Human Rights Are Indivisible

If a better world is coming, it's one day at a time

UT professor Rob Owen speaks to activists protesting the death penalty on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, outside the Governor's Mansion.
UT professor Rob Owen speaks to activists protesting the death penalty on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, outside the Governor's Mansion. (Photo By John Anderson)

Austin's celebration last week of International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, was small but earnest. A determined handful of protesters, their numbers amplified by the car horns offered in solidarity, organized by the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, gathered at the Governor's Mansion for the all-too-frequent vigil and rally against the latest scheduled execution in Huntsville. Simultaneously on the north side of town, the fledgling local chapter of Jobs With Justice picketed the Health and Human Services Commission, distributing information about the state's determination to transfer its responsibility for vulnerable Texans to private, for-profit companies -- who themselves want to provide as little public information as possible. And a little later that Wednesday evening, the Texas State Teachers Association, the Central Labor Council, and the Third Coast Activist Resource Center sponsored a panel on the relation between human rights and workers' rights. Consensus: Workers are born unfree, and everywhere (including the U.S.) they are in chains.

But there were, indeed, a few small reasons for rejoicing. Early in the week, the state of Texas apparently got poured out at the Supreme Court, in the case of death row inmate Delma Banks Jr. As reported here last week by Jordan Smith, most of the justices were highly skeptical of the state's arguments that prosecutors' lying in court, coercing and coaching witnesses, and concealing exculpatory evidence from the defense -- facts the state hid from Banks for decades -- was no reason to suspect he may not have gotten a fair trial and perhaps shouldn't be put to death. "So the prosecution can lie and conceal and the defendant still has the burden to uncover it?" asked a perplexed Justice Anthony Kennedy, receiving a nod from Assistant Attorney General Gena Bunn in response. (There is little mystery, one supposes, why Attorney General Greg Abbott passed on this golden opportunity to appear before the justices.)

Banks' appeal did not even address the then routine practice in Texarkana, where he was tried, of excluding all black jurors from capital cases against black defendants, nor did it highlight the woefully inadequate quality of Banks' basic defense. What was there was bad enough. Even with Antonin Scalia doing his best to carry water for the hangman, odds are that his colleagues will balk at affirming the execution of a man who not only didn't have a fair trial, but who for two decades was actively, officially prevented from the possibility of a fair trial or even an adequate appeal.

You could whistle a very long time waiting to prosecute the Banks prosecutors for their misconduct.

Small Victories

Closer to home, the execution news was also as good as it gets in Texas. Three scheduled executions were stayed last week, for various and even mysterious reasons, but that's three fewer state murders for which to share responsibility. Kevin Zimmerman, the subject of Wednesday's vigil, received a last-minute stay from none other than Scalia -- with no reason given, but presumably due to the pending lawsuit over the suitability of pancuronium bromide as one of the three chemicals used by Texas since 1982 in executions. It appears that the chemical, no longer recommended for animal euthanasia because it masks rather than prevents suffering, may eventually be ruled inhumane -- its main function is to help the state maintain the delusion that in taking human life hygienically, we are less cruel than those we condemn.

Zimmerman was reportedly disappointed at the stay, saying he was "ready to go. ... The stay only means 18 more months of this crap." The courts have already rejected his claims of mental retardation, and he now apparently prefers state-sponsored certain suicide to the whims of Texas justice and incarceration. Two additional executions were postponed last week, and no more are scheduled until January, making 2003 rather moderate on the Texas scale: only 24 killed, short of last year's 33 and not approaching the 2000 record of 40. (We resume Jan. 6; of the nine condemned thus far for 2004, one is white, six black, two Hispanic.)

It was not much, but enough perhaps to make defensible the guarded optimism of the speakers at the Governor's Mansion, who declared that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will one day not be an afterthought in Texas. Said UT law professor and abolitionist Rob Owen, "We must continue to make human rights real in this society."

Making Rights Real

It may seem a leap from attacking the death penalty to sustaining social services to defending the rights of workers to organize, but all rest upon our reiterated claims to equal justice and to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Although the U.S. likes to lecture other countries (depending on the political circumstances) about labor rights, Human Rights Watch reports that the domestic situation is bad and getting worse. According to statistics from the National Labor Relations Board, reports HRW, "In the 1950s, workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1969 the number was more than 6,000. By the 1990s more than 20,000 workers each year suffered a reprisal serious enough for the NLRB to issue a 'back-pay' or other remedial order."

The NLRB is a notoriously lackluster defender of workers' rights, so you can multiply that figure severalfold to get some inkling of both the amount of labor agitation going on at the ground level, as well as the reflexive (and generally illegal) company reaction against it. Austin is currently embroiled in a mostly environmental battle against retail giant Wal-Mart, which has prospered enormously by exploiting communities and its own workers, desolating landscapes, undercutting wages, and discarding benefits in pursuit of a scorched-earth assault on local economies from Arkansas to China. Everywhere it goes, it weakens the bonds of association; the sense of neighborhood; and the common, local human culture that makes a real community. The aquifer, crucial though it is, is the least of it.

"If there is to be social justice," said Bill Beardall of the Equal Justice Center, "we have to do the little things, to get to where we don't know, to push things forward."

There's plenty of work to go around. end story

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human rights, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Jobs with Justice, Third Coast Activist Resource Center, Delma Banks Jr., Gena Bunn, Anthony Kennedy, Anthony Scalia, Kevin Zimmerman, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Rob Owen, Human Rights Watch, National Labor Relations Board, NLRB, Wal-Mart, Bill Beardall, Equal Justice Center

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