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.
1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Survivors and Descendants Sue City for Reparations
A legal team seeking #Justice4Greenwood just filed a complaint against the City of Tulsa, the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce and other defendants on behalf of the Black residents of North Tulsa, the descendants of the #TulsaMassacre and one of the last living survivors, Lessie Randle. pic.twitter.com/hR0doomqrb— Eric J. Miller (@millerej_11) September 1, 2020
Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and their descendants made waves yesterday when they announced a lawsuit against the City of Tulsa and other government entities in Oklahoma, seeking redress for the destruction of the Greenwood community. The lawsuit, filed by the legal team Justice for Greenwood Advocates, cites recent research from Human Rights Watch and helps bring to light the Tulsa government’s direct involvement in one of the worst incidents of racial violence in US history.
For generations, the massacre was absent from Oklahoma history books and the facts of the attack were deliberately covered up. The announcement of the lawsuit — which builds on the efforts of Black Tulsans to increase awareness of their plight and achieve justice —made international headlines, including coverage by the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Root.
A 105-year-old survivor of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and some victims' descendants are demanding reparations, arguing that the city's current racial and economic disparities can be traced back to the violence in what was known as Black Wall Street. https://t.co/KC8ucTQ1Ud— Sanjana Karanth (@sanjanakaranth) September 2, 2020
“The police chief deputized 500 men, all white, from the crowd that gathered as a potential lynch mob. These newly empowered men looted, burned, and killed with that police authority.” @merrillcollege #TulsaRaceMassacre #StopKillingUs #BlackLivesMatterhttps://t.co/bynXNEjpv8— DeNeen Brown (@DeNeenLBrown) September 2, 2020
Damario Solomon Simmons, the lead attorney in the lawsuit, said that the race massacre “deprived Black Tulsans of their sense of security, hard-won economic power and vibrant community” — and that the government’s role in the destruction has created a public nuisance that has not abated.
“The nuisance has led to the devaluation of property in Greenwood and has resulted in significant racial disparities in every quality of life metric — life expectancy, health, unemployment, education level, and financial security,” he said. “The defendants in this case have continued the Massacre in slow motion for nearly a century.”
In May, Human Rights Watch released “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma,” which details the destruction that left hundreds of people, the vast majority of them Black, dead and more than 1,200 black-owned houses burned down 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.
"Our years of research in Tulsa reveal a city whose Black community is still reeling from the devastation of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and suffering under pervasive racial discrimination that continues to this day," Human Rights Watch’s Nicole Austin-Hillery said yesterday.
Hurricane Katrina in the US, 15 Years Later
Fifteen years ago, I sat in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hotel room, watching with a growing sense of dread as the first reports rolled in of the path of destruction cut through the southern US state by Hurricane Katrina’s fury.
I had only lived in New Orleans for a month; I had few friends, no vehicle, or plan to evacuate. Thankfully, my neighbors loaded me into their van to escape the storm. I returned to New Orleans four months later and spent the following three years pitching in on rebuilding the city and soaking up its culture and community of this unique city.
Yet on the eve of the 15th anniversary of Katrina, and as we assess Hurricane Laura’s path of destruction, human rights in Louisiana remain at risk, particularly for Black and brown people who are disproportionately imprisoned and impoverished.
If one ever needed proof of how cruel the US criminal legal system can be, they need only look to Katrina, where inmates were abandoned as toxic flood waters rose to their chests. Prisoners’ letters to Human Rights Watch describe their terror. Then, after inmates were finally evacuated from that traumatic experience, they faced fresh abuse at the prisons to which they were moved.
Louisiana counties currently have some of the highest jail incarceration rates in the country. Today, authorities’ duty to protect people in custody encompasses not just the threat of storms but also Covid-19. This includes protecting detained asylum seekers and others held in immigration detention. A huge portion of the country’s immigration detainees are held in rural Louisiana, where facilities have proliferated under the Trump administration.
US Congress Should End Marijuana Prohibition
A bill that would end federal marijuana prohibition represents a real opportunity to address racial justice and equity in the US policing and criminal legal system.
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, and begin to repair the harm marijuana prohibition has caused to people of color by establishing social equity programs to reinvest in communities. It would also provide for resentencing and expungement for those with federal marijuana convictions.
The bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in November 2019, and it is now up to the US House of Representatives’ leadership to schedule the bill for a vote.
The bill has bipartisan support in the House and widespread support from civil and human rights organizations. This month, members of the Marijuana Justice Coalition and over 120 organizations wrote to the US House leadership urging a vote on the bill, stating that the national discussion around unjust law enforcement, as well as Covid-19, means marijuana reform “is more relevant and more pressing than ever before.”
The bill also has support among likely voters in the 2020 US elections, according to a recent national poll, where nearly two-thirds of respondents stated that police should stop arresting people for possessing marijuana for personal use and supported passage of the MORE Act.
Calls for Justice Grow After Police Shoot Black Father in Kenosha, Wisconsin
Protests erupted on Monday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and other US cities, as people took to the streets for the second night in a row to demand justice in the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Kenosha police shot Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back multiple times as he attempted to enter his vehicle, as his young children watched from inside.
Blake’s father told the Chicago Sun-Times that his son is now paralyzed from the waist down, and that the police left the younger Blake with “eight holes” in his body. "It is going to take a miracle for Jacob Blake Jr. to ever walk again," the Blake family’s attorney said Tuesday in a press conference.
The shooting was captured in a cell phone video that has gone viral, sparking protests that spread from Kenosha to cities such as Madison, New York City, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis. The incident comes just a few months after video of the police killing of George Floyd went viral, and as the US continues to reckon with police violence and systemic racism.
Thinking of Jacob Blake's family. Thinking of the Kenosha community. Thinking of Black folks across the country falling asleep to this news and those who will be waking up to it. I’m sad. I’m furious. I’m tired of seeing this happen over and over and over and over and over again.— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) August 24, 2020
We now add Jacob Blake in Wisconsin to the long and painful list of Black men shot by police. Police are not getting it, but we do. Please see my colleague @JRaphling ‘s report https://t.co/cc3VyQLvFL— Nicole Austin-Hillery (@NicoleAustinHil) August 24, 2020
“We now add Jacob Blake in Wisconsin to the long and painful list of Black men shot by police,” tweeted Nicole Austin-Hillery, head of the US Program at Human Rights Watch. She linked to a recent Human Rights Watch report offering 14 recommendations for fundamental police reform. “Police are not getting it but we do.”
Austin-Hillery listed 6 things to keep in mind when analyzing the police shooting in Wisconsin and how to prevent future ones, referring to recent Human Rights Watch findings that “less policing means less chances for brutal encounters.”
Burlington, Vermont Approves Reparations Resolution
Burlington, Vermont’s City Council unanimously passed a #reparations resolution this week. The slavery #reparations task force will begin its work in October. Important move as it acknowledges non-slave states benefitted from the institution of slavery. https://t.co/u9vvK0j9VN— Dreisen Heath (@dreisenheath) August 14, 2020
City council members in Burlington, Vermont, voted unanimously to pass a reparations resolution last week, joining cities like Asheville, North Carolina, and Providence, Rhode Island, in approving measures this year to address the enduring harms of slavery. Burlington, Vermont’s most populous city, will convene a reparations task force starting in October to study the role that Vermont played in chattel slavery and come up with recommendations for reparations.
Although Vermont wasn’t a slave state, Burlington officials and community members contend that the state benefited from slavery.
“As Black labor was extracted through the institution of slavery in the south, wealth flowed into the hands of the northern elite,” Rep. Brian Cina, a Vermont state legislator, told WCAX.
WCAX reports that the task force’s study will determine what reparations should look like, which differentiates it from Asheville’s reparations resolution, which calls for community investments rather than direct payments.
Tyeastia Green, Burlington’s director of racial equity, weighed in on the possibilities.
Green says while there's no limit on what reparations could look like, she believes they will be substantial. "I don't think it's appropriate to put a value on what it cost Black people in this country to be enslaved, what it cost them to lose heritage, to lose culture, what it cost them now to not be allowed in white spaces, still, now in 2020," Green said.
Prior to the passage of the resolution, the City of Burlington and the University of Vermont Medical Center last month declared racism a public health emergency.
The Democratic National Convention Is Underway
After being delayed by the Covid-19 crisis, the four-day Democratic National Convention began yesterday, marking the next stage in the US presidential race. Racial justice, the response to the pandemic, and voting topped the agenda.
Former vice president Joe Biden is slated to accept the presidential nomination remotely from Delaware later this week. The Republicans will hold their national convention digitally August 24-27.
The US is now 76 days away from the November General Election. Human Rights Watch’s voter guide equips voters with questions to help determine where candidates stand on some of the human rights issues at stake in the 2020 race.
US House of Representatives Called Back Into Session Over Postal Service Concerns
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, has called on House members to return early from their August recess for an emergency session addressing the US Postal Service crisis. Amid widespread complaints about mail delivery delays and major changes to the agency made by the new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the Postal Service has warned most states and Washington, DC, that it might not be able to deliver some of their mail-in ballots in time to be counted for the November elections.
this image alone is just wild. https://t.co/2jHNZ8KxbC— Dreisen Heath (@dreisenheath) August 15, 2020
On Saturday the House is expected to vote on a bill that would block changes to mail delivery at the Postal Service and bolster it with $25 billion in funding.
DeJoy has agreed to testify before Congress on Monday.
Human Rights Watch Releases a Roadmap for Reimagining Public Safety in the US
New @hrw report on policing by @JRaphling - makes 14 recommendations.— Laura Pitter (@Laurapitter) August 13, 2020
Instead of using police to solve society’s problems - invest in addressing underlying issues such as mental health, substance use disorder, and poverty. #ReimaginePublicSafetyhttps://t.co/ZU8CGoAvA8 pic.twitter.com/oU4uC2KpLb
Amid the national reckoning around systemic racism in law enforcement and Americans’ dramatic drop in confidence in the police, Human Rights Watch last week released a roadmap for reimagining public safety in the United States, including 14 recommendations for effective and meaningful police reform.
The 14 recommendations build on Human Rights Watch’s work showing that bold, structural changes to policing in the United States are needed and that most reform efforts propose only minor and ineffectual changes. John Raphling, senior researcher on the criminal legal system for the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report, says that government police reform efforts should address three critical issues: reducing the role of police in addressing societal problems, redirecting funds to initiatives that support people and empower communities, and strengthening independent police oversight and accountability.
Making this shift, Raphling says, is essential to limiting the police violence that has caused so much harm.
Read the full report here and check out Raphling’s twitter commentary on policing below.
“A Roadmap for Re-imagining Public Safety in the United States” @hrw paper on policing, recommendations for structural reform: Divest from policing, invest in communities, strengthen accountability https://t.co/0GTohSH9xK— John Raphling (@JRaphling) August 13, 2020
Residents Call for Reparations in Amherst, Massachussetts
Residents of Amherst, Massachussets have launched a petition requesting that local officials adopt a resolution to end structural racism and take steps toward offering reparations, including establishing a devoted fund to the cause.
The Daily Hamphsire Gazette reports that the reparations effort was started by Matthew and Corrine Andrews and Michele Miller, who were inspired by the protests against racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd.
In an op-ed published last month in the Amherst Indy, Matthew Andrews, who is white, explains why reparations is important for residents and local officials to pursue.
We need reparations for slavery and the post-slavery legacy of institutional racial oppression that includes (but is not limited to) voter suppression, red-lining, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. And while a national reparations bill would be a beautiful thing, we don’t need to wait for that. We can act now, in our own community, to recognize and honor the toll that white supremacy and the ethos of domination have taken right here in our own front yards and backyards. We can look at our own lives and ask what we can do to support reparations. We can join together to create models for reparations that could inspire larger scale movements.
The petition states that its aim is "to create responsible and sustainable transformation in the Town of Amherst. We have creative ideas, like considering cannabis revenues as a possible path for funding, but we expect a meaningful percentage of the funds to come from grants and private gifts. What we're asking for is the town's sincere partnership in confronting the legacy and current manifestations of structural racism here in Amherst."
The petition builds on the growing momentum that the US reparations movement has seen on the local and national levels. In July, reparations programs moved forward in Asheville, North Carolina, and Providence, Rhode Island, following the death of George Floyd. In the US Congress, the federal bill HR 40 has received a record number of cosponsors this year amid the launch of the "Why We Can't Wait" project.
As US Covid-19 Cases Surpass 5 Million, Alarming Disparities Persist
Today, we marked 20 million #COVID19 cases worldwide. It took about six months to get to 10 million cases, that number doubled to 20 million in a little over 6 weeks. With 5 million positive tests in the US, one country accounts for a quarter of the world’s confirmed caseload. pic.twitter.com/ybBfaRtlJ6— Akshaya Kumar (@AkshayaSays) August 11, 2020
The United States reached the grim milestone of more than 5 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 this week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The novel coronavirus has claimed about 164,000 lives in the US so far, with 1,082 deaths reported on Tuesday alone. The United States leads the world in the number of Covid-19 deaths and infections, accounting for a quarter of cases globally.
New cases are accumulating as the US Congress remains in a stalemate over the passage of a new Covid-19 relief bill. The enhanced unemployment benefits it had previously approved have expired, even though people continue filing claims for unemployment insurance at “alarmingly high levels,” reports the New York Times.
Immigrants remain among the groups hit particularly hard by the crisis. “Immigrants are especially vulnerable in this pandemic because many are in jobs on the front lines,” writes Human Rights Watch’s Thomas Rachko. “Many essential workers, including doctors, nurses and medical staff, maintenance 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 US Congress should pass legislation that doesn’t discriminate against immigrants. Rachko says that the CARES ACT, a Covid-19 relief package passed in March, fell short of protecting immigrants from the pandemic and excluded far too many people, including tax-paying immigrant families and millions of undocumented workers, many of whom who pay taxes.
As more than 5 million have now tested positive for #Covid19 in the US, Congress should ensure relief bills assist immigrant families.— Thomas J. Rachko, Jr. (@ThomasRachkoJr) August 11, 2020
Inclusion without discrimination protects lives, supports the economy, & protects the rights of all community members.https://t.co/Vf3mIs7ezP pic.twitter.com/BzYTgzPhY9
Black and brown people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Last month, the New York Times reported that Black and Latinx people are 3 times more likely than white people to contract the novel coronavirus and nearly twice as likely to die from it. Even youth are feeling the disparities: A report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Black and Hispanic children have higher rates of hospitalization due to Covid-19 compared to their white peers.
Even as Black and brown communities bear the brunt of the crisis, new research suggests that there may be systemic racial bias in the formula the federal government uses to allocate Covid-19 relief funds to hospitals. And a July study showed that Black businesses received worse treatment than white ones when they tried to get loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.
Human Rights Watch’s Akshaya Kumar addressed the glaring racial disparities and systemic racism driving them on Twitter.
👀👀👀 While the overall rate is 45 deaths for every 100,000 people in Los Angeles county— Akshaya Kumar (@AkshayaSays) August 11, 2020
For Latino residents, it’s a rate of 68
For Black residents, it’s a rate of 54
For Asian residents it’s a rate of 35
For white residents, it’s a rate of 26https://t.co/4lUnTcZGfL
This isn’t just an issue in LA, check out these statistics from around the country https://t.co/46PBr1onr7— Akshaya Kumar (@AkshayaSays) August 11, 2020
But this isn’t just one of those unavoidable sad realities, it’s a dynamic that’s exacerbated by US government policy. See for example this study about the way aid was distributed to hospitals https://t.co/7uwzszWn2W pic.twitter.com/YlwqDXonvf— Akshaya Kumar (@AkshayaSays) August 11, 2020
All this is even worse if you’re a health worker of color. @TheLancet found Black, Asian, and minority ethnic health-care workers are at high risk of infection, with at least a 5x increased risk of COVID-19 compared with white general community. https://t.co/TXlw5ulVr6— Akshaya Kumar (@AkshayaSays) August 11, 2020
Kumar writes that the devastation facing communities of color during the pandemic aren’t an unfortunate coincidence but instead “a dynamic that’s exacerbated by US government policy.”