4 Easy Ways to Get More Out of Your Amnesty Membership

amnesty membershipWe have lots of people who are members in lots of different ways. Some of us attend our meetings on a regular basis. Some of us only attend our big events. Others just receive our email notifications. A few are just members of the national organization. Whatever place your in, there is always a way to get more out of your membership and to do more for Amnesty International. Here are four easy ways to get more out of your membership that won’t leave you burnt out over human rights:

  1. Take Action Online – Taking action online is one of the easiest things to do as an Amnesty member, as it doesn’t require anything more than a computer and an Internet connection. New actions are posted everyday, but if you haven’t yet taken action on Reggie Clemons or the prisoners in Myanmar, do so right now! These are two cases that our chapter in particular is spending time on, so taking action on them is an important part of being a member of the St. Louis group.
  2. Join Our Facebook Group – If you aren’t yet part of our chapter’s Facebook Group, then join now! It’s a great place to network with other members, get reminders about upcoming meetings and events, and even find out about non-Amnesty issues that folks are interested in. There’s always a lot happening on our page, so check it out!
  3. Attend a Meeting – We’d love to see some new faces (and some of the old faces. You know who you are) at our meetings. You don’t have to come to every single one, or stay for the whole thing, but attending meetings is one of the best ways to meet other members and to know what’s going on with the group. We just had our letter writing meeting on Tuesday, but our next business meeting is on October 9. Hope to see you there!
  4. Participate in an Event – Twice a month may be a huge commitment for some people, but we’re sure that an event every few months can’t be all that much to ask for. Some of our past events include a movie showing, tabling and petitioning at concerts, lobbying politicians, hosting/co-hosting speakers, and participating in marches and protests. Our group just attending Amnesty’s annual general meeting last month, and we are planning a few tabling and petitioning events for the summer and fall. If anything, be an active member by attending or helping out (or both).

Overall, the St. Louis chapter hopes to increase its membership in the coming months, and to be more active as a local group. We are one of two groups in the state of Missouri, so there’s a lot to do, and a lot to be done. No justice, no peace!

Update about Reggie Clemons and the Hearing

Reggie ClemonsThis is a release from the Justice for Reggie Clemons campaign.

The evidentiary hearing for Reggie Clemons ended Sept. 20 after four days of testimonies and exhibits were heard and seen by Special Master Michael Manners. Days before Clemons’ execution in 2009, Judge Manners was appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court in response to community outrage and a court motion by Clemons’ attorneys. Early next year, Judge Manners will take on the next critical phase of his judicial obligation–to comb through court transcripts, videotapes, audiotapes, exhibits and other related evidence that will inform his recommendation to the Missouri Supreme Court. The judge will have the unique capacity to review and to assess the totality of all the evidence in this case.

Without going into the specific elements of Reggie’s case, what becomes abundantly clear from being in the courtroom all week is that our justice system is broken and in great need of an overhaul. This is no minor observation when the death penalty is involved.
Recently, federal judge Carol Jackson added her voice to a growing chorus of voices criticizing the St. Louis Police Department’s long history of abuse and said that it was either “deliberately indifferent” to “a widespread persistent pattern of unconstitutional conduct” or “tacitly approved” it.
In the Chain of Rocks Bridge tragedy, all three of the adult suspects alleged police brutality. The outcomes of their allegations were very different: Clemons and Marlin Gray received death sentences for the deaths of Robin and Julie Kerry; Tom Cummins received a $150,000 settlement.
In order to create an environment where truth and justice prevail, it starts with the police department. That department must be sophisticated and objective in its investigation, letting the facts drive the conclusion and not fast-tracking an investigation by beating suspects into confession, then declaring the case is solved
Likewise, when you have a public entity like the prosecutor’s office tainted by the misconduct of one of its prosecutors, that environment of justice has been breached. Former prosecutor Nels Moss (who prosecuted all of the Bridge cases) was a top prosecutor for years, yet his career is riddled with at least 20 appellate overturns of his convictions and numerous citations of contempt of court.
All along the way, there must be checks and balances in the criminal justice system to ensure that justice has been served and the process is being respected. We know that is not the case. According to the national registry created and maintained by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, more than 2000 people have been exonerated for serious crimes over the last couple of decades. These are only the known cases and don’t include the hundreds that are poised for a new light to shine on the case. It is unfortunate that few will get the opportunity that Reggie received because of the interventions of the Missouri Supreme Court. Justice should not be such a capricious and arbitrary commodity.
We all have a role to play in holding the systems accountable that make up the judicial system—the police, the courts and the prisons. The public must be vigilant as informed citizens, as potential jurors and as employees of the judicial system. Citizens must believe that the system is not stacked, corrupt or dysfunctional or else they lose trust in the public institutions that are entrusted to safeguard the process and guarantee the outcomes.  The media also has an important role as well, and that is to provide accurate and objective coverage of crimes against our community.
As Reggie, his family and supporters began the wait for Judge Manners’ conclusion, we are committed to reforming the system that ensnares innocent victims and robs both the families of the convicted and the murder victim’s families of the justice and peace that they all deserve. Such is the hallmark of a functional and humane judicial system.

Why You Should Come to Tomorrow’s Letter Writing Meeting

letter writing meetingTomorrow is yet another monthly letter writing meeting for the St. Louis chapter of Amnesty International. Just like all of our other Amnesty letter-writing meetings, we write letters on behalf of various prisoners of conscious around the world, talk about upcoming issues and events, and catch up with each other on life. So, why should you come to tomorrow’s Amnesty meeting? The one at Hartford Coffee Company on the corner of Hartford and Roger that starts at 7 p.m.? Here’s four great reasons why:

  1. Awesome People Will Be There – This is because the St. Louis Amnesty chapter is full of the coolest people in The Lou. And we are the coolest people in The Lou because we are human rights activists. If anything, you should drop by and say, “Hi.” Consider it networking, but funner.
  2. There’s Great Food and Drink – Hartford has good stuff to munch on, and I’m a big fan of their Vietnamese iced coffee. If you’re worried about coming straight from work with nothing to eat, or having to stop somewhere to pick up dinner, don’t sweat it. We have that covered. We’re totally cool with you eating and drinking as you write too. After all, everyone does it.
  3. What Else Are Your Gonna Do on a Tuesday Night? Watch TV? – At least at the Amnesty meeting, you’ll be doing something productive and for others. Yes, some people are busy with school, jobs, and family, but if you’re not, then we’d like to see tomorrow.
  4. You Get to Make a Difference in the Lives of Others – When was the last time you did that? If you can’t remember, then make a memory at tomorrow’s meeting. If you think this letter writing thing doesn’t work in making a difference, then consider that the letter writing efforts of this chapter helped to release prisoners of conscience like Khun Kawiro, Ma Khin Khin Leh, and Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s not work that takes effect overnight, but not doing anything at all also won’t help the people we’re trying to help.

What Amnesty International is All About

amnesty st. louisFor those who are well aware that Amnesty International is the largest grassroots human rights organization, it’s known that Amnesty International is all about human rights and providing a voice for people who otherwise wouldn’t have one. However, I’ve been asked many times in my life what Amnesty International is, and what it’s all about, and I’m here to tell you that the organization, and our St. Louis chapter, are about investigating and exposing abuses, educating and mobilizing the public, and helping to transform societies to create a safer, more just world.

One of our main ways of advocating for justice and creating a safer, more just world is to write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience and others violated around the world. Some might say that writing letters doesn’t work. However, Amnesty USA has had four major victories in the past two weeks alone, including the abolition of the death penalty in Connecticut. Our chapter has even had recent victory regarding several prisoners of conscience in Burma. None of these victories would’ve happened without the consistent pressure and hard work of human rights activists such as ourselves. These problems are not solved overnight, but through months, even years, of making the statement that these people and these issues are important and worth solving.

Although the work of Amnesty started by focusing on those who were imprisoned for expressing their basic human rights, our work has grown over the past 50 years to to include those who have been, or are being violated. This would include those who are unlawfully evicted from their homes, those who don’t have access to healthcare and education, and those who have immense trouble seeking justice for human rights abuses (i.e. rape victims, refugees etc.). A human rights abuse or violation doesn’t necessarily involve imprisonment, despite it being a common correlation in the real world.

Amnesty International is about doing the right thing, and standing up for what’s right. What are you about?

How to Write an Urgent Action Letter

urgent action letterIt’s the one question we always get when someone new joins our letter writing meetings: how do I write an urgent action letter. They’re not hard to do, and here’s how you can do it so you can write letters in between our meetings, if you like. A letter can be done in a few short steps! All you need is the urgent action, a piece of paper, a writing utensil, and an envelope and stamp when you are finished writing.

1. Address the Recipient – At the top of the letter, write the name and address of the person to whom you are sending the letter. The name and address are found at the bottom of the urgent action. We will use this urgent action about homeless Haitians as our example If you were to write a letter on these people, you would start withe the name and address like this:

Laurent Lamothe, Primature d’Haïti  
33 Boulevard Harry Truman
Port-au-Prince, HAITI – HT-6110

2. Write the Letter – This is the toughest and scariest part for new letter writers, since have a hard time figuring out what to write. Fortunately, the urgent action provides bullet points of what should be said in the letter. This can be found right above the address, under the headline “Please Write Immediately.” Sometimes, the action might specify the letter to be written in specific languages, but if you only speak English, that’s okay. If the letter is about a specific person or persons, make sure to put their name in all capital letters and underline it when mentioning them in the letter. For the Haitian letter, since there’s no person in particular that’s mentioned, you don’t have to do this.

3. Sign and Address the Envelope – This is done like how you would sign and address any other letter and envelope.

4. Seal and Stamp the Letter – Also done like how you would stamp and mail any other letter. Just make sure to use an international stamp ($1.02) if sending a letter internationally. Mexico and Canada have their own rate (72 cents), and US letters would involve our normal stamps. The Haiti letter would use an international stamp.

5. Mail the Letter – Put it in the mailbox! You are done! Hopefully, you’ll get a response in several months. For more help and information on how to write and to send these letters, and what else you can do about the issue or the person, check out Amnesty’s Letter Writing Guide.

That’s really it! Not hard at all! And don’t worry so much about being eloquent and having perfect spelling and grammar. It’s not as if anyone is grading you on these letters! It’s more important that you take action and you write the letters in the first place. If you’re interested in writing a few letters, you could come to our next letter writing meeting, which is Sept. 25 at Hartford Coffee Company. The meeting promptly starts at 7 p.m.

Hope you’ll write a letter, or at least feel more comfortable sending your first one!

Gender Pricing – It’s a Human Right, Is It Not?

gender pricingI came across a startling revelation this past weekend, one that I think counts as a human rights violation since it violates Article 2 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What did I learn?

There’s no federal law banning discrimination in the sale of goods and services.

Now, there are a lot of things that aren’t banned by federal law. What makes this so troubling is that discrimination does exist in the sale of goods and services, gender discrimination in particular. It’s called, “gender pricing.”

Gender pricing is the deliberately pricing goods and services differently for each gender, and no surprise, women have the short end of the stick on this one. Women typically pay more for everything from dry cleaning to mortgages, from health insurance to deodorant, and it’s perfectly legal for businesses to do this. Granted, a few states and cities do outlaw this practice, but consider that it was found in 1996 that women paid an extra $1,351 per year in costs and fees for the exact same things men got at a cheaper price. Considering that figure is from over 25 years ago, it’s likely much higher today. Forbes dubbed this the “Woman Tax” just a month ago, and a 2010 Consumer Reports study found that across the board for drugstore products, ones branded for women cost more, up to 50 percent more.

Also consider that women buy more than 80% of all goods and services, so it’s unlikely that businesses themselves will make this change if they are engaging in gender pricing (keep in mind that not all businesses do this). It’s also unlikely that Congress will take up this issue on their own. Not only do our senators and representatives have more pressing things to attend to, but the organizations that lobby will have millions of reasons to lobby against such legislation. With that much profit at risk, most industries and industry organization won’t let this happen. Plus, only 16 percent of Congress is female, and look at the difficulties surrounding reauthorizing VAWA! Imagine how hard it would be to pass this legislation if it actually made it committee!

This issue startles me because it’s been going on for so long under everyone’s noses that nothing has been done about it, with little fervor to do something about it. This issue startles me because women still don’t make as much as men, yet we pay more for some of the exact same goods and services. This issue startles me because I suspect by correcting this issue, we can correct a lot of other gender inequality issues that are still happening in this country. This issue startles me because it is a form of discrimination, and any form of discrimination is a human rights violation because the practice violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Because it is so startling, more should be done to bring awareness to the issue and to do something about it.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of options right now. There’s always calling our elected officials about the issue, but without a coordinated campaign to call many of these officials many of times over a certain period of time, a few sporadic calls won’t mean much. There’s a petition that folks can sign and share, but it doesn’t have a lot of traction either. Perhaps things could be done to make a change locally, but as for action to get the federal law in place, that’s about it. Any and all ideas on how to move this forward are welcome.

I just hope you are as startled as I am, and that you are moved to make a difference.

Take Action Now: Protecting Civilians in Sudan

darfur sudanOn March 16, 2012, Hollywood actor George Clooney got arrested for the first time in his life — not for drunk driving or drug abuse, as what people usually expect with celebrities — but for civil disobedience. The actor was taking part in a protest outside Washington’s Sudanese embassy. He and his fellow protestors wanted to bring more attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis happening in Sudan.

They got their wish. When Clooney got arrested with his own father and several members of the U.S. Congress, the media brought the Darfur Conflict and its tragic aftermath to mainstream awareness.

Nevertheless, there’s never too much talk about this topic, given how Sudan’s government still denies its citizens of their human rights in spite of peace talks. Those living in areas of conflict can’t receive food and other forms of humanitarian aid because the government blocks the access of outside organizations that want to send assistance.

To fully understand how it got to this, it’s best to go back to how it began.

Sudan is a country in Africa and its capital, Khartoum, is the seat of government. Darfur is a region in the western part of Sudan. Khartoum is predominantly Muslim, while Darfur is mostly populated by non-Arab black Africans.

Prior to the notorious Darfur Conflict that began in 2003, rebel groups have accused Khartoum of being oppressive toward the non-Arabs. One form of Khartoum’s oppression, as these groups claim, was violent ethnic cleansing as a means to get rid of Sudan’s non-Arab population to promote Arab solidarity.

Then, in the spring of 2003, amidst other conflicts that plagued the country, two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), started attacking government installations as a form of protest against Khartoum’s alleged oppression of non-Arabs, particularly the black Africans.

In retaliation, the Sudanese government initiated raids headed by the military and militia, known also as Janjaweed. The raids were swift and vicious. They targeted not just the rebels, but ethnic groups that supported them. The result was a terrible civil war that decimated hundreds of villages and claimed thousands of lives. To make matters worse, civilians who were displaced by the conflict had nowhere to go except to stay within the outskirts of Darfur. Those who strayed too far were raped and beaten, and often killed.

To be fair, many Arabs in Sudan are against the conflict, but there’s not much they — or anybody else — can do when Khartoum is dead set on punishing Darfur for its rebellion. Until now, the government has made no move to rebuild the fallen region, and even forbids any form of assistance to come in.

Many Sudanese people died from violence caused by acts of warfare. In fact, then-U.S. President George W. Bush called the Darfur Conflict a genocide because of the 300,000 lives lost from 2003 to 2005. But that number is steadily rising. Many more will die from inflicted famine, a famine caused not by a real food shortage, but by inhumanity.

Let’s not allow this to happen. Please sign this petition urging the UN Security Council to protect civilians in Sudan. Something must be done, and we can be the ones to do just that.

3 Petition Apps for Human Rights Activists

human rights appsThere are hundreds of thousands of apps available. The old advertising slogan, “there’s an app for that” is more true than many realize. A person or a group realizes and defines a need, and voila! An app is created!

So, it should come as no surprise that there are petition apps available, n fact, three of them – that human rights activists can use to build awareness and to take action on various issues. All are from the iTunes Store and are described on App Appeal. (There were none found for either BlackBerry or Android.) The three are Change.orgiPetitions and Act.ly. All are free, although two do offer more specialized services for a small subscription fee.

The first of these, Change.org, calls itself an online petition tool. It says that petitions created can be promoted online and shared through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. There is also a “petition widget” that users can place on any website or weblog, which allows that user to promote the petition and draw attention to it. In the words of the website, “the petition becomes a tool to raise awareness of the issue and encourage those responsible to make a change for the better.”

Next is iPetitions, the “Free Online Petition Builder.” Its users can create petitions from scratch or take a look at sample existing one. Almost all of the same features as Change.org are also found here as well.

The last is Act.ly, with which users can create and circulate a petition on Twitter. Tweeting or Retweeting it has the same effect as signing. To set it up, users link to Twitter, and a home page appears. A petition can be started or a Hot List can be viewed of popular ones. To create a petition and begin circulating it, begin by entering the Twitter name of the person or organization the user wants to bring attention to, as well as what activity they’d like from the subject.

Once tweeted, the petition is live. Act.ly will notify the user if the petitioned subject responds in any way. The website says this is one of the most interesting aspects of the app. While many responses are simple, some are very thought provoking responses from public figures. Some responses appear to be just re-tweets, as there’s no way of knowing if the message was actually read or the person just saw an “RT” and did that. The site gives an example of a US Senator who responded to a petition about oil companies by promising to vote in favor of closing their tax loopholes.

So, to whom would one recommend this application?

Anyone who wants to make a change, uses Twitter (or wants to begin), wishes to start a petition, and believes that perhaps a different method of making that social change happen might work better (or would be great to work with in conjunction) various current activism methods.

Apps for mobile devices have proven that they can do many things. Bringing about social change wouldn’t seem to out of reach!

Action Still Needed for the Violence Against Women Act

VAWAIn the past few months, over 17,000 Amnesty activists called on their Member of Congress to vote on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

About a month ago, both the House and Senate finally passed their own versions of VAWA. But the fight isn’t over yet! While the Senate version is a strong bill, the House version would undermine women’s rights in the United States. In the next couple of weeks, your action is essential and will determine the passage of the strongest VAWA yet. Urge the passage of a strong and inclusive VAWA now!

We need a VAWA that protects all women. All of your calls, emails, letters and tweets helped get the right provisions into the Senate version of VAWA. In fact, a senior Senate staffer said that Amnesty’s support of the provisions for Native women were crucial to making sure that they were included.

We want to show Congress how important this bill is to all of us – Native American and Alaska Native women, immigrant women and LGBT individuals included — throughout the country. Now that there are two versions of the bill, it is time to take action to ensure that an effective VAWA is sent to President Obama for his signature.

The House passed a version of VAWA that fails women. If this version prevails:
– Tribal courts will have no power to prosecute non-Native perpetrators of sexual violence against Native American women.
– Immigrant women will have little legal protection to prevent abusers from using immigration status as a tool of exploitation and control.
– LGBT persons will continue to face discrimination and denial of social services.

Congress should not pass VAWA without addressing these problems. If the expanded provisions in the Senate bill don’t pass, Native American and Alaska Native women, immigrant women and LGBT individuals will be at greater risk of violence with no recourse to justice.

Every day that goes by without Congressional action is another day that women do not get the support and protection they need.

Now is the time to act. Since Congress is stalled on the reconciliation process, this is our window to influence the next steps. Tell Congress the answer is obvious — the Senate bill is the only acceptable version of VAWA.

We won’t settle for anything less. Will you? Take action to ensure that Congress passes the Senate bill that protects all women – regardless of their race, ethnicity, tribal or immigration status, sexual orientation or gender identity.