same time, almost all nations failed to prepare appropriately to prevent the wave of death and illness unleashed across the globe by the COVID-19 pandemic despite many urgings to do so from a plethora of experts including WHO, UNDRR and others.

It is baffling that we willingly and knowingly continue to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people. It really is all about governance if we want to deliver this planet from the scourge of poverty, further loss of species and biodiversity, the explosion of urban risk and the worst consequences of global warming.

The climate crisis has emerged as a major issue in the 2020 US elections. Candidates for elected office should support policies that protect the human rights of people marginalized or otherwise most affected by climate change and toxic pollution. 

Read this list of climate crisis-related questions to pose to candidates who are seeking your vote. 

Marginalized Communities Will Pay Highest Price for Pulling Plug on US Census

Census Drive and voter registration booths at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem, New York, September 22, 2020.  © 2020 2020 Lev Radin/Sipa via AP Images


The US Census Bureau will cease counting for the 2020 census at midnight, two weeks earlier than had previously been announced, a move that will likely leave many of the country’s most marginalized communities undercounted and could undermine rights for the decade to come.

The decision to stop counting comes after the Supreme Court approved the US Department of Commerce’s request to suspend a lower court order that extended counting through the end of October.

The goal of the census, conducted once every 10 years, is to produce an accurate count of all people residing in the country. This decision is the latest in a series of events – including the Covid-19 pandemic, funding slashes, and multiple administrative orders – that experts fear will result in the least accurate modern census count.


A Rundown on Early Voting in the United States

People wait in line to vote in Decatur, Ga., Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP) © AP

Over 16 million people have already voted in the 2020 US election via a combination of early in-person voting and mail-in absentee voting. But while some states have expanded voting rights – making it possible to vote early and in a myriad of ways – others have put barriers in place. Here is an update on early voting developments in a handful of states across the country:

  • Georgia: A federal court ruling on October 11 allowed the state to continue using voting machines known as ballot-making devices rather than limiting votes to hand-marked paper ballots. However, the first day of early in-person was chaotic, with reports of long lines at polling places across the state, including at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, home arena of the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks, which is being used as a voting center. Voting at the State Farm Arena was delayed for about an hour due to a technical glitch with the electronic pollbooks, which allow election officials to verify voters’ identities. Despite these challenges, voters turned out in record numbers, with 126,876 people casting ballots on Monday.
  • California: The California Secretary of State and Department of Justice ordered the California Republican Party on Monday to remove unofficial ballot boxes they had placed in at least three counties – Fresno, Los Angeles, and Orange County. Some of the boxes were marked “official.” State officials warned that the use of unauthorized absentee ballot drop boxes violated state law.
  • Texas: A federal appeals court on October 13 issued a ruling that allowed Governor Greg Abbot to proceed with limiting the number of ballot drop-off sites to one per county, even in counties with millions of residents. Texans came out in big numbers on the first day of early voting on Tuesday, but many of them were met with long lines. In Fort Bend County, home to nearly 400,00 registered voters, a programming glitch rendered all voting machines at 30 voting sites unusable.
  • Florida: Although Floridians voted in 2018 to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences, a recent federal appeals court ruling in the state upheld a requirement that they pay all fines, court fees, and restitution before being able to vote legally, which has effectively gutted the landmark law. An estimated 31,000 -  45,000 people with felony convictions registered to vote since the law went into effect, but the majority of them are believed to owe fees. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – which was behind the ballot initiative to restore the right to vote for people with felony convictions – has been attempting to help them pay their fines. They were recently bolstered by a nearly $16 million donation from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
  • Pennsylvania: On Saturday, a federal judge in Pennsylvania dismissed a lawsuit by Donald Trump’s campaign to limit the number of ballot drop boxes across the state and invalidate mail-in ballots if the voter’s signature did not match the one on file. The Trump campaign argued that these rules would prevent voter fraud, but the judge said that the campaign offered no hard evidence that voter fraud would occur.
  • Michigan: Election law in Michigan mandates that clerks wait until election day to begin counting mail-in ballots. However, on October 6, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a bill passed by the state legislature to give clerks 10 extra hours the day before the election to prepare the ballots for counting, which may speed up the tallying on election day. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called the new law a “small step in the right direction.” Other election reform bills aimed at providing relief to clerks have stalled in the state legislature.
  • New Jersey: A federal judge in New Jersey ruled against a Trump campaign motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the state from allowing officials to process mail-in ballots 10 days before the election and those received two days after the election, including those without a postmark.
  • Virginia: The Virginia online voter registration portal crashed after a fiber optic cable was cut on Tuesday morning, the final day to register to vote in Virginia. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced that he had filed a brief in federal court to extend the voter registration deadline to make up for time lost while the website was down. Gov. Ralph Northam said he would support an extension of the deadline.

Human Rights Issues Loom as US Senate Holds Hearings for Supreme Court Nominee

US Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett testifies during the second day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 13, 2020.  © 2020 Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images


Confirmation hearings are underway for US Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's pick to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Tuesday marked the second day of hearings, with Barrett facing questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time. Topics discussed ranged from the Affordable Care Act to the landmark case Roe v. Wade, but Barrett declined to say how she would rule on the issues if confirmed.

Senators will continue posing questions to the nominee on Wednesday. The hearings come to a close on Thursday, when outside testimony against and in favor of Barrett will be heard.

The stakes of the decision before US elected officials are tremendous. Voting rights, the right to health, the right to reproductive freedom, and the interaction between religious freedom and other rights are only some of the domains in which Justice Ginsburg’s replacement could either help to protect or weaken basic rights. The decision could have particularly significant ramifications for people of color, women and girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Read more about some key rights at stake in the Supreme Court pick and what senators should keep top of mind when questioning and considering a nominee.

Jonathan Price’s Killing Underscores Need for US Structural Police Reform

The call that came into the Wolfe City Police Department just after 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 3, wasn’t particularly notable in the small Texas town of 1,500 about 70 miles northeast of Dallas. There was a “possible fight in progress” at the Kwik Chek convenience store. Officer Shaun Lucas was dispatched to the scene.

Exactly what the fight was about and who was involved remains unclear, but within minutes of Lucas’s arrival, 31-year-old Jonathan Price, a former high school football star and admired member of the community, was dead – another unarmed Black man shot and killed by police.

Read the full post here

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