Welcome to This Week in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Folks in Jackson, Mississippi are still without running water, state legislatures continue to introduce and pass anti-trans legislation, and jury selection for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, begins.
Three weeks after the winter storms that swept through parts of the south, thousands of folks are still without water in Mississippi. In Jackson, a city that is over 80% Black, record low temperatures led to at least 96 breakages in the city’s 100 years old water pipes. While some neighborhoods, primarily in the northeastern and white part of the city, have had running water restored, not a single home in the city limits can safely drink the water without first boiling it. The City and National Guard have been distributing only non-potable water to wash dishes and flush toilets, so folks have been left on their own to spend money on drinking water. Officials have not provided a timeline for full restoration. With a limited government response, organizations such as the People’s Advocacy Institute are accepting donations for mutual aid efforts. (The Guardian)
After a one-month hunger strike, Chicago protesters ended their campaign against the relocation of the General Iron metal-shredding plant from the overwhelmingly white Lincoln Park neighborhood to the predominantly Black and Latinx Southeast Side. Advocates report that the Southeast Side already experiences poor air quality as a result of industrial pollution. The scrapyard is being moved to accommodate the controversial Lincoln Yards development. Protestors announced the end of their hunger strike after Mayor Lori Lightfoot continued to refuse to agree to their demands to withhold issuing the permit that would allow the business to operate. (Democracy Now; Chicago Sun Times)
Across the country, state legislatures are introducing and passing anti-trans legislation that would ban transgender youth from participating in sports teams and that would bar access to gender-affirming health care. These bills come in response to an executive order signed by President Biden that bans discrimination based on gender identity in school sports and elsewhere. (The Hill)
Despite being essential workers, the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, continue to face barriers receiving the COVID-19 vaccination. Although the CDC included farmworkers in Phase 1B, the second group to receive the vaccine after frontline healthcare workers, states are not required to implement the CDC’s recommendations. As a result, some states have not prioritized or included farmworkers in their distribution plans. In New York, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo removed farmworkers from Phase 1B, leaving 50,000 farmworkers unsure of when they will be able to get vaccinated. Other states, such as Florida and Georgia, are requiring proof of residency or a Social Security number. In states where farmworkers are eligible, many logistical challenges continue to limit access. For instance, for folks who do not have regular access to the internet and cellphones or who have limited technology literacy, making an online appointment, as required by many locations, can pose a huge barrier. Of the centers that do schedule appointments by phone, many do not have staff members who speak Spanish or Mexican Indigenous languages. To overcome these challenges, Riverside County in California has started a program to meet farmworkers where they are at and vaccinate them at work, no online registration or phone appointment necessary. The first-of-its-kind model is being heralded as a success and calls are being made to replicate it throughout the state and country. As put by one advocate, “It’s not just that they prioritized farmworkers – they developed a comprehensive, innovative strategy to ensure vaccines access and acceptance in farmworker communities.” (The New York Times; The Counter)
The House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA) this week. The bill would end qualified immunity for police officers (but not other state actors like corrections officers, mental health facility operators, etc.), ban the use of chokeholds and carotid chokeholds by federal officers, forbid the use of no-knock warrants only in federal drug cases, require federal officers to wear body cameras; make racial profiling in law enforcement illegal; and limit (but not end) the transfer of military equipment to state and local police departments. When the bill was first introduced in June of 2020, a coalition of civil rights and racial justice organizations wrote a letter urging the House to “strengthen” the JPA. Many organizers and abolitionists like Mariame Kaba and Derecka Purnell have been highly critical of the bill and its provisions that give more grant money to local law enforcement agencies. As explained by Kaba, “if you talk to people who have been on the streets all last year… and continue to be struggling now in their communities, they would tell you that that bill, which is really just a set of procedural reforms, is woefully, woefully insufficient.” In response to the perceived shortcomings of the JPA, House and Senate progressives Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Sen. Ed Markey, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren reintroduced a bill to end qualified immunity for all government actors. The bill was originally introduced in June of 2020 by libertarian and former Rep. Justin Amash, but was not put up for a vote. Organizers have also pointed to the Movement for Black Lives’ BREATHE Act, which has not yet been introduced, as a much more transformative piece of legislation. (Vox; The Intercept)
The second-degree murder and manslaughter trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes until Mr. Floyd died, will begin on Monday, March 8. The prosecution and defense are scheduled to begin their testimony on March 29, 2021. (The Minnesota Daily)
For the second time in two years, the House passed H.R. 1, also known as the For the People Act, a piece of comprehensive voting and democracy reform legislation. At 800 pages, the bill contains numerous policies that seek to expand and protect voting rights, implement campaign finance reform, and strengthen ethics laws for members of Congress. Among its many proposals, H.R. 1 would require a minimum of 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections; prohibit states from restricting a person’s ability to vote by mail; enact automatic voter registration; restore the right to vote in federal elections to people who have completed their felony conviction sentences; create independent redistricting commissions to draw new congressional districts; establish the public financing of campaigns; require super PACS to make their donors public; and demand that the president, vice president, and presidential and vice presidential candidates disclose 10 years of their tax returns. Although President Biden has already stated his support for the bill, H.R. 1 will face an uphill battle in overcoming the Senate filibuster and getting the 60 votes necessary to make it to the president’s desk. (Vox)