Kim Thuy Seelinger sat with survivors and legal partners in a courtroom in Dakar, Senegal, a few months ago to hear Judge Ougadeye Wafi’s decision on the appeal of former Chad dictator Hissène Habré: still guilty.
Although Habré was acquitted of personally raping Khadidja Hassan Zidane on procedural grounds, the other sexual violence convictions were upheld and hailed as a victory for international criminal justice. It was the first time a national court had used principles of universal jurisdiction to prosecute a former head of state for crimes of this nature.
“It was a good day for the victims,” said Seelinger, director of the Sexual Violence Program at the Human Rights Center, who worked with international legal experts on an amicus brief last year that helped to convict Habré of sexual slavery as a crime against humanity.
But our work is not done.
Our Sexual Violence Program is helping to forge a new era in war crimes prosecutions in national courts. We are now clarifying questions of international law in the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander in Uganda who has been indicted on 93 counts, including various crimes against humanity. Kwoyelo’s trial is the first domestic war crimes case in Uganda, and the first LRA prosecution. Precedent set by these trials will help achieve accountability for sexual violence in future cases around the globe.
In honor of International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict on Monday, help us ensure sexual violence in conflict is pursued as a crime and not just a collateral of war. Your tax-deductible gift of any size will impact international justice.
To meet our goals, we need to raise an additional $12,000 by June 30.
UC Berkeley’s Joel Sati is a doctoral student in Jurisprudence and Social Policy who is studying undocumented immigrants, a subject that’s close to home. He arrived from Kenya as a young child and much later benefited from DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—a program enabled by former President Obama to offer modest hope to young undocumented immigrants seeking education and security in the United States. Prompted by the DREAMers movement, DACA has helped approximately 665,000 undocumented children to be protected—at least temporarily. Sati and I spoke in December about the treatment of certain immigrant groups and how this has, in turn, provoked the marginalization of others—from criminalization to the intersections of immigrant status and race. As President Donald Trump announces plans for massive deportations and sparks widespread fear in immigrant communities nationwide, Sati’s perspectives are especially critical.
O-RK: What is the DACA program?
J-S: DACA was an executive order that President Obama released after pressure from a lot of immigrant groups, and it applies to undocumented immigrants who came here as children, don’t have a criminal record, and have graduated from high school. They are able to get prosecutorial suppression for two years, which means they become a really low priority for deportation. In those two years, undocumented immigrants can get work permits and apply for Social Security for work purposes; they may also obtain drivers’ licenses in certain states.
O-RK: Does it apply to any undocumented immigrant who came here as a child?
J-S: There were restrictions that made DACA inaccessible to a majority of people: for example, being younger than 30, and having arrived in the United States before December 15, 2007. In all, I believe it benefited less than 10 percent of the total number of undocumented immigrants.
President Obama also pushed for more deportations as a sort of ‘down-payment on immigration reform’ to try to get agreement from the other side of the aisle; he showed the immigrants’ rights movement that the political establishment can’t be trusted.
O-RK: You are currently benefitting from the DACA program. How did you feel about sending all your information to Washington to apply?
J-S: DACA came out during the 2012 general election and a lot of people decided not to apply to the program because they were worried that if [Mitt] Romney was elected, their information would be compromised. There was a bit of a lull until Obama won the election and people felt safe applying. I applied about a month after the program went live and wasn’t too worried, but then again I was a different person than I am now.
O-RK: How did you become active in the politics around the DACA program?
J-S: I was enrolled in school in Maryland at that time, and spent the summer and fall of 2012 lobbying for the Maryland DREAM Act. This referendum allowed undocumented students who had graduated from high school and spent two years at a Maryland community college to receive in-state tuition at Maryland institutions of higher education. The victory led me to make the move towards working for comprehensive immigration reform.
O-RK: Can you tell me about the bipartisan act currently in Congress to protect DACA?
J-S: On the Senate floor, Senator Dick Durbin and Lindsay Graham released the BRIDGE Act, which will allow the people who have received deferred status to be protected under a similar model. While it doesn’t grant a path towards legal status and is not renewable, it does protect immigrant students from deportation.
O-RK: You have some reservations about DACA?
J-S: I’ve always been ambivalent about policies like DACA, and now the BRIDGE Act, because I think these policies exceptionalize a certain subgroup of undocumented immigrants while further marginalizing others. Once DACA became policy, it pacified the people who were called DREAMers and let them present themselves as exceptional, making it difficult to push for further reform. President Obama also pushed for more deportations as a sort of ‘down-payment on immigration reform’ to try to get agreement from the other side of the aisle; he showed the immigrants’ rights movement that the political establishment can’t be trusted. Now, we’re trying to look at what our options are, how we develop narratives, and the institutions that we need to call into question. I’m trying to organize in the best way I can—writing and blogging, trying to start conversations at Berkeley through lectures, panels, and symposiums. I also do work in philosophy, political theory, and epistemology, and I’ve been working on papers that look at the deliberative environment in which undocumented immigrants make claims for basic services, residency, and citizenship. By investigating in through this lens, I hope to call out certain assumptions and try to change the debate in a meaningful way.
O-RK: Is there a big community of DACA students at Berkeley, or students organized around the politics of DACA?
J-S: I think there are a few undocumented doctoral students—I only know a handful of them, but I’ll probably get to know more as time goes on. I really want to give a shout-out to an organization called RISE, the immigrants’ rights organizing group here at Berkeley. It’s led by really great undergrads and also by Meng So, the director of the Undocumented Students Center at Cal; there are some people who are organizing around undocumented immigration here at Berkeley, making cross-UC connections, putting pressure on UC President Napolitano. It’s empowering to see because Berkeley as an institution is in a unique position to make waves in terms of undocumented immigrants and immigrants’ rights.
What’s more pernicious is the fact that the idea of “the criminal” is left undefined by President Trump.
O-RK: You mentioned putting pressure on UC President Janet Napolitano; how have you been interacting with the UC administration?
J-S: I haven’t been personally interacting with the UC administration, but the people at RISE have been. It’s interesting to see some of the policies that Napolitano puts out; she published an op-ed in the New York Times which caught a lot of flak from the immigrants’ rights movement because it continued to exceptionalize undocumented students and really didn’t look at workers or at mixed-status families.
O-RK: Are there any other policy proposals out there now that help all undocumented immigrants, not just the DREAMers?
J-S: There’s some promising policy work coming up but a lot of it is still in its infancy since no one really knows what the administration is planning. I think right now it’s just a matter of protecting all undocumented immigrants and trying to marshal the institutions and people of influence to act as a bulwark.
O-RK: And what specifically are you expecting from this new administration?
J-S: Someone who’s been advising the new administration is Kris Kobach, the current Kansas Secretary of State. He’s a noted anti-immigrant attorney and helped draft Arizona’s SB1070, which is known as the “show-your-papers law,” as well as Alabama’s bill in that same vein. I think that new efforts are going towards criminalizing all undocumented immigrants. In an interview, [Trump] said that he’s looking to deport two to three million criminal immigrants. I’ve always thought of that number as a red herring, since two to three million seems logistically unfeasible. What’s more pernicious is the fact that the idea of “the criminal” is left undefined by President Trump. It’s not just people with criminal records who fall under that umbrella, it’s every undocumented immigrant. So what the political situation and the expansion of criminality will mean for undocumented immigrants is something that gives me great worry.
I’m a Black undocumented immigrant, and so for me and for other Black immigrants, I see the issue of criminality as attached to the status of Blackness and the politics of anti-Blackness.
O-RK: How would you characterize UC Berkeley’s response or the UC’s response to this so far? Is it satisfactory?
J-S: It’s very student-focused, which is predictable, given that this is an institution of higher education. But since they are a premier institution of higher education, it is incumbent that they do more. I’m looking at the idea of expanding the Undocumented Immigrant Center, expanding undocumented student programs, and prompting the UC system to take the lead in protecting all immigrants.
O-RK: The category of “immigrants” is a large one. Can you talk about the intersection of race, immigration, and criminality that complicates this discussion?
J-S: Absolutely. I’m a Black undocumented immigrant, and so for me and for other Black immigrants, I see the issue of criminality as attached to the status of Blackness and the politics of anti-Blackness. The immigrants’ rights movement has received a lot of criticism for the slogan, “Families, not Felonies,” meaning that the undocumented should be seen as persons and not as criminals. But such a claim suggests that anyone with a criminal record isn’t a member of family, and makes no claim to residency and citizenship. Thus, such a slogan can reflect negatively on African-Americans as well as Black immigrants, because of the way they are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and so it undermines their claims. We talked earlier about Trump’s expanded notion of criminality. Questioning the system that makes people not only undocumented but also ‘illegal,’ and redefines their status as ‘aliens’—which is somehow foreign or inhuman—necessitates an analysis about race, gender, immigration status, queerness, and to other things of that nature.
O-RK: Have you noticed any changes in the attitude of the student body towards the DACA program or towards DACA beneficiaries since the election?
J-S: Yes. Echoing what I said earlier, the idea was that DACA will most likely go in January. So DACA beneficiaries were faced with a choice: do we push to maintain DACA, or do we accept that it’s gone and go back to pushing for everyone? I want to be optimistic and say that it’s the latter position, where DACA is going to go away, creating a golden opportunity to push for comprehensive immigration reform. I think that would be the better choice.
O-RK: Thanks! Any final thoughts?
J-S: It’s important to change narratives on immigration, and it is imperative that we get as many people on our side as possible to make this happen.
UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler went straight from New York University School of Law to the defense team of Michael Jackson and then that of OJ Simpson. But even this high-profile litigation couldn’t keep him from his calling to study constitutional law—a field where he has subsequently won acclaim as an expert on the Second Amendment. His most recent book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America tells the story of the pivotal 2008 Heller case and its complex cast of gun rights and gun control advocates. Winkler has walked a fine line as a scholar amid a contentious debate, not caving to passionate advocates on either side. It’s an accomplishment that many—including Berkeley Law’s Frank Zimring—say serves his readers and the subject. Winkler lectured at Berkeley Law this week and spoke with the Berkeley Human Rights Q&A about the rapidly shifting political climate—everything from changing gun laws to unbridled executive powers to the importance of protest.
Q. Did guns or the constitution or both figure prominently in your childhood?
A. Neither did. I grew up on the West side of Los Angeles in a liberal Hollywood family where we were not even allowed to have squirt guns.
Q. You ended up on the Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson defense teams practically from the get-go.
A. We represented Michael Jackson in that first civil suit against him for alleged molestation of a child. It was a really interesting case to be involved with, mostly because it was happening at a time when the news media was rapidly changing. It was the time of the birth of tabloid television when Hard Copy and Inside Edition—the television programs that spawned TMZ and the gossip and tabloid culture we know today. I would go home after a day of working on one of those cases and watch all of those tabloid television shows and learn things about my case that I didn’t know from the inside.
There’s one key thing that both sides tend to forget: the permanence of guns in America. I think too often both sides assume there is a possibility that we can get rid of all of the civilian guns in America. The kinds of laws that promote disarmament really don’t work in a country that has 300 million guns and counting.
Q. But you turned instead to the thrills of academia and the Second Amendment?
A. Constitutional law was one of those issues that really got me excited about the law and motivated me to become a law professor. My scholarship in the first 10 years focused on a very narrow issue that had little public interest at the time: Whether corporations could be limited in how they spend money [to influence] the political process. In 2008, that issue was a dead issue. I was sick of going to conferences and finding no one to talk to about it. I needed to find a hot topic that had some good debate around it. The Second Amendment lured me in. Then two years later, after I committed myself to the Second Amendment and set aside that research…suddenly it becomes one of the biggest issues in America. It shows you how good my timing is.
Q. What is the future of the Second Amendment?
A. We have all this debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment, but in the meantime almost every state has a constitutional guarantee for the right to bear arms. You have over 150 years of state court cases on the constitutionality of control—not under the Second Amendment. You want to know the future of the Second Amendment? Let’s look at these state cases. The right to bear arms is already judicially respected in the states. Even when courts called the issue a fundamental right, a right of great importance, at the same time they generally upheld the vast majority of gun control laws. That’s an interesting balance where you could have gun rights and gun regulation at the same time. They don’t have to be incompatible. That inspired me to think about the Second Amendment more broadly and inspired my research into my book, Gunfight.
Q. What are the big takeaways from your book Gunfight?
A. The biggest theme that I explore in Gunfight is the way we historically balance gun rights with gun control. I take the 2008 District of Columbia against Heller case that held for the first time that the Second Amendment unambiguously protected the right to bear arms when the court struck down a ban in Washington, DC, on handguns. I used my book to tell the story about that case—a story of civil rights litigation that was modeled after Brown v. Board of Education. I used that fascinating story as a jumping off point to look at the historical balance between gun rights and gun control. As much as we think about the Second Amendment as essential to the American identity, I argue that gun control is just as much a part of the story of America.
There’s a good chance the Trump Administration will pass the NRA’s number one agenda item: national reciprocity. This is the idea that someone with gun in State A can travel to State B and still carry their gun.
Q. What don’t gun control advocates understand about gun rights advocates?
A. There’s one key thing that both sides tend to forget: the permanence of guns in America. I think too often both sides assume there is a possibility that we can get rid of all of the civilian guns in America. The kinds of laws that promote disarmament really don’t work in a country that has 300 million guns and counting. One thing that the Heller case made clear is that [the government] can’t take the guns—even if they could legally, let’s face it, they couldn’t do it pragmatically. We tried to outlaw drugs in this country. It didn’t work. We tried to ban alcohol. It didn’t work. Trying to ban easily concealable things that people feel passionately about is destined to be a mistake.
Q. But can’t everyone agree that we need less gun violence?
A. That is the vexing question. I think there are things we can do to reduce criminal violence with guns. We should take ideas from gun control advocates and gun rights advocates. We should have universal background checks. It’s a simple idea that the NRA supported for many years. We should make it harder for criminals to get their hands on guns. I also think we should take ideas from the gun rights community. They say that we don’t need new laws, but better enforcement of existing laws. We should take the NRA up on that. We need to shut down the pipeline by which guns are transferred across state lines and brought to black market. Frankly, the NRA and allies have made it difficult to enforce those laws by handcuffing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms by reducing its funding and by refusing to confirm the head of the Bureau. If they can’t do their jobs, we’re not going to effectively stop gun trafficking.
Q. What’s going to happen with gun laws under President Trump and the Republican Congress?
A. I think we’re going to see a big change in gun laws under the Trump Administration. We’re going to see more liberalization of gun laws—gun laws made more permissive and not restrictive. There’s a good chance the Trump Administration will pass the NRA’s number one agenda item: national reciprocity. This is the idea that someone with gun in State A can travel to State B and still carry their gun. Some iterations would allow a Utah concealed permit holder to carry their gun in California, even if that person was a resident of California. Utah doesn’t always require you to be a resident in their state to carry a concealed weapon in their state. Then we will have a situation where cities like LA or Berkeley cannot control who has guns on their street. The state of Utah will control them.
Q. What about constitutional rights and, specifically, executive powers, more generally?
A. When you lose [Berkeley Law Professor] John Yoo [see February 7 New York Times op-ed] on executive power, you know you’ve gone too far. John Yoo is one of the most aggressive interpreters of executive power in America. He thought [the power] was so broad it could justify things like torture, even though it was clearly against the law to engage in torture.
Q. How do we keep this power in check? What’s our best defense?
A. There’s two ways in which Trump can be checked and one way he will not be checked. It’s seems clear that Republicans in Congress are not going to check him. Although we are taught in school about the separation of powers and how Congress will check the unbridled powers of the executive branch, the truth is we have separation of parties and not separation of powers. Where will checking come from? We’ll see it from the courts. The courts aren’t going to stand idly by while Donald Trump runs roughshod over the constitution. Second, it’s so important that we have civil society that will actively organize. We have already seen that as bad as January 20 was in the minds of so many, January 21 was also a day that brought much hope—when you saw the biggest protests in American history. I do think that political activism by ordinary citizens can have an effect.
Q. Like on climate change, California seems to be out front on gun research.
A. Absolutely. California will continue to play a major role in gun violence studies. Traditionally the federal government has stayed away from funding gun violence research for fear it is too political. We want to have better knowledge of guns and only when we have better knowledge can we figure out which kinds of gun laws work and which kinds of gun laws don’t work.
Q. Is the gun debate at a perpetual impasse?
A. This gun debate will continue, obviously, for a while. One thing I might look for in the future is increasing variation and difference among the states. With the absence of federal regulation, you’re going to have different states moving in different directions. We’ve already seen that to a certain extent where a bunch of states have made their laws permissive for guns and a bunch of states, like California, have made their laws more restrictive. We’re getting into a world where we’re going to have that kind of polarization about guns on a state level. So depending on where you are in the nation, your gun rights are going to be very, very different than where they might be somewhere else.
Many of the Trump Administration’s recent directives and pronouncements pose serious challenges to the enforcement of international human rights and humanitarian law. The Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley stands with students, academics, journalists, activists, and others worldwide who are resisting these assaults on truth and justice and are working to strengthen the rule of law. We denounce any attempts to breed fear and intolerance. And we will defend those who are targeted on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, national identity, or otherwise.
—Eric Stover, Faculty Director & Alexa Koenig, Executive Director
While my 5-year-old body plummeted from the roof, I started to realize that maybe copying my brother wasn’t always the best strategy. But it was too late. I had already felt the wind in my hair and was about to feel the cold hard ground on my bottom. Like him, I had climbed 50 feet onto our roof. Unlike him, I fell. And as the younger sister, I would probably copy him all over again.
That childlike “monkey see, monkey do” mentality continues to afflict young minds today. Children are often susceptible to the influences around them, modeling observed behaviors—from healthy eating to generosity to strangers to climbing on roofs. Kids know what they’re shown.
This reflection brings me to our current political context. In a time where texts are sent in a split second, articles are published by the minute, and presidents can shake the world with 140 characters or less, we need to be more conscious of what children see. These are the ideologies and behaviors that will grow to shape their own voice—the voice of America’s future. And if we let the ignorant prejudice inflamed by Trump’s presidency perpetuate, that may very well be our future.
Already, days and weeks after the election, high school students in New Jersey chanted “10 feet higher” at the Latino students, referring to the wall that would purportedly be built on the U.S./Mexico border. #whitesonly was scrawled onto the bathroom stalls of Maple Grove high school in Minnesota. Chants of “white power” could be heard down the halls of York Tech High school in Pennsylvania. White students from Ladue High School in Missouri, one armed with a hot glue gun, screamed at Black children to sit at the back of the bus.
These are children who are witnessing the mistreatment of people of color, Muslims, and immigrants by our president-elect and his supporters (perhaps their parents), and emulating it—at an age when they are protected by, but likely ignorant about, the Bill of Rights. Hate speech is not illegal. But hate speech can be a precursor to hate crimes. And hate crimes are illegal. These children are well on their way to creating issues much bigger than how to get out of P.E. class.
Maybe we can’t stop the hate speech and hate crimes that have sharply risen since the election, according to human rights organizations. Maybe we can’t make those who elected Trump accept Mexicans as people, rather than drug smuggling job thieves, or agree to let women decide what they should do with their own bodies. Maybe we can’t stop Grandpa from thinking America needs to be “great” again. But we can stop children from following suit, from climbing on the roof.
My generation—the 18 and older college students from around the country—must be the examples we want to see for those just a few years younger. We must loudly and actively teach children that different isn’t bad and that there are better, alternative ways of thinking. We must monitor the hate crimes and put faces to the names so we can start to acknowledge each other as people instead of stereotypes. We must emphasize facts, not ignorant hate.
I have the opportunity to do so—to help set this example—by working with the Digital Verification Corps (DVC) through UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. The DVC lab is monitoring and verifying the hate crimes publicized through social media in an attempt to stop the racial prejudice and encourage acceptance by understanding the truth. Technology makes it incredibly easy to spread misinformation, regardless of the political perspective.
It’s no secret that my generation and the ones that follow walk around glued to our smartphones. With various social media apps always at hand—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram—we are always connected. We find out information within seconds and spread it even faster. But we need to be smart about what we spread. The DVC lab hopes to find ways to spread truth as opposed to rumors by verifying information and connecting people to the source. We may not be able to dispel opinions, but we can dispel ignorance. And the key to doing that, is by focusing on facts.
Children aren’t born with prejudice, they learn it. We can’t stop them from seeing, but we must stop them from doing. We must teach them the truth.
Ilaf Esuf is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Human Rights Investigations Lab and Digital Verification Corps.
Makani Themba is a writer, strategist, and organizer who helps individuals and organizations use media more effectively to challenge racism and advance social justice. The longtime director of the Praxis Project, Themba is now the chief strategist at Higher Ground Change Strategies in Detroit, Michigan. She came to UC Berkeley this fall to speak specifically about how we frame the gun violence debate, and how we can use framing to instigate action for gun safety. Although she spoke to us before the U.S. presidential election, she illuminated the challenge and pressing need to communicate across racial, economic, regional, and political chasms in a vastly divided country.
Q. Where did you get your deep commitment to making change
A. I’m a child of the ’60s. I grew up during turbulent times. I lived in Harlem, New York, so it was a kind of ‘ground zero’ for the Black Nationalist movement and also the peace movement and local control. My mom was really active in fighting for good schools, which was critically important. Malcolm X used to preach on the street corner in a neighborhood where we shopped. So I was surrounded by a tremendous amount of inspiration. The ’60s was really a time of optimism. For those of us who were children during that time, it not only captured our imagination, but it put something in us that makes us want to find that sense again, that sense of winning, that sense of being surrounded by a feeling of ‘any day now we’re all going to be free.’ My very first job out of college was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, so that was what started me on my way.
Q. Tell me something important about your family.
A. I think I’ll tell you something important about my family relationship to this topic—gun violence. I come from a family on my father’s side that is very much into guns—hunters—and into guns as safety. And then on my mother’s side it’s the exact opposite. My mother is a practicing devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda, and she tries to live a super non-violent life, vegetarian, all of that. They had a moment in the ‘60s where they got married and were together, and then went their separate ways. As an activist, I have a lot of facets that come from a very diverse family.
Q. And that probably helps you translate this debate for people, I’d imagine.
A: It does feel that way because I do have to have that conversation with folks. And I also think that having a mom in particular who was—and is—so committed to mindfulness and presence, keeps me from thinking of the debate as ‘a war.’ That’s important to me, because when you can see the other person, and they can see you, and you can walk into a discussion where you’re holding the humanity of both of you at the center, I think it’s a different conversation [than you would have otherwise]. And that takes practice.
Q. Do you consider your work human rights work?
A. Human rights are a really big part of my personal journey. I worked at Amnesty [International]. I also worked in other human rights settings and racial justice settings to better understand ‘the human rights framework’ as a tool. And it’s a great tool. It also has some limits, too. Because in ‘the rights’ framework, ‘rights’ are not the same as obligations, right? So there’s a lot of focus on what we have a right to, but not as much focus on who’s obliged to make sure that we have those rights. And so for me, it’s like well, what does a policy framework at a local level look like that gets at that? Whose job is that? How does a city act? How does a state act? How does the federal government act?
Q. You talk about ‘change communications.’ What does that mean and how does it work in practice?
A. Sure, well it’s 1. communication supports organizing, and 2. communication actually has as its metric that people think differently about the fundamental underlying principles that drive the ‘debate.’ A lot of messaging focuses at the surface. So people say, “well really if you say it this way, then their brain is going to shift that way,” or that kind of thing. But the truth of the matter is that most of what we think is deeply rooted in ideas that we have been learning all of our lives and for hundreds of years. And so change communications combines what we understand about communicating in the classic way, which is messaging, and understand that if we’re going to make change, we have to change how we make meaning. So a history book is just as important to a change communication strategy as a newspaper, because it affects how we think and how we believe, and then how we act. And so if we’re learning that certain people are not valuable in school, that’s going to carry through in all of our political beliefs. And so we’re not going to change that with a message. We have to start to look at changing all of the ways in which people draw meaning and make meaning in the world.
Q. You seem to think outside the box in how you support grassroots organizing.
A: I just had this super fun time with Black Women for Wellness, facilitating this Afro-futurist vision where we had about 200 women and a few men in a room and we imagined the Black family one hundred years in the future. We imagined what would be the organizing principles of policy if they not about profit and value or punishment, but rather love and teaching each other. And in some ways, when we even imagine a human rights framework, a lot of times we think about human rights in the context of “human wrongs.” We think this is this human wrong and you need a right to something different. And so the organizing principle is often about the injustice and correcting injustice versus justice at the center. And so part of my work recently is to rethink the organizing principles: What are the foundational principles that we build these ideas and policies around, and what happens if we shift them? I just also facilitated a project session with this amazing group called Design Studio for Social Intervention that’s based in Boston— brilliant folks—and they are doing this thing in Roxbury to imagine a people’s redevelopment agency. So instead of a city redevelopment agency, what would happen if residents ran it? What would it do? What would be its guiding principle? What would it look like if the organizing principle of development was love? What would the houses look like? What would the neighborhoods feel like? What would be the rules?
Q. Using change communications, how do we talk about gun violence?
A. Gun violence is what it is because violence is so deeply embedded in this culture. And so there was a point in the ’60s or early ’70s when a critical mass of folks really started to interrogate how violent our culture was. We have the idea that the only way to solve problems is through violence. And so when you think about dealing with gun violence, the main argument for guns is that they’re necessary. Because if people did not think they were necessary, we really wouldn’t have them in the way that we do. And there are issues of throwing up the race card to make people afraid of ‘the other,’ so you need a gun to protect yourself. And the idea, whether it’s war, or whether it’s fighting over somebody calling you a name or something, how do you understand how to resolve issues, if you understand that violence is not necessary to do so? And so that’s the fundamental work. That fear, that’s deeply embedded, the idea of violence being deeply embedded as an antidote to address the fear, the association of guns with mass killings as well as protection, and strength, and the idea that it is a right.
Q. What’s an example of how violence is deeply embedded?
A. I love old movies, and I watch them not only because they are great, but also because they are a blueprint of the American psyche. Some are actually sponsored by the NRA [National Rifle Association]. They actually say in the beginning of the film that this studio is a proud member of the NRA, pretty much up until the ’50s. That’s embedded in our culture in such a profound way—so we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got to address the structures that promote this thinking and find ways to restructure them. We’re not going to message this away.
The Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law welcomes Audrey Whiting, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s Master of Development Practice program, as the new coordinator of the center’s Fellowship Program.
“Audrey brings significant experience with on-the-ground research to this role,” said HRC Executive Director Alexa Koenig. “And even more importantly, she brings a passion for giving students opportunities to make an impact.”
Whiting recently served as a graduate researcher and intern for the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, where she co-coordinated the 2015 Missing Peace Practitioners’ Workshop on Accountability for Sexual Violence, held in Kampala, Uganda. She was also the program manager for the Global Adolescent Health Colloquium at UC Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health, and sits on the steering committee for the Human Rights Watch Young Professionals Network. While completing her master’s degree, she also worked as a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“Throughout my time at Berkeley, I have been inspired by my fellow students and realized what a wealth of knowledge and talent we have on our campus,” said Whiting. “I am thrilled to be part of helping people to figure out how to use their talent in the world of human rights to make the world a better place.”
Whiting’s research interests lie at the intersection of international development, public health, human rights, and gender. Prior to attending Berkeley, she worked as a pediatric critical Care RN at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She holds a B.S. in Nursing summa cum laude from Southern Adventist and a Master of Development Practice from UC Berkeley.
The Human Rights Center’s Fellowship Program has enabled nearly 300 students to work for human rights over the past two decades. The program is made possible by Dr. Thomas J. White.
Just before 7am on Tuesday morning, the President-Elect of the United States of America casually threatened to roll back the First Amendment.
The First Amendment to the US Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were added on June 8, 1789 — just days before France’s Third Estate overthrew their monarchy, demanding “Rights of Man and the Citizen” — to guarantee various rights and freedoms to the people of the fledgling US. In the centuries since, some Amendments — such as the Third, which prohibits the quartering of soldiers in homes without owners’ consent — seem less pressing than they did in the 18th century; while others, such as the Second — which reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” — have found their way to the center of today’s political discourse.
Yet the First Amendment remains sacrosanct, integral to movements from Black Lives Matter to the so-called “Alt-Right.” Of course, not all parties agree what that free speech should look like: whether it allows for hate speech, anti-Semitic or racist language, or threats of violence, or if such speech infringes on the rights of others and therefore can be curtailed. But the fundamental right to freedom of expression — and in particular, freedom to express dissent or controversial opinions — is widely understood to reside at the core of American values. This can be seen in cases as disparate as quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the National Anthem at NFL games, and chants at Trump rallies to “Drain the Swamp” — to oust government leaders. Trump himself gained his first political foothold by publicly questioning President Obama’s citizenship — a claim that was as false as it was legal to express. Movements across the political spectrum rely on the right to critique those in power. That right to dissent is a necessary precondition to the right to free speech. And free speech — a right our Founding Fathers saw as so foundational to their vision of the nation that they placed it before the right to bear arms to defend that nation — is a cornerstone of American freedom.
It’s not entirely surprising that the President-Elect would choose as the object of his ire the — literally — incendiary act of burning the American flag. In doing so, he leans on considerable historical precedent. Burning the flag emerged as a form of political protest during the Vietnam War, when critics lit the stars and stripes on fire at anti-war protests in the 1960s. In 1968, Congress passed the Federal Flag Desecration Law, which prohibited anyone from “knowingly mutilat[ing], defac[ing], physically defil[ing], burn[ing], maintain[ing] on the floor or ground, or trampl[ing] upon any flag.”
The U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue in 1989, after Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, and was sentenced to a year in prison — just as Trump proposed in his early morning tweet. Johnson defended his act as “symbolic speech,” protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and of the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances.” Johnson won. Burning the flag, according to the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson, is protected speech.
In the, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged his distaste for the act of flag burning, even as he upheld the right to carry it out.
“The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. […] Our colleagues in dissent [remind] us that among those who will be dismayed by our holding will be some who have had the singular honor of carrying the flag in battle.”
“With all respect to those views,” Kennedy wrote, “[…] symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.”
The import of the President-Elect’s tweet has less to do with the specific act he referenced — with the right to burn the flag — than it does with his belief in the right of the people to free speech, in the right to dissent without consequences. In her classic work, The Origins of Totalitiarianism, Hannah Arendt posits that ideology is the intellectual manifestation of terrorism — ideology extinguishes the legitimacy of those who hold different or critical beliefs. A primary difference between democracy and totalitarianism is each regime’s attitude toward dissent: democracy recognizes that is strengthened by dissent — by the freedom to express dissent. In contrast, totalitarianism, Arendt’s word for the authoritarian rule of government such as those of Hitler and Stalin, has no room for dissent — in fact, it fears it.
This week’s tweet is certainly not the first illiberal thing the President-Elect has done or threatened since November 8 — making a show of dropping the threat of a jail sentence against his political opponent (such a prosecution would be outside the purview of the president anyway), maintaining an active role in advancing his foreign business interests while President-Elect, and keeping his children as advisors (which, when he takes office, will be against the law) come to mind — and it will likely not be his last. But because it quietly threatens the soft core of American values — the first freedom protected in our Bill of Rights, and the very right intellectuals, scholars, and journalists will need most to call attention to illiberal acts in the years to come — it is among the most insidious.
It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt. It is also poignant but fundamental that the government — the Constitution and the man who, on January 19, will swear to uphold it — protect those who hold it in contempt. We can only hope the President-Elect will do so, in the White House if not on Twitter.
Peggy O’Donnell is a historian of modern European history, genocide, and human rights. She recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and teaches college history in New York. (Her opinions do not reflect the views of her employer.) More information can be found at her website, www.peggyodonnell.com. Peggy tweets at @theAccidentalAc.
Launched the world’s first university-based open source Human Rights Investigations Lab. We have trained more than 40 UC Berkeley students how to use publicly available sources to investigate human rights abuses. Through the lab, students are verifying and corroborating video footage and photographs from Syria and elsewhere for use in media and human rights reports and, potentially, as evidence for international courts. The lab is now gathering and verifying incidents of hate speech in the wake of the U.S. election. Read about our lab in New Scientist.
Awarded human rights fellowships. Our twenty 2016 Human Rights Center Fellows worked side by side with local organizations on the front lines in 10 countries this year, and recently presented their work at our annual fellowship conference.
Initiated anti-human trafficking research. We are studying law enforcement’s response to sex and labor trafficking in California and finding ways to better protect and support survivors.
Provided legal expertise for cases against perpetrators of wartime sexual violence. We are continuing to provide legal consultation to international courts.
Responded to the refugee crisis. Julie Freccero, associate director of our Sexual Violence Program, is coordinating the global response to gender-based violence in Greece’s refugee camps. We are also embarking on new research on unaccompanied refugee children and LGBTQI refugees in Europe and northern Africa.
Organized the Gun Violence in America event series. Our year-long series has featured acclaimed Berkeley linguist George Lakoff as well as leading firearm researcher Dr. Garen Wintemute. More events to come!
Put another way, we have circulated Trump’s violent, discriminatory rhetoric to the point that it has become ordinary rather than exceptional.
Why? We are witnessing the strange fruits of Trump’s violent vitriol, projected as meta-law through unprecedented media circulation and authority conferred by his election to office. If by “law” we refer to the system of rules that America recognizes as regulating the actions of its members, enforced by imposition of penalties—here, meta-law refers to Donald Trump’s normalization of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia and authorization of vigilantism.
As once explained by Lawrence Liang, the real media innovation we are seeing today is the viral circulation of the micro image—in this case, the micro image of Donald Trump. Through viral circulation, Trump’s public displays of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and homophobia exit the realm of the outrageous and enter the world of the banal. Put another way, we have circulated Trump’s violent, discriminatory rhetoric to the point that it has become ordinary rather than exceptional.
Trump’s command of the airwaves has left us with a terrifying brand: unmasked white supremacy, misogyny and able-bodied supremacy, charged with a call to vigilante action. For many, Trump’s election has given license and impunity to discrimination and violence. Trump’s election confers vicarious authority and legitimacy upon his public displays of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and homophobia. It is not surprising that within hours, we began to see this violence cross from rhetoric to action.
I do believe that not everyone who voted for Trump endorses the hideous brand of white supremacy, misogyny and able-bodied supremacy he has trumpeted, across the country and the airwaves, as he blazed a trail of destruction to the White House. However, every vote for Trump has functioned to legitimize and authorize discrimination and violence.