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Stand Up for Human Rights: #BlackLivesMatter

The Human Rights Center joins the multitude of voices condemning the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black men and women, demanding accountability for these injustices and proposing actions to reform our current system. We are struck by the mobilization of thousands of people around the United States who insist on recognition that #BlackLivesMatter. We are rocked by the pain and grief that comes with loss of life, and deeply concerned about the violent escalations by law enforcement against peaceful protestors and credentialed journalists. 

This spring’s spate of horrific injustices belongs to a long history of systemic racism in the United States. The outpouring of frustration and outrage at this appalling brutality comes at a time when over 100,000 American lives have been lost to COVID-19 and unemployment rates are higher than during the Great Depression--both of which disproportionately impact African American communities. Coupled with our re-emergence from months of social distancing, this summer may place us on the precipice of a dangerous descent. Human rights provides a framework for thought and action in seeking justice during uncertain times. 

Standards and Obligations

The right to peaceful assembly and to freedom of the media are cornerstones of our democracy and norms to which the United States has historically adhered. Human rights standards outline the appropriate use of force by law enforcement in response to protests. They demand that law enforcement use all non-violent means possible before resorting to the use of force and firearms. Where force is used, it should be proportionate to the seriousness of the offense and used towards a legitimate aim. 

We are living in an environment of heightened tension in the United States, severe disruption in our global community, and profound questions about our way forward as a democracy committed to both the rule of law and to sharing a common purpose with all of humanity. The ultimate responsibility for the protection of human rights lies with the state, which has power over the use of force and resources in a society. In situations of crisis, the way government leaders respond can make the difference between forging unity of purpose and commitment to meaningful change or sowing the seeds of greater divisiveness, incitement to violence, and civic conflict. 

It is time for the U.S. to fully embrace human rights to guide our governance both at home and globally. The United States has often defined itself as a leader in human rights around the world. It is responsible to uphold its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture.

But the U.S. has for too long wavered in its true commitment to the interconnected and interdependent nature of universal human rights, particularly to the economic, social and cultural rights of all people, to gender equality and to the rights of children. Our historic and on-going reluctance to fully embrace human rights norms at home and abroad can be traced directly, though not entirely, to the original sin of slavery and its subsequent system of Jim Crow and institutionalized racism.  

Now and Then

Previous cycles of mistreatment, protest, and escalation remain within living memory for many Americans. In 1964 in New York City, 1965 in Los Angeles, and 1966 in Dayton, protests by African Americans against police brutality and white supremacy led to violent confrontations, injuries, or loss of life. As our Vietnam Legacies Project reminds us, Black leaders of that era including Martin Luther King, Julian Bond, and Shirley Chisholm directly connected massive military spending abroad to underinvestment in African American communities. 

In her 1969 inaugural speech in the House of Representatives, Chisholm remarked, “I do not think I will ever understand what kind of values can be involved in spending $9 billion -- and more, I am sure -- on elaborate, unnecessary, and impractical weapons when several thousand disadvantaged children in the nation’s capital get nothing.” We hear echoes of this speech today in the complaint that our hospitals, transportation systems, and schools lack resources to deal with COVID-19, while police departments are amply supplied with tear gas, flash bang grenades, and military-grade vehicles. Over the past six consecutive years, the US has steadily increased military spending, returning to levels not seen since the Iraq War.

More recently, the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri sparked our hope that ordinary people, determined, organized, and working collectively, can reclaim their dignity in the face of systemic racism and state violence. Our Moral Courage Project’s exploration of the stories of frontline activists in Ferguson recounts the ways in which community members asserted their right to walk freely in the streets without harassment, following the police shooting of the unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown. The 100-day protest movement in Ferguson teaches us what it means and what it takes to fight for freedom. These Ferguson Voices resonate particularly strongly today.

Our Collective Responsibility

It is time for a true reckoning with this legacy. The actions required to come to terms with our past and current unjust systems and to build a better future for all in equity, peace and prosperity are myriad and will not be easy to take. At the Human Rights Center, we find solace and guidance in human rights norms and transitional justice practice, which compel the pursuit of, among others:

  1. Complete accountability for current and past racial injustice, involving individual investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators of racist assaults and police brutality, as well as consideration of wider societal accountability and reparations for slavery, Jim Crow and other state enforced or enabled manifestations of discriminatory practice, such as redlining.  
  2. Systemic reform of the criminal justice system, including our correctional regime of mass incarceration, and involving a shift in resources from punitive to restorative, community-based justice approaches which have proven effective. Institutional vetting of current police forces with track records of racially motivated policing and brutality and establishment of new standards for police recruitment, oversight, and leadership should be critical dimensions of such reform.     
  3. National, state and local mechanisms of truth telling and healing, including widespread hearings and documentation of victims telling their stories and those of their ancestors, processes of dismantling white privilege, review of current and establishment of new memorials, and redrafting of curricula and reframing of historical memory at all levels of the educational system in the US.  
  4. Ensuring that those most impacted are at the forefront of the design and implementation of these and other actions and mechanisms. We must move beyond participatory approaches to more rights-based and transformational collaboration bringing national, state and local government, civil society, businesses and artists around creative and innovative responses and centering feminist and queer perspectives in our social change.
  5. The establishment of a national human rights commission or similar independent institution with the mandate to advise the federal government on legislation, policies and programs and to monitor and identify patterns of systemic human rights issues in the US and in its international engagement.

Looking forward 

This is a crucial moment for Dayton, Ohio, our country and our world. It is a moment that demands action grounded on deescalation of tensions between protestors and law enforcement, peaceful means of conflict resolution and trust-building, community-based dialogue and storytelling which generate the possibility for transformational change and long-term healing. We see the potential for this in our own Dayton community to provide an outlet for understandable frustration, anguish and indignation, and enable the voices that are most impacted and silenced to be heard and validated by government and local leadership. 

Our own President Spina has enjoined us to act, declaring,

“Now is not a time for silence or inaction. It’s a time for solidarity, courageous dialogue, and a renewed commitment to equality and dignity for all. Drawing on our Marianist heritage, we understand that we all share the responsibility for finding a new path forward that upholds and protects the worth and dignity of every person.”

Such measures will only be successful in the context of strong democratic institutions, which protect our civil and political freedoms and the rule of law in the coming months. Taking all steps required to ensure free and fair elections in November, through all means necessary even in the context of the potential second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, must be paramount. 

Let us recall the eloquent and insightful words of African American feminist thought leaders in the United States, which we have been privileged to learn from at our Social Practice of Human Rights Conferences. Carol Anderson gave an exalting speech about white rage and its insidious and corrosive effects which you can listen to now. The courageous #BlackLivesMatter co-founder and global rights activist Opal Tometi joined us last fall for a conversation with Dayton’s own leading light, Shannon Isom, executive director of the YWCA in Dayton. We encourage you to also take a moment to be inspired by this exchange.   

When times feel darkest, despair is natural and hope is hard. As human rights advocates, we envision a different, more just and equal world and the work to bring about change is ongoing and incremental. When threatened with a global pandemic, persistent racial inequality, and the collapse of democratic norms, human rights provide a road map for how we pursue a way out and a way forward, together. 


Photo credit: Dayton Daily News

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