Brass Bands, Mardi Gras Beads & Human Rights

I went down to New Orleans a couple weeks ago for Amnesty International USA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM), and caught some of their French Quarter Festival and explored the city as well (parts 2 & 3 of my adventures).

Mardis Gras beads! I joked that the AI ID should be on lanyards of Mardis Gras beads, updating Facebook via texting Twitter while wandering around the French Quarter Festival. Fair Trade, Union Made Mardis Gras beads, of course! I was thinking about the film, Mardis Gras: Made in China that we showed at the Seattle Human Rights Film Festival a few years back.

I know, I know. New Orleans has had a lot of human rights issues of their own to contend with since then (and the same film makers made a film about the aftermath of Katrina a few years later).

Still, I like the colorful Mardi Gras beads, not appropriate for an Amnesty International meeting. While I’d probably end up with a few, certainly our human rights organization wouldn’t be giving them out. Well, hopefully not made by our group’s POC (Prisoner of Conscience), here they are:

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I should hasten to say that none of my other strands were from flashing anything! Amusingly enough, I did have a young man yell, “All right!” when he saw mine heading out of the hotel at one point. Then he stopped mid sentence, umm maybe because he realized how old I was (I’m hitting the big 5–0 in a couple weeks), or saw the Amnesty ID. Err, I certainly hope none of these AI Mardis Gras beads went out for umm, umm . . . Never mind!

Phew! Yes, I was in New Orleans!

In New Orleans and enjoying a lot of great music and food, even though I wasn’t into the more hedonistic Bourbon St. scene. . .

I confess to staying too long at the French Quarter Festival and missing our march and rally, which included a brass band! Fortunately several Seattle members made it, including my friend, JoJo, who took this photo. I did get to hear some of the brass band, from inside the meeting with the board session that I was one of the few people to make (since nearly everyone else was marching).

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Photo by JoJo Tran

Our opening plenary included the moving tribute video (by The People Speak), to historian Howard Zinn, who was to be our keynote speaker before his death earlier this year. His The People’s History of the United States should be required reading in high schools and colleges, and cuts through so much nonsense. What amazed me about the video was how genuine and down to earth he was.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, veteran of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s and member of Sweet Honey in the Rock provided further inspiration in both words and song.

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Here’s Bernice from a tribute to Howard Zinn earlier this month:

Also inspiring was the Ginetta Sagan Award, given in memory of Ginetta Sagan, who was captured while working for the Italian resistance during WWII and tortured by the fascist police; and went on to found one of the first AI chapters in the US and work to free prisoners, found the Western Region and co-found the AIUSA Urgent Action Network, among other things.

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Ginetta’s granddaughter accepted the award on behalf of this year’s recipient, Rebecca Masika Katsuva, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who couldn’t be there.

According to the brochure announcing the award:

Katsuva, recipient of Amnesty International USA’s 2010 Ginetta Sagan Award for Women’s and Children’s Rights, has endured four sexual assaults and many other threats to herself and her family while sheltering women and child rape survivors in her home, and defending their rights in South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

At the end of the award, a man from Vietnam who Ginetta Sagan had worked to free asked if he could say a few words. Very moving, and a reminder that all those letters (and faxes, phone calls and e-mails) do make a difference in real people’s lives.

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We had tasty New Orleans appetizers during the Ginetta Sagan award, and next was cheesecake & resolutions. Of course, I couldn’t have the cheesecake with my health problem, but i could have coffee. We discussed the upcoming resolutions we’d be voting on the next couple days, how AI decides things and makes changes starting at a grass roots level, coming not only from AIUSA, but AI sections around the world.

AI fed me good the whole time I was there, amazingly enough, both as in recent years, due to the budget crisis, we were lucky to get an occasional coffee; and with my health problem limiting what I can eat. My vegetarian friends were not so lucky, some parts of the country don’t have much of a concept of vegetarian cuisine (other than having some vegetables out).

I made it early for breakfast with the board the next morning, and we had a discussion on what’s going on at the international level, including next year’s International Council Meeting (ICM), where every two years, representatives from AI’s sections in countries worldwide come together to have discussions and make decisions.

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Our Saturday morning focus plenary was on maternal mortality. Once again, as at our regional in San Francisco, I was shocked to learn how bad the situation was here in the US, even.  One of the panel members was a woman who lost her sister to complications after the birth of her son. Complications that the new mother and her husband (both EMTs) were not warned about the symptoms of deep vein thrombosis and told to take her to the hospital immediately if she had them. She waited all day for a call back from the doctor and as she got up to answer the phone, with her husband nearby, the clot broke loose and killed her.

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That poor women were dying of preventable conditions giving birth and following birth was clear from the first session in SF. That preventable death could happen even a woman with adequate insurance, with both her and her husband EMTs, more medically knowledgeable than the rest of us, was a shock. It’s one of those things that really makes you question the value (or lack of value) our society puts on women’s lives and health.

America has gone backwards on maternal mortality. According to Amnesty International’s report, Deadly Delivery:

Maternal mortality ratios have increased from 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006. While some of the recorded increase is due to improved data collection, the fact remains that maternal mortality ratios have risen significantly.

In addition to often a lack of adequate pre-natal care and after birth care, there is a high rate of Caesarian sections (most of which, according to the doctor who spoke, are unneeded.

According to some estimates, improving the quality of
maternal care could prevent 40 to 50 percent of
deaths. For example, studies in other medical fields
show that embolism (blood clot) following surgery has
been reduced by approximately 70 percent by using
either compression stockings or drugs. However, these
simple measures are not routinely used following
c-sections, which account for 32 percent of births.

Learn more about maternal mortality in the US online and take action online to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius at:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/demand-dignity/maternal-health-is-a-human-right/the-united-states/page.do?id=1351091

Of course, the situation is much worse in the other countries we heard from, including Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Peru.

Find out more and take action on ending the high rate of maternal mortality in these countries as well:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/demand-dignity/maternal-health-is-a-human-right/page.do?id=1041189

I went to vote on resolutions at Working Party A: AIUSA Membership and Policy, next. Which I found very worthwhile, as these were the issues our local group, including myself, felt most strongly about. I was disappointed they scheduled them at the same time as the workshops on AI’s priority campaigns, and a special one on fighting for the right to return after Hurricane Katrina, though.

Voting ran a little late, but there was still lunch if not seats, and I made it in time to hear the greeting from our special guest,  Nicholas Cage!

Here’s the least blurry picture, of the projection of Nick’s speech, as you really can’t make him out in the photos of him at the podium.

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Yes, I had lunch with Nick Cage!

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OK, it wasn’t exactly an intimate kind of affair (like Rosanne Cash’s meeting with Gabriel Bryne she twittered about earlier this week). Yes, that’s Nick Cage at the podium, off in the distance! He told us how great we were and then had to leave (but it was pretty cool)!

Yeah, I know what I said all cynical about celebrities and AI, but this is Nick Cage! (In other words, a celebrity I’m actually a fan of. . .)

OK, back to human rights work. We had the local groups meeting next (and there was also a student one at the same time), and compared notes about what we’re doing in our groups.

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Next, I went to the workshop on immigration detention. We talked about how immigrants, including asylum seekers and torture survivors are put in mandatory detention with no hearing to see if they belong or not. They’re often housed with criminals (even though only 11% of them are accused of any crime). All this even though cheaper alternatives to mandatory detention are available (with detention costing $100 a day and alternatives for as little as $12 a day). We talked about the quotas for arresting immigrants, oops, what ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement, what used to be the INS) calls “performance goals”. Then we talked about what we could do locally, including visiting detention facilities and lobbying our congress members for several bills currently in the House and Senate.

I did take my one brief break for the conference here and caught about an hour or so of the French Quarter Festival (& caught a lot more Friday before, and Sunday after the conference, coming in my next post).

I came back for the 6 pm session (did I mention we started at 7:30 in the morning?) and went to the one on challenging America’s human rights record at home. We talked about the upcoming UN Periodic Review of the US that AI and other organizations are contributing papers and recommendations for (and how AI does this for all countries).

Among other things, the US still needs to ratify 4 treaties, The Convention on the Rights of the Child (we’re the last holdout, Somalia has now signed this one), CEDAW (the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), the one on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR), and the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We also talked about the rights of asylum seekers, including the fact mentioned earlier, that they are automatically detained on entry. Then we talked about the right of return for New Orleans’ residents.  Among the problems I’ve heard – public housing was torn down (and the films I’ve seen on this show that this housing was untouched by Hurricane Katrina), houses people tried to refurbish in the Lower 9th were bulldozed, many schools still not open, public hospitals still closed. . .

More information on the UN Periodic Review (UPR) at: http://www.upr-info.org/

More information on human rights post-Katrina and the right of return at: http://www.ehumanrights.org/ourwork_residents.html

We had a reception for our region after that, with some more food to graze on. I headed back to my hostel after this before checking out the AI event at the New Orleans Hard Rock (which was loud disco, that I wasn’t really into and didn’t stay long). As it took us awhile to get back with streetcar service (or, rather lack of), I missed any awards or drawings; and I don’t know if Nick Cage, who invited us all there ever showed up. ; )

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I started out the next morning at the breakfast with the Board Candidates meeting. OK, now I’m tracking down the ballot that came in the mail just before I left for the AGM. . .

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Next up was voting on the resolutions, which was actually over early by some miracle. After a breath of fresh air, I went to the session on the Membership Engagement Team report. I knew I was in trouble when I got a huge document with the disclaimer: “Do not be alarmed by the size of this report!” Although it was a useful, if dry, session for a local group leader.

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We had box lunches with po-boy sandwiches during the final plenary session, a panel on the death penalty abolition that included a former prison warden (Dr. Allen Ault) as well as an exoneree (John Thompson). Louisiana has one of the highest rates of exoneration.

Louisiana also has, probably not coincidentally, one of the highest prison rates, and worst educational system. Angola Prison in Louisiana has 5100 men, 4000 are African American. Interestingly enough, though, Dr. Ault, the former warden said that in Georgia the prison he worked at was once 75% black, 25% white; and is now 50–50; thanks to the increase in meth, which is more a white person’s drug.

Learn more about the death penalty at: http://www.amnestyusa.org/death-penalty/page.do?id=1011005 

Find out more about the program John Thompson started, Resurrection After Exoneration at: http://www.r-a-e.org/

 As our AGM wound down, AI applauded the staff of The New Orleans Marriott, our conference hotel, literally, as they all marched across the stage!

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We also thanked the AI staff and volunteers who put the conference together (and having been with the local group when we put on the 2002 AGM in Seattle, I can tell you that’s a lot of work, months before the conference begins).

Then AI volunteers and staff performed short pieces from Howard Zinn’s The People Speak, bringing history alive and adding a further fitting tribute to Howard Zinn.

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Local Group 133, from Somerville, Massachusetts, was awarded the annual Sister Laola Hironaka Award for Local Groups. Group 133 organizes the annual Get on the Bus event.

 Now in its fifteenth year, GOTB draws upwards of 1,200 participants riding buses, commuter trains, and carpooling down to New York City to take peaceful action in front of embassies, consulates and corporate headquarters in NYC in support of human rights.

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Learn more about the Get on the Bus event at: http://www.gotb.org/

Closing out with music and poetry, first local New Orleans poet and activist Asia Rainey shared powerful poetry, and sang a very moving spiritual (even though she claimed she wasn’t a singer).

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Here’s Asia with her poem, No Rainbows for the Colored (with a little singing first), at an event earlier this year. This young woman really speaks truth to power.

Then musician Dave Tieff performed Love and Freedom, a song he wrote for Amnesty International.

Finally,  Larry Cox closing out the conference with praise and encouragement for the work ahead for the coming year.

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Next year’s AIUSA Annual General Meeting, celebrating AI’s 50th birthday, is in San Francisco, March 17 -19, 2011!

More on the music, and my other adventures in New Orleans coming up.

On, and also a couple concerts, including another Flight to Mars show, since coming back!

It’s hard to find time to blog about life while you’re living it. . .

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