10 Ways Human Rights and Democracy Won in 2014 (Yeah, You Heard That Right)

Let’s be honest: It was a brutal year for human rights. But we still have victories worth celebrating.
Black Lives Matter Boy photo by Sarah-Ji

Ferguson, Missouri. October, 2014. Photo by Sarah-Ji.

In 2014, we saw a lot of brutality. Unarmed black men and women were killed by police, women were raped on college campuses and in military barracks, foreign nationals were tortured, and young and mentally ill Americans were confined for extended periods in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

The privilege of whiteness is under review.

It was a violent year, but no worse than other years. What was different was the emergence of new movements of resistance—and with them new possibilities for change.

1. Black Lives Matter

It was no secret to black Americans that they were disproportionately targeted for police violence, arrests, and incarceration. Black men are 21 times as likely to be shot by police as white men, according to a report by ProPublica. And the Pew Center reports that black men are six times as likely to be imprisoned as white men.

It was the young black activists who took to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, night after night who sparked a movement. And the African American women and men, and allies of all races, in cities and towns across the United States, who stood up, making the issue impossible to ignore.

This new civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, has already resulted in an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and calls for a truth and reconciliation commission. There is sure to be more in 2015.

2. White folks are re-evaluating privilege

Many believe that implicit bias contributes to police violence against African Americans and more punitive treatment by schools, courts, and prison officials. White folks across the country are doing some soul searching about the effects of bias against people of color, who will soon make up a majority of Americans. (Test your implicit biases here.) The controversial hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite showcased white people who confessed to breaking the law and getting away with it.

3. New alliances to protect the planet are succeeding, led by people of color

The willingness of white activists to support leadership by people of color is opening doors to some powerful new alliances. Native American tribes, building on their treaty rights, are blocking efforts to develop tar sands pipelines and new coal export facilities; non-Native allies are joining in. If built, the projects proposed for the Pacific Northwest would, together, bring to market fossil fuels with five times the carbon impact of the KXL pipeline. Most recently, after months of protests and lawsuits, residents of Vancouver, British Columbia, joined with the Tseil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations to block Kinder Morgan’s plans to build a tar sands pipeline through Burnaby Mountain.

"We are saying no to the destruction of Mother Earth."

"Everything we get out of the land and water is sacred," said Ruben George of the Tseil-waututh Nation during a September rally against the pipeline. "Today, we are blocking all directions of the Alberta pipelines—across Canada and the United States, we are saying no to the destruction of Mother Earth."

4. The climate march inspired millions

The massive climate march in New York City in September was also led by communities of color, who mobilized young, diverse activists by the thousands—along with progressive unions and environmentalists—creating one of the largest, most energized climate marches yet. The momentum of this march carried through to Peru, where international climate talks narrowly skirted collapse. The resulting agreements may have fallen short of the commitments needed, but at least they have kept talks alive. Leadership continues in state and local governments among grassroots activists and enlightened businesses.

5. Governor hears activists, bans fracking in New York

In December Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York state, citing hazards to health, drinking water, and climate stability. In making his decision, the governor pointed to a report, compiled by the New York State Department of Health, which also noted the increase in seismic activity associated with fracking. The tenacious activism of communities most at risk helped the governor find the political courage to take this stand.

6. With the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture, democracy scores one over tyranny

Government transparency is one factor that separates democracies from tyrannies. The fact that Senator Diane Feinstein succeeded in getting the torture report released is an indication that at least some democratic accountability continues to function, in spite of the powers of the national security state.

The contents of the report, according to Senator Feinstein, are a "stain on our values and on our history.”

She said, “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say 'never again.’”

The New York Times is now calling for a criminal investigation of those responsible, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Two institutions of democracy—the U.S. Senate and independent news media—have stepped up to have their say. In 2015, we'll see if democracy and accountability are further revived.

7. War on Terror blows back

Just 25 percent of Americans think we are winning the “war on terrorism,” the lowest number in 10 years

Of the 25 most important leaders of ISIS, 17 of them spent time at Iraq prison Camp Bucca or one of the other prisons run by the U.S., according to an article in The Guardian. "We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else," one informant told the paper. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”

ISIS has now become a powerful force in the region, making a so-called U.S. victory in Iraq even more elusive.

This is just one part of the blowback resulting from the decision in 2003 to invade Iraq and upend its government and entire society. We broke it, but we as outsiders cannot fix it.

The utter failure of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the millions of lives lost and destroyed, and the billions of dollars spent have caused a fundamental rethinking of U.S. posture in the region. Just 25 percent of Americans think we are winning the “war on terrorism,” the lowest number in the 10 years since Rasmussen pollsters started asking; 69 percent oppose the United States acting as the world’s police.

We are well-positioned for a serious national dialogue about how to convert our war-dependent economy to one that meets human needs and preserves life on earth in an era of climate disruption.

8. Cuba recognized in battle against Ebola; U.S. normalizes relations

Cuba, in spite of its small size and relative poverty, has sent over 250 doctors to fight the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia—a number that dwarfs that of much larger countries. For years, Cuba has been sending doctors to disaster areas around the world and to some of the poorest communities in Latin America and Africa. In a 2007 interview with YES! Magazine, Dr. Juan Ceballos, advisor to the Cuban Ministry of Health, revealed that doing this was a humanitarian effort but also a defense strategy. Instead of building a big military, which the small country could ill afford, medical diplomacy kept Cuba from being isolated and the target of aggression from the United States and its closest allies.

On December 17, President Obama announced the United States would be normalizing relationships with the small island nation, citing, among other reasons, Cuba’s contribution to the battle against Ebola: "I believe American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease," President Obama said.

9. Opposition continues to secret trade talks

During his first presidential campaign, Obama was a vocal opponent of NAFTA and other race-to-the-bottom trade deals. But today, the Obama administration is pressing for the completion of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP): a trade deal more accurately described as a global constitution, as it pre-empts local, state, and national laws in favor of binding international agreements that benefit transnational corporations.

The good news for opponents of this deal is that, thus far, the Obama administration has failed to get Congress to grant “fast track” status, which would require an up-or-down vote by Congress, without modification. Leaders in both political parties support the deal, although members from both parties recently signed a letter opposing fast track; both parties also face substantial grassroots opposition. Many see the TPP as continuing policies like NAFTA that have undercut the middle class. Berkeley, California, is the latest city to declare itself a TPP-Free zone.

10. Rape culture: Women and people who love them are pushing back

Violence against women is nothing new. But headlines in 2014 highlighted the aggression women suffer in the military, on college campuses, on Native American reservations, in the online gaming world, and in intimate relationships with sports celebrities. This was also a year of resistance to that violence.

Thanks to a law passed by Congress in December, women in the military—one in three of whom are sexually assaulted—will have more say over how their cases are handled. In California’s public universities, students must receive "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity,” according to a law that went into effect this fall. Consent will no longer be defined as not objecting (or being too drunk to express an opinion.) Three tribes are using their new authorities under the Violence Against Women Act to prosecute those who assault Native women. Until the passage of the act, tribal authorities were prevented from prosecuting non-Native assailants.

#YesAllWomen became a conversation about sexual violence; #WhyIStayed explained why many stay in violent relationships.

Meanwhile, the online world has become a location for the harassment of women, but also a place where there is a renewed conversation about the impact of sexual violence. Labeled #Gamergate on Twitter, online harassment and threats directed at prominent women in the online gaming world created such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that at least two women fled their homes when their addresses were revealed, and one woman canceled a speech when university officials were unable to guarantee her safety.

One Australian gamer addressed the problem by tweeting politely to the mothers of the harassers, who turned out to be mostly boys. The hashtag #StopGamerGate was launched in response to the harassment.

#YesAllWomen became a place for a conversation about widespread sexual violence, and #WhyIStayed explained why many stay in violent relationships.

The continuing controversy over a Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia is just one arena where the question of women’s safety and rights will continue into the new year.

What's next?

The politics of resentment have been used to whip up hate against women and people of color. It’s been an effective way to distract the American public from some very real resentment: like the fact that just a few at the top have been siphoning the power and money that enabled the American dream.

As we head into 2015, we face huge challenges to restore (and redefine) a middle-class way of life, to deal with the climate crisis and the blowback from war, and to reclaim our government from big corporations and Wall Street. We will only be able to take on these and other key issues if we fully and consciously include men and women of all races. That means, as a starting point, asserting everyone’s right to safe participation in the public spaces that make up our society.

The biggest hope for 2015 is that we will turn to each other, not on each other. By building a strong foundation of mutual respect, we can use our collective power to transform our society into one that works for everyone.