Freedom Papers

Freedom Papers


by: Savanha Renald, JD • 
Dec 9, 2023

In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for “a radical revolution of values,” in which “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Towards the end of his life, MLK Jr.’s work extended beyond civil rights and began to adopt a human rights framework. A framework in which we are tasked with raising and answering certain basic questions about the whole society. A human rights framework would mean putting race, gender, sexuality, ability and economics in transformative conversations with each other. A conversation that operates from an intersectional framework that analyzes power and centers human vulnerabilities. All of this coming together to create a person-oriented society that leads to collective liberation. 

Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day. This year is particularly special because 2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is a global road map for human rights. It outlines 30 rights and freedoms that belong to all people, and acts as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and nations. 

Dec. 10 marks the 75th year of one of the most universally accepted documents in the world, a document that outlines the minimum rights and standards for all people. These are the floor, not the ceiling, of what is needed to achieve a basic standard of living—and yet many of the rights outlined have yet to materialize or actualize in our lives here in Atlanta and beyond.

The world is in transition, the U.S. empire is collapsing, and something needs to take its place. What world are we building? What is it that we have been creating to come after this? What would it actually mean and look like to actualize the UDHR in a way that has meaningful impacts on everyone’s lives? Especially our most vulnerable?

Article 5 of the UDHR states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” In Atlanta, ten people have died in 2023 while in custody at the Fulton County Jail. As with many incarceration facilities, Fulton County Jail is overcrowded, contributing to dangerous conditions for those who are incarcerated. An overwhelming number of people have not even been formally charged. Of those same people, many have been waiting more than a year in jail for their initial trial dates. What results is abuse and mistreatment by jail staff, dangerous altercations with other incarcerated people, inadequate health care, and death. While Atlanta may think the solution is to send people to other facilities, hire more correctional officers, or leave the issue as is- there is an opportunity to imagine something more. What can Article 5 of the UDHR do for decarceration? For abolition? There is more to imagine and create beyond “hospitable prison conditions.” 

Our project, Free Atlanta Abolition Movement (FAAM), with our partner Barred Business, are two formations where people in Atlanta are engaging in this collective imagining. Guided by the lived experiences of formerly incarcerated people, FAAM operates from an abolition framework to end pretrial incarceration at the state and national levels as well as the elimination of money bail as the criterion for determining pretrial release. Similarly, Barred Business has engaged in various programs, including Mother’s Day bailouts, and has provided post bail care and support in order to extricate people from cages and create transformative systemic change. 

Article 22 of the UDHR highlights economic, social and cultural rights that are indispensable. However, across all measures of household financial security, households of color are faring worse than white households in Atlanta. The median household income for a white family is $83,722 compared to $28,105 for a Black family. The average African American-owned business is valued at $58,085 while the average value of a White business is $658,264. That means the average white business is 11 times more valued than the average African American owned business. Concentrated, inequitable distribution of wealth leaves Black and brown communities at the mercy of state and local governments to meet their needs, which has proven to be ineffective, leaving people further victimized. Instead, Atlanta could be a champion of economic democracy- where wealth and power are in the hands of peoples and communities. Economic democracy would mean being able to meet people’s collective needs for affordable housing, and creating long term infrastructure, institutions and practices outside of white supremacist, capitalist control. 

A cooperative loan fund and business developer, Regenerate Atlanta (RA) Cooperative Wealth Fund capitalizes and supports new and existing enterprises through a democratic, non-extractive, forward paying, environmentally sustainable model. RA supports early entrepreneurs of color, and people who do not have access to generational wealth, to uplift the creation and maintenance of businesses that would otherwise not have the opportunity to get off the ground or flourish. RA has contributed to the success of many small businesses including Tri-State, a Black owned fishery, and Pecan Milk, a cooperative owned and operated by queer folks and dedicated to providing people with healthy and sustainable dairy alternatives. Through RA’s initiatives, we are able to bridge the wealth gap, and actualize economic democracy by supporting worker-owned businesses and industries, instead of wealth and power being concentrated in the hands of a few corporate shareholders.

Finally, Article 3 of the UDHR states that, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” The right to life is intimately tied up with every other right. At its most foundational level, it depends on having a healthy, safe environment at the individual, familial, communal, national, global and planetary level. The ecological devastation we are witnessing now was not explicitly addressed in the UDHR. Because human rights rise up from people and what they need to thrive (they don't trickle down rulers and governments), we have to acknowledge the clear and present threat to all of our lives when respect and care for Mother Earth are not centered and prioritized.

For Atlantans, the right to life is highlighted under environmental and climate justice. Whether it be the destruction of the city’s tree canopy for a police training facility (i.e., Cop City), loss of coastal plains that leave us more vulnerable to climate catastrophes, or extreme heat that leaves Atlantans suffering with health and energy burdens, it is difficult to conceive of a “right to life” in the city. Studies have shown that the hottest parts of the city are an average of 14.5 degrees hotter than the coolest. These neighborhoods are primarily located in or south of downtown, neighborhoods that are historically Black, illustrating how communities of color suffer more from heat than surrounding areas, thus negatively impacting their overall quality of life. Moreover, because the natural environment knows no borders, the environmental issues felt in the city extend from the Chattahoochee River to the Red Sea. Atlanta’s poor sewage infrastructure, for example, parallels that of our Palestinian siblings who are left without access to clean drinking water when sewage contaminates their water supply. As well, when native populations are removed from their lands, we lose centuries of indigenous knowledge and technologies on how best to stewards the land and the environment.

OHRD is one of the principal players in redefining a “right to life” through our investment in the Justice40 initiative. This initiative increases the capacity of groups and networks ready to access government funding through regional/local hub leaders or community navigators, create a pipeline of increased community engagement and workforce participation, and expand education to prepare communities to engage in local decision making.

The Organization for Human Rights and Democracy is modeling a new way for Atlanta, human rights, and our future. Writer and activist Mariame Kaba said, “When something can’t be fixed then the question is what can we build instead?” This International Human Rights Day, we ask that you imagine and build with us. Imagine a world without prisons, build an economic system that centers people and planet over profit, and create an Atlanta that honors and uplifts a right to life and that respects and protects Mother Earth.

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