Race, Justice and Elections in the US: Live Updates

Protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally on Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 7, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis. © 2020 AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally on Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, June 7, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after being restrained by police in Minneapolis.

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.

North Carolina's Buncombe County Passes Reparations Resolution

This week, commissioners from Buncombe County, located in western  North Carolina, voted in favor of a resolution to provide reparations to Black residents. The Asheville Citizen Times reports:

In a split vote, Buncombe government has joined Asheville City Council in passing a historic resolution apologizing for the county's role in slavery and supporting reparations for Black people who live here.

The measure passed in a 4-3 party-line vote, with Democrats in favor, during county commissioners' Aug. 4 meeting.

Like the resolution on reparations passed July 14 in Asheville, the measure approved by county commissioners does not mandate direct payments. Instead, it instructs county staff to prioritize racial equity in the implementation of the Buncombe County Strategic Plan.

That effort is to include but is not limited to:

  • Taking steps to reduce the opportunity gap in the local public school systems.
  • Increasing Black home ownership, business ownership and other strategies to support upward mobility and build generational wealth.
  • Reducing disparities in health care and the justice system.

The resolution also commits Buncombe County to participating in Asheville's Community Reparations Commission, which will determine funding and give other recommendations for investments in education, home ownership, health care and other areas with large racial disparities.

Read the full story > > > 

Learn more about the case and fight for reparations > > > 

'We Can't Wait': More Than 100 Organizations Urge Congress to Pass HR 40

In light of the ongoing protests against racial injustice, more than 100 organizations signed a letter urging Congress to address systemic racism by bringing House Resolution (HR) 40 to a full vote once it reaches the floor. The federal bill would establish a commission to investigate the legacy of slavery and its ongoing harm, and come up with proposals to Congress for reparations.

The organizations – which span from civil and human rights institutions to civil society organizations to businesses – mobilized under the new campaign “Why We Can’t Wait,” initiated by groups including the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA).

The campaign begins as both reparations and HR 40 have experienced a surge in support, amid the nationwide protests against systemic racism – by far the largest social movement in the US – and an increasing number of local reparations initiatives. A majority of Americans now support the creation of the HR 40 commission, according to a new poll from Democracy in Color and Civiqs released this week. According to the poll, support for HR 40 jumped 19 percentage points since last year, from 31 percent to 50 percent, and 56 percent of Americans who responded said that Congress is “doing too little” to address racial inequality.

Read the full letter > > > 

Support the campaign to pass HR 40 > > > 

Probation and Parole Are Feeding Mass Incarceration, New Report Shows

An often overlooked area of the criminal legal system is getting fresh scrutiny, due to a joint report released Friday by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.  Probation and parole are often promoted as acts of leniency that help people get back on their feet, but these forms of so-called “community supervision” are actually feeding mass incarceration and worsening racial disparities, the report shows.

Based on extensive research and interviews with 164 people, the 225-page report found that probation and parole require people to comply with an array of wide-ranging, vague, and oppressive rules, and that the system often sets people up to fail.

 Allison Frankel, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and the report’s author, discussed her in-depth research on Twitter.

“We found that locking people up for supervision violations upends their lives without meaningfully addressing the underlying factors that led to violations—often, poverty, a lack of resources, and racial bias,” she wrote.

At a press conference for the report's release on Friday, people who had previously been on probation or parole  told reporters how supervision trapped them in a maze that made it difficult to move on with their lives. Speakers with personal testimonies included Lewis Conway,  national campaign strategist at the ACLU, who spent 12 years on parole.

“Parole becomes a life sentence,” Conway said. “It’s almost as if the original sentence is never-ending.”

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU recommend that governments divest from supervision and incarceration and invest in jobs, housing, and health care instead.

Learn more about the report here > > >

US Attorney General Denies Systemic Racism in Policing

United States Attorney General William Barr responded to questions from lawmakers this week in his first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee since taking office. Barr defended the Trump administration on a variety of issues, including its violent response to protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

At one point, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee asked Barr whether he “seeks to end” systemic racism in policing. Eventually the nation’s top law enforcement officer clarified his position: “I don't agree that there's systemic racism in police departments generally, in this country.”

Many pointed out that Barr’s denial of the existence of systemic racism flies in the face of information  from nongovernmental groups, the Justice Department’s own data, and the lived experiences of Black people in the US.

It wasn’t the first time Barr has denied the systemic racism that people across the country have been protesting since May, in what might be the largest social movement in US history. In a June 7 interview on CBS’ Face the Nation, he said, “I think there's racism in the United States still but I don't think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist.”

Read the full story here > > >

Athletes Take on Voter Suppression in Florida

Los Angeles Lakers Forward LeBron James looks on before a NBA game in Los Angeles, California, March 8, 2020. © 2020 Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via AP Images

Human Rights Watch's Thomas Rachko reports that with the Women's National Bastketball Association and the National Basketball Association resuming play this month, some Black athletes are mobilizing in response to a recent Supreme Court order that's permitting disenfranchisement.

Last month, a group of athletes and artists including Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury and Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers launched More Than a Vote, an organization dedicated to registering people to vote and raising awareness about attacks on voting rights. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one in thirteen Black Americans cannot vote due to disenfranchisement laws.

One of the first initiatives of More Than a Vote was to donate $100,000 to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help pay outstanding fines and fees for people with felonies seeking to vote in Florida.

The donation followed a US Supreme Court order that left in place a federal appeals court’s stay of a trial court ruling that held unconstitutional a Florida scheme that prevents Floridians with felony convictions from voting if they still owed fines, fees, and restitution and are too poor to pay. The appeals court stay prevented hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions from voting in Florida’s primary elections earlier this month, and threatens to bar them from voting on Election Day in November.

Read the full story > > > 

Activists Respond to Trump’s ‘Surge’ of Federal Agents Into US Cities

On Wednesday, President Trump announced his plan to “surge” federal officers – from agencies including the Department of Homeland Security, the US Marshals Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency – into US cities, despite opposition from community members and some local officials.

Claiming to seek “law and order,” Trump said he intends to send hundreds of federal officers to Chicago and scores to Albuquerque, New Mexico, before expanding into Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Detroit.

The announcement follows the deployment of DHS agents to Portland, where they have been captured on video using excessive force against protesters and reporters and making arbitrary arrests.  

Communities are on edge. Activists are expressing concern about the surge of agents embarking on the cities – most of which have seen large Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd – given Trump’s violent rhetoric against anti-racism protesters and DHS’ long history of abusing people with impunity.

On Thursday, Black Lives Matter Chicago filed a federal lawsuit to stop the deployment, anticipating that the abusive policing by federal officers in Portland would be repeated in Chicago.

“It feels supremely urgent because the Chicago Police Department has been brutalizing Chicago folks since the May 30 uprising,” Amika Tendaji, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago, told the Daily Beast. “And having the feds in Chicago come in and turn this into Portland, adding additional forces to the most policed large city in the nation, is going to be incredibly dangerous, incredibly brutal and incredibly violent for the heroic protesters who are demanding the defunding of police.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin responded to the news that federal agents would be deployed in their state’s largest city.

“Against the backdrop of the deeply problematic scene playing out in Portland, plans to send similar forces to Milwaukee make no sense,” stated the ACLU affiliate. “We don’t need a repeat of this failed, chaotic approach in Wisconsin.”

Mother Jones reports that in Kansas City, where the planned expansion is already taking place, activists said that the influx of federal agents hasn’t made their community any safer.

“We didn’t ask for this,” Lora McDonald, head of More2, a social justice organization based in Kansas City, told Mother Jones of the surge. “For us, it’s all very reactionary instead of getting at the root causes.”

US Covid-19 Relief Should Protect Immigrants

By Dreisen Heath and Thomas J. Rachko, Jr.

This week, United States lawmakers are considering the next Covid-19 relief package. The US has now surpassed four million positive cases of the novel coronavirus, while 1.4 million more workers filed for unemployment insurance just last week. Congress should enact a relief bill that protects all those affected, including immigrants, who are among the most disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Covid-19 relief bills should assist immigrant families – even if some of their members are unauthorized – whose rights to adequate housing, food, health, and more are increasingly at risk.

As of 2018, there were over 44 million foreign-born people living in the US, including eight million unauthorized workers and 12.6 million children (including US citizens) living with at least one noncitizen in their household. Effective public health and economic safety requires the protection of all community members regardless of immigration status. Many are among the nearly 60 million Latinos in the US, one of the largest nonwhite groups of voters in 2020, who were already facing persistent income inequality and disparities in wealth before being hit hard by the pandemic.

Immigrants are especially vulnerable in this pandemic because many are in jobs on the front lines. Many essential workers, including doctors, nurses and medical staffmaintenance workers, delivery persons, farmworkers, foodservice staff, meat processing workers, and street vendors, are immigrants.

Additionally, fear of the US government’s harsh immigration enforcement measures may keep immigrant families from seeking financial relief or medical care.

The CARES Act relief package enacted in March does not provide enough access to assistance, testing, and treatment for immigrant community members. It also requires that recipients of relief funds for basic necessities have a social security number. This has excluded many from the benefits, including US citizens married to immigrants filing taxes without a social security number and US citizen children, as well as millions of undocumented persons, many of whom pay taxes.

Members of the House of Representatives and Senate have introduced the Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act, a federal relief bill that would prohibit discrimination based on immigration status in accessing relief funds. The House of Representatives also recently passed the HEROES Act, which includes several provisions that protect immigrants

Inclusion without discrimination protects lives, supports the economy, and, simply, is the right course for the US government to take to protect the rights of all community members.

The Remarkable Courage of C.T. Vivian

C.T. Vivian, a close aide to Martin Luther King, Jr. and pioneering strategist of the civil rights movement, was laid to rest in an Atlanta funeral service on Thursday. Vivian was a master of organizing nonviolent direct actions, sacrificing his safety to help end racial segregation in the South.

In an article for The Undefeated, Saida Grundy, assistant professor of sociology & African American studies at Boston University, writes about the man who put his body on the line to expose racial injustice.

Courage is a word that describes Vivian well. Perhaps his most famous moment in the movement was during a fiery showdown against the notoriously brutish Selma, Alabama, sheriff Jim Clark. As he had done in so many counties before, Vivian was registering Black voters. Vivian’s efforts had sent 1,400 Black Selma residents down to the courthouse to register since arriving in Selma, and Clark ordered a snaking line of 100 of them off the premises that rainy day.

“You can turn your back on me,” Vivian fired at the sheriff, pointing his finger. “But you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now and you can keep your club in your hand, but you cannot beat down justice.” Clark responded by slugging Vivian in the face, sending his lanky body flailing down the courthouse steps. Vivian was arrested, but his strategy won the day. His actions had provoked exactly the revelation of white Southern brutality that he knew could not be ignored when broadcast into televisions across the country. He succeeded in proving that Black liberation exposed what the Jim Crow South was.

Former President Barack Obama honored Vivian with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. “He was always one of the first in the action — a Freedom Rider, a marcher in Selma, beaten, jailed, almost killed, absorbing blows in hopes that fewer of us would have to,” Obama wrote shortly after Vivian’s death.  

 “He waged nonviolent campaigns for integration across the south, and campaigns for economic justice throughout the north, knowing that even after the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act that he helped win, our long journey to equality was nowhere near finished.”

Read more about CT Vivian’s courage in The Undefeated > > >

 

How Trump’s Immigration Policies Foreshadowed the Violence Against Portland Protesters

Outrage is mounting across the US over the abusive tactics of federal agents, led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), against protesters in Portland. Video footage and reports from protesters in Portland appear to show agents using excessive force against protesters and journalists and arbitrarily arresting and detaining people. "This is the kind of thing we see in authoritarian regimes, ” Mary McCord, a Georgetown Law professor and former national security official at the US Department of Justice, told the New York Times.

But the Trump administration shows no signs of changing course. Today the president announced that federal agents would also be sent to Chicago and Albuquerque.

While the actions of the DHS agents in Portland are disturbing, they are also familiar. Human Rights Watch researchers working on US immigration policy have for many years seen DHS agents engage in lawless and abusive tactics against non-citizens in communities across the country. Numerous reports by Human Rights Watch, other organizations, and government watchdogs have documented frequent abuses and a culture of impunity.

The events in Portland are also part of a continuing pattern of DHS agents violating the rights of US citizens. In 2019, Customs and Border Patrol agents were revealed to have harassed, surveilled, interrogated and detained journalists, lawyers, and activists at the US-Mexico border, interfering with their freedom of speech and movement. Border Patrol agents have been accused of racially profiling US citizens in border communities; in one case, two US citizens filed suit after being detained in Montana because Border Patrol agents had heard them speaking Spanish. 

We have been watching President Trump stigmatize migrants and asylum seekers as dangerous and a threat to the United States for years. We are now seeing him describe US protesters in similar broad strokes. Sending agencies with a long track record of abuse and little relevant training to police US cities highlights the contempt this administration has for the rights of US citizens and non-citizens alike.

Read conflict journalist Robert Evans' account of the crisis in Portland > > >

Leaders Remember John Lewis, Towering Champion of Civil and Human Rights

Farewell, sir.

You did, indeed, fight the good fight and get into a lot of good trouble.

You served God and humanity well.
Thank you.
Take your rest. #JohnLewis pic.twitter.com/U1cPEwfCGO

— Be A King (@BerniceKing) July 18, 2020

People throughout the world are reflecting on the life and legacy of John Lewis, the venerated US Congressman and freedom fighter who died on Saturday at the age of 80.

John Lewis stood out for his willingness to put his life on the line to directly confront and end "Southern apartheid" in the United States. https://t.co/q5fTs8TpWe pic.twitter.com/45I62LyndL

— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) July 18, 2020

John Lewis believed in the American project, and spent his whole life trying to perfect it.

I spoke with @SenBooker, @Sifill_LDF, @RevDrBarber, and @harrisonjaime about the world he helped create and the work that lies ahead. https://t.co/VTPzu1M92O

— adam harris (@AdamHSays) July 18, 2020

One of the original 13 Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in the early 1960s, John Lewis was beaten and arrested many times in the battle to end racist Jim Crow laws. He went on to help organize the historic 1963 March on Washington and eventually brought his civil and human rights work from the streets to Capitol Hill, where he served in the House of Representative for over 30 years and was revered as “the conscience of the US Congress.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson, who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was a co-organizer of the March on Washington, eulogized Lewis in USA Today:

John Lewis was a bright, curious, and ambitious boy born in 1940 and raised by sharecroppers in the small, rural, segregated town of Troy, Alabama. 

He was 14 when Thurgood Marshall rendered the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending legal segregation. He was 15 when Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi and his mangled body appeared in Jet Magazine. Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he’d heard on the radio inspired him. He wanted to be a part of changing things. At 18 he wrote King asking for a meeting and when they met in Montgomery King said, “So you are John Lewis, the boy from Troy.” John became a key figure in a broad social and political movement.

I met John Lewis in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, shortly after the Woolworth’s sit-in amidst a growing student activist movement. In Nashville, Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith were mentoring students — John, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and others — in the philosophy of Gandhian non-violent direct action and they soon became known civil rights activists. 

Jackson argues that democracy in the US didn’t start with the signing of the Constitution. Instead, “it was born, with John Lewis as midwife, in Selma, Alabama, in 1965,” when Lewis led marchers across a bridge in a peaceful protest met with such violence that it is known as “Bloody Sunday” – and which prompted swift passage of the Voting Rights Act that removed barriers for Black people trying to cast a ballot.

Lewis had a significant impact on Nicole Austin-Hillery, head of the US program at Human Rights Watch. In an op-ed for CNN.com, she recalls looking to Lewis for inspiration in the formative stages of her career. “John Lewis was more than an icon or someone that I read about in books,” she writes. “I was a young, Black woman who grew up in public housing with dreams of becoming a civil rights lawyer, and John Lewis' journey was the template for the walk I hoped to take.”

When Austin-Hillery got the chance to meet Lewis in his congressional office – which would be the first of several opportunities for them to meet and eventually work together – the moment was nothing sort of magical.

There was no question too small or obvious for him to answer. He gave me more time than anyone of his stature would have been expected to allow and I savored every story, every parable and every lesson he shared.

It was his response to my last question that stuck and continues to guide me to this day. When I asked him how young people could ascend to leadership roles when seasoned leaders are unwilling to teach and mentor, he stiffened his back and without missing a beat told me: We didn't ask permission to move into leadership, we took it.

I see that today with the young warriors taking to the streets and demanding an end to systemic racism and injustice in the United States and around the globe.

Austin-Hillery says that one of the biggest lessons that Lewis imparted on her is the connection between civil and human rights.

“Now that I work at Human Rights Watch, I continually revisit lessons learned from him -- including that human rights and civil rights are inextricably linked,” she writes.

“When Mr. Lewis was arrested in Washington for demonstrating against apartheid at the South African embassy and outside Sudan's embassy for protesting genocide in Darfur, he underscored this connection and showed us all that the fight for rights is global.”

Read Nicole Austin-Hillery’s full op-ed on CNN.com > > >

More: Read additional tributes to John Lewis from top US leaders and presidents, leading US activists, UNESCO, Amnesty International, Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta, France President Emanuel Macron, and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.

Reparations Programs Advance in Asheville, North Carolina and Providence, Rhode Island

The reparations movement is gaining steam in the United States as the protests and national reckoning over racial injustice continue across the country. In addition to renewed interest in federal bill HR 40,  progress is being made at the local level. Last week alone, the cities of Asheville, North Carolina, and Providence, Rhode Island, took important steps toward considering or providing reparations to victims of systemic racism – and in doing so, showed that reparations can take various forms, such as an official apology alongside direct compensation, targeted investments in social and economic programs, institutional reform, and more.

At a July 14 meeting of the Asheville City Council, officials voted to issue a formal apology for slavery and to provide reparations to Black residents. The decision follows the county health board’s declaration that racism is a public health crisis.

In historic move (and by a unanimous 7-0 vote), Asheville, NC approves #reparations for black residents. The city apologized for slavery & discrimination & will set up a commission to create concrete #reparations proposals to close disparity gaps. https://t.co/MPP2HNCQpG

— Dreisen Heath (@dreisenheath) July 15, 2020

“It is simply not enough to remove statutes,” said Asheville Councilman Keith Young. “Black people in this country are dealing with issues that are systemic in nature.”

Asheville’s reparations program would not include direct payments, USA Today reports. Instead, the City Council resolution says the program will include community investment measures such as “increasing minority home ownership and access to other affordable housing, increasing minority business ownership and career opportunities, strategies to grow equity and generational wealth, closing the gaps in health care, education, employment and pay, neighborhood safety and fairness within criminal justice.”

The day after the historic vote in Asheville, the mayor of Providence announced that the Rhode Island city is considering providing reparations for its Black and Native American residents.

Providence, Rhode Island’s mayor signs order to pursue truth, #reparations for Black & Indigenous peoplehttps://t.co/yZ8t24iFki

— Dreisen Heath (@dreisenheath) July 16, 2020

Mayor Jorge Elorza signed an executive order on Wednesday to establish a “Truth-Telling, Reconciliation and Municipal Reparations Process.” According to the Providence Journal:  

The process in Providence, Elorza said, will start with members of his administration and a group of African-American advisers meeting with historical societies and researchers to come up with a plan for sharing the state’s role throughout history in the institution of slavery, genocide of Indigenous people, forced assimilation and seizure of land.

The administration would then bring the community together for conversation and healing, as part of the “reconciliation” phase. The details of reparation payments, including the amount and forms they would take, would be decided in the last stage of the process.

In an interview with WBUR, Eloze discussed the feasibility of reparations in Providence. “I know that at the municipal level, there is no way that we can make good on all of the injustices,” he said. “This has to happen at every level: at the state, at the federal and from private institutions. But there's a lot of value to showing leadership at the local level to taking the initial steps. And then also, you just never know what the future holds.”

Read more about the case and fight for reparations in the US > > >

‘I Can’t Breathe’ Painfully Relevant 6 Years After Eric Garner’s Death

Today marks six years since a New York Police Department officer put 43-year-old Eric Garner in a chokehold and killed him, sparking widespread protests across the country and giving rise to a critical touchpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement.

After Garner’s death, the words he repeated several times while pinned to the ground by Officer Daniel Pantaleo – “I can’t breathe” – became a rallying cry for the effort to end police violence against Black people in the US. The phrase has become painfully relevant in recent months with the police killings of numerous Black people, including George Floyd, who died after a police officer pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Garner’s loved ones shared their memories and pain on the anniversary of his death.

“He was the light of my life,” said Garner’s wife, Esaw Snipes-Garner, in an interview with NowThis. “He should be here to enjoy watching my grandchildren grow, watching his daughters walk down the aisle, seeing his son’s first basketball game in college.”

‘It was like watching my husband get killed all over again’ — Eric Garner’s wife Esaw Snipes-Garner is reflecting on the police-involved death of George Floyd, her own trauma, and ongoing anti-racist protests pic.twitter.com/2hqWQSGx2J

— NowThis (@nowthisnews) July 17, 2020

In an interview with Good Morning America published today, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, remembers Garner’s last words to her and vowed that when it comes to justice, “I will never stop fighting.”

"I can't breathe."

On this day six years ago, Eric Garner was killed after an NYPD officer put him in a banned chokehold. His mother, Gwen Carr, reflects on her son’s life and her journey for justice amid growing protests against police brutality: https://t.co/HdsF6YEjlw pic.twitter.com/3UQaM7MD1G

— Good Morning America (@GMA) July 17, 2020

Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that police reforms, such as banning chokeholds, aren’t enough to end the deadly police violence that cuts an alarming number of Black lives short every year. Structural changes to policing are needed.

Six years to the day that the NYPD killed Eric Garner, we mourn his death, and that of so many others, to police violence.

Breonna Taylor
George Floyd
Rayshard Brooks
Terence Crutcher
Michael Brown
the list goes on...#ICantBreathe #BlackLivesMatter https://t.co/vZBXQIrgPM pic.twitter.com/NaMEtKVVWe

— Laura Pitter (@Laurapitter) July 17, 2020

Yes, NYC just enacted some modest police reforms, including criminally banning chokeholds like the one that killed Garner, but the NYPD has banned chokeholds since 1993, and much more, in NY and elsewhere, still needs to be done. See @hrw https://t.co/G8e1KduTeL pic.twitter.com/iwwQUMxeLt

— Laura Pitter (@Laurapitter) July 17, 2020

For example, it took five years to fire the officer who killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, and the US Department of Justice, after a long investigation, refused to bring charges against him. https://t.co/rOKOywRh4f pic.twitter.com/FvSCcfoLNJ

— Laura Pitter (@Laurapitter) July 17, 2020

15-Year-Old Jailed Over Probation Violation—for Not Doing Her Coursework

A teenage girl in Michigan is being incarcerated for not doing her coursework amid the Covid-19 crisis, which a judge found to violate her probation, ProPublica reports. 

One afternoon in mid-June, Charisse* drove up to the checkpoint at the Children’s Village juvenile detention center in suburban Detroit, desperate to be near her daughter. It had been a month since she had last seen her, when a judge found the girl had violated probation and sent her to the facility during the pandemic.

The girl, Grace, hadn’t broken the law again. The 15-year-old wasn’t in trouble for fighting with her mother or stealing, the issues that had gotten her placed on probation in the first place.

She was incarcerated in May for violating her probation by not completing her online coursework when her school in Beverly Hills switched to remote learning.

Grace's incarceration is yet another example of racial bias in the criminal legal system, particularly the systems of probation and parole, according to Allison Frankel, Aryeh Neier Fellow in the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

Probation is viewed as a gift, but its reality is harsh + punitive. Case in point: A teenager is incarcerated during a pandemic because she didn't do her homework. Like her, many detained for probation violations are Black and have disabilities https://t.co/QNs1z5mL0l

— Allie Frankel (@abfrankel) July 14, 2020

Grace's detention also illustrates the glaring ways in which Black girls are disproportionately harmed by the school-to-prison pipeline, a trend in which harsh school discipline policies help push children into the criminal legal system, says Dreisen Heath, advocacy officer in the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

School-to-prison pipeline operating at its finest at the cost of black lives. The criminalization of black girls esp. is out of control — black girls are suspended from school at 6x rate of white girls & make up 1/3 of female arrests on school campuses. https://t.co/TtwJYLGQzT

— Dreisen Heath (@dreisenheath) July 14, 2020

ProPublica reports that Grace's mother is devastated by the forced separation from her daughter, who has been detained for over a month. 

Charisse counts each day they’re apart, and that was day No. 33. Another month has since passed, and there could still be months to go before they are at home together again.

Driving home, Charisse had to pull over soon after she turned onto the road leading away from the complex. She sat in a parking lot, sobbing.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said. She shook her head as tears dampened the disposable blue face mask pulled down to her chin.

“Every day I go to bed thinking, and wake up thinking, ‘How is this a better situation for her?’”

Read the full story in ProPublica > > >

Nearly 100 Years After Tulsa Race Massacre, Search for Mass Graves Underway

This week, the City of Tulsa, Oklahoma took the overdue step of searching for possible mass graves from one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history, reports Human Rights Watch. The excavation comes more than 99 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which white mobs decimated the thriving Black neighborhood of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street.

To this day the #TulsaRaceMassacre death toll remains unknown. In 1999, a white man came forward to say that after the massacre (@ age 10) he saw white men digging trenches & peaked inside crates w/ charred bodies of black men. A dig for truth begins @hrw: https://t.co/ZuV6yfW7hP pic.twitter.com/ecBzYtJqDu

— Dreisen Heath (@dreisenheath) July 14, 2020

“Unearthing the buried truth by recovering and identifying remains could offer one important element of reparatory justice that is long overdue,” writes Dreisen Heath, advocacy officer in the US program at Human Rights Watch. “But it is only one of many steps the city of Tulsa and state of Oklahoma need to take to address the massacre, the failure to account for it, and the impact of subsequent discriminatory policies that continue to harm Tulsa’s Black community today.”

Read the story here > > >

Learn about the case and fight for reparations in Tulsa > > >  

Amid Reckoning on Racial Justice, Momentum Grows for Congressional Bill HR 40

USA Today reports that as the nationwide protests against systemic racism continue their impact around the country, HR 40 is getting a fresh look. The Congressional bill would establish a commision to study the impact of slavery and its legacy in the United States and provide Congress with proposals for reparations.

Protests unleashed by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans have recentered racial inequality in the public consciousness and renewed debate around what to do about it – including reparations.

. . . .

Weeks after Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, the California Assembly passed a bill to establish a task force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. 

More than a year before, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, sponsored a bill in Congress known as H.R. 40, or the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. For more than two decades before her, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced it year after year without success. 

It's receiving greater attention, Jackson Lee said.

The Congressional Black Caucus met on it last week. 

"There is no better time for H.R. 40 to be part of the national dialogue and part of the national legislative response," she said 

Read the full story in USA Today > > > 

Learn how you can support the effort to pass HR 40 > > >

#SayHerName: Remembering Sandra Bland

We remember you, sister. 🖤#SandraBland pic.twitter.com/gG0xn9rYNY

— Be A King (@BerniceKing) July 13, 2020

Today marks five years since Sandra Bland died while in police custody. Bland, an African-American woman, was pulled over by a state trooper in Southeast Texas for a traffic violation. She was arrested and found hanging in a jail cell three days later. 

The outrage over Bland's death helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement, and drew overdue national attention to the experiences of Black women and girls whose lives have been impacted by systemic racism in law enforcement. Today, people and organizations from around the United States paid tribute to her life and made fresh calls for the criminal legal system to be transformed. 

Sandra Bland died 5 years ago today

A reminder that #SayHerName was created that same year to challenge the notion that victims of police brutality & anti-Black violence are predominantly men and to highlight the gender-specific ways Black women are disproportionately affected

— Ivie Ani (@ivieani) July 13, 2020

I'll never get over people saying Sandra Bland committed suicide as if that was supposed to *make me feel better* about what happened to her. She failed to use her turn signal. Then Brian Encinia falsified a police report. She should never have even been in that jail cell.

— Sarah Cooper (@sarahcpr) July 13, 2020

5 years ago today, #SandraBland died in her jail cell. She died scared and alone as too many Black women do. We can never forget to #SayHerName. We can never stop demanding justice and accountability for Black women. #BlackLivesMatter #OTD pic.twitter.com/K5YYlVX5XG

— Thurgood Marshall Institute (@TMI_LDF) July 13, 2020

#SandraBland ‘s death 5 years ago today was caused by the cancerous effects of systemic racism in the US, pure and simple. Today should serve as a reminder of the multi-layered work still to be done to rid our globe of this disease. It is about far more than bad policing. pic.twitter.com/FKUbwXIx8n

— Nicole Austin-Hillery (@NicoleAustinHil) July 13, 2020

US Should Urgently Increase Access to Cooling

Arizona, Texas, and Florida – states with spikes in Covid-19 cases – are all facing extreme heat this year, which is likely to be one of the hottest on record. While heat may be a minor inconvenience for those with good building insulation and copious air conditioning, it kills an estimated 12,000 people a year in the United States.

Most summers, people who cannot afford air conditioning and live in unbearably hot homes can cool off in public libraries, community centers, or malls. But the social distancing needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 makes spending time at these places difficult, and many have been closed.

Concerned about heat deaths, New York City is giving 74,000 free air conditioner units to low-income residents this summer.

But many may be unable to run their air conditioners due to utility costs. Millions of people in the US are out of work, and fewer than half of US adults have enough savings to last 3 months; only 27 percent of Black adults do. Covid-19-related job and wage loss has hit Latino and Black people hardest.

The federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is the primary federal source of utility payment assistance for low-income households. However, Congress has historically allocated more funding to colder weather states. In 2017, LIHEAP’s national per capita spending average was US$10. However, in Arizona, one of the hottest states, it was $3.

The CARES Act provided $900 million to LIHEAP to assist low-income families affected by the pandemic. The HEROES Act, stalled in the Senate, would provide a needed additional $1.5 billion.

But as temperatures rise, the federal government will need to significantly increase support for programs like LIHEAP that help protect low-income people from life-threatening burdens of severe heat. Currently, LIHEAP is so underfunded that it only reaches 20 percent of eligible households.

LIHEAP instructs states to target at-risk populations, including older people, young children, and people with disabilities. But pregnant people are excluded, despite studies showing a link between heat exposure and adverse birth outcomes. This should change.

Access to cooling can mean life or death in extreme heat, and rising heat is inevitable due to climate change. More sustainable, equitable alternatives will be necessary as long-term solutions. For now, increasing LIHEAP’s funding is one way to respond to the added threat the pandemic poses and help more families deal with extreme heat.

New York Times on the Record-Breaking Size of Black Lives Matter

The New York Times reports that the recent protests against police violence and systemic racism could be part of the largest movement in US history. 

Four recent polls — including one released this week by Civis Analytics, a data science firm that works with businesses and Democratic campaigns — suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks.

These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history, according to interviews with scholars and crowd-counting experts.

. . . .

The Women’s March of 2017 had a turnout of about three million to five million people on a single day, but that was a highly organized event. Collectively, the recent Black Lives Matter protests — more organic in nature — appear to have far surpassed those numbers, according to polls.

“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement,” said Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School.

Read the story here > > >

 

Despite Alabama's Disturbing Cervical Cancer Death Rate, Students Go Without Comprehensive Sex Ed

Human Rights Watch released a report today documenting Alabama's failure to provide students with sexual health information that could help potentially protect them from cervical cancer. The report also found that the state, which has the highest rate of cervical cancer deaths in the nation, has failed to help adolescents get sufficient access to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine – an effective tool to prevent several types of cancer, including most cervical cancers.

In April, the New Yorker published a feature story on the disturbing rise in cervical cancer deaths in Alabama, featuring Human Rights Watch research.

“Young people need access to accurate information on their sexual health to build healthy relationships and make informed and safe decisions,” said Annerieke Daniel, women’s rights fellow at Human Rights Watch and author of the new report, in a statement. “Alabama can significantly improve health outcomes and possibly wipe out cervical cancer for future generations by guaranteeing comprehensive sexual health education in schools and increasing HPV vaccination rates.”

Read the report > > > 

Report Exposes Impact of Privatizing US Criminal System

By Komala Ramachandra

new report by the American Bar Association (ABA) shows how growing privatization in the US criminal legal system and the financial burden created by “user fees” is effectively criminalizing poverty.

The report, “Privatization of Services in the Criminal Justice System,” finds that private companies are now involved in almost every stage of the criminal process. These companies provide pretrial services, like bail, supervision, electronic monitoring, and alcohol and drug testing. Courts may also offer private diversion programs that allow people to avoid a criminal record upon successful completion. After a person is convicted or accepts a plea deal, they can be assigned to private community supervision or probation.

Almost all of these services entail “user fees” often set by and paid directly to the private provider, with little government oversight. Even collection of these charges may carry additional fees or commissions for the collection agencies, again paid by the individual. Human Rights Watch has documented the pernicious impact of cash bail and private probation, particularly on those living in poverty.

People can also rack up charges while incarcerated, including charges for health care, basic supplies in the commissary, telephones or electronic communication, and financial services like money transfers. 

The system can be expensive for anyone but is particularly harmful for low-income people. When an individual is unable to pay, they may face a range of consequences, including extended supervision terms, arrest warrants, additional court hearings, and even jail or prison time. That can mean even more fines and fees because it takes longer to pay them off. This effectively creates a two-tiered justice system that privileges those who can afford to pay fines and fees quickly, and traps those who cannot. It also means low-income people may pay more for the same offense.

This report follows on the ABA’s “Ten Guidelines on Court Fines and Fees,” which provided recommendations to court officials to prevent fines and fees being used to penalize people who are unable to pay their court debt.

The ABA’s recommendations include increasing transparency, regulation, and supervision of private companies, and significantly reducing the use of fines and user fees. Crucially, judges should always assess an individual’s ability to pay and waive costs when they cannot afford them.

Latest CDC Data Reveals More About Covid-19’s Racial Disparities

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that new federal data that the newspaper obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveals alarming details about the widespread nature of the pandemic’s racial disparities:

“Early numbers had shown that Black and Latino people were being harmed by the virus at higher rates. But the new federal data — made available after The New York Times sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — reveals a clearer and more complete picture: Black and Latino people have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus in a widespread manner that spans the country, throughout hundreds of counties in urban, suburban and rural areas, and across all age groups.

. . . . 

“The disparities persist across state lines and regions. They exist in rural towns on the Great Plains, in suburban counties, like Fairfax County, Va., and in many of the country’s biggest cities.”

The New York Times story also reports that the CDC data it obtained was incomplete, and that data related to race and ethnicity “was missing for hundreds of thousands of cases.”

"Even with the missing information, agency scientists said, they can still find important patterns in the data, especially when combining the records about individual cases with aggregated data from local agencies.

"Still, some say the initial lack of transparency and the gaps in information highlight a key weakness in the U.S. disease surveillance system.

"'You need all this information so that public health officials can make adequate decisions,' said Andre M. Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. 'If they’re not getting this information, then municipalities and neighborhoods and families are essentially operating in the dark.'”

Read the full story > > >

Congress Urged to End Program that Has Increased Militarized Policing

This week, Human Rights Watch joined various rights groups in calling on Congress to end the 1033 Program, which transfers surplus military-grade equipment from the Department of Defense to local law enforcement agencies. The program is under the microscope after police in communities across the US arrived with armored vehicles and assault weapons at largely peaceful protests against police violence and systemic racism.

As explained in a letter sent to the House Armed Services Committee, the program hasn’t made commtunities safer and should be brought to an end:

"The military surplus equipment transfer program, known as the 1033 Program, was formally established in the 1997 FY National Defense Authorization Act.[2] Since its inception, more than $7.4 billion in surplus military equipment and goods, including armored vehicles, rifles, and aircraft, have been transferred to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies.[3] The program came to national attention in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then, Congressional leaders have tried to reform or end this program that has caused an increase in militarized policing particularly in communities of color.[4]

"Research studies indicate that the 1033 Program is not only unsafe but ineffective as it fails to reduce crime or improve police safety.[5] In 2015, President Obama issued Executive Order 13688 that provided necessary oversight of the program.[6] The Executive Order has since been rescinded, which only underscores that legislative action -- not executive orders -- is critical to address the concerns with this program.

"In the aftermath of Ferguson, law enforcement agencies across the country have continued to receive military equipment and weapons of war, including '494 mine-resistant vehicles, at least 800 pieces of body armor, more than 6,500 rifles, and at least 76 aircraft.'[7]

"Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have also received enormous amounts of excess military equipment as part of the militarization of our border.[8] This is particularly concerning at a time when ICE and CBP units are being deployed in response to peaceful protests[9] and for interior law enforcement programs.[10]

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, millions have demonstrated globally against police brutality and systemic racism. In cities across our country, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for justice and accountability for George Floyd and the countless unarmed Black people that have been killed by law enforcement.

In response to the national outrage, armored vehicles, assault weapons, and military gear once again filled our streets and communities, turning them into war zones. Weapons of war have absolutely no place in our communities. What’s more, evidence has shown that law enforcement agencies that obtain military equipment are more prone to violence.[11]

Read the full letter > > >

Many Black and Asian Americans Report Experiencing Discrimination Amid Covid-19

A significant number of Black and Asian Americans say they have been subjected to racial discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report released today by the Pew Research Center.

The Pew study also found that Black and Asian Americans report heightened anxiety about wearing protective face masks in public, due to fears of being viewed as suspicious:

“The coronavirus outbreak continues to have far-reaching health and economic consequences for the American public. But for many, especially Black and Asian Americans, the effects extend beyond medical and financial concerns. About four-in-ten Black and Asian adults say people have acted as if they were uncomfortable around them because of their race or ethnicity since the beginning of the outbreak, and similar shares say they worry that other people might be suspicious of them if they wear a mask when out in public, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

"...When asked about other negative situations they may have experienced because of their race or ethnicity since the pandemic, Asian and Black adults are more likely than Hispanic and white adults to say that they have been the subject of slurs or jokes or feared someone might threaten or physically attack them because of their race or ethnicity."

Read the full study here > > > 

US Supreme Court Rules to Uphold Abortion Rights

An activist seen holding a placard that reads, "protect safe, legal abortion" during a Stop the Bans rally in Dayton, Ohio, May 19, 2019. © 2019 Sipa via AP Images

The United States Supreme Court on Monday struck down a Louisiana law regulating abortion clinics.

This right shouldn't have come into question in the first place.

Rayshard Brooks Was a Victim of Abusive Probation

This week, Rayshard Brooks was honored in a funeral at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in his hometown of Atlanta. Brooks, 27, was fatally shot in the back by Atlanta police on June 12 following a report that he had fallen asleep in the drive-through line at Wendy’s. His death at the hands of police, just three weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, added fuel to the nationwide protests that have been calling for an end to systemic racism in law enforcement and other areas of US life.

Loved ones fondly remembered Brooks as a devoted father of three, son, and husband, and a coworker who would go out of his way to help others. They also recalled the ways that he had been unfairly treated by the criminal legal system, particularly by probation. In a February interview, Brooks had complained about the struggle to move on with his life and provide for his family after incarceration.

“He was running from a system that makes slaves out of people,” Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, said at the funeral according to the New York Times. “This is much bigger than the police. This is about a whole system that cries out for renewal and reform.”

“Your past doesn’t define you, it refines and shapes you so that you are better equipped to step into your God-given purpose,” said Ambrea Mikolajczyk, Brooks’ former employer. “The system kept drawing him in, grabbing ahold of him like quicksand.”

Allison Frankel, Aryeh Neier Fellow in the US Program at Human Rights Watch, says that the US should make fundamental changes to its probation and parole systems, which often trap people in a cycle of reincarceration due to its high costs and unreasonable requirements..

“Brooks' own wishes were simple: to be treated like an individual; to have more time with his family; to be seen not just for his criminal record; to lighten the pressure of his probation; to get mentorship,” Frankel wrote.

For more on abusive systems of probation and parole in the US, read here.

A Step Toward Equal Voting Rights for DC Residents

The US House of Representative’s overwhelming vote today in favor of the admission of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth as the 51st US state affirms that Washington, DC residents are entitled to equal voting rights.

Washington, DC, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, June 16, 2020. ©2020 © AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

The House’s vote on H.R. 51 is the first time either chamber of Congress has meaningfully addressed DC residents’ longstanding deprivation of these rights. The district’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been pushing for passage of such legislation for decades.

The persistent denial of equal voting rights in the city reflects structural racism. Washington, DC has long been majority African American, and is nearly 50 percent Black.

President Donald Trump has indicated he would veto the bill, though it is expected to stall in the Republican-majority Senate.

The question of DC’s admission as the nation’s 51st state aside, US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should realize its residents’ voting rights.

Read More >>

In Tulsa, the Spirit of Juneteenth Prevailed

A peaceful block party during Juneteenth celebrations in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 20, 2020. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

Tensions were high in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday morning, especially in the historic Greenwood district, as residents and community leaders wondered how President Donald Trump’s visit to their city, his first political rally since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, would play out.

One day earlier, Greenwood’s residents had celebrated Juneteenth, marking 155 years since the last enslaved people in the United States were declared free. June also marked 99 years since an estimated 300 people were killed, the vast majority of them Black, in Greenwood, which was then known as Black Wall Street due to its affluence.

Would Trump or Vice President Mike Pence try to tour the district? Would they drive or walk through Greenwood on their way to the Bank of Oklahoma (BOK) Center, where Trump’s rally would be held? Would white supremacist groups who have expressed support for Trump try to come to Greenwood and provoke trouble?

Community leaders held an outdoor press conference in Greenwood around noon on Saturday, making a final plea for Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum to cancel the Trump rally due to safety and health concerns amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

During the press conference, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, whose twin brother Terence was killed by Tulsa police in 2016, called on those demonstrating to focus their efforts not on protesting the Trump rally but on urging Tulsa leaders to build up the Greenwood community by improving housing, education and economic opportunities.

Reverend Robert Turner, pastor of Greenwood’s historic Vernon AME church, delivered a message to Trump at the press conference: “We are sick and tired of you inciting violence and anger and hatred throughout this city and throughout this nation.” He later added: “If you do love Black people, do something about it. Pass a bill. Give reparations. Change the policies that discriminate against us to this very day.”

For the community leader and mayoral candidate Greg Robinson, Trump’s rally was a “dog whistle,” an “intentional attempt to destruct the growth and unity that cities like Tulsa are trying to create and disrupt it with hateful rhetoric.”

Worried that Trump or Pence might visit the memorial of the massacre, community members covered it up with a tarp and signs saying “This is Sacred Ground—Not a Photo-Op,” and “Reparations Now.” They anxiously guarded the area, concerned that US Secret Service agents might come and remove the coverings.

In the end, Trump and Pence stayed clear of Greenwood.

Meanwhile, about a mile away, a small group of Trump supporters had gathered near the BOK center in downtown Tulsa since Thursday, waiting for the doors to open to get into the rally. More Trump supporters arrived Saturday morning, as well as groups of anti-Trump and Black Lives Matters protesters.

Soon after the gates to get into the BOK Center opened, at around 11:22 a.m., Sheila Buck, a 62-year-old schoolteacher from Tulsa, went through the gates. She had a ticket, she later told Human Rights Watch, but like others, said she was told she didn’t need one and that people were allowed in on a “first come, first serve” basis. Buck said she was wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt – a reference to George Floyd’s last words – and a black hood, channeling the actor Regina King. King starred as a police officer in the Watchmena 2019 futuristic HBO television series  about a police department in Tulsa that, in the series, fought white supremacists waging a war against it, in part due to its enforcement of reparations granted by law in the series to victims of prior racial injustice.

As Buck stood in line after the first barrier, a group of men in button-down shirts pulled her out of line and said she wasn’t allowed to be there. They called the police over, she said, and then she knelt on the ground and prayed.

Police then approached her and said it was a private event and she did not have the right to be there. “It’s like you’re in someone’s home,” she said they told her. She insisted that she had a ticket, she lived in Tulsa, and had a right to be there. But the police proceeded to arrest her, handcuffing her and taking her to the Tulsa county jail. The Tulsa police department later said on Twitter that “Ms. Buck was in an area that is considered a private event area and the event organizer, in this case the Trump Campaign, can have people removed at their discretion.”

She said that when she arrived at the jail, officials took her blood pressure, and since it was elevated, they brought her to the Oklahoma State University medical center. Once her blood pressure went down, they brought her back to the jail. She was held there until being released at around 5 p.m., after $500 bail was posted on her behalf, and with a summons to appear in court on charges of “obstructing and interfering with a police officer.”   

Later that afternoon, at around 5:45 p.m., police arrested three activists who had scaled a flagpole and were attempting to put up flags in defense of Black lives, including one that said “Defund the Police” and another that said “Invest in Black Communities,” on a flagpole outside the BOK Center. The three activists were: Alexandra Scott, a council member from Norman, Oklahoma; Ashley McCray, an Indigenous rights activist from Shawnee, Oklahoma; and Jonathan Engle, a veteran and activist from Taos, New Mexico. They said that police also arrested Alan Pogue, a photojournalist who had media credentials to attend the rally and who was standing nearby.

The police forced the three off the flagpole, the three activists said, by cutting the ropes of their harnesses and yanking them down. They then cuffed the four of them with zip ties and brought them to the police vehicle, where Secret Service agents questioned them, before taking them to the county jail. Scott said the handcuffs were so tight that she started losing circulation. When she complained to a police officer, she said he told her, “I don’t care. You’ll have to pass out before we loosen them.”

At around 11:30 p.m., after their $500 bails had been posted, they were all released. They were told that they had been charged with “obstructing a police officer.” Engle said that he had about two dozen insect bites the next day, and he thought the clothes they made him wear in jail must have been infected with fleas, bedbugs, or something else.

McCray said that as a member of the Absentee Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma, she wanted to put up the flags to show that Indigenous people are standing in solidarity with their Black relatives. “It’s important that we amplify the message that we do not accept hate, we do not accept white supremacy, and we do not accept Trump,” she said. “He’s only coming here to incite hatred and stir up white supremacy which is rampant throughout our state. It’s definitely not lost on us that he chose Tulsa, and we’re approaching the 100-year anniversary of the Greenwood massacre. Coming here just after Juneteenth with his message of hate and division, we wanted it very clear that we do not accept his presence here.”

Scott said that she wanted to put the flags up to send a message to those who feel threatened by Trump’s “vulgar, hateful rhetoric,” his “racism,” and his “sexual assaults on women.” She said she wanted to use her privilege as a white person and her platform as a council member to let people who have been targeted by Trump’s policies and rhetoric know that they are heard and seen, and everyone should feel safe. “I don’t live in Black or brown skin, and I was scared to go out there and do what we did,” she said. “But I’m not scared to leave my house and not come home because of police brutality or a white supremacist. So it was important for me that people know we’re here.”

While Engle, McCray, and Scott were in jail, crowds of anti-Trump and Black Lives Matters protesters marched across downtown Tulsa near the BOK Center, sometimes converging with groups of Trump supporters, leading to some heated confrontations that remained largely peaceful.

At around 9:15 p.m., just after the Trump rally ended, police fired pepper balls at crowds near the BOK Center blocking the streets, leading many of the protesters to disperse.

Meanwhile, in Greenwood, about one mile away from the BOK Center, crowds of people started dancing in the streets at a block party.

It was a continued celebration of Juneteenth, Greenwood, Tulsa, and its vibrant Black community. Over the weekend, much of the world’s attention was focused on Tulsa and the Trump rally, but the story of Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre needs to be told. It’s well past time the calls to action from Greenwood leaders like Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, Greg Robinson, and Rev. Robert Turner are heeded. Reparations are due to survivors and descendants of the massacre and changes are needed to address structural racism and racial inequalities. This includes diverting resources spent on using the police to solve many societal problems, like homelessness, poverty, problematic drug use, and mental health issues, into appropriate services to address these issues outside a policing context. It also requires investing in improving access to job, health, education, and economic opportunities for Black people – in Tulsa and across the nation.

US Supreme Court Allows Dreamers ‘To Breathe Again’

The United States Supreme Court ruled on Thursday to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to scrap Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that protects certain immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation. It lifts some fear and gives new hope for the more than 600,000 DACA recipients in the US and will help keep families together.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students celebrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, June 18, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ruling. When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the move to terminate DACA in 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke to DACA recipients – known as Dreamers – as they protested in the shadow of Trump Tower in New York City. One devastated protester told us the decision “would essentially mean my life is over.”

Nearly three years later, we spoke again with two of the DACA recipients we met that day. For more read here.

A Tulsa Homecoming: Witnessing the Legacy of the 1921 Race Massacre

Dreisen Heath is an advocate at Human Rights Watch and author of its May 2020 report, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument.” She delivered the following remarks during the “I Too, Am America” Juneteenth Rally for Justice in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood on June 19, 2020.

I stand here today only because of the resolve of my ancestors, the relinquishing strength of my Tulsa family and friends, and the possibilities that we can break from the chains of injustice.

I was born here in Tulsa just down the road at Hillcrest Medical Center. My parents were patrons of Mt. Zion [Baptist Church], which is often pictured in smoldering flames as a result of the targeted and vile racist destruction of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. They tried to make a life for themselves here for several years and relied heavily on this resilient community to guide and nourish them. While my young parents did their best to provide their first child with the life that they had envisioned, they were forced to leave Tulsa because of homelessness and uncertainty.

I would hear stories about Tulsa growing up. How welcoming the people were, the stark differences between neighborhoods in north Tulsa versus south Tulsa, the disappearance of “Black Wall Street,” and the constant fear that came with walking the same streets as the KKK. Community members shared oral histories with my parents about the aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre; many said they never knew where their neighbors went and never heard from them again. The Black community in Greenwood was forcibly separated and displaced from one another, some never able to live to tell the tale of survival.

I’d never imagine that what would eventually bring me back to Tulsa would be the continuation of the massacre. Human Rights Watch brought me back home, and not because Tulsa’s Greenwood District was restored to the prosperous Black economic hub it once was, but because oppressive and unchecked police violence, a legacy of slavery and the massacre, stole the lives of Terence Crutcher, Joshua Harvey, Joshua Barre, and too many others.

The legacy of slavery and the persistence of structural and other forms of racism are like being stuck in quicksand. You will either sink because of no fault of your own, but because our institutions have been designed to pull you down, keep you under, and drown you out. Or you must save yourself from submersion, pulling yourself out a few inches at a time, but still feeling weighed down by the burdens of racial injustice.

While many of our ancestors were taken away from us, many others pulled themselves out of the quicksand of slavery and racial injustice. Let’s be clear: The Emancipation Proclamation, a piece of paper, a declaration, did not set us free. Enslaved people were liberating themselves by the thousands and political interests followed thereafter. But while Juneteenth is a celebration of liberation, of freedom, obstacles to Black freedom in the United States still exist after 155 celebrations.

What is freedom if you can never escape the intergenerational traumas and impacts of slavery? What is freedom when Black families have to relive the killings of their loved ones over and over by police, every time they utilize their power to take another innocent Black life? What is freedom when Black Tulsans live less than their white counterparts? What is freedom when wealth that was once established, was then stripped away deliberately and never paid back?

It is because of people and leaders in our community like Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, Kristi Williams, Chief Amusan, Pastor Robert Turner, Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper, Attorney Damario Solomon Simmons, Greg Robinson, and Representative Regina Goodwin [several of whom are featured in this article], among others, that we can imagine and systematize what freedom actually looks like. Conditions in Black and brown communities must change, and Human Rights Watch is honored and so humbled to stand in solidarity with and lend our support to our heroes on the front lines of change.

Healing and restoration are only possible if we use today and the rest of our days to address slavery’s legacy head on. The pathway towards equality in Tulsa requires economic justice. It requires reparations for the massacre survivors and descendants and the broader Black community that have not yet seen economic opportunity. It requires targeted investments in the Black community in housing, education, employment, business development, and other forms of economic development. It requires an end to everyday abusive policing and racial profiling, and an end to the economic conditions that cause police to abuse their power.

Tulsa, while unique in the severity of its destruction, shares a similar past and present with many other cities across the United States. If we don’t get it right in Tulsa, we will never be able to get it right.

There may be distractions near and far, but we must never surrender. We must reclaim our freedom.

Thank you.

Calls for ‘Reparations Now’ at Tulsa’s Juneteenth Rally

People attend and celebrate at Tulsa's “I, Too, Am America,” Juneteenth Rally for Justice. © 2020 Human Rights Watch

Several thousand people gathered yesterday in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s historic Greenwood district for the “I, Too, Am America,” Juneteenth Rally for Justice. It was in part a celebration to commemorate the emancipation of the last large population of enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 – with live music, food trucks, and plenty of reminders to wear masks and socially distance.

But the anger and frustration were also palpable, as Black Tulsans are all too aware that, after 155 Juneteenth celebrations and nearly 100 years after the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a white mob killed several hundred Black people and destroyed a prosperous Black neighborhood, deep-rooted problems remain, and the enduring legacy of structural racism  and injustices continue. Many Tulsan community leaders gave powerful speeches, with calls to action and demands for long overdue reparations.

Dr. Robert Turner, pastor of Historic Vernon Chapel A.M.E. Church in Tulsa, described the significance of the field where the rally was held:

The very place where you are standing is sacred ground, where nearly 100 years ago, bombs were dropped right where you’re standing. Children were running, mothers were looking, grandmothers were afraid. And so, we are here today, in this sacred place to celebrate Juneteenth, to celebrate the liberation of African Americans from chattel slavery some 155 years later.

But…we still today, 155 years later, are not yet free. We as a people are not yet free to even walk down the streets of Tulsa without the police coming to harass and assault our young men. We are not free as a people to sit in our car and rest and relax as Terence Crutcher did without getting our lives taken from us.

We as a people are still not free when you have a major of our police department saying that we don’t kill Black people enough. We as a people are not free when you have a mayor that says justice such as reparations is divisive. We demand reparations not tomorrow, not next week, not next month, not next year, but we demand reparations, Mr. Mayor, Mr. Governor and Mr. President, Now. Reparations Now.

In his remarks, Demario Solomon Simmons, a civil rights attorney and an adjunct professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma, also explained why reparations were needed:

What are reparations? The root word means “to repair.” It’s very simple. We need to repair the damage that was done, not just in 1921, but the continual massacre that has happened ever since that day. We must repair it because we suffer in north Tulsa. We suffer as Black people in this city. And the only way we can have reconciliation that they talk about it, is to have what? Reparations.

A number of other speakers made powerful calls to action and justice, including: Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, who has become a leading advocate for justice afterTulsa police killed her brother Terence in 2016; Greg Robinson, Tulsa community activist and candidate for mayor; Tulsa’s City Council Vice Chair Vanessa Hall-Harper, who is also Membership Committee and Power Group Chair for the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce; and the civil rights activist and founder of the National Action Network, Reverend Al Sharpton.

"Our History Was Erased"

Descendants of the Tulsa massacre survivors are using President Trump’s visit to raise awareness about the city’s racist legacy. They share their stories and remind us of  Tulsa’s deep history, current conditions, and map a pathway for justice.

"None of the Survivors or Their Families Ever Received A Penny"

Human Rights Watch is standing with our partners in Tulsa this weekend to commemorate the upcoming centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Joi McCondichie, whose grandmother survived the massacre, tells us why it's past time to act.

Sign the Petition for Reparations Now >>

People’s Right to Peaceful Protest

Demonstrators protest near the White House in Washington, DC, June 7, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. © 2020 AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo

 

US President Donald Trump should know that the US Constitution and international human rights law guarantee people’s right to peaceful protest. The thousands expected to march in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to say that Black Lives Matter should be allowed to speak out and exercise their human rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and their constitutional right “peaceably to assemble.”  

In a recent tweet, Trump referred to “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes,” suggesting they’re somehow linked, although the weeks of anti-racism protests across the United States have been overwhelmingly non-violent yet in many cities met by a brutal police response. He added: “you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!”

In Tulsa, site of the 1921 race massacre that killed 300 people, the vast majority Black, and devastated a thriving community, tens of thousands are expected to rally to mark Juneteenth, and in support of justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and all the other Black people who had their lives stolen by police violence over many decades in the US. Thousands of other people are expected to attend a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa tomorrow. Rather than issuing veiled threats, the president should remind the local authorities that everyone has a right to protest safely and without fear of attack.

Anyone looking to learn more about possible solutions should read about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, look at our recommendations on how to address structural racism in the US and support our campaign for Congress to pass H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.

Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma

Tulsa, Oklahoma is a case study in abusive, overly aggressive policing in the US.

In September 2019, Human Rights Watch released a report on policing, poverty, and racial inequality in Tulsa as well as an interactive depicting the geographic correlations between these issues and policing practices in Tulsa, based on our analysis of Tulsa Police Department and US Census Bureau data from 2012 – 2017. 

Read the Report >>

See the Data >>

#ReparationsNow: Tell Congress to Pass Reparations Bill

US Congress should act to repair harms of slavery by passing H.R. 40

The time for the United States to account for its legacy of slavery is long overdue.

US House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40) is a federal bill that will establish a commission to examine the impacts of slavery and other racist laws and practices. To build a better, more just future, we must address and repair the continuing legacy of slavery. Take action now and send a message to your representatives.

TAKE ACTION

 

Black people in the US continue to feel the impacts of slavery today in the form of structural racism, violence, discrimination and disparities in areas such as health, housing, education, economics, policing and law enforcement.

The mass protests stemming from pervasive racial inequality and unlawful killings of Black people, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade, reflect the US government’s failure to provide redress for this long history of abuse.

US House Resolution 40 (H.R. 40) is a federal bill that will establish a commission to examine the impacts of slavery and other racist laws and practices. The commission would help pave the way for a full and truthful reckoning and accounting for past harms.

To build a better, more just future, we must address and repair the continuing legacy of slavery.

Take action now and send a message to your representatives. SIGN HERE >>

Human Rights Watch Celebrates Juneteenth in Tulsa

Human Rights Watch is in Tulsa this weekend in celebration of Juneteenth and as part of a local effort, led by our Tulsa partners, to shine a light on the 1921 Race Massacre, entering a 100 year commemoration, and as a positive and focused counterpoint to President Trump's political rally, misguidedly, taking place during the same weekend. 

Address Slavery’s Legacy on Juneteenth

A demonstrator kneels facing a police line in front of the White House while protesting the police killing of George Floyd. Washington, DC, May 31, 2020. © 2020 Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

Officials across the United States should commemorate Juneteenth, a day honoring the declaration abolishing slavery, by considering and supporting laws and policies to address structural and other forms of racism in the US, Human Rights Watch said today. If US President Donald Trump is serious about addressing police misconduct and ensuring justice for all people, as his recent executive order on policing states, he should use his June 20 rally in Tulsa to lay out concrete steps to bring about structural changes to policing and address systemic racism in the US.

As mass demonstrations continue across the country, spurred by police killings of George FloydBreonna Taylor, and many other Black people, officials should recognize that many of the racial inequalities and disparities driving the protests stem from the US failure to adequately account for and address the harm caused by slavery and its enduring impact.

“Black people were enslaved and exploited, and continue to be marginalized and disregarded today,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “If the US does not finally address the accumulated effects of historical and present harm for Black people, it risks continuing to carry slavery’s legacy forward, causing new harm indefinitely into the future.”

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of the last large population of enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, who were informed they were free on June 19, 1865.

Read More>>

Why I Protest

HRW asked protestors across the US why they're out in the streets demonstrating. Here's what we heard.

Trump Executive Order on Policing Ignores Calls for Systemic Change

In response to three weeks of protests against police violence and systemic racism that have continued across the United States and throughout the world, President Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday that he said would encourage better police practices. But the order made no mention of how to address structural changes in policing. Surrounded by members of law enforcement at the signing, Trump condemned the growing call to reduce the footprint of the police in the country. The order focused more on ways to support police than on ways to save Black lives.

“The Safe Policing for Safe Communities EO [Executive Order] issued by #45 only brushes the surface of what is needed to begin reforming policing in the US. Examining alternatives to arrest, removing responsibility for addressing homelessness and mental health issues from police is where it begins,” wrote Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, on Twitter.

“The thing Donald Trump needed to address most in his EO on policing and communities was the one thing he completely ignored—the issue of race,” she said. “No real reform and healing can take place without an acknowledgement that race is at the core of the nation’s painful and ugly history." 

“Trump's new executive order on policing throws a lot of money at the problem when the institution as a whole needs to be fundamentally restructured, reformed and in many ways dismantled,” tweeted Laura Pitter, deputy director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. She pointed toward Human Right Watch’s June 9 news release calling for government officials to reject efforts such as #8CantWait that propose “only minor and ineffectual changes.”

Read More: Human Rights Watch calls for officials to address the structural racism underlying the protests.

Police Targeting ‘Street Medics’ at US Protests

The two red stripes formed an unmistakable and universally recognizable sign on Omid’s white helmet: a red cross. Yet a New York City police officer attempting to disperse largely peaceful protesters pinned him down with a knee on his back, threatening to drown him in the milk he was carrying to help protesters alleviate the effects of tear gas.

Medics and volunteers march with thousands of people gathered around Lafayette Square, in Washington, DC, to protest the death of George Floyd, June 6, 2020. © 2020 Rod Lamkey Jr./Sipa via AP Images

Omid is a street medic. Police arrested him on May 30 in Brooklyn and detained him in a crowded cell with 14 demonstrators for around 2 hours. Omid is not alone: across the United States, police have targeted street medics with the same brutality used against those protesting the institution’s systemic racism.

On June 2 in Asheville, North Carolina, local police in anti-riot gear barged into a line of street medics trying to protect a triage station they had set up in an alley away from the main protest. “We were standing at the opening of the alley, our hands over our heads, chanting that we were medics,” one of the volunteers told me. “Instead of talking to us, [the police] grabbed us by the shoulders, shoved us down the street, and told us to leave if we don’t want to be arrested.” The police then proceeded to destroy US$700 of medical supplies at the station, the volunteer said.

On May 31, in Austin, Texas, police fired a less-lethal impact projectile at a group of protesters, hitting Justin Howell, a 20-year-old Texas State University student, in the head. “He dropped dead weight to the ground and there was a lot of blood. We thought he was dead,” a witness told me. Police later claimed their intended target was someone standing near Howell who had thrown a plastic bottle and a backpack at the police.

After Howell lay on the ground with a fractured skull, the police chief announced, a police officer directed protesters to bring the wounded young man over to the nearby police headquarters so that he could receive medical attention. A video filmed at the time shows that a group of protesters, including street medics, then carried Howell to the station. As they approached, however, police officers guarding the headquarters fired so-called less lethal weapons at least 14 times, hitting one of the street medics with a projectile, injuring his hand.

Read More >>

New York Protester Jailed for a Week Highlights Parole Abuses

Across the United States, authorities have been cracking down on protesters demonstrating against police violence and structural racism in ways that perpetuate the pattern of harm that is spurring outrage. The week-long detention of a New York City essential worker, Devaughnta “China” Williams, whom police arrested at a protest and charged with parole violations, is a case in point.

Police stand by as other officers arrest protesters in New York, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Seth Wenig

There are 4.5 million people under probation or parole in the US. Any slip-up, from missing a meeting, to violating a local ordinance, can land them back in jail or prison – with few fair trial protections. Reflecting the racial inequities that are spurring protests, Black and brown people are disproportionately subjected to supervision and incarcerated for violations. In New York City, Black people are jailed for alleged parole violations at a rate 12 times higher than for white people

According to media reports, after finishing his janitorial shift on June 4, Williams, a 27-year-old Black man on parole, briefly marched with protesters in the Bronx. Police trapped, bludgeoned, and pepper-sprayed the group shortly before the 8 p.m. curfew and arrested more than 250, including Williams. Williams was exempt from curfew as an essential worker, but police listed “breach of curfew” in charging him with parole violations.

Generally, people arrested in New York have the right to challenge their detention at a hearing within 24 hours – though, in a hotly contested decision, a New York judge recently lifted that requirement in the context of Covid-19 and the protests. Regardless, because Williams is on parole, authorities could lodge a “detainer” mandating confinement pending parole violation proceedings, which could take weeks or months.

Washington DC’s Police Reforms Fail to Address Structural Problems

The slate of policing reforms unanimously passed by the Washington DC City Council this week is a notable first step but falls short of the fundamental change that is needed.

A police car is pictured during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in front of the White House, in Washington, United States, June 4, 2020. © 2020 Mikhail Turgiev/Sputnik via AP

The reform package, which DC council members have promised is the first of many, makes the use of neck restraints by officers a felony, forbids hiring officers previously fired for police misconduct, prohibits the purchase of military equipment from the federal government, and restores the right to vote to people incarcerated for felonies in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser has indicated she will sign the bill. Even if she does, because the reform package was passed as an emergency measure, it will only last for 90 days and will need to be voted on again following public hearings to become permanent law.

DC authorities should get at the root causes of police violence and racial disparities, which have plagued the city’s police department. Reforms should include a drastic reduction in unnecessary arrests, including arrests for conduct that should not be criminalized to begin with, including drug possession for personal use – which Human Rights Watch has documented is the single most arrested offense in the country – and sex work. DC should also move away from using police to address problems related to homelessness and poverty, such as loitering and trespassing. Instead, authorities should invest in programs that actively improve access to health, education, housing, and job opportunities, and focus on addressing longstanding racial disparities in all these systems.

Read More >>

Pompeo Channels US Hypocrisy Over Human Rights

Comments this week by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo show little recognition that United States human rights violations in its own backyard have implications for its foreign policy.

While all US administrations have downplayed US violations of human rights, the Trump administration seems to have raised hypocritical invocation of human rights in US foreign policy to a new level.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 29, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

At a June 10 press conference, a reporter challenged Pompeo to explain US credibility on human rights at a time when US citizens protesting against racism were being met with excessive force by federal and local law officers.

Pompeo responded that the reporter’s question was fundamentally flawed for “assuming there is a moral equivalency” between authoritarian countries that “repress their people and bludgeon their people” and a country like the US where journalists were able to directly question the Secretary of State about government actions. “Those things don’t happen in those nations,” he said.

But violations of human rights are violations of human rights, whether they occur in an authoritarian regime or in a democracy. The nationwide protests in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd are not just about local and federal law enforcement using excessive force against Black people and largely peaceful protesters. They reflect an ongoing history of violations of Black people’s fundamental rightsunderlying structural racism, and the lack of redress for the harm suffered.

Read More >>

New York State Passes Historic Police Transparency Bill

Police disciplinary records in New York State are one step closer to being made public.

Protesters gather outside of the Queens County Criminal Court on June 8, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. © 2020 AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Under intense public pressure, the New York Legislature voted on Tuesday to repeal Civil Rights Law section 50-A, a 1970s law that concealed police disciplinary records from public disclosure in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly declared he will sign the bill and Human Rights Watch urges him to do so immediately.

For years, police departments across the state have used the law to evade accountability by making all police disciplinary records confidential, including substantiated findings of misconduct by independent watchdog agencies. Section 50-A prevented the public for years from learning that the New York City police officer who fatally choked Eric Garner in 2014 had a lengthy record of misconduct.

In recent days, as protests precipitated by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people swept across the United States, #Repeal50A became a rallying cry for demonstrators in New York seeking to turn outrage into meaningful policy. 

Read More >>

Covid-19 Disparities Reflect Structural Racism, Abuses

The United States government should address the underlying factors driving racial disparities in Covid-19 illness and death rates. These include the US failure to fully protect the human rights of black and brown people as well as government policies that have directly contributed to racial disparities in health, housing, criminal law, and other areas.

Healthcare workers at Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during the coronavirus pandemic, New York, June 4, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ways and Means Committee of the US House of Representatives, pointing to several failures to protect the human rights of black and brown people that compound each other in ways that increase the risks Covid-19 poses for people of color. These include:

  • Racially discriminatory policing and incarceration, brought again into the spotlight after the police killing of George Floyd, which exposes black and brown people to higher risk of infection from Covid-19 in detention. Studies have shown that discrimination in policing also correlates with stress, anxiety, depleted economic opportunities, and poor health outcomes, which may increase the risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
  • Communities of color in the United States, especially Native Americans living on reservations, are facing Covid-19 without sufficient and affordable access to water, a human right, which is critical to reduce risk of infection.
  • The human right to be free from racial segregation has never been adequately protected in the United States. Research indicates a correlation between high rates of racial segregation and poor health outcomes in the United States, including from Covid-19.  
  • For low-income “essential” workers, the risk they already face from Covid-19 is exacerbated by government failures to protect the rights to a safe and healthy workplace.
  • Failures to protect the right to an adequate standard of living for people of color means that they are more likely to live in close quarters, use public transportation, and be exposed to the virus through work. Due to lower incomes and higher levels of debt, poverty is most acute among blacks and Latinos. About 21 percent of black people and 18 percent of Hispanic people live under the poverty line, compared with 8 percent of white people.
  • Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, childbirth was already more deadly for black women in the United States. Policies implemented by some hospitals in response to Covid-19, such as limiting childbirth support and encouraging early discharge, compound with structural racism in the medical field to increase the risk of adverse health outcomes for black women during the pandemic.

“All levels of government in the US are failing to protect black and brown people’s basic rights, in ways that exacerbate their vulnerability to Covid-19,” said Alison Parker, managing US program director at Human Rights Watch. “Congress should adopt concrete, bold measures to ensure the human rights of all people and eliminate the structural racism that permeates many institutions and aspects of life in the United States.”

Read More >>

New York Protesters Jailed in Crowded, Filthy Conditions

Police conduct in the United States – including unprovoked beatings, excessive force, and arbitrary arrests – has come under intense scrutiny as protests erupted after the police killing of George Floyd.

Let’s add to this list the police’s actively endangering people’s health during a pandemic.

Police arrest protesters as they march through the streets of Manhattan, New York, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Across the country, protesters, journalists, and sometimes bystanders have been arrested in large groups – often for breaking curfews, blocking traffic, failure to disperse, or other minor offenses. Many were detained for hours in crowded cells with no masks, no hand sanitizer, and no way to stay apart. Police have reportedly torn the masks off some protesters when they were arrested, and many police officers seen at protests have not been wearing masks themselves.

A journalist in New York, Keith Boykin, described how he was filming protesters marching down the West Side Highway in Manhattan around 3:30 p.m. on May 30 when a line of police approached. They arrested Boykin and handcuffed him with a zip tie. Boykin said that when he told them he was with the press, an officer replied, “It doesn’t matter. You’re going to jail.” An officer pulled down Boykin’s mask, and since he was handcuffed, he couldn’t put it back on. After waiting in a hot van before being transferred onto a police bus, Boykin was eventually taken to 1 Police Plaza, the New York City Police Department’s headquarters, where he was put in a crowded cell with 34 people. Most of the other detainees didn’t have masks, and there was no soap or sanitizer to disinfect their hands. After six hours in police custody, Boykin was released.

“I had no opportunity to make a phone call, no one questioned me, no one read me my rights, and they were exposing me to coronavirus,” he said. “It shouldn’t be this way in America.”

Read More >>

Rights Groups Urge Authorities to Prevent and Account for Attacks Against Journalists

Today, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and 16 other organizations call on governors and mayors in states across the United States that have seen a pattern of abuse against journalists, including Governors Tim Walz of Minnesota, Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Mayors Jacob Frey of Minneapolis, Muriel Bowser of Washington DC, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Bill de Blasio of New York City, to immediately halt abusive police actions against journalists during protests in the past week, and to take swift measures toward accountability for violations of the First Amendment during violent crackdowns on peaceful protests. 

A medic protestor assists a member of the media after police started firing tear gas and rubber bullets near the 5th police precinct during a demonstration to call for justice for George Floyd, a black man who died while in custody of the Minneapolis police, on May 30, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. © 2020 Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Police have arrested and assaulted journalists all over the country as they cover the protests against the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, on May 25. There have been at least 300 incidents since May 26, the majority committed by police, including more than 49 arrests, 192 assaults (160 by the police), and 42 incidents of newsroom and equipment damage, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker. These incidents have happened in 33 states throughout the country, with the majority in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York City, Louisville, Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia.

The letter was was signed by 17 press freedom, journalism, and human rights organizations, including:

Reporters Without Borders 
PEN America
Human Rights Watch
Freedom House
ARTICLE 19
Society of Professional Journalists
International Women’s Media Foundation
The National Press Club
NPC Journalism Institute
The National Association of Black Journalists
The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation
The Native American Journalists Association
Radio Television Digital News Association
The National Coalition Against Censorship
The National Press Photographers Association
Free Press
Military Reporters and Editors

Read the Letter Here >>

US Should Reject #8CantWait Policing Program

Government officials in the United States responsible for police policy and practice should reject a new campaign called #8CantWait that proposes only minor and ineffectual changes. They should instead adopt meaningful reforms that will ensure police are held to account and reduce the police footprint, investing saved resources into services that improve access to housing, education, employment, and health care to address structural racism in the United States.

Demonstrators gather outside City Hall to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S., March 30, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

The hashtag #8CantWait is a list of policy proposals that would regulate some police behavior in certain instances without any enforcement mechanism. They include requiring officers to de-escalate situations; to intervene when other officers use excessive force; to give warnings before shooting when possible; to follow a “use of force continuum;” to exhaust all reasonable options before using deadly force; and to file reports for force incidents. They would ban chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles. They rely almost entirely on police officers’ discretion and on departments policing themselves.

“The #8CantWait policing program is so superficial as to be meaningless,” said John Raphling, US criminal legal system researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It allows mayors and police chiefs to say they’re doing something without actually making the changes that are needed.”

As mass protests continue across the US following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, many local government and police officials have embraced the #8CantWait program in responding to popular demands for substantial reform. The campaign’s marketing relies on questionable data analysis while touting endorsements from celebrities and politicians.

The #8CantWait program threatens to undermine the growing momentum in the US to fundamentally change policing and race relations.

Read More >>

Reckless Use of US Helicopters to Intimidate Protesters

Police and other law enforcement officers have responded to largely peaceful protests across the United States with, in many cases, excessive force and other abusive tactics. This week they threatened demonstrators with military helicopters.

A US military UH-72A “Lakota” hovers low over protesters on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC, battering them with its rotor wash and sending debris flying.  © 2020 Sam Ward

On June 1 at around 10 p.m. in Washington, DC, a UH-72A “Lakota” helicopter from the District of Columbia National Guard bearing a Red Cross emblem and at least one other helicopter, a variant of the “Blackhawk,” hovered low above protesters out after a city-wide curfew. The wind beating off the rotors snapped tree branches and sent debris flying.

A “show of force” is a common US military tactic used to intimidate and scare opponents. But hovering low over protesters and using rotor wash to disperse them is reckless and dangerous. Under these circumstances it was excessive use of force prohibited by international human rights law. One former US military combat pilot told Human Rights Watch he used a similar tactic to suppress and detain suspected insurgents in Afghanistan. The windspeeds created by a low-hovering helicopter can lift objects and cause serious damage, potentially leading to injury or death. These risks are amplified in congested urban environments, where the consequences would be exceptionally dangerous if something were to go wrong.

Read More >>

Stop Using Untrained, Abusive Agencies at Protests

The United States federal government should immediately stop deploying federal agents without relevant training or those from abusive agencies to protests across the country.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conduct a targeted enforcement operation in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. on February 9, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

On June 2, 2020, the US government deployed officers from nearly a dozen federal agencies to control protests in Washington, DC, and other cities. Many of these agencies were unlikely to provide training in crowd control, increasing the risk of abuse. The deployment of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raised particular concerns due to their histories of human rights violations and lack of accountability.

“Border Patrol agents have a disturbing record of killing people, including US citizens, with impunity, and ICE has a history of violating detainees’ rights,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “As people protest police brutality and encounter new police abuses, these agents risk infusing more danger into volatile situations.”

Read More >>

US: Address Structural Racism Underlying Protests

United States authorities should take bold steps to address the structural racism driving mass protests across the country.

The national, state, and local governments should enact and enforce meaningful police accountability measures, drastically reduce unnecessary arrests, and end the use of police to address societal problems related to poverty and health, which disproportionately target black and brown people. Instead, they should invest in real support for communities in need and programs designed to counter long-term structural racism in multiple areas, such as health and education.

“The anger and frustration driving mass protests across the US is about more than the criminal actions of the police officers who killed George Floyd,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “It is about a law enforcement system that does not value all people equally and sacrifices the lives and well-being of black people as a result.”

A video shows Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, killing George Floyd by pinning him to the ground and pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020 for more than eight minutes. Four days later, prosecutors charged Chauvin with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter and had him arrested, but they have not charged the other officers involved. The district attorney should immediately file charges against the other three officers involved in Floyd’s death.

Floyd’s death is the latest in a long history of killings of black people by police in the US with little or no accountability. In recent years, these include Eric GarnerPhilando Castile, Alton SterlingDelrawn SmallTerence CrutcherBreonna Taylor, and many others. They also include killings of black men that prosecutors refused to properly investigate, like that of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed in February by two white men as Arbery was jogging in Georgia.

While killings captured on video like Floyd’s get extensive media coverage, police across the US use force and engage in abuse that do not cause death but are harmful and pervasive, especially toward black people, Human Rights Watch said. Studies show that police use force on black people at vastly higher rates than on white people, including tasers, dog bites, batons, punches, and kicks. Human Rights Watch investigations of the Tulsa, Oklahoma police department found that officers deployed tasers against black people at a rate almost 3 times as great as against white people and that black people were subjected to police violence 2.7 times as frequently.

Racial disparities in policing mirror entrenched racial disparities in many systems, including housingeducation, and health care. Policymakers should address these underlying disparities with programs in all these areas that are specifically designed to counter the long-term effects of structural racism.

“It should not take the killing of a black man by police recorded on video to generate broad concerns about the mistreatment of black and brown people every day,” Austin-Hillery said. “The worst cases are just the tip of the iceberg of a system in which the racism is structural, not just cruel actions by bad cops.”

Read More >>

George Floyd's Killing and the Black Lives Lost >>

US Should Provide Reparations for 1921 ‘Tulsa Race Massacre’

State and local authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma should provide reparations for the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when a white mob killed several hundred black people and destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood. They should promptly develop and carry out a comprehensive reparations plan, in close consultation with the local community, to address the harm caused by the massacre and its lasting impact.

The 66-page report, “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma: A Human Rights Argument,” details the destruction that left hundreds of people, most of them black, dead and more than 1,200 black-owned houses burned in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, then known as “Black Wall Street.” Human Rights Watch also described some of the subsequent policies and structural racism that prevented Greenwood and the broader North Tulsa community from thriving. In this context, the US Congress should also pass H.R. 40, a bill that would begin to address the ongoing harm from slavery. 

“It was almost 100 years ago that the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa was destroyed, but survivors of the massacre and their descendants are still suffering the consequences,” said Dreisen Heath, US program advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Decades of black prosperity and millions of dollars in hard-earned wealth were wiped out in hours but nobody was ever held accountable and no compensation was ever paid.”  

The massacre occurred between May 31 and June 1, 1921, after a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. A white mob, including people deputized and armed by city officials, descended on Greenwood, terrorized black families, and burned their community to the ground. About 35 square blocks – more than 1,200 black-owned houses, scores of businesses, a school, a hospital, a public library, and a dozen black churches – were destroyed and thousands were left homeless. The American Red Cross estimated the death toll at 300, but the exact number remains unknown. Only recently did officials begin limited excavations of unmarked mass graves.

In the immediate aftermath, the state declared martial law and the state and local authorities disarmed and arrested black people in Tulsa, moving them to internment camps where thousands of black Tulsans, then homeless, were forced to live in tents. Government officials committed no public money to help Greenwood rebuild. Rather, they impeded rebuilding, even rejecting offers of medical and reconstruction assistance from within and outside Tulsa.

No one was held responsible for the violent crimes, and city and state officials attempted to cover up the massacre for decades. This fall, for the first time, the Oklahoma Education Department will include the race massacre in its curriculum.

Ongoing de facto segregation, discriminatory policies, and structural racism have left black Tulsans, particularly those in North Tulsa, with a lower standard of living and fewer opportunities than other Tulsans. There are significant racial disparities in the city across multiple indicators, from access to health and nutritious food to education. Greenwood community members have expressed concern that the current economic investment plans are not sufficiently focused on supporting the community or preserving its black heritage, but rather on gentrifying the area.

“Tulsa stands out for the malicious destruction during the massacre, but the racist systems, policies, and practices that have harmed black Tulsans over decades are not unique,” Heath said. “In many ways, Tulsa is a microcosm of the United States.”

Read More >>

 

COVID-19 Running Rampant in Ohio Prisons

The accounts from people inside Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institute expressed an overwhelming fear. In early April, as COVID-19 rapidly spread, they described living in dormitories with well over a hundred other men, double their capacity, in stacked bunks less than 3 feet apart.

Signs made by prisoners pleading for help are seen on a window of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, April 7, 2020, amid the spread of Covid-19. © 2020 REUTERS/Jim Vondruska

Prison staff were not wearing masks or taking other precautions. They lacked cleaning equipment, fresh clothes, soap and clean masks. They said that staff ignored people who said they were sick or placed them in punitive solitary confinement. Meanwhile, more and more of the people in prison were experiencing extreme symptoms. Like in a horror movie, people would leave and not come back.

As a researcher on the criminal legal system for a human rights organization, I had grave concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. The accounts from MCI confirm those concerns.

Read More >>

US Should Rescind Guatemala Agreement that Compels Asylum-Seekers to Abandon Claims

Yesterday, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch released a joint report showing that the Asylum Cooperative Agreement between the United States and Guatemala effectively compels Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers to abandon their claims, leading many to return to possible harm in their country of origin.

“Under the agreement, the United States has rapidly transferred non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to Guatemala without allowing them to lodge asylum claims in the US,” a news release from Refugees International and Human Rights Watch states. “Given Guatemala’s inability to provide effective protection and the risk that some transferees face the threat of serious harm either in Guatemala or after returning to their home countries, the US violates its obligation to examine their asylum claims by implementing the agreement.”

Advocates of immigrants’ rights have responded to the findings of the report across social media.

2020 candidates for office should heed the report authors’ recommendations: “The US and Guatemalan governments should rescind the Guatemalan agreement rather than plan for its resumption. The US should also halt plans to begin transferring non-national asylum seekers to El Salvador and Honduras under similar agreements.”

Gerrymandering Explored in Film ‘Slay the Dragon', Experts to Address US Elections

How do you defeat a system that allows politicians to legally and unapologetically suppress the will of voters?

This question is at the center of Slay the Dragon, an inspiring new documentary from Participant Films about the quest to end gerrymandering ahead of the 2020 US elections. Human Rights Watch Los Angeles Film Club  – which is inviting the public to view Slay the Dragon online for free – is hosting a virtual Q&A Sunday at 6pm PST/9pm EDT featuring the documentary’s protagonist, The People Executive Director Katie Fahey, along with leading voices from Human Rights Watch and the NAACP. The discussion on voting rights in the 2020 elections comes as the United States grapples with how to make voting fair and accessible in the era of Covid-19.

Gerrymandering is complex in its history and approach, but Slay the Dragon deftly illuminates increasingly brazen efforts to manipulate US elections. State legislatures engaged in gerrymandering rig the system by redrawing district maps in twisted ways, often with the aid of new mapmaking software. With voters of the rival party now squeezed and consolidated into these new districts, the party behind the redistricting increases its chances of winning elections even if it loses the popular vote.

Michigan is known to have one of the most manipulatively drawn electoral maps in the country, which as the film explains, played a role in the deadly Flint water crisis. The documentary follows Katie Fahey, an everyday Millennial who goes on to lead an enormously successful anti-gerrymandering campaign that puts the power back in the hands of voters.

Fahey will be joined at Sunday’s virtual event by Jamal Watkins, vice president of civic engagement at the NAACP, Dreisen Heath, advocacy officer at Human Rights Watch, and Gerry Johnson, editor and senior strategist at Human Rights Watch.

When: Slay the Dragon is available for free viewing through May 17. The virtual Q&A starts at 6pm PST/9pm EDT.

Where: Click here to join the virtual discussion.

Growing Concerns About Racial Bias in Social-Distancing Arrests

On Wednesday, New York State Attorney General Letitia James called on the New York Police Department to enforce social distancing rules without racial bias, following reports that people of color are being disproportinately targeted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Data shows that Black and brown people comprised nearly 68 percent of social distancing arrests in the city between March 16 and May 5, and Latinos another 24 percent. Black and Brown people received more than 80 percent of summonses related to the state of emergency.

“The apparent unequal enforcement of social distancing policies is deeply troubling, and deepens the divide between law enforcement and the people they are tasked to protect,” James said. “It is inherently wrong to aggressively police one group of people, yet ignore another group that commits the same infraction. The NYPD must better ensure that a New Yorker’s race, color, and neighborhood does not determine how they are patrolled.”

Concerns over discriminatory enforcement of social distancing rules extend far beyond New York. ProPublica examined court records in Ohio and released an analysis finding that “black people were at least four times as likely to be charged with violating the stay-at-home order as white people.” 

Mass incarceration in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions exacerbates the threat of Covid-19,  and overpolicing plays a significant role in putting people behind bars, often for low-level offenses. Candidates for public office should push to reform the criminal justice system, including policing practices, in ways that substantially reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration.  As Human Rights Watch reported this month, "limitations on arrests and transportation of people to jails will protect those arrested and the police.”

US Children Are Going Hungry at Record Levels

As the Covid-19 outbreak rages on, two new national surveys on hunger in the United States are in -- and the news is not good. There's been an alarming rise in the number of families struggling to put food on the table, according to the COVID Impact Survey and the Brookings Institution's Survey of Mothers with Young Children. Brookings fellow Lauren Bauer crunched the numbers and showed that, due to the pandemic, food insecurity in the country has increased -- and households with children 12 years of age and under are experiencing hunger like at no other time in modern history.

Elected officials and 2020 candidates for office should support the expansion of SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, to address the growing number of families experiencing hunger. With the three previous Covid-19 relief packages passed by Congress falling short of providing necessary aid and protections for families in poverty, future relief packages should focus on meeting the basic needs of those most in distress.

The consequences of failing to curb food insecurity can be dire, particularly for the US children who are experiencing more hunger than ever during the pandemic. Children who go without adequate amounts of food are at greater risk of developing mental and behaviorial health challenges and chronic illnesses, and face obstacles to academic achievement.

 

High-Stakes Trial over Voting Rights in Florida Nears Conclusion

Returning citizen Desmond Meade and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, left, registers to vote.    © John Raoux/AP Photo

By Alison Leal Parker

In November 2018, Floridians struck a major blow against discriminatory voting laws when they went to the ballot box. They approved Amendment 4 in an overwhelming majority, restoring the voting rights of most people in the state with felony convictions. It was an important step toward realizing the American ideal of free and fair elections.

The victory proved to be short-lived. Soon after the vote, the Florida legislature passed a law that once again put people’s ability to vote in jeopardy. SB 7066 requires citizens with felony convictions – whose right to cast a ballot had just been restored – to pay various fines, fees, or restitution, known as legal financial obligations or “LFOs,” before they can vote.

Seventeen plaintiffs, represented by voting rights groups including the ACLU, NAACP LDF, the Brennan Center, and the Campaign Legal Center, are challenging the law in the case Jones v. DeSantis. Last week, I listened to part of the telephone trial, which is now in its final week in the US district court for the Northern District of Florida. The outcome could decide whether hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated Floridians are barred from voting this year due to payment requirements.

The testimony I heard included an exchange between plaintiff’s counsel and Doug Bakke, chief operations officer for the clerk of court for Florida’s Hillsborough County. It made clear that many voters in Florida are unable to pay the LFOs at issue.

Bakke explained that the vast majority of fines, fees, and restitution in Florida go unpaid. He told the court that the “more pure or true collection rate is anywhere between 3 and 8 percent of fines and fees assessed.” In a separate line of questioning he agreed that the average LFOs assessed in a first or second degree felony case would be $5,214 – an amount beyond reach for the majority of Americans according to an October 2019 study by JP Morgan Chase, which reported an inability to cope with unexpected bills above $700 for a low-income family and $2000 for a middle-income family. The Chase study was published well before the financial impacts of Covid-19 began to take effect.

But human rights law is clear that individuals’ voting rights cannot hinge on how much money is in their bank account.

Both Florida’s original disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions who had completed their sentences, and SB 7066 requiring payment of LFOs, violate international human rights law. As early as 1998, in a joint report with the Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch stated that felony disenfranchisement after sentence completion, especially for a broad category of offenses like all felonies, violates article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty to which the United States is a party.

Requiring that people pay fines, fees, and restitution violates that treaty’s requirement that the right to vote not be subject to a “distinction of any kind, such as…race…property, birth or other status.” Whether or not a person can afford these fees, the requirement to pay before voting is unreasonable as it amounts to a de facto restriction on the right to vote based on property requirements. It's also inconsistent with the state's obligation to take effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote can do so.

Putting aside these unreasonable restrictions on the right to vote, even if a Florida citizen was able to pay, it’s often impossible to determine how much a particular voter owes. Testimony in this week’s trial revealed that for many potential voters in Florida with felony criminal records, it will be impossible to determine whether they have any legal financial obligations to the state; and if they do, how much they owe. This may be particularly true for those with convictions from the 1980s or earlier.

In an exchange between plaintiff’s counsel and Bakke regarding Pastor Clifford Tyson, a Florida citizen who had felony convictions dating as far back as 1978, Bakke said, regarding the accuracy of the LFO records, “The older the case, the less confidence I would have.”

As plaintiff’s counsel walked Bakke through the various aspects Pastor Tyson’s records, which included old and more recent convictions from the mid 1990s, she asked, “can you tell me today how much Pastor Tyson still owes?”

The answer: “I believe it is still the $2. I have no records to indicate whether or not the costs of supervision have been paid.” Further exchanges regarding separate records held by the clerk’s office introduced the possibility that Tyson owed $271; or possibly $259. The testimony left unclear whether or not additional restitution payments were required of Tyson. In an interview with the Brennan Center for Justice, Pastor Tyson explained that he lives off of a disability payment of $7,600 per year. If he could ever determine the actual amount he owes the state of Florida, it may be an amount beyond his ability to pay.

This testimony laid bare a basic but irrefutable fact: It’s very difficult or impossible for many people with felony convictions in Florida to pay their LFOs. That’s both because they cannot afford to pay the LFOs and because the state is unable to tell them through any centralized system how much they owe.

Although Covid-19 wasn’t addressed directly, the testimony also made clear that the crisis only makes Florida’s chaos around voting rights worse. The Jones trial is being held telephonically because courts have been closed for non-essential services in light of the public health emergency. For those same reasons, returning citizens will struggle to get help or information from court officials like the clerk who testified yesterday, and other offices are unlikely to be open to take payments.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, some Florida citizens were too poor to pay restitution, fines, and fees. Now, as the state’s recordkeeping proves unprepared to navigate SB 7066 and hundreds of thousands of people's voting rights hang in the balance, Florida must ensure voting rights in the context of a global pandemic. The court’s ruling will have enormous implications for the constitutional and human right to vote in Florida as the Covid-19 crisis rages on.

Alison Leal Parker is managing director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

Exacerbated Maternal Health Challenges Loom for African Americans Amid Covid-19

Going through pregnancy is challenging for many parents. But for Black women in the United States, the dangers are heightened. Black women face a maternal death rate that’s more than double that of their white counterparts. The troubling figures reflect a nation whose health care experiences and outcomes are divided along racial lines.

Annerieke Daniel, a fellow in the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, knows the racial disparities all too well. During her pregnancy last July, she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a condition that disproportionately affects and kills African-American women. Daniel, who is Black, wrote about her experience in an essay published on Sunday by the LA Review of Books. The piece sheds light on the systemic challenges that Black rural women face in accessing maternal health care – and how the Covid-19 crisis threatens to make it worse.

“As the pandemic overwhelms our healthcare system and leads to shortages in medical providers and supplies, pregnant women will suffer, and the many Black women living in rural areas who already lack access to an obstetrician or hospital will have an even tougher time,” Daniel writes. “Health disparities that existed long before the pandemic will contribute to the alarming rate at which COVID-19 is infecting, and killing, Black Americans.”

The maternal health crisis is due in part to states’ refusal to expand Medicaid, which has contributed to the closure of rural hospitals in the South. As Daniel reports, there were 45 hospitals serving rural Alabama in 1980. In 2016, there were only 16.

Public policies have a direct impact on the prenatal care and number of hospital beds available to rural Americans and all people in need, making it important for elected officials and those running for office in 2020 to address the crisis head-on. Daniels encourages policy makers to consider expanding Medicaid eligibility to increase coverage rates. Medicaid expansion, she says, “could help stem the high number of rural hospital closures and ensure that women can deliver their babies in safe and respectful circumstances.”

Read Daniel’s entire essay at the LA Review of Books.

Trump Signs Executive Order Keeping Meatpacking Plants Open Amid Rise in Worker Deaths

President Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday night forcing US meatpacking plants to remain open, despite Covid-19 outbreaks at facilities leading to the deaths of plant workers across the country. The order comes after many of the nation’s largest meat processors closed or slowed production due to the rise in infections. As Human Rights Watch reported last week, workers are enduring the pandemic amid fewer safety protections due to rollbacks implemented by the Trump administration before the pandemic. 

In issuing his executive order, Trump cited the Defense Production Act in order to deem the plants "critical infruastructure." The president announced no new protections to protect employees.

Experts from Human Rights Watch, which has done extensive research on the dangers facing meatpacking workers, sounded off on the order.

“This is a terrible decision that puts the lives of meat and poultry plant workers at even greater risk,” tweeted Komala Ramachandra, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, the Trump admin is rolling back protections, like line speed limits. How does this keep our workers or food supply safe?”

"The order requires plants to stay open; it does not require plants to follow CDC/OSHA guidance to keep workers safe,” tweeted Human Rights Watch senior researcher Grace Meng, referring to the US Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Under the Trump administration, OSHA is operating with the fewest safety and health inspectors in its 48-year history.

In her Human Rights Watch article last week, Ramachandra emphasized that the rollbacks of safety rules in meatpacking plants can be undone. "Reinstating protections should be a priority of candidates seeking voters’ trust in the 2020 elections," she writes. "Protecting all workers – especially those at the front lines who are risking their lives to feed the country– should be a priority for all branches of government."

‘Action to Protect Voting Rights Is Urgently Needed,’ Warns Nicole Austin-Hillery in CNN.com Op-Ed

Following the turbulent elections in Wisconsin earlier this month, there have been growing concerns that many US voters will struggle to cast their ballots in November due to targeted attempts to curtail their voting rights during the pandemic. Nicole Austin-Hillery, head of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, is leveraging her experience as a voting rights expert to offer a warning as well as a path forward. In an op-ed for CNN.com on Sunday, she discusses the need to remove barriers to the ballot box before Election Day and highlights strategies for securing “the fate of our right to vote.”

Austin-Hillery offers a reminder that the recent rollbacks, although alarming, are part of a larger trend that came to life in the past decade:

Unfortunately, voter suppression has threatened that right for thousands of historically disfranchised Americans with tactical precision since the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, which found unconstitutional sections of the act that required states with long histories of discriminatory voting practices to get Justice Department approval before changing voting laws.

Since that decision, 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. 

Austin-Hillery came to Human Rights Watch as a civil rights leader leader who'd worked for many years to address disenfranchisement. “I spent more than a decade as a voting rights advocate working with Congress to ensure that the rights of all voters are protected, and with legal and community partners around the country to help ensure access to free and fair elections,” she wrote on Sunday. Based on her experience fighting for voting rights, Austin-Hillery writes that “the scale of the more recent changes, coupled with concerns that suppression will rise in the age of Covid-19” requires a multifaceted approach rather than a single policy reform such as vote-by-mail. “It has to entail a full-fledged, comprehensive plan to stamp out suppression at every turn.”

The strategies Austin-Hillery supports for expanding access to the ballot box include, among other efforts, increasing states’ capacity for mail-in voting, making sure in-person voting is safe, expanding the window for early voting, investing in widespread voter education, eliminating felony disenfranchisement, and recognizing the electoral rights of people with disabilities.

Read Austin-Hillery’s full op-ed on CNN.com, and continue following Human Rights Watch for more coverage of the 2020 US elections.

What You Should Know About Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

By Grace Meng

This week, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order on immigration that doesn't do what he said the order would do when he tweeted about it earlier in the week. Although he declared that he would “temporarily suspend immigration” into the United States, the actual order suspends issuance for 60 days a subset of green cards (officially, a permanent resident card): some employer-based green cards and some family-member green card applications, all from outside the United States. And as multiple media outlets have pointed out, the US Department of State, which issues visas overseas, has already nearly suspended operations due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. It’s not clear how many people this order will actually affect, at least for now.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean we can dismiss the latest Trump executive order as harmless.

The order separates families for no rational reason. The children of lawful permanent residents or the elderly parents of US citizens are hardly competing for American jobs. But as long as this order is in effect, green card holders will not be able to bring their children or spouses to the United States and US citizens will not be able to bring their parents, adult children, or siblings.

The order is the latest in a series of executive orders, policies, and statements  that paint immigrants as the “enemy.” And xenophobic, anti-immigrant policies and language are dangerous. They undermine the reality that immigrants boost the US economy and are serving in essential roles to keep this country healthy and safe. They also fuel dangerous, racist actions, as seen by the recent rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans.

Nor is the administration likely to keep this suspension “temporary.” The first executive order barring entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries was initially in effect for 90 days – three years later, the ban lives on. The March 24 order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowing officials to expel unauthorized migrants at land borders without screenings for asylum or other protections was originally in effect for 30 days but was just recently extended for another 30. President Trump sought to limit legal immigration in legislative proposals that Congress rejected. Now he’s trying to implement his agenda through executive action.

The US immigration system has long needed reform – to protect families, to protect workers, to protect asylum seekers, and to protect due process. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made more apparent the crucial role immigrant workers play in the US economy, and how difficult and dangerous work conditions can be for US citizens and immigrants, as made obvious by the outbreak in meatpacking plants across the US. The best way to protect American workers during this crisis and beyond is to acknowledge the contributions of immigrants and ensure all workers in this country are able to work in safety and with dignity.

Grace Meng a senior researcher in the US Program at Human Rights Watch.

US Meatpacking Workers Face Crisis, Slashed Safety Protections During Pandemic

 

Many workers at meat and poultry plants across the United States are battling for their health during the Covid-19 pandemic. As Human Rights Watch has reported, it’s a crisis that’s been brewing before the outbreak began.

Recent developments have been unsettling. A Smithfield pork plant closed indefinitely after it became the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in South Dakota, with nearly 1,000 confirmed cases, the biggest cluster in the country. JBS has temporarily shuttered a pork plant in Minnesota and a beef plant in Colorado because of the coronavirus crisis. The media reported that two Tyson Foods workers died in Iowa and four in Georgia from Covid-19. Tyson plants in Tennessee and Kansas have dozens of cases each, and a facility in Waterloo, Iowa suspended operations after local authorities implored Tyson to close due to an outbreak there.

Though disturbing, the spread of coronavirus in US meat and poultry plants shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the facilities’ conditions: workers kill, cut, debone, and package meat in cramped quarters, working elbow to elbow, coated with grease and blood. They work amidst deafening noise and the smell of dead animals and overpowering chemicals. We documented the dangers of meatpacking work in our 2019 report, “‘When We’re Dead and Buried, Our Bones Will Keep Hurting’: Workers’ Rights Under Threat in US Meat and Poultry Plants,” and our findings were chilling.

Workers we spoke to for the report described their exhaustion and chronic pain resulting from making the same, forceful motions tens of thousands of times each day, which often caused severe and debilitating injuries. The harsh conditions and close proximity of workers are petri dishes for a highly communicable disease. It’s no wonder that the spread of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking facilities may be worse than originally thought.

Even before the pandemic hit, Human Rights Watch found the response of companies to medical issues and injuries in their facilities to be disturbingly inadequate. Workers told us they were pressured not to report injuries and feared retaliation if they left the slaughter line to seek medical treatment. In-house medical units encouraged workers to return to the line after cursory care, even when workers felt they needed more substantive help.

Government investigations have also found that these medical units in some facilities failed to make timely and appropriate medical referrals. In one case, a worker suffered a serious injury when her hand was trapped and burned by a machine. The incident occurred on a Friday and she was told to return to work, with her other hand, on Monday morning at 6:30 a.m. if she wanted to get paid.

Compounding the problem is the power imbalances that keep workers from reporting workplace safety hazards. Plant workers depend on these jobs for themselves and their families, and fear losing them. Many of the low-wage workers in meatpacking and processing plants are from marginalized communities, with many people of color and women making up their ranks. Nearly one-third are immigrants, including a significant number who are undocumented. Many of the workers we interviewed requested anonymity because they feared repercussions for their immigration status as well as their employment. A lot of the immigrant workers who do not have social security numbers will not receive coronavirus stimulus checks, even if they have been paying taxes. The decline in the prevalence of unions and collective bargaining agreements in meatpacking facilities also hurts workers’ ability to address these issues.

The challenging conditions for meatpacking workers have been magnified by Covid-19. Workers have described to nongovernmental organizations the crowded working conditions, pressure to continue working through illness, and denial of personal protective equipment. They have reported that companies have been slow to implement measures to ensure social distancing in their facilities. Human Rights Watch joined a number of civil society and workers organizations to call for improved health and safety conditions in plants during the pandemic, paid sick and family leave for workers caring for themselves or others, premium pay for hazardous work, and protection against retaliation.

Meat processing jobs are some of the country’s most dangerous. Instead of attempting to improve safety for these and other essential frontline workers, the Trump administration has made it easier for meat and poultry plants to operate faster, increasing the danger of injury and other harm. Prior to the pandemic, the administration aggressively promoted deregulation of slaughter inspection systems that impose line speeds in facilities. In September 2019, a new rule removed caps on line speeds in pork facilities, opening the door for them to operate as quickly as possible, despite increased line speeds correlating with more worker injuries.

The administration has also issued waivers for line speed restrictions in other meat processing facilities. In April 2020 alone, the administration issued 15 waivers to poultry facilities, including 6 to Tyson Foods. In March, they issued the first waiver to a beef processing facility, also owned by Tyson.

These rollbacks of safety rules not only raise the already high risks to meatpacking workers, but also jeopardize the security and stability of our food systems. The impacts of the pandemic on these dangerous workplaces has already shut down approximately 25 percent of the nation’s pork processing, and slowdowns in other sectors may follow.

But these changes to safety rules do not have to be permanent, and reinstating protections should be a priority of candidates seeking voters’ trust in the 2020 elections. Protecting all workers – especially those at the front lines who are risking their lives to feed the country– should be a priority for all branches of government.

Regulations safeguarding the health and safety of our workers can and should be reinstated and strengthened. As voters prepare to go to the polls in November, they should be asking which candidates are the most serious about protecting our frontline essential workers through evidence-based policies.

Komala Ramachandra is a senior researcher in the Business and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

Michigan Father, Son Die from Covid-19 After Family Reportedly Begged Hospitals for Help

A family in Detroit is grieving after experiencing devastating losses to Covid-19. A man and his father died within 6 hours of each other, sending the family reeling and amplifying concerns about racial bias in the US health care system.

Gary Fowler died in his home on April 7, after desperately seeking coronavirus testing and treatment without success. As USA Today reports:

Gary Fowler, 56, went to the emergency rooms of three metro Detroit hospitals in the weeks leading up to his death, begging for a coronavirus test, begging for help because he was having difficulty breathing, but he was repeatedly turned away, Gambrell said. 

"My dad passed at home, and no one tried to help him," Gambrell, 33, said through tears. "He asked for help, and they sent him away. They turned him away."

In the hours before his death, breathing was so difficult, Fowler slept sitting up in the bedroom chair, while his wife, Cheryl, dozed in the bed by his side. When she woke, her husband of nearly 24 years was gone.

Before he took his last breaths, Fowler scrawled on a piece of paper, "Heart beat irregular ... oxygen level low."

The day prior, Fowler’s father had died from Covid-19 at the age of 76.

Fowler’s stepson, Keith Gambrell, who has also tested positive for the coronavirus, said in a CBS News interview that he believes that racial bias played a role in Fowler’s death. "I honestly believe it was because my father was black,” he said. “They didn't honestly take his symptoms serious enough to give him a test."

Gambrell told USA Today that in the hours following Fowler’s funeral, Fowler's wife had to be put on a ventilator due to Covid-19 complications after being turned away from the first hospital they tried. The ordeal has tested the family’s resilience.

"This coronavirus is gonna cause so much PTSD for people. It's sad," Gambrell said. "There's going to be a major fallout after this. It's not right at all.”

About one third of coronavirus cases in Michigan are among African Americans, despite Black people only comprising 14 percent of the state’s population. A recent analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Michigan isn’t alone – the latest data shows that across the country, people of color, especially African Americans, are being disproportionately slammed by Covid-19.

With experts expecting a second wave of the coronavirus to hit the United States this fall, 2020 candidates must offer solutions to America's racial barriers to adequate health care as Election Day approaches. Continue following us for more coverage and analysis of the racial disparities related to Covid-19 and how US leaders can address them.

As US Debates Reopening, Trump Announces Intention to Suspend Immigration

On Monday night, President Trump took to Twitter to announce that he planned to seal the United States off from immigration for an undisclosed period of time. The executive order, he claimed, would protect the country from the Covid-19 outbreak and safeguard American workers from migrants who seek employment in the U.S.

The announcement follows the release last week of the Trump administration’s guidelines for states to ease stay-at-home orders and its push to reopen the US economy.

The response from experts on immigrant rights has been swift. Grace Meng, senior immigration researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter: “By suspending legal immigration to the US, American families will be among those who suffer most, people who will remain separated from spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones at a time when we all need our families most.”

Immigration has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in the 2020 US elections, following a pattern of increased deportations and violations of immigrants’ rights under both Republican and Democrat administrations. Human Rights Watch has published a guide to provide an overview of human rights issues at stake in the 2020 elections, including questions to help voters assess candidates’ positions on the rights of immigrants.

Further Reading:

Human Rights Watch guide to some of the most pressing human rights issues in the 2020 US elections.

Charlie Martel and Grace Meng of Human Rights Watch on the systematic dismantling of the US asylum system during the pandemic.

In a letter to the Trump administration, over 180 rights groups demand an end to border expulsions and protection for domestic violence survivors.

Amid Pandemic, Elected and Aspiring Leaders Should Look to Rev. Joseph Lowery

The Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery laughs with the audience while speaking at the end of his 94th birthday celebration © 2015 Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP.

Two weeks after Rev. Joseph Lowery was laid to rest, the human rights community is still reflecting on the lessons left behind by the man nicknamed the "Dean" of the Civil Rights Movement in America. Rev. Lowery, who died in March at the age of 98, worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and made significant contributions to the fight for social justice over the course of several decades. His legendary activism ranged from co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King in the 1950s to protesting injustices in the criminal justice system in the 1970s, and even in his retirement advocating against capital punishment.

Notably, Rev. Lowery stood up to powerful elected officials when their policies infringed on the rights of the vulnerable. In a push for voting rights for Black Americans, for example, he bravely delivered demands to George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, after the famous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery. Wallace ordered state troopers to beat the protestors, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed soon after.

Rev. Lowery’s family buried him in a small private funeral, due to Georgia’s restrictions on gatherings during the Covid-19 crisis. Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the US Program at Human Rights Watch, was among the civil rights leaders around the world who wouldn’t let Rev. Lowery’s legacy be a casualty of the pandemic. In an op-ed for The Progressive, she reminds elected officials, 2020 candidates, activists and all of us what we can learn from Rev. Lowery’s example:

Of all the amazing accolades listed in his obituary, I was most struck in reading that he once told an interviewer his theory on why he lived longer than most of the other great civil rights leaders. He said he felt God was keeping him alive so he could address the injustices of the criminal justice system, particularly toward poor black men. 

I am too young to have known and worked with Lowery, but I did once hear him deliver one of his fiery oratories on race and justice at Howard University. As a civil and human rights lawyer who heads the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, I’ve devoted my career to fighting the same injustices Lowery did throughout his life. 

As the nation lives through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all experiencing what it is like to feel vulnerable. But perhaps the most vulnerable of all are those in our jails and prisons. The virus is affecting the lives of those in detention as well as those who care for them. 

Overpopulated U.S. jails and prisons are incubators for the spread of  disease — a problem that existed long before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. 

Our research at Human Rights Watch underscores that a disproportionate number of those in detention are black — the very group of people Lowery felt called to defend and protect. 

If swift action is not taken to lessen the prison and jail population, the virus will spread more rapidly, and the prison system will face deadly consequences. While this alarm bell has not been heard by all, some states have been releasing varying numbers of detained individuals.

On March 27, the same day that Lowery died at his home in Atlanta, hundreds of former federal prosecutors, judges, and justice department lawyers sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking the government to release more people from federal custody to help curb the spread of the virus. 

Front-line civil and human rights leaders have always been our conscience, as Lowery’s life reminds us. 

In 1979, Lowery, in defiance of a threat from the Ku Klux Klan, marched for leniency for a black man with a mental health condition who was accused of raping two white women in Decatur, Alabama. He recalled later that bullets whizzed inches above his head during the march. That’s the kind of courage that is needed to get us through the present moment.

While the pandemic has overshadowed news of Lowery’s death, we would do well to heed his example. Let’s honor his life’s work by taking action to save those in our jails and prisons.

Further Reading and Viewing: 

Read Austin-Hillery's full piece on Rev. Lowery in The Progressive.

Learn more about Rev. Lowery's life and thoughts on leadership by checking out the Oral History Archive of the the National Visionary Leadership Project.

Read more on on HRW.org about the United States' urgent need for policies that protect people behind bars from Covid-19. 

 

What Wisconsin’s Elections Say About the Voting Rights Battle Ahead

Last week, images of mask-clad voters standing for hours in long, snaking lines at Wisconsin polling stations shocked many across the United States. As we reported last Tuesday, a series of dramatic eleventh-hour events concluded in a chaotic Election Day in which many Wisconsin voters had to choose between risking their health and voting in the national and local races that were held, with fewer resources than ever, in the midst of a pandemic. Media investigations following Election Day have shed more light on how events played out and what it could portend for November.

Over the weekend, PBS’ Frontline, in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Columbia Journalism Investigations, published a story that featured the harrowing experiences of people who felt their votes had been suppressed, including the following anecdotes:

Hannah Gleeson, a 34-year-old health care worker, said she knew voting in person was not going to be an option for her after she tested positive for coronavirus in late March.

Gleeson said she and her husband requested absentee ballots ahead of the deadline but never received them. On election day, the couple stayed home as others made their way to the polls.

“I can’t expose hundreds, possibly thousands, of people to something that I’ve been struggling with now for 14 days,” Gleeson said. “I really think it’s voter suppression at its finest. I honestly think that it’s a failing of democracy and everything that America was built on.”

Lee McFadden Jr., 63, a retiree who said he was recently discharged from the hospital after recovering from coronavirus, lugged his oxygen tank to three different poll locations looking for one without a line.

Unable to stand for long, he was confronted with crowds at every location, he said.

“I told my wife, ‘We’re not going to vote this year because my health means more to me than trying to elect some official,’” McFadden said. “So I came home.”

Milwaukee offered only five polling places Tuesday due to lack of poll workers — less than 3% of its normal 180 voting sites.

On Monday, the New York Times reported in further detail how a US Supreme Court decision – one that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying it “boggles the mind” – allowed the Wisconsin legislature’s suppressive tactics to proceed.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision, a federal judge had granted a request to extend the deadline for mail-in ballots to allow people who feared infection to vote safely. The Supreme Court struck down that lower court decision, ruling that – even in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that was overwhelming Wisconsin elections officials’ capacity to provide absentee ballots on time – voters would not be allotted any extra time to mail in their ballots. The ruling came the same day that the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the governor’s order to delay in-person voting until June.

  The New York Times chronicles what happened next:

When the state released its final vote tallies on Monday, it was clear that the decision — arrived at remotely, so the justices would not have to brave the Covid-19 conditions — had resulted in the disenfranchisement of thousands of voters, forced several thousand more to endanger their lives at polls and burdened already strained state health officials with a grim new task: tracking the extent to which in-person voting contributed to the virus’s spread in the state, a federal disaster area.

The obstacles to voting that were erected last week in Wisconsin are part of a larger pattern of increasing disenfranchisement in the United States. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the US Supreme Court struck down what many considered the “heart” of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been signed into law to end the widespread voter suppression that for generations robbed African Americans of full participation in public affairs. The Shelby ruling now meant that states with sordid histories of racial discrimination no longer had to get approval from the US Department of Justice to change voting laws. Following the court’s decision, a slew of states have passed measures – from voter ID laws to the unnecessary purging of voter rolls – that make it harder for people, especially African Americans and other people of color, to cast a ballot.

As Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recently said in a podcast episode of The Atlantic’s The Ticket, the erosion and rollback of voting rights over the last few years goes beyond partisanship – and there’s no reason to think it will stop with Wisconsin.

Yeah, I don’t think we’ve seen a period like this, and in fact that would only make it comparable to the early 1900s, when southern states adopted new constitutions that restricted voting for African Americans. I don’t think we’ve seen a period of sustained retrenchment as we have seen over the past seven or eight years. It’s really quite astonishing. And much of it is steeped in racial voter suppression. Some of it is steeped in partisan voter suppression. And there is an overlap between racial and partisan voter suppression, to be sure. And the willingness of the courts to allow it rather than to see it for what it is.

 

Continue following Human Rights Watch for more news on the erosion of voting rights in the United States and what can be done to fight it.

 

COVID-19 Is Upending Life and Elections in the US. What’s Next?

By Gerry Johnson

Wisconsin residents awoke to some confusing news on Tuesday morning: It was Election Day after all.

On Monday, the state’s supreme court blocked Governor Tony Evers’ attempt earlier that day to postpone Wisconsin’s primary elections, despite public health concerns amid the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, open polling locations in Milwaukee have dwindled from 180 to just 5 after thousands of poll workers quit over fears of contracting the virus. Today, social media exploded with images of voters braving incredibly long lines to cast their ballots.

The last-minute turmoil comes as uncertainty continues to grip America – from Wisconsin, where Black people are reportedly dying from COVID-19 at an “alarming rate,” to New York City, where I have fearfully watched friend after friend fight to survive the pandemic while quietly immersed in a battle of my own.

It was less than a month after I co-led the February launch of this very site – a compendium of commentary and insight on the 2020 US elections – that I began to feel exhausted. It wasn’t the reasonable fatigue that one might expect to coincide with covering a fast-paced, high-stakes political cycle for a trusted media source. This exhaustion was peculiar; a five-minute walk left my 30-something lungs gasping for air.

After a few days, muscle and joint soreness began compounding the unshakable fatigue. Why, I wondered as I pounded away at my laptop, was it suddenly so hard to turn my neck?

Then came the chills, which no creative arrangement of hoodies and jackets would relieve. Brain fog, heart palpitations, and lightheadedness soon followed suit.

After two weeks of worsening symptoms, I began to panic -- just as the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11.

The novel coronavirus that was first identified in Wuhan, China in 2019 went on to sweep many countries in Asia and batter Western Europe. And now, despite President Donald Trump downplaying the crisis for weeks, it was upending US life and the economy as we knew it. A cascade of statewide and local stay-at-home orders kept millions of voters from leaving their homes – leading at least 16 states to postpone their primaries, raising concerns about voting rights, and posing new questions about the kind of government the country will need in 2020.

As a Black American, I had particular anxieties about the prospect of falling ill in a nation so woefully unprepared for this outbreak. What I knew – from lived experience and from Human Rights Watch research -- about the deeply entrenched racial biases in America’s healthcare system terrified me to my bones. [Editor's Note: COVID-19’s devastating impact on Black communities in areas ranging from the Bronx to Chicago is beginning to come into view.]

I couldn’t shake the fear that my skin color would render me vulnerable to receiving lesser quality care. As breathing became harder, a morbid question haunted me: If I were to go to the inundated emergency room serving my lower-income neighborhood rather than ask the ambulance to make the longer trip to a wealthy facility, would I be more likely to die? After all, data indicates that low-income areas in New York City are the ones most besieged by COVID-19.

These are just some of the worries facing people across the United States, where the number of COVID-19 cases has soared past the totals in China and Italy; the coronavirus-related death toll has surpassed 10,000; and millions have lost their jobs. People are also grappling with job losses and challenges putting food on the table, the prospect of increased surveillance, and other human rights concerns. The situation is especially precarious for people in US jails and prisons, known incubators for infection, and undocumented migrants, who have been left out of the federal coronavirus relief bill despite the labor and taxes they provide to keep America running.

The crisis has heightened unique anxieties about healthcare disparities that existed prior to the pandemic. Black women, for example, had been ringing the alarm about their disproportionately high maternal death rate even before the outbreak began.

Many people across the US are afraid – and not just of the virus. The pandemic has further exposed, and exacerbated, disturbing levels of entrenched poverty and systemic inequality, and laid bare the country’s failure to protect the health of hard-working, everyday Americans. Tragically, it didn’t have to be this way: Many of the human rights issues that policymakers ignored last month—the healthcare disparities, the plight of unauthorized immigrants, the overcrowding and unhygienic conditions in detention facilities, and more—are the issues that make their constituents sitting prey for a contagion today.

As for me, I’m on the mend. And despite the United States’ long road ahead, I have hope for the future. An unprecedented opportunity stands before us to discard the myth that the richest nation in the history of the world can’t afford to treat people with human dignity. This myth is one of the oldest and deadliest in America, and I’m encouraged to see it steadily debunked by bold, previously “unimaginable” interventions to curb the outbreak. But much more action, and more imagination, will be needed.

At Human Rights Watch, our experts and partners will use this space to engage voters, elected leaders, and 2020 candidates on the grave concerns that the COVID-19 crisis poses for Americans – while also informing them on the promising new possibilities at their disposal.  We are invested in making sure that whoever wins the 2020 elections will help lead a nation that is more fair, more just, and more humane.

Gerry Johnson is an editor and senior strategist at Human Rights Watch.