IPS Blog

Gender Explained: How the Obama Administration Is Getting It Right on Gender Identity

gender-identity-trans-bathroomThe U.S. government is officially suing the state of North Carolina over its controversial, discriminatory “bathroom bill,” which bars transgender residents from using public restrooms appropriate to their gender identity.

In announcing the lawsuit, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave a powerful speech invoking the state’s segregationist past. “It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains, and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference,” she said of the South’s Jim Crow laws. “We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time.”

Then, in a surprising tag-team move, the Department of Education announced an additional decree calling on public schools across the United States to allow transgender students to access restrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identities. The guidelines also advocate other ways to ensure civil rights for transgender students, such as using their chosen name and preferred pronoun and allowing them on the sports teams that match their self-identified gender. Together, these moves put public school administrators nationwide on notice: Discrimination against transgender students violates federal civil rights law.

Denying transgender students equal treatment isn’t simply discriminatory. It’s also just plain ignorant of human biology.

Those who oppose equal rights for transgender people, for instance, often insist on enforcing a linkage between gender and “biological sex.” Biology, it turns out, does indeed shape gender — just not in the way they think.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there’s no convincing evidence that gender identity is either formed independently of hormonal influences or influenced by social environment after birth. On the contrary, there’s overwhelming evidence that the behavioral expressions we identify as “gender” are formed inside the brain, in utero, as a result of the presence or lack of androgens.

This process occurs quite separately, and later in pregnancy, than the development of genitalia. Genitalia develop in the first half of pregnancy and begin producing sex hormones. In the second half of pregnancy, the brain is influenced by the varying types and amounts of hormones produced and absorbed. Thus gender variation occurs along a spectrum, to greater and lesser degrees matching the sexual organs.

It’s also distinct from sexual orientation. Someone who identifies as transgender has the same likelihood of being straight, gay or bisexual as any other person.

In short, reproductive organs themselves don’t define gender. The hormonal influence on brain structure does.

Further, Science magazine reports, more recent studies show us that most brains are “a mosaic of male and female structures.” Indeed, very few brains — researchers estimate between 0 and 8 percent — are what we’d call “all female” or “all male.” In other words, virtually none of us has a fully male or fully female brain.

Instead, we all have brains that have some degree of mismatch with the social and behavioral expectations we assign to our reproductive organs. Mismatch is the norm, not the exception.

For many of us who don’t identify as transgender, the “mismatch” may be small. For other people, it may be sufficient to warrant a change in their gender markers. Still others may feel comfortable in many gender expressions, or none at all. Many people in this category call themselves genderqueer, or trans* with an asterisk, and may include intersex people. Some may need or desire medical intervention. All need affirmative legal policies to ensure their civil and human rights.

Ultimately what’s between people’s legs tells us little about their gender. Instead, we can only know gender according to how people self-identify.

Gender, like sexuality, doesn’t exist as a binary — it exists as an arc. It’s that simple, that beautiful, and that natural. And while society catches up with science, we need legal protections to stop discrimination and violence against people who identify or present as transgender, trans*, and genderqueer. Much of this violence is perpetrated most brutally against black, as well as poor, transgender girls and women.

Bathroom bills like North Carolina’s, or laws requiring a transgender girl to be a boy in school, aren’t just ignorant of biology — they’re in opposition to what it means to be human. So rather than tell an old story of exclusion and oppression based on fictional understandings of biology — a “distinction without a difference,” as the attorney general put it — let’s stand up and tell the truth: Our gender identities belong inextricably to us.

And we all have the right to self-determination, the right to pee in peace, and the right to live free from discrimination and violence.

Remembering Michael Ratner: Radical Lawyer, Global Activist, Loyal Friend

Michael Ratner with Vanessa Redgrave

Michael Ratner with Vanessa Redgrave

One of our movement’s champions, Michael Ratner, died yesterday. He was one of the greats among radical lawyers. With his colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild and beyond, he linked brilliant, innovative legal approaches with creative strategies for advocacy, activism, and mobilization.

Michael sued in U.S. courts to implement the decision of the International Court of Justice holding the Unite States liable for bombing Nicaragua. He defended inmates charged in the Attica prison uprising. He worked to get protesters out of jail, among them Central American activists and Palestinian human rights defenders. And he was among the first to say that detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, held without charge or trial in the so-called “global war on terror,” deserved lawyers, legal rights, and a challenge to their illegal detention.

 Michael was a consummate internationalist, committed to international law as well as global activism on Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, and further.  He helped create Palestine Legal, a team of lawyers and legal workers he mentored to defend Palestinian rights activists in the U.S.  He worked with CCR founder and longtime IPS board member Peter Weiss along with CCR’s Rhonda Copelon to figure out ways to use U.S. law to go after military dictators around the world.

 In 2006 Michael, along with his CCR colleague Maria LaHood and their client Maher Arar, a Canadian whom the U.S. had sent off to Syria to be tortured in 2002, accepted IPS’s annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. It was presented by acclaimed actor-activist Vanessa Redgrave.

 Michael was an extraordinary human being. The last time I saw him was at the flag-raising of the just-reopening Cuban Embassy in Washington in July 2015. He was, he said, more excited than at any moment other than the birth of his children.

Beyond his passion for justice and his powerful insistence on standing up to oppression and oppressors, Michael was a funny and incredibly loyal friend. I still remember an unexpected phone call years ago from Michael, who had just heard I had been diagnosed with cancer. He just wanted to tell me, “If you need any help, any money, if there’s anything, anything that you need – another doctor, a new drug, anything – you call me. I’m here.”  And he always was.

 His death is a huge loss for all of us. But what a gift that we had Michael with us for so long. Now it’s our turn to be inspired by his commitment to justice and challenged by his fierce courage in fighting for it. As his CCR comrades wrote yesterday, “Today we mourn. Tomorrow we continue his work.”

Mother’s Day is Another Day to Struggle for Justice When Your Child is Behind Bars


(Photo: California Families Against Solitary Confinement)

After their sons were brutally murdered, Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin), Lesley McSpadden (mother of Michael Brown), and Samaria Rice (mother of Tamir Rice) became household names and national beacons of strength.

They were not trained or professional activists. They were simply mothers who answered a call to action.

A similar, albeit less well-known, movement has emerged to take up the mantle on one of the most pressing civil and human rights issues of our time: criminal justice reform. Like Fulton, McSpadden, and Rice, many of these movement leaders are mothers, rendering this cause just as political as it is personal.

Tracey Wells-Huggins’s son was arrested when he was 14. He and a group of friends had been watching the outbursts of a street fight and wanted a closer look.  He was arrested despite not actively participating in the fight.

Her son was eventually cleared of all charges, but Wells-Huggins knew that all young people introduced to the juvenile justice system were not so fortunate. As a mother, she worried about the fate of children just like her son. Wells-Huggins reflected, “When this [the arrest] happened with my son, I was very, very much afraid of what could happen to him, what was happening with my child, that society didn’t see as a kid. I’m still afraid. Not just for what could have happened to him, but for every child of color that I see. I’m afraid for them, but fear is a great motivator.”

Drawing on her experience as a mother attempting to advocate for her child, Wells-Huggins created a family-oriented and family-led organization called Renewed Minds that seeks to address the stunning injustices that youth, especially those of color, face within the system.

Tracey Wells-Huggins is not alone in experiencing the trauma of the incarceration of a child or in using that personal trauma to effect change. In fact, she is just one of several mothers and other family leaders whose stories, strategies, organizations, and collective actions are chronicled in our new report from the Institute for Policy Studies entitled “Mothers at the Gate: How a Powerful Family Movement Is Transforming the Juvenile Justice Movement”.

This report employs the voices of family members whose direct experience has helped them become experts at confronting an unjust criminal justice system.

For example, mothers in Missouri, like Tracy McLard, are protesting to raise the age at which juveniles can be transferred to adult detention facilities on the way to eliminating adult transfer entirely. Mothers in California, like Dolores Canales, have put their bodies on the line, engaging in hunger strikes to end the use of solitary confinement for all those incarcerated, regardless of age or circumstance. Mothers in Michigan, like Lois DeMott, are testifying in front of state legislators to improve conditions and relations within the criminal justice system.

As families commemorate Mother’s Day, this grassroots, family-based movement, sustained by the love of mothers across the nation, reminds us that mothers are leaders as well as nurturers, teachers as well as advocates.

“Mothers at the Gate” simply seeks to show mothers exactly as they are: powerful.

Food Firms That Prove Worker-Shared Ownership is Smart Business


(Photo: Flickr / Meng He)

Billionaire CEO hands over a huge pot of money to his employees, simply because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. Man bites dog, right? Yet that is what Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of the Greek yogurt-giant Chobani, just did. Ulukaya appears to have been following the path of some of his more enlightened peers in the food industry.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ulukaya said, “Now they’ll be working to build the company even more and building their future at the same time.”

Ulukaya recently announced his plan to give a 10 percent ownership share to his 2,000 full-time employees with shares distributed based on tenure at the company. He will retain majority control of Chobani, but with the firm valued at several billion dollars the transfer represents hundreds of millions of dollars from him to his employees.

The Times story quotes Jessica Kennedy, a human resources consultant who said, “It’s very uncommon and rare, especially in this industry, for these kinds of programs to be rolled out.”

Kennedy might be right that it’s too few and far between for CEOs to share ownership, and the wealth and power that comes with it, with their employees. But notable exceptions exist. Among them, these five food firms stand out:

  1. WinCo Foods is a grocery store chain with over 100 stores and 15,000 employees, valued at over $3 billion. It’s also owned by its employees, many of whom are millionaires despite having only a high school education and working in a low-skill job, like cashier.
  2. King Arthur Flour Company in Norwich Vermont, the country’s oldest flour company, began to transfer full ownership to its employees in 1996. It has been named best place to work in Vermont for the past ten years and has seen remarkable growth.
  3. Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts is the oldest and largest Fair Trade coffee company in the country. Founded as an employee-owned cooperative in 1986, the company distributes decision making, and profit, to its 100 worker-owners.
  4. Clif Bar, an organic food and drink company targeting athletes, initiated in 2010 an employye stock ownership program (ESOP) that gives its workers a 20 percent share in the company. The company posted $340 million in sales the next year.
  5. Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods founder and CEO Bob Moore transferred full ownership of his company to his 209 employees after nearly 40 years in business. Moore reportedly turned down countless buy-out offers, but “couldn’t envision selling the business to a stranger.”

Other food industry CEOs should take note of the success of these employee-owned companies, both in their positive public image as well as their bottom line. Hopefully Chobani, along with these five firms, will be just the beginning of a new wave of food firms to embrace employee ownership.

The Trauma of Losing a Parent to Incarceration

(Photo: Flickr / Nisha A)

(Photo: Flickr / Nisha A)

Millions of our nation’s children are suffering such a dangerously high level of trauma and emotional distress that their futures are seriously imperiled. In this instance, it’s not domestic violence or physical abuse, it’s not our dangerously militarized low-income public schools or our abusive juvenile justice system that’s the culprit—although these do also traumatize millions of our nation’s children. It’s the fact that our broken system of aggressive criminalization and mass incarceration has imprisoned their moms and their dads.

Over five million of our nation’s children, according to a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, entitled A Shared Sentence: the devastating toll of parental incarceration on kids, families and communities, are suffering levels of trauma equal to the trauma of domestic violence and abuse as they experience the loss of a parent to incarceration.

We are a nation who incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. Our notorious “tough on crime” policies saw a 500 percent increase in children losing a parent to incarceration between 1988 and 2000, according to Casey report. And because our criminal justice system is disproportionately enforced upon low-income, black and Latino populations, it is those children who are suffering the most. Most are younger than 10 years old. Many are younger than four.

As the report states:

These children feel the absence of that adult — whether it is several nights in jail or years in prison — in myriad ways, even if they weren’t sharing a home. They feel it when their refrigerator is bare because their family has lost a source of income or child support. They feel it when they have to move, sometimes repeatedly, because their families can no longer afford the rent or mortgage. And they feel it when they hear the whispers in school, at church or in their neighborhood about where their mother or father has gone.

These children lose parents at critical times of their development, increasing chances of anxiety, depression, poverty, educational achievement. Not only do the children suffer, the report says, but families and communities are devastated by these losses as well. Even when these fathers and mothers are released, a whole new set of obstacles may interfere with their ability to properly care for their children as criminal records can limit access to everything from a job, to housing, to public assistance.

As our country grapples with the devastation wrought by the “three strikes“ sentencing legislation, harsh drug sentencing laws and other disastrous “tough on crime” policies of the past few decades, the effects on the innocent children trampled in the wake are too often ignored.

What can be done? This new report has several recommendations. First among them is to ensure that children are supported during and after the incarceration of a parent. Returning parents also need assistance breaking down the barriers to jobs, good pay, housing, health and mental healthcare and food for their families. Communities need to be rebuilt and supported. One way to fund such supports, the report recommends, is the adoption of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative which would analyze the ineffective and costly approaches to criminal justice issues and reinvest in better, safer and more cost-efficient alternatives and policies.

At a time when millions of our children are already suffering from poverty, from domestic abuse, from a school-to-prison-pipeline and a broken juvenile justice system, how can it be that we also are allowing over five million children to be traumatized by the loss of parents caught in the hysteria of mass incarceration? A country that allows such massive infliction of trauma on its children is a country whose entire future is in question. Fortunately, there are concrete steps we can and must do to change it.

What the Public Wants: A Guide for Clueless CEOs


(Photo: Flickr / Glenn Halog)

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Populist Tone Rankles America’s Executives.”

Apparently the CEOs and board members of big American companies are “increasingly frustrated” by the anti-business rhetoric of both parties, and concerned such sentiments might translate into meaningful public policy change after the election.

“The precipitousness of the political debate is a little scary right now,” Boeing CEO Jim McNerney told The Wall Street Journal. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt informed investors that relations between government and big business are “the worst I have ever seen.”

Former Republican U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, currently a board member of Honeywell, complained that the GOP has “been captured by a large number of people who basically do not like big.”

Bernie Sanders has shined a bright spotlight on Wall Street greed and millions of voters are cheering him on. With GOP candidates Cruz and Trump both opposed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agenda on free trade, corporate mergers, and immigration, the corporate elites are running scared.

How clueless can you be? Our imperial CEOs need a little populism 101. Here are a few clues on what the public is demanding:

Clue #1: Pay Your Taxes: General Electric, Boeing, Verizon and 23 other profitable Fortune 500 firms paid no federal income taxes from 2008 through 2013, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Show some love to the country that pays for the infrastructure upon which you transport your products, protects your intellectual property in global tribunals, and educates your workers and takes care of them when they are sick or retired.

Clue #2. Stop Squeezing Us. Your global business model seems to be focused on squeezing your workers, your customers, and the communities where you’re based. Verizon is hammering their workers for another healthcare cut. General Electric just squeezed $151 million in tax breaks in their relocation to Boston.

It seems like what passes for “innovation” in corporate America is an experiment in “how hard can we squeeze customers and workers until they push back?” So are you really surprised that people are pushing back?

Have any of you luxury jet flying CEOs been on a commercial airline flight in the last ten years? Talk about squeezing your customers, physically in seats and literally for every nickel and dime. This is the capitalism we are living through. Big corporations take things away (like legroom, checked bags, and snacks) and sell them back to us.

Clue #3. Support Young Workers. Have you talked to any college students lately who don’t have daddy CEOs to pay their tuition? Do you know what it’s like to graduate from college with $100,000 in debt? Imagine entering a workforce where, thanks to corporate lobbying, the minimum wage is insufficient to live on.

This populism isn’t anti-business. But people are enraged with disconnected business elites at global companies that use their considerable clout to shape the rules of the economy – like trade policy, minimum wage, deregulation – and don’t pay their fair share of taxes to continue basic services.

Many small and medium-sized businesses in our communities are appreciated and valued. They are rooted in place and understand that you can’t keep squeezing your customers, workers, and communities before no one comes to your door. It’s the big boys that squeeze the hardest and then wonder, “why are people upset?”

The chairman of a medium-sized steel company, Jim Philipsky, tried to explain rising populism to his CEO brethren. He told The Wall Street Journal, “The establishment has been at the wheel for a long time, and the system has worked well for them, but not for everyone else.”

There’s a CEO who’s been paying attention.

Virginia Moves in the Right Direction to Reverse Jim Crow Era Voting Barriers

(Photo: Flickr / phgaillard2001)

(Photo: Flickr / phgaillard2001)

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to give 200,000 formerly incarcerated people their right to vote back. The governor’s action is a step in the right direction to reverse voter suppression laws that were designed to stifle black and brown America, but Karen Dolan, Director of the Criminalization of Race and Poverty project at IPS believes we can do more:

“Denying voting rights based on criminal records is an egregious affront to the democratic values we espouse in this country. I welcome Governor McAuliffe’s Executive Order and I believe we should go farther,” Dolan said.

Only two states, Main and Vermont, and Puerto Rico, allow felons to retain their Constitutional and civil right to vote while incarcerated. In ten states, incarcerated people can lose their right to vote indefinitely.

“In a country that incarcerates more people than any other nation, with a disproportionate number being black and Latino, the denial of voting rights to people with criminal records and people capable of rational thought even if incarcerated, perpetuates the days of slavery and Jim Crow,” Dolan said.

Denying incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people the right to vote is just one example of a collateral consequence, or extra set of punishments, placed on individuals with criminal convictions. In her report, The Poor Get Prison, Karen Dolan writes that barriers to voting, along with barriers to housing, employment, and many other public benefits, make it even more daunting to reenter society after being incarcerated, and contribute to increased recidivism rates.

It’s time for every state to follow Governor McAuliffe’s example and help restore our democracy.

American Schools Are Criminalizing Black Girls

(Photo: Flickr / Daniel Arauz)

(Photo: Flickr / Daniel Arauz)

A recent video from a school in Texas showcased a brutal assault by a school police officer on 12-year-old student Janissa Valdez. Quite appropriately, it sparked an outcry over the state of school discipline.

These images, while shocking, are nothing new. From the handcuffing of 6-year-old kindergartener Salecia Johnson for unruly behaviour in Georgia to the violent body-slamming of a 16-year-old student in South Carolina who refused to put away her phone, oppressive school discipline techniques are increasingly becoming the norm.

According to Monique Morris — the author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools — these highly publicized cases represent a mere fraction of the wider systemic discrimination experienced by girls of color in the U.S. education system. These practices are turning kids out of school and towards contact with the juvenile justice system — a phenomenon known as “pushout,” from which Morris’s book takes its title. The egregious criminalization of children in the classroom is a grim reality for students caught up in what’s been termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

While the impact of discriminatory school discipline on boys has been better documented, there’s a growing recognition of the unique vulnerability of black girls to this school pushout as well.

Indeed, black girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system and face discriminatory school discipline at a starker level than even black boys. Black girls receive suspensions at a rate of 6 times that of white girls. They account for 16 percent of students but 34 percent of girls arrested on campus, and they’re far more likely than their white counterparts to be disciplined for subjective behaviors such as “defiance” and “disrespect,” particularly when the teacher involved is white.

A popular racist caricature of black girls as loud and unruly forces girls of color to adapt their behavior to conform with notions of white femininity. In order to succeed in the classroom and avoid negative perception by teachers, these girls are continuously asked to suppress their identity as black women.

That’s no exaggeration: There’s been a recent spate of disciplinary procedures instigated against black girls choosing to wear their natural hair to school. This saw a 12-year-old Florida student facing expulsion in 2013 and just this year gave rise to the #SupportthePuff movement after a similar case in the Bahamas.

White teachers in predominantly minority schools have reported a perceived “racial threat” which can and does lead to the escalation of disciplinary matters. Teachers’ biases and the cultural gap between white teachers and black students are important factors in understanding the growth of this problem, which is exacerbated tremendously by the presence of police officers in schools.

Immediate recourse to punitive measures is serving to further victimize these girls, many of whom have already been subjected to trauma in their lives. Black girls of school age experience a disproportionate rate of interpersonal violence.

Restorative models of discipline are gaining increasing support among advocates in this area who note their unique value in the case of girls. As part of a wider policy and practice, these practices are essential to stem the flow of black girls from school into the juvenile justice system.


Dozens of Worker Deaths and Six Years Later, Coal Exec Sentenced to Just One Year in Prison


(Photo: Wikipedia)

Don Blankenship might finally see the inside of a prison cell. Six years after the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 workers, former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, has been found guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety laws.

The misdemeanor charge came with a one-year prison sentence, far less than the 30 years he could have faced had Blankenship been found guilty of the multiple felony charges brought against him. And far less than many think he deserves.

My colleague, Sam Pizzigati, wrote about Blankenship in a piece titled, “America’s Greediest: The 2011 Top Ten Edition.” He noted that Blankenship “pocketed $38.2 million from 2007 through 2009, after $34 million in 2005, and retired this past December with a $5.7 million pension, $12 million in severance, another $27.2 million in deferred pay, and a lush consulting agreement.”

He also noted that Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth largest coal producer, was found “directly to blame” for the deadly 2010 explosion. “Under Blankenship, Massey managers kept two sets of books, one accurate for internal use and another fake for regulators.”

Safety was a far second priority to maximizing profit for Blankenship and the workers that trusted him paid the ultimate price. In a searing interview following Blankenship’s sentencing, former Massey employee, Tommy Davis, recounts losing his brother, his nephew, and his son in the blast. Choking back tears, Davis recounts how Blankenship never once tried to contact him in the six years since their deaths.

“I miss my family. He hugged his. And all he gets is a year…There needs to be much stricter penalties for people like that who put greed and money over human life.”

It is rare that corporate executives are forced to take a perp walk. Remember all the Wall Street bankers brought out in handcuffs for tanking the global economy? Me neither.

According to federal regulators, Blankenship is the first high-ranking executive to be convicted of a workplace safety violation. His lawyer has vowed he will appeal the one-year prison sentence, the maximum allowable for the crime.

Don Blankenship will remain an exceptionally wealthy man and might still wiggle his way out of spending time behind bars. The judge that sentenced him denied requests for restitution both from the miners’ families and from the company Blankenship left behind, now in bankruptcy.

Tommy Davis is right; we need much stricter penalties for those who value profit over people. It shouldn’t take another tragedy like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion to bring about this change.

Berta Cáceres Lives On, And So Does Violence By Honduran Government and Dam Company


(Photo: Flickr /
Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos)

Fifteen hundred people from at least 22 countries convened in Honduras from April 13-15, 2016 for the “Peoples of ¡Berta Vive!” International Gathering. They came to honor slain global movement leader Berta Cáceres and to commit themselves to keeping her legacy alive.

Members of the international gathering also experienced the violence of the Honduran government and Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. – DESA, the foreign-backed company illegally constructing a dam on the indigenous ancestral Gualcarque River – which shadowed Berta throughout her final years and ended her life this past March 2.

Berta Cáceres’ “Emancipatory Vision”

The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the group Berta founded in 1993 and ran until her assassination, and two other Honduran organizations hosted the gathering. The final declaration gave the context of the meeting.

In this land which has struggled for more than 500 years, with the sound of the free-running rivers, the strength of the mountains, the neighborhoods and communities; with the fury and tenderness of the beings of nature; with the spirit of the ancestors, and the hope and pain of men, children, and women [who are] all people of Berta… We are convened here for her memory and her rebellious life.

The forum combined presentations by COPINH leaders and members of Berta’s family; workshops on extraction and its prerequisite, militarization, on human rights, and on women’s power; a cultural presentation by the Afro-indigenous Garifuna; a videotaped message from Gustavo Castro Soto, Berta’s Mexican counterpart in environmental defense and the sole witness to her murder; and much more. A march through the capital of Tegucigalpa was loud, long, and invigorated.

The overarching message of the gathering was two-fold justice for Berta. This includes, first, the fair investigation and prosecution of Berta’s killers, both intellectual authors and paid hitmen. (Toward this end, COPINH and Berta’s family are requesting that the Honduran government allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights actively contribute to the legal process.) Second, justice for Berta means the fulfillment of what she lived and died for. In the short term, this is the cancellation of the dam project on the Gualcarque River. In the longer term, it means a liberatory transformation toward a human- and earth-centered economics, politics, and society in Honduras and around the world.

The Declaration of the International Peoples of “Berta Vive” characterized her contribution toward that transformation as her:

…ethics and practice… and her commitment to the peoples of the world. Her proposal for life was sustained by the radicality and honesty of her words; the profundity of her decolonized thoughts; her profound knowledge and great confidence in people who struggle; and the international horizon of her emancipatory vision.

Assault by Machetes and Rocks

The third day of the gathering, March 15, consisted of a procession to the Gualcarque River. Numerous busloads of farmers, environmentalists, anarchists, human rights observers, children, and others from throughout the Americas and Europe, including many Hondurans, traveled to the village of San Ramón, municipality of San Francisco Ojuera. This villages abuts the river from the north side, from which DESA is now constructing the dam. The internationally financed company moved operations after protests by the COPINH community of Rio Blanco, on the south side of the river, forced construction to a standstill.

During five years of dam-building operations in Rio Blanco, five people have been killed and four have been injured by DESA’s hired guns. Despite this non-prosecuted violence, DESA could not quash the opposition from the highly organized community. The dam construction is in violation of both the Honduran constitution and Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which grants free, prior, and informed consent before development or extraction may occur on indigenous lands.

San Francisco Ojuera, alternatively, is composed of campesinos/as who are not organized through COPINH. They do not identify as indigenous, and have not chosen to resist.

This past Friday, after having been arbitrarily stopped by police twice, and passing several phalanxes of soldiers in anti-riot gear, the caravan of vehicles parked and the crowd began the 45-or-so minute walk to the river. As the crowd approached a bend in the road, 20 or so goons – protected by about an equal number of Honduran national police – shook their machetes in the air. Some held rifles, sticks, and rocks. They voiced vicious statements about Black people and COPINH.

Among the group were individuals who had several times threatened Berta and other members of COPINH with death, according to a communique of April 16, 2016 by COPINH and the other conference organizers. The men and a few women called out that the “fly” had been killed, though she left behind a “plague.”

This was reminiscent of an attempted visit to the river by about 100 COPINH members, including Berta, on March 20. Then, police, soldiers, anti-riot special forces called the Tigres (created and funded by the US), and armed men in civilian clothes blocked their route and assaulted them.

According to testimony given to COPINH by contracted criminals, DESA pays 200 lempiras, or US$8.87, for a day’s work of violence and harassment of dam opponents. On this recent march, a well-known red truck belonging to DESA was parked next to police cars along the road to the river.

The hundreds of Honduran and international delegates continued down to the dam-threatened Gualcarque River despite the threat. There, some swam and others participated in a ceremony, led by Guatemalan Mayans, for Berta’s spirit and strength and for protection of the new COPINH leaders. Some of the armed men followed, filming the faces of delegation members.

As the visitors began to return from the river valley in late afternoon, the operatives became even more wild, lunging and screaming and thrusting their machetes. The police, who had been standing in front of the group to protect them,  now moved aside to let them loose. The men, some of whom were clearly drunk, began throwing rocks at delegation members’ heads, using their fists to beat others, and throwing still others on the ground and kicking them. One assailant slashed a delegation member’s wrist with his machete. Two men, within moments of each other, drew their machetes sharply to the top of the head of this writer, but halted inches above their target. Another attacker tried to slash his machete down on the arm of a Spanish activist, but one of the COPINH team was able to wrest the machete away.

Human rights reporters, after subsequent investigation, put the number of those wounded at 8 or 10. Throughout it all, COPINH members remained completely nonviolent and called for calm.

The policemen stood by all this while, doing nothing to stop the attacks. Then at a certain point, they began aggressively trying to push all those who had returned from the river back down the road to the buses.

However, many refused to leave because a group of delegation members still remained at the river. This included Tomas García, Berta’s successor as COPINH coordinator, whom the goons had been shouting that they wanted to attack. Dusk was approaching.

After some negotiation with caravan members, the police agreed to go collect the remainder at the river in their truck. They refused, though, to allow representatives of the delegation to ride along with them. This would have left the same police who had threatened and arrested Tomas in the past to have free access to him and other COPINH members. Pressure from the visitors finally prevailed, and they were allowed to ride along in the trucks. Everyone was shuttled up to the village safely.

There the safety ended. The police then actively joined the paid attackers. They shoved people and pointed their rifles at them, shouted and cursed them. On foot and in their trucks, policemen pushed the delegation down the road, driving so closely as to almost hit some of the retreating group.

Adelante, Forward

A favorite expression of Berta’s was, “They fear us because we are fearless.” COPINH is not retreating in the face of this or countless earlier attacks.

The final declaration of the international gathering reflects this spirit. It says:

To all the peoples, men and women, we invite you with energy and ethical unity to strengthen the struggle. We will never give up hope. We will live toward a future of utopia with justice, liberty, and autonomy… on this land.

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