Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character": Trayvon Martin

" Trayvon was our hero. At the age of 9, he pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. He loved sports and horseback riding. At only 17, he had a bright future ahead of him with dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. Now that's all gone." Those are the words of Trayvon's own father, Tracy Martin, in a petition that he and the boy's mother, Sybrina Fulton,  started two weeks after their son's death to pressure the state's attorney in their Florida district to arrest and prosecute the man who murdered their son. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine the anguish of losing a child in such a senseless way, and then having to fight for his killer to be brought to justice. This should not have happened.

But it did. On February 26th, Trayvon Martin was walking back from a convenience store carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea when he was followed and then shot by  self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  Trayvon was unarmed. Zimmerman told police that he was acting in self-defense. Police in Sanford, Florida, where the murder took place, have not yet arrested him because they say they can find no evidence to contradict that statement. If you listen to the 911 call that George Zimmerman made shortly before the shooting, it seems clear to me that he was acting out of paranoia, and while he may or may not have used a racial epithet, he clearly refers to Trayvon in a derogatory sense. He makes the statement, " These a**holes, they always get away". He starts following Trayvon because he says "This guy looks like he is up to no good, or on drugs or something" because "it's raining and he's just walking around and looking about...just staring, looking at all the houses." What is interesting is that Zimmerman felt  so threatened by Trayvon though he knew nothing about this young man. Obviously, I or anyone else can't read Zimmerman's mind, but it seems like he was judging this young man solely on his appearance, a black teenager wearing a hoodie.   In the 911 call tapes, when the dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he is following him, he says "Yes" and they say, "We don't need you to do that." Yet when the story is pieced together, it plays out that Zimmerman continued to follow him, at some point Trayvon turned around and said, "Why are you following me?" and then a scuffle ensued, though it is not clear who started it. Neighbors heard a commotion outside and also called 911. When the police arrived, Zimmerman had shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and he was dead.

This isolated incident brings several deep wounds in our American life to the surface, and the most obvious is racial profiling. This is an awful and ugly fact of our society, and as the poignant movie Crash portrayed so well, it is ingrained into each of us at some level, but some choose to look past stereotypes and see human beings just like them, and some choose to feed those stereotypes with ignorance. It may seem that I, as a white female, would not know a thing about racial profiling, and it is true that I myself have probably never been unjustly identified solely because of my race. But being in a mixed race marriage and living in a predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhood, I have witnessed family members and friends undergo this humiliating treatment while I have sat alongside inwardly atoning for the ignorant actions of some members of my race. I have sat in a car as my husband and brother-in-law were pulled over (as we were parking!!), questioned relentlessly as to why they were in the neighborhood they were in (we were in a mostly Italian, middle-class suburb) and then I was asked my name and scoffed at and told, "Well, you certainly don't look like a Rivera." That night, my husband and I both burned with shame and anger, but for different reasons. I and my children have watched my husband being asked to step out of the car and be handcuffed for no apparent reason, only to find out moments later that they had mistaken my husband's name for someone else's. No apology, either, for the handcuffing in front of his own children. A young black teenager was walking from our house to the youth center several blocks away with a guitar in his hand, and was stopped by the police. They questioned whose guitar he had, and said to him, "Black kids don't play guitars."  On another occasion, I was taking a young black man home from our youth group and was pulled over in front of his house. I was questioned as to why I had him in the car with me. He actually apologized to me and said "This happens all the time". A year later, that same young man was arrested and had drugs planted on him by the arresting officer.

Let me clarify why I share all these stories. It is not to claim that I know about racial profiling, because I understand that I CANNOT understand the humiliation that my black and Hispanic friends and family members go through when they are profiled because of their race. It is also not to take aim at police, because I believe that there are many fine policemen on our streets who genuinely want to serve and protect. It is just to show that racial profiling is SO real and SO prevalent still today, in 2012, in small Appalachian towns, in major cosmopolitan cities like Chicago, and yes, in the suburbs of Florida. When will we finally open our minds and hearts to our brothers and sisters, fellow humans, and learn to judge people "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." When I think about the senseless death of a Florida teenager wearing a hoodie and walking home with some snacks in his hand, a carbon-copy of a scenario I see at least ten times a day in my own neighborhood, I grieve, and I too,  long for Dr. Martin Luther King's dream to be realized.

The Trayvon Martin case also calls into question a controversial law in Florida, the Stand Your Ground law, which permits someone to use deadly force if they can claim self-defense. For the claim to be valid, the shooter or assailant  needs to be able to prove that they faced an imminent deadly threat. In this case, knowing that Trayvon Martin was unarmed, carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles in his hands,  and weighed a slight 140 pounds, it is a stretch to see how he could be perceived as an "imminent deadly threat". It is up to the police to decide if they believe the self-defense claim and therefore arrest the shooter or assailant or not. In this case, the Sanford police say that they were "prohibited from making an arrest at the time based on the facts and circumstances presented to them, including some physical evidence". Reportedly, Zimmerman had a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head. And Trayvon Martin had a fatal shot to the chest. It just doesn't add up. The law also gives no stipulation for gray areas, as in this case, in which Zimmerman was following Martin for some time and so could have provoked him. If the killer provokes his victim, then claims that he was attacked, and therefore used lethal force to protect himself, is that viable grounds for escaping arrest and prosecution? As Michael Siegel, a former federal prosecutor in Florida, shared with reporters from the Associated Press, in cases like this where the motives and evidence are murky, the usual practice if for the police to arrest the killer and then leave it up to the courts to decide if the self-defense claim holds.

What further complicates this law is a special caveat of the Florida version that grants immunity from prosecution or arrest to someone who successfully invokes the self-defense claim, which Zimmerman did. So it might seem that all hope is lost for justice for the Martin family. But there has been a determined fight by Trayvon's parents, who started an online petition to the prosecuting attorney in their district that has garnered over 1.5 million signatures already, and a growing national outcry led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and reaching the heart of the President, who compassionately stated today, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin."  It seems that these cries are NOT falling on deaf ears, and several investigations are being launched into the shooting death, the Sanford Police Department's handling of it, and the constitutionality of the Stand Your Ground law. The Justice Department and the FBI have launched civil rights investigations, and on Thursday the Governor of Florida Rick Scott announced that he was appointing a special investigation of the murder led by state's attorney Angela Corey.He also appointed a special task force to review the controversial law that is giving Zimmerman a free pass in this case. A report in the Tampa Bay Times showed how the law has been used irresponsibly, but successfully, to avoid prosecution by people involved in everything from road rage incidents to gang shootings. It is a dangerous law that promotes vigilante justice.

 Also on Thursday, the Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee stepped aside temporarily after the city commission gave him a vote of no-confidence. The tensions in Sanford remain high, in a town that is roughly 50% white and 30% black, and has a history of racial discrimination, especially among law enforcement. In 2005, two white security guards shot and killed a black teen and were not prosecuted because they too claimed self defense. It was later determined that the teen was shot in the back. In 2011, the son of a lieutenant in the force beat up a black homeless man and didn't turn himself in until the video was posted to Youtube. At the time, an investigation was launched into the department's conduct on the case, and the police chief was dismissed. All of the public outcry that has come about in the past week, and the pressure that is being put on the Sanford Police Department to arrest the killer, is small comfort to the citizens of Sanford and especially to Trayvon's family. They want to see an arrest, and soon. Every day that goes by without justice being served feels like a slap in the face to them. Yet they also say that nothing will bring back their sweet son, Trayvon. Because of one man's ignorance, his promising future was cut short.  He was killed for the "crime" of "walking while black". The Sanford Police Department didn't get it right, but hopefully the Justice Department and other parties involved will bring the restitution this young man and his family deserve. Hopefully this law will be amended so that it cannot be manipulated to serve someone's racist intentions. Hopefully our society will learn from this young man's senseless murder and move towards the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of a world where our children are judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character".

Sunday, March 4, 2012

History Repeats Itself: Hunger Crisis in the Sahel Region of West Africa

The overwhelming majority of people in America do not know true hunger. We might know what it feels like to be hungry, but we do not know what it means to feel the physical sensation of hunger plus the mental and emotional despair of not being able to fulfill that need. I have heard some people declare, "We were so poor we did not know where our next meal was coming from."  While that is the reality of some families at some point in time in our country which I don't want to dismiss, there is always a solution. If there is no money available to buy food, we can rely on friends and family, or on a church or government shelter or food pantry. This is called food security, and in America we have it. It is one of the greatest and most taken for granted blessings of living in this country.

In the Sahel region of West Africa, the reality is far different. This region, which lies just south of the Sahara Desert, includes the little-known countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, and covers parts of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The main reason the rest of the world is not very familiar with this area is because it remains one of the most under-developed places on the planet. The northern part of the Sahel is mostly desert, and the southern reaches are mostly savanna and bush, but the balance shifts with each passing year due to climate change. The Sahara desert spreads 30 miles further south every year, and this rate of desertification has doubled since the 1970's. The Sahel has been home to the Tuareg people group, a nomadic tribe originating in  North Africa, since the 4th or 5th century. It is also home to other Arabic and black African tribes, all of whom were left largely alone when their countries were carved out by the European powers and then again when those countries were granted independence. In these countries, the rule of law that emanates from the seat of government in the capital city does not reach these tribes. Indeed, the Sahel is a vast area sprinkled with remote rural villages linked by very poor roads or no roads at all. So the rich traditions and nomadic ways of these tribes, the Tuareg in particular, remained much the same up until the last 20 years.

The majority of villagers in the Sahel region rely on subsistence farming, on  their own livestock and agriculture, to survive. This region suffers from cyclic droughts, leading to chronic food insecurity. In plain English, the harsh climate and living conditions of this region create a "lean season" during the dry season every year. This lean season usually begins in May and lasts until October when the next harvest comes. During this time, people typically eat once a day and sometimes go up to 36 hours without eating. Even in a normal year, when crops are good, the rains are plentiful, and the harvest abundant, during this lean period, half of all the children in this region under the age of 5 suffer chronic malnutrition. But, this year is not a normal year.

This year, the rains failed to come, a drought ensued, and so now the lean season is already here in late February, a full 3 months before its usual arrival. This means that instead of families storing up food or preparing themselves for a 6 month lean season, they now face a full 9 months before they can reap a harvest again. And the amount of food they were able to store was considerably less because of the poor crop yields. Hunger is already hitting the rural populations hard. An aid worker with the humanitarian organization CARE in the capital city of Niger, Niamey, wrote on his blog about the 3 phases of hunger. He writes that the first phase drives villagers into the city to try to buy or beg for food when they have run out at home. The second phase leads to people knocking on the doors of residents in the capital city, looking for work to help them buy food or simply asking for food. He goes on to say that the third phase is when the people stop asking, they are too weak to keep looking, they often just camp out and hope that someone will help them or they just wait to die. This aid worker said that the first phase is happening in Niamey right now, but  from past experience he knows that it only takes weeks to get to that third phase.

The drought is not the only component that makes this year unique. A conflict between the Tuareg people group and government forces has arisen in the north of Mali, and that has caused a flood of refugees into neighboring countries, often directly into those areas that are already suffering from severe food shortages, and the hunger crisis is just multiplied. The latest estimates show that within the last month, 130, 000 Malians have been displaced by the fighting between the Tuareg rebels and the government forces. 60, 000 people have been displaced inside of Mali, and another 69,000 outside of  Mali, with an estimated 29,000 refugees making their way into Niger, 22, 000 in Mauritania, and about 18,000 into Burkina Faso.

This is not the first time that the Tuareg rebels have fomented a rebellion ,but this is one of  the strongest stands they have made, and it comes at a disastrous time. Their presence was reportedly strengthened in the last several months by the return of  Tuareg fighters from Libya, where they defended the Qaddafi regime, with whom they have had a long-standing alliance. The group of fighters organized themselves as the AZAWAD National Liberation Movement and stated their demand for independence for the northern region of Mali where they make their home. This is just the latest in a long history of rebellions stretching back to the early 20th century when the Tuaregs fought against French colonial rule. After Mali and Niger achieved independence in 1960, the Tuareg took up the fight to become autonomous and form their own sovereign state. There was one more major rebellion in the early 90's, and now in 2012 the cause has been renewed. The rebels have attacked northern towns and government bases in Mali. So far, the rebellion has not spread to other countries where the Tuareg reside, but the flight of people from Mali is making an already bad situation, especially in Niger, even worse.

One Malian man, Moussa Jibou, told the BBC that he left his family home in Menaka, a northern town, and fled to Niger, leaving everything behind. "It was a question of saving our lives, so we had to come", he said. The sad reality, though is that they will not find much assistance in Niger, the country in the Sahel that has been hit the hardest by this drought. Nearly half of the people of Niger, an estimated 5 1/2 million people, do not have enough to eat. A mother, Dije Ousmana, told CARE workers that she tries not to think about the 3 babies that she has lost in previous years during the "lean season", when food was hard to come by.  But now this year, times are even harder, and she has a 2 month-old baby named Abdulahadi, whom she has lost her ability to nurse. She watches him wail to be fed, but as she puts him to the breast, there is no milk for him. She told the CARE worker that she had not eaten yet that day.

This is the tragic face of true hunger, and as a mother who has nursed three children, I cannot imagine the despair of not being able to feed your child and not having any alternatives. To think that this baby might die, and many others in the course of this hunger crisis in the Sahel, when the shelves of our grocery stores here in America are lined with food for families and formula for babies. We only have to drive 5 minutes from our house to fulfill any food craving that we might have. It seems a huge injustice that we in America and much of the Western world have an abundance while people in places like Niger are dying for lack of food or access to it. Isn't there a way that we can transfer some of our abundance to them? This is one solution, and this is where humanitarian aid comes in, but it is not as easy as it sounds, and rarely does it solve the problem.

Aid agencies are raising the alarm about this hunger crisis in the Sahel, hoping to avert the famine that hit Somalia and other parts of East Africa last year and is still ongoing. They have asked for $735 million to respond to this crisis, and so far only about $150 million has been pledged. The UN says that is had enough emergency food to feed 2 million people for a month, but this is hardly an adequate response when you consider that the number affected in the Sahel right now stands at around 11 million ,a number that is sure to rise, and that the "lean season" is expected to last for 9 months this year because of the drought and crop failure last fall. This crisis is highlighting the fact that while humanitarian aid has its place,and is the quickest and most effective way to respond to the emergency,  long-term development in this region would do so much more towards preventing a crisis like this and would ultimately cost far less money. The Sahel has long been ignored by aid agencies, partly because the harsh landscape makes it very hard for workers to reach people living in the rural areas. Aid programs are focused in the capital cities, like Bamako,Mali, Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Niamey, Niger, and seldom reach those rural and nomadic populations living in the far reaches of those countries that are part of the Sahel. Mauritania has the world's least amount of potable water, and 1/3 of the population already suffers from severe food insecurity. Niger and Mauritania are rated by the UN as two of the world's poorest and underdeveloped countries. Niger also has one of the world's lowest literacy rates and the  world's highest maternal mortality rate, with 1 in 7 women dying in childbirth, a horrifying statistic that long-term and targeted development projects could help improve.

This is actually the third time in a decade that the Sahel region has faced severe food shortages. As was mentioned before, this region is so underdeveloped that it is always classified as food insecure, and therefore always teeters only a step or two away from a hunger crisis. So why not look at the root causes of of the food insecurity of this region ,and address those through long-term development projects instead of waiting for an emergency to respond to? This is not just the responsibility of the aid organizations. Indeed, the governments of these countries need to take seriously their responsibility to care for all their citizens, even those nomadic tribes in the far reaches of their countries that the decision makers in the capital have little in common with. But it is precisely their lack of care that makes it even more critical for humanitarian organizations to work with local tribesmen and leaders to tackle some of the problems that exacerbate their food insecurity. Access to basic services like health care, sanitation services,and clean water needs to be vastly improved. Indeed, one of the main reasons the country of Niger has the highest rate in the world of mothers dying in childbirth is because the majority of mothers do not live with in close distance of a hospital. Governments and aid organizations also need to take a closer look at the issue of climate change and face the realities of how this is affecting the Sahel region, which is becoming increasingly desertified each year. This trend, if not reversed, will lead to more cyclic droughts, which in turn will lead to greater food insecurity. Agricultural techniques need to be improved to adapt to climate change, at the same time respecting the traditional nomadic ways of some of these tribes that inhabit the Sahel.

 Measures such as these will not only improve the region's ability to deal with climate change and increase their food security, but they would also be measurably more cost-effective. It costs 10 to 20 times more money to airlift food into a region, as is being done now in the Sahel to try to meet the needs of the millions of people who find themselves desperately hungry, than it does to ship food for a regular feeding program as part of a development project or a farming initiative. It costs $80 a day for an aid organization to treat a malnourished child, but only $1 a day to prevent that malnutrition from happening through school feeding programs, basic health services, food starter kits,and the like. The Sahel region is a very harsh place to live in and to work in. It is difficult to get to the people that need help, but it needs to made more of a priority so that emergencies such as the hunger crisis taking place now are fewer and far between.