Executive Director of Amnesty International USA Steven Hawkins is at the forefront of the injustices that happen in America. With recent issues involving law enforcement and community relations, he’s a leading voice in the fight for justice.
He calls what he and AIUSA does as “bringing human rights home.” While many nations around the world struggle with basic human rights, the United States continues to grapple with violations to its own Constitution. The recent deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of law enforcement are examples.
“The mission of Amnesty is to ensure that everyone is able to exercise their human right and is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he said. “That document is over 60 years old and gives people the right to things like life, security, the right to vote, education, housing and other fundamental rights.”
Activism has been the key to change around the world and in the U.S. the fight for civil rights continues daily. As Amnesty USA holds its 50th Annual General Body Meeting in Brooklyn, New York, March 20 through 22, the theme is “From Moment to Movement,” focusing on ways to sustain activism and drive impact while celebrating collective power.
Taking on the position as executive director in 2013, Hawkins’ background is in civil justice. He was as an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he represented African-American men facing the death penalty throughout the Deep South. Hawkins investigated and brought litigation, saving the lives and winning the release of three Black teens wrongfully convicted in Tennessee.
He served as executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and worked at the JEHT Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies. He returned to the NAACP as executive vice president and chief program officer.
“When I think about human rights, I think of civil rights,” he said. “We’re this grounded in the Black experience. Amnesty is in a great position to argue two things: transparency and accountability. Decisions cannot be handled behind closed doors.”
Hawkins was referring to the recent cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. In all three cases, their killers either were found not guilty or were not indicted. Federal charges were not brought in any of the cases, either.
More recently, Hawkins focus has been on the torture of more than 100 people of color, most of them African-American men, by police officers on Chicago’s south and west sides. The abuse took place between 1972 and 1991, under the oversight of former commander Jon Burge, and included verbal abuse in which the victims were repeatedly called racist slurs throughout their interrogations.
Burge was convicted in federal court for perjury and obstruction of justice. Neither he nor any of the detectives he supervised have been prosecuted for committing torture.
Statutes of limitations prevent survivors not only from obtaining justice for these crimes but also from obtaining financial reparations. Feb. 14, Burge walked free of house arrest after serving fewer than four years in prison.
“It is appalling to think that, not only were people brutally tortured by U.S. authorities, but that decades have elapsed without meaningful reparations to the victims,” said Hawkins. “The United States cannot claim to be a leader in human rights, as long as these egregious crimes go unanswered. It is time to right a longstanding wrong.”
Another issue Hawkins is concentrating on is voting rights for convicted felons who have been released. He calls this population the last disenfranchised group of people in America.
“There are 5.85 million people in America who can’t vote because they have been recently released from prison,” he said. “It is the unfinished business.”