Category: Social Justice

Social Justice

Because Peace Requires Bravery

The picture and words are from the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It is a memorial to the 4,400 and some victims of racial terror — mostly African Americans were murdered between the years 1877 and 1950.

Last weekend as I tried to wrap my mind around the tragedy, my mind wandered back 18 years to a peaceful summer Sunday when my partner and I drove to the Gilroy garlic festival. Fresh garlic cloves, garlic fries, garlic bread, garlic ice cream. I remember the tastes and aromas yes, but more than that the sounds of ordinary joy on a sunlit day. Families. Children. Peace. Acceptance.

When we visited the museum in Montgomery last year, it had struck me that in 1898 — the year that my grandmother was born — over 100 Black people had been lynched — many for the crime of being the first Black person seen by the mob. According to FBI records, 2019 is on track to surpass the racial brutality of 1898.

The victims of racial violence in El Paso and Dayton — like those a hundred years ago — had committed no act other than being born Brown or Black, speaking Spanish to a loved one or friend, or being in the same crowd as their Black neighbor.

Tonight I did not have much more to offer than sitting with my children, embracing them, and offering prayers. Remembering. Tonight, quoting a line from the memorial “We will remember, with hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

The quote “Because Peace Requires Bravery” sticks with me. I meditate on Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the brave mothers of the disappeared in Argentina who steadfastly refused to be silent, refused to stop calling their country to account. Persistence. “With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.”

Persistence, action, bravery.

BooksinclusionSocial Justice

Aspiring towards anti-racism

The Atlantic magazine posted an a day ago article “We’re All Tired of Being Called Racists”. The article presented views of some supporters of the current (as of August 1, 2019) U.S. president at a recent rally. Many were perplexed at being labeled “racist”.

One of those interviewed in the piece insisted that they couldn’t be racist because their children were of mixed race. Yet Strom Thurmond — one of the U.S.’s most virulent segregationists of the 20th century — had an African American daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Eduard Bloch was a Jewish Austrian doctor protected from anti-Semitic terror for a number of years during the 1930’s — a lone act of compassion during the anschluss. There are many cruel contradictions in this landscape.

Strict definitions of what racism is and isn’t aren’t fluid enough deal with the capacities that we each have for compassion and prejudice. Showing compassion for a daughter when enacting so many repressive laws doesn’t seem an acceptable bar. Yet, don’t we all deserve a path to redemption.

It seems so much easier and just to think in terms of allow all of us to escape binary traps, to aspire to, and ultimately attain some better version of ourselves and our society.

I think that this quote from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is spot on when he writes:

No one becomes ‘not racist,’ despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be antiracist on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage. We need to read books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that ‘I’m not racist’ is a slogan of denial.

We can each actively aspire to be the anti-racist. Some first steps could include:

If all else fails, think in terms of how the children of one hundred years from now will judge you, and then work backwards.

AISocial Justice

Which cities use facial recognition?

San Francisco famously banned the use of facial recognition by police and other municipal authorities on May 14th of this year. Citizens in Detroit angered by the use of facial recognition in Project Green Light forced a moratorium on its use. Although Orlando has halted for an immediate deployment, a trial is being conducted involving police officers only. According to the Natalie Bednarz, the Digital Communications Supervisor in the Orlando office of Communications and Neighborhood Relations

if the City of Orlando Police Department decides to ultimately implement official use of the technology, City staff would explore procurement and develop a policy governing the technology

Email communication from the Orlando office of Communications and Neighborhood Relations

This report by Georgetown Law School reports that Chicago uses facial recognition in policing and throughout its mass transit systems.

Beyond surveillance cameras, several cities have been forced by ICE to turn over drivers license photos to ICE’s facial recognition software to identify persons who are not U.S. citizens. Not only is facial recognition software notoriously bad at identifying faces of African Americans, but systems score poorly in identifying people who identify ethnically as Latinx.

The Georgetown Law School in 2016 put together a list of city and state governments across the U.S. that use facial recognition.

Should facial recognition be banned altogether in policing?

inclusionPoliticsSocial JusticeTravel

Cuba as a prayer to inclusion

As the current administration of the U.S. continues to place restrictions on travel to Cuba, my heart aches, and my mind goes to back to amazing days that we spent in Havana and Trinidad last summer.

A year later, impressions remain with me. Walking the streets of Habana and Trinidad, one is left optimistic on what inclusion could be. As we traveled across half the island, and from one end of Habana to the other, I was struct by the absence of the “Black ghettos” — the all too familiar racial segregation that is imprinted on each and every U.S. city that I have ever visited.

I was struct by the fact that the resources, though humble, were shared by all across gender and color. People of different hues and ages did Tai Chi in the park. Occasional people on the street made sarcastic comments on the Castros or Trump, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, the resources constrained by the embargo.

But the generosities were unparalleled. The warmth is still in my heart.

Along the roads, I was struct by the absence of police. Or rather it was the absence of omnipresent force — of the signals that lethal violence is around the corner, trained on Black bodies. The occasional officer, there to mitigate traffic issues, no military grade automatic weapons, that’s what I needed for a vacation.

Seeing people with access to a basic burial, children able to attend a dance class without their parents having to defer due to money, people with access to a simple loaf of bread regardless of the meager cash on hand.

We saw families coming together to say their goodbyes.

I cannot unsee inclusion, I cannot unsee the basic respect for basic human dignity. I cannot unsee humanity in practice.

I hope that you visit soon.

HistorySocial Justice

Do we need prisons?

Should we end prisons? I have been thinking through this question since reading a recent New York Times article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s efforts to dismantle, if not slow the role of, the prison industrial complex. Her focus has been the California prison system and has a book you should check out called The Golden Gulag.

Whatever your views on the criminal justice system, you owe it to yourself and your community to read the article. Angela Davis has been talking about this for decades.

My current thinking is that the prison abolition movement is really about getting a dialog going to question our assumptions about prison. Even getting the prison population down to 1980 levels would be a positive step.

For example, the definition of what constitutes a crime itself is constantly in flux. A good deal of Nobel Prize winners were imprisoned, from Martin Luther King to Andrei Sakharov. People in Georgia serve prison sentences for selling marijuana, in Colorado and California marijuana sellers get venture capital. Missouri wants to imprison doctors for performing safe abortions. So even in the “nation of laws”, the laws are arbitrary, are not equally applied across race, gender, and class, and can change in an election. But the sentences are still extreme and rip apart families and communities.

I struggle with the issue of violent crime. I don’t think the people who stole my bike or car radio need to have their voting rights suspended or their families jacked up. I don’t feel that serial murderers need to be on the street. But most of the countries with low murder rates don’t lock up murderers indefinitely. Those countries seem to take rehabilitation seriously.

Let’s put it this way. Somehow, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, South Africa, and Liberia found a way to reintegrate people who’d committed unspeakable crimes. Surely if broken child soldiers can be put back together in poor countries, then there has to be a way to put back together the people that we now lock up and put away indefinitely in the “nation of laws”.

A dialog needs to happen.

As usual I’m on the hunt for data, particularly in Georgia.

What do you think?

AIAlgorithmsSocial Justice

San Francisco passes facial recognition ordinance

San Francisco recently passed an ordinance controlling the use of facial recognition in the city. The ordinance was in large part thanks to the pioneering research of Joy Buolamwini.

The argument against the technology is twofold: first, the technology is highly invasive in public spaces and may constitute a direct threat to basic (US) constitutional rights of freedom of assembly; secondly the feature extraction and training set construction methodologies (for newer deep learning based models) have been shown to have racial and gender biases “baked in”. For example, the systems analyzed in Buolamwini’s work are less accurate for Black people and women — either because the data sets used for training include mostly white male faces, or the image processing algorithms focus on image components and make assumptions more common to European faces.

Consider uses in policing, where an inaccurate system mis-identifies a Black or LatinX person as a felon. Especially when there is no transparency into the use or internals of such systems, the chances for abuse and injustice are in incredible. Despite these concerns, Amazon shareholders think it is ok to release the technology on the public.

Do you know if such a system is deployed in your city? If so, are there measures to control its use, or make audits available to your community? If not, have you considered contacting your elected representatives to support or discuss appropriate safeguards?

Data ScienceHistorySocial Justice

Remembering Bill Jenkins

As Chelsea Manning is again sent to jail for refusing to abandon basic press freedoms, I am reminded of Bill Jenkins.

Mr Jenkins passed away recently. He was an epidemiologist (and Morehouse graduate ) who bravely exposed the horrific Tuskegee experiments, as Ms Manning exposed egregious human rights violations that occurred during US military operations.

If you are not aware of the Tuskegee experiment, the US Health Service allowed Black men to be untreated for sexually transmitted diseases for three decades. It was a controlled experiment to determine the effects of untreated syphilis. The participants were all poor Black sharecroppers — men recruited through Tuskegee University, believing that they were getting free healthcare in exchange for helping to develop a drug to fight “bad blood”. None of those who had syphilis were given access to penicillin, even after the study supposedly ended. Many perished or suffered irreversible harm.

One outcome was the establishment of informed consent, and other ethical practices we take for granted when we walk into a doctor’s office, or signup for a clinical trial. Jenkins learned of the study, and started asking questions, despite being told to ignore it, or just “look the other way”. In the current climate, Mr Jenkins might have well faced prison. Some principles are worth suffering for, some causes are just that important.

Thank you Bill Jenkins, thank you Chelsea, and thank you to the others doing the right thing.