Ten Minutes for Human Rights

Oppression, violence, war. These forces surround and blight all. But amidst the loss and suffering caused to people and communities from these afflictions, a dream of peace is a beacon that can illuminate the darkest of nights. And, as the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. timelessly continues to demonstrate with grace and reason, it is a dream that belongs to everyone.

When considering how to honor the accomplishments and awareness generated from King’s civil rights activism, my friends and I looked at how much of that achievement was wrought with the simplest of tools, a pen. Many are familiar with the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, but Martin Luther King was a living embodiment of the homily.

One example of this occurred when, after his arrest and confinement for his role in the Birmingham campaign, a planned peaceful protest, eight Alabama clergymen made a statement titled “A Call for Unity”, in which they labeled King an ‘outsider’ for his part in the action. King’s response, the April 12, 1963 ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, (originally written in the margins of a newspaper for lack of any other paper), countered the criticism with: “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Contemporary culture differs so greatly from the time in which that letter was composed, with an inter-relatedness and codependency such as would have been difficult to postulate in the early ‘60s. However, it is not reaching to suppose that if King were present in this modern world, he would have then expanded upon his comment to include citizens of the entire world in his thoughts and deeds. This is evident in the words he references to explain his presence in Birmingham, specifically: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”

On December 15th, there was a letter-writing meet-up for prisoners of conscience at Andala Café in Cambridge organized by New Wave: Young Boston Feminists. The meet was timed in recognition of Amnesty International’s mid-December dedicated campaign for correspondence that calls attention to rights abuses.

Founded in 1990, New Wave: YBF has organized innumerable actions to foster awareness and change regarding institutional and societal rights infractions. The group has held marches and discussions on a variety of issues, including harassment, reproductive justice, and women in prostitution.

Daryl Caggiano, co-organizer for New Wave: YBF, noted a particularly empowering meet, co-sponsored with Boston Cultural Nomads. “We brought Nepali Feminist Activist Bishnu Pariyar, founder of the NGO Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (EDWON) to speak to the group. She shared enlightening and interesting stories about what it was like to grow up in Nepal as a girl and a member of the Dalit (also known as ‘untouchable’) caste. She spoke about not being allowed to drink from the watertap (because of her ‘untouchable’ status).”

For the writing campaign, Caggiano composed letters to Reggie Clemons, on death row in St. Louis, and on behalf of Hussain Salem Mohammed Almerfedi, held in Guantanamo Bay, and more.

Caggiano and others in the homeless community composed letters on behalf of Noxolo Nogwaza, an Ekurhulemi Pride Organizing Committee (EPOC) member who had been an outspoken lesbian and advocate against hate crimes. Nogwaza, a young mother, was raped and murdered on April 24, 2011 for her activism and sexual orientation. Hers is not an isolated case; sexual assaults and murders of lesbians are common in South Africa, and are intended to send a message to those of alternative sexual orientation.

Also focused on during the writing meet: Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights. Arrested May 5, 2012; his crime was criticizing the Prime Minister of Bahrain in a tweet.

Monica Roa, a Columbian human rights defender, and the Program Director of Women’s Link Worldwide (WLW), an NGO that strives to promote gender justice globally. Roa and WLW have endured multiple break-ins, threats, and attempts on Roa’s life—which include being shot at in the office.

In China, human rights lawyer Gao Zhiseng had been tortured, put under illegal house arrest, and disappeared—after which, Gege, Gao’s daughter, wrote to President Obama requesting assistance in finding her father. Only then, over a year after his disappearance, did State Media announce that Gao was imprisoned, and name the location.

Girifna, a youth group calling for nonviolent resistance to the government in Sudan, is also worthy of messages of support. So too for the COFADEH (Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras), whose director, Dina Meza, has been followed and threatened with sexual violence for the group’s human rights work.

Members of the Russian band Pussy Riot, who have been imprisoned for playing a song critical of Vladimir Putin at a peaceful protest, have received a fair amount of international attention. Ekatarina (Katja) Samutsevich has since been (conditionally) released; however, Nadezha (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alekhina remain imprisoned at notoriously brutal penal colonies, located at distances far from their families and young children.

Amnesty International’s website provides profiles of citizens around the world who have suffered abuses and violation of their rights, as well as addresses of local authorities or groups pertinent to each individual or group. Examples of sample letters specific to all cases are posted to provide writing guidance, and make composing relevant letters quick and simple. Also included is contact information for sending letters of sympathy and concern directly to prisoners of conscience to let them know that though they may be locked up thousands of miles from their homes and kin, they are not forgotten. Amnesty’s December campaign has passed, but the organization updates their site continually, to bring attention to people who are being treated unjustly in countries worldwide, and facilitate year-round concern and care for those made vulnerable by peaceful activism.

Like most nonprofits, Amnesty International requests and accepts donations. Unfortunately, in difficult economic times, not many may be able to afford to give monetarily. But anyone can honor Martin Luther King, Jr., and defend the dream that belongs to everyone. All that is necessary is pen, paper, and a little push.

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