In isolation in recent days following a trip to Italy, I found myself thinking of the words of my father during another time when the world felt savage, unpredictable and off-kilter.
Speaking to the Cleveland City Club a day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, he called for us to admit “the vanity of false distinctions,” to instead find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all.
“We can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can,” he said.
Nearly 52 years later, it is just as imperative that we take to heart his message to “remember those who live with us,” that our societal response to the coronavirus pandemic be tethered to the same strong sense of equity and social justice of which my father spoke.
In the midst of this global pandemic, that means:
Remembering the most vulnerable—those without a stable or permanent home, those with disabilities, and those without a safety net who have no ability to work from the shelter of their homes or take time off, by ensuring that everyone has access to adequate, affordable healthcare. Those of us who can afford to stock our pantries with reserves must not hoard, instead ensuring that local food depositories and soup kitchens are sufficiently funded and supplied.
Remembering the prisoners—who are unable to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of illness. At Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, we echo the increasing calls to release people being detained pretrial and in immigration detention, starting with the most vulnerable, to ease spread of the virus in crowded, unjust lockups. Jail and immigration detention should never equate to death sentences, and we hope that the current public health crisis will help us see with new eyes how these systems of mass human caging are and have always been so incredibly cruel, dangerous, violent, and unnecessary.
Remembering the truth tellers—as national governments increasingly declare states of emergency to bolster their responses to the pandemic and save lives, we must keep a watchful eye, given the rise of authoritarianism, to ensure that civic space is protected. Governments around the world have made a practice of using such states of emergency to curtail the legitimate activity of human rights defenders. These actions, such as China’s mandate that citizens carry cell phones so they can be constantly tracked, followed by Israel’s announcement that its citizens must do the same, must comply with international law mandating timeliness and sunset clauses, proportionality and nondiscrimination.
Remembering the first responders—our public health officials, the workers stocking the shelves of our grocery stores, and all others who are ensuring that our basic needs are met are putting their lives on the line. The government must do its utmost to make sure that these human rights defenders are armed with necessary resources and protections, including economic security, to stem the outbreak and stay safe.
International human rights law offers us a blueprint for action, reminding us that all citizens of the world have inalienable rights—no matter their race, gender, background, income level, or sexual orientation.
One legacy of 9/11 is the Patriot Act, when Congress passed sweeping powers of government intrusion in the wake of the terrorist attacks, under which we are still living two decades later. The legacy of the economic crisis of 2008 was the stimulus package that bailed out banks, but from which hundreds of thousands of Americans and too many communities have yet to recover. This time around, it is up to us to determine what the legacy of the $850 billion coronavirus stimulus package will be.
“Yet we know what we must do,” my father said that day in Cleveland, “and that is to achieve true justice among all of our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.”
We are all facing this unprecedented crisis together.
With hope and appreciation,