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The Many Shades of Oppression

I recently attended a speech about activism by Dr. Rev. Gwendolyn Boyd that was incredibly inspiring. Occurring just a few days before Martin Luther King Jr. day, Dr. Boyd made intriguing points about the ongoing patterns of racism in America. Essentially, she called out to the young Christian college students to take an active stand against racism. She quoted bible verses that call us into action just as Dr. King did so many years ago.

What struck me during Boyd’s speech was that the call for action spoke to me personally from my position as an environmental activist. It inspired a personal realization of the interconnectedness of the larger problems in this country, and the mere simplicity of the solutions to them. What comes to mind when thinking of the inspiring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. is not usually anything related to environmental activism. We did not hear Dr. King speaking out against oil companies, or environmental degradation. During the civil rights movement, these issues were just beginning to show their ugly faces to the world.

What Dr. King was speaking out against, however, was the excessive control that the U.S. Government was exerting over people of color in order to prohibit them from obtaining basic human rights. He spoke out because he knew slavery did not end in 1865, when it was outlawed, but that it continued on in different forms and appearances. While African Americans were released from their owners, countless restrictions were enforced to ensure that they would remain unequal to whites for years to come.

To this day, African Americans struggle to survive in a country that is often thought of as increasingly colorblind. To this, Dr. Boyd stated that “a colorblind society wouldn’t have more segregation in our schools today than in any other time in our history. A colorblind society wouldn’t incarcerate people of color disproportionately more than any others. A colorblind society with the mightiest military in human history wouldn’t stand by as millions are herded to their execution in Darfur and other parts of the world and not do anything. A colorblind society would not be silent for issues of poverty and labor rights, constitutionally funded education, and protecting immigrant voter rights and immigration reform.”

Dr. Boyd reminded us that Martin Luther Kings’ concerns remain valid today, and environmental problems are one of the enormous struggles we face today in the struggle for our rights and freedom. Environmental destruction is intricately connected to civil rights. As our environment is stripped for profit, so too are our political and social rights. We unwittingly allow corporations to control everything from what we put into our bodies, to what we do on a daily basis.

The Rising Corporate Influence

Agribusiness is a prime example of the increased corporate control of society. A small amount of corporations dominates the food industry, pushing small farmers out of business, and decreasing the amount of choices available to consumers. This has resulted in a steady increase in food prices since the 1980’s. It also creates an illusion of choice for consumers.

Just four companies control 83.5% of the beef industry, and the top four firms own 58.5% of the broiler chicken market. Four companies boast 43% of the commercial seed market in the world. An even more astonishing statistic is that Monsanto controls over 85% of U.S. corn land and 91% of soybean land in the country.

Corporations have become increasingly profit-driven, with disregard for moral concerns, as they use economies of scale to effectively take over large percentages of markets. Another example of this rising influence is the American media. In fact, just six companies control 90% of American media. These include GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. This number has decreased since 1983, when 50 companies controlled the same portion of media in America. Public opinion on all of the important problems our society faces can easily be swayed according to the motives of these profit-driven corporations.

According to a study conducted by the Heinz Endowments’ African American Men and Boys Task Force in Pittsburgh, of the media sources that were studied, only 27% of the stories written about African American males were related to subjects other than crime or sports. This creates an unbalanced and unfair view of African Americans by news consumers. It perpetuates a fearful bias of black people by people of other races. This further limits their ability to climb the social ladder to success, and impairs their capacity to influence society in ways that can positively affect minority groups.

The American media also excludes certain stories in order to influence viewers. A study conducted by the non-profit organization called Project for Improved Environmental Coverage reported that only 1.2% of news headlines in the U.S. involved environmental issues. They found that entertainment headlines were used three times more frequently.

[Tweet “Only 1.2% of newsin U.S. are on environmental issues; Entertainment headlines 3x as much”]

The report includes a powerful statement from PEIC. “Our level of environmental understanding directly impacts the policies we establish, the daily choices we make, and the extent to which we deepen a national ethic of stewardship. And similar to the way feedback loops work in nature, this stewardship ethic ultimately reinforces our ability to thrive as a species and will enable future generations to enjoy the same comforts and stability we have.”

Strategies Used By Big Business

In order to change the way things work in our world, it is important for us to understand the strategies used by big business to manipulate the structure of society. Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd expressed her concern for the future by asking: “Where are the voices when the same reasons for riots and protests in the 1950’s are the same reasons for riots and protests today.”

One reason this is true is due to the increasing income disparities in the United States. The wealthy are given tax breaks, which perpetuates the disparity. Another contributing factor is the degradation of the land by Corporations that are granted permission to pollute in specified amounts. People of color are affected most by these issues because they are disproportionately affected by poverty. According to the University of Michigan National Poverty Center, 27.4 percent of blacks were considered poor in 2010, while poverty only affected 9.9% of non-Hispanic whites.

Gentrification occurs when poverty-stricken people are driven out of their communities in order to increase property value. A similar result of the power of big money occurs when people in rural settings are forced out of their homes for the construction of oil pipelines. Animals also receive ongoing abuse to their habitats around the world as they are forced into increasingly smaller, conserved areas.

Another interesting point to consider is that the corporate-controlled media may actually be promoting the racial divide on purpose. This keeps people fighting against each other rather than fighting for their rights. Rev. Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd referred to this when she said “And so, if in this generation, we could stop fighting, stop looking for excuses, stop making excuses, stop blaming others, we too, individually and collectively can continue to make a difference today.”

Arguments over environmental issues pose a similar problem. Issues such as global warming are reported in such a way that contributes to the major divide in opinion that prevents us from using our energy to change the issues that really matter. Surely we can agree that the millions of metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere and over a million gallons of oil spilled every year into our oceans every year are harming the earth regardless of whether they are causing global warming or not!

The African American culture that is promoted along with pop culture is another interesting trend. The blatant promotion of boundless materialism to a racial group that is composed of over 4.8 million children in poverty enhances the appeal of consumerism. The markets often “advertised” in the music business, such as shoes, diamonds and gold, are dominated by companies that pollute the environment and often use child labor in third world countries.

Interestingly, what often accompanies this push for consumerism is the glamorization of gang-related activity. This is sending a confusing picture to the minority youths in this country and abroad. This perpetuates the instance of crime among minority groups which contributes further to the seemingly endless cycle of poverty they experience while the illusion of upward economic mobility is largely misunderstood.

Rev. Boyd mentions that the U.S. has a society where a disproportionate amount of colored people are incarcerated. Shocking statistics show that while people of color constitute 30% of the U.S. population, they make up 60 percent of inmates. One contributing factor to this is the war on drugs. A large increase in the prison population occurred during the 1970’s due to creating harsher definitions of crime, and increasing penalties.

A report by Human Rights Watch states that people of color have the same likelihood to use or sell illegal drugs as whites, but are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses. Due to these disproportionate numbers as well as laws that bar people with felony convictions (such as drug dealing offenses) from voting, a shocking 13 percent of African American men are denied voting rights.

A comparable phenomenon to the war on drugs, are the so-called “anti-protest laws”. The law, H.R.-347, rewrote a trespassing law that was formerly passed in 1971. The law makes it illegal for people to protest in areas and events requiring increased Secret Service security. The original law, however, only made it illegal if the violator understood beforehand that he/she was violating a law by protesting in an area with heightened security.

The amendment to the law, enacted during the Occupy movement, made it an illegal offense no matter what. Furthermore, H.R.-347 leaves much to the consideration of the Department of Homeland Security for which events are considered. Many have questioned the original legality of the law based on its’ restriction of the first amendment right to peacefully assemble.

The privatization of prisons has greatly contributed to the increase in human rights violations. One way that it does this is by creating a demand for prisoners. Almost 200,000 inmates are housed in private prisons, largely owned by just three companies. These firms strive to maximize their profit by reducing services such as medical care, food, clothing, staff, and security. This invariably leads to appalling conditions and major human rights violations.

Even more troubling is the fact that many lawmakers own stock in private prison firms. Many officials are even on the payroll of these companies. One such official, Manny Aragon, is a legislator in New Mexico as well as a lobbyist who worked on approving prison privatization for the state.
Many Americans are beginning to see an ugly trend in the corporatization of America. Corporations are now legally deemed “ persons” and are often favored in court over the humans they hurt. It seems to be that a greater amount of activists and poor people in cells means less people who can take to the streets in an attempt to take back the rights promised in the U.S. constitution.

Licensing Requirements

Licensing requirements are another restriction that holds people back from making positive changes. People who desire jobs in sectors such as cosmetology, florists, funeral attendants, home entertainment installers, and barbers are all required to have licenses. What many of these low-income opportunities have in common is that they do not pose high health or safety risks.

Jestina Clayton, who was interviewed by NPR in 2012, started a small hair braiding business out of her home and then found out that what she was doing(without a license) was illegal according to Utah state law. Jestina then found out that it would cost her nearly $16,000 and two years of her life to obtain a cosmetology license in Utah. Furthermore, the schools teach almost nothing about the African style of hair braiding, which is what she practiced in Sierra Leone.

Many licensing requirements serve to protect people. The excessive requirements seen today, however, seem to primarily benefit educational and other corporations while restricting people who are simply trying to make a living. More surprising yet is that this is a growing trend. In the 1950’s, less than 5 percent of American laborers needed a license to perform their job. Today, nearly a third of workers require a license.

Positive changes in environmental sustainability are also prevented, in the form of zoning regulations. Zoning laws usually include restricting requirements in: height of structures, parking locations, building materials, types and uses of buildings, and locations of buildings on the land. This often translates to limitations on positive ecological choices people desire to make that would encourage common people to increase their self-reliance, and independence from big business such as oil companies.

One example of the negative impacts of certain zoning ordinances is an instance in Michigan in 2011, when a woman faced 93 days of jail time for growing a vegetable garden in her front yard. Luckily, after a nationwide petition was turned in, the charges were dropped. However, other people have not been so lucky.

Many zoning laws are simply outdated and many local zoning boards are starting to recognize this. Many cities and townships have shown a true commitment toward increasing sustainability options for residents. For instance, Grand Rapids, Michigan updated its’ zoning ordinance in 2008 to encourage sustainability in parking, landscaping, natural buffers, and renewable energy.

Despite the fact that fewer of our rights are recognized all the time, it is important to recognize the reasons for this. Today, most people depend on organizations, corporations, officials, and other people for almost everything in their lives. Most people do not have the skills necessary to be independent. We rely on others to grow our food, build our houses, and provide rules for our lives. This is an unsustainable way of life.

We demand that the men in Washington care for the rights of the people. Much has been gained from this, but it has not reversed the negative spiral by any means. An important realization is that the powers that be only have the power that we collectively give to them. Most Americans view freedom as something that can be taken from the people, but this is just a perception.

If we start building our lives to be self-reliant, then we will no longer need so much regulation in our lives. We can grow our own food to ensure the safety and security of our health, and livelihood. If we start building community we can use a natural currency that cannot be regulated. We can depend on each other and begin to realize once again the oneness that we all share.

The Fight for Change Continues

If Dr. King were alive today, he would not only witness a growing threat to the rights of African Americans, but a threat to the rights of all human beings on this planet. Martin Luther King once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I believe this powerful message serves to remind us of our true purpose in life. The importance of the message is just as valid, if not more so, today as it was in the 1950’s.

Dr. Boyd also reminded us of another of Dr. King’s famous quotes that was used as a call-and-response speech. “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

[Tweet “The oppressive forces against positive change are interconnected, but the fight continues. http://bit.ly/1iHPSba #activism #greenactionnews”]

Dr. Boyd quoted many bible verses that assure readers that the outcome will be positive if we stand for what is right. Dr. King and Dr. Boyd speak from different times and different generations, but make a similar call for action. They call on us to stand up against oppression, and fight for our rights, so that humanity can enjoy heaven on earth. What we are beginning to witness today, is a growing response to this call to action that has reverberated through the halls of the past. Together, we can co-create a life of abundance here on earth for all the beautiful life she sustains!

Brooke VanDyke

I am an environmental activist from Grand Rapids, MI. I am passionate about protecting the earth in every way possible and I am so excited for the future I am helping to manifest!

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